How to survive and thrive despite of your “mental” family

I’m a typical Spanish woman married with a typical Swiss man. I like to joke about my family defining it as “temperamental” where the Swiss part is the “temper” and the Spanish part… is the “mental”.

Obviously our family and culture of origin has a big impact on the kind of person we become as adults. As conventional wisdom argues, we are the product of our education, our environment and our experiences.

Bowen Theory

Mr. Bowen, who was an American psychiatrist and a pioneer of family therapy, studied how the history of our family influences our values, thoughts, and experiences, as well as how those are passed down to the next generation.

Bowen’s theory focuses on the balance of two forces: Togetherness and individuality. Togetherness refers to our tendency to look for others approval, being part of a group and to attach to others. Too much togetherness makes it difficult for the individual to develop his own sense of self.

Individuality compels us to be independent, have our own believes and not being easily influenced by others. Too much individuality results in an estranged family.

Individuals that possess a good level of Differentiation of Self are able to balance these two opposite forces, so they can be part of a family or a group without loosing their sense of individuality.

Differentiation is the process of “separating” yourself from the way your family defines you. It is being able to have different opinions and values than your family, but being able to stay emotionally connected to them. Individuals that achieve a good level of differentiation of self are able to separate thoughts and feelings, they display good self management, don’t give up easily under pressure from others, are able to keep calm under stress, are independent and have less emotional and relationship problems.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina

Families that own businesses have some extra incentives for being “together”; keeping the family legacy, the family name and of course, the business. If on top of that we add some of the greatest sources of anxiety like power struggles, money and status… there is no wonder that failure in communication and emotional management is the main reason for lost of wealth in family companies *.

“Be the change you want to see in the world”. Mahatma Gandhi

Systems Theory defines a system as an entity with interrelated and interdependent parts. When one part of the system changes, it has an impact on the rest of the system. A family is a system. As individuals we can “change” our families by changing ourselves.

As mentioned before, people with a good level of differentiation of self are able to keep themselves calm under stress and are less reactive. Working on developing your differentiation of self will result not only in you displaying better emotional management but will impact your relationship and reduce conflict in your family.

What can you do to develop differentiation of self?

1-   Understand your family: become aware of family patterns, motives and history.

Creating a Genogram is a good start. Please, find more information about Genograms watching this video that shows the basics of what a genogram is and uses the Star Wars Skywalker family as an example.

2-   Understand yourself or as the ancient Greek maxim advises “know thyself”.

This is a life long journey, but you should start somewhere. One methodology that I have found very useful working with my clients is the River of Life, a visual narrative activity that helps you to reflect on your past and present and envision the future. Please find out more about it on this link.

3-   Make a conscious decision of becoming the creator of your life.

Instead of feeling like a victim of your own circumstances, take an active role on what can you do to change things and take action. As my father used to say: “Don’t worry about it, do something about it!”.

4- Practice healthy communication patterns.

The nonviolent communication technique is really effective in reducing conflict and avoid defensiveness. More info about it in this link:

If you want to learn more about how to improve communication and emotional management in your family, please join us the 13 & 14 of October for a two days workshop in Athens. For more info click on:

If you want to learn more about Bowen Family Systems, please join us at the Family Firm Institute Conference the 26th of October for a two hours presentation on “Competition within the Sibling Group in an 18th Generation Family Business: Bowen Family Systems considerations”. For more info click on:

By Carmen Lence

Certified Family Business Consultant, Certified Executive Coach & Facilitator

*(source: Roy Williams & Vic Pressier research. “Preparing heirs: Five steps to a successful transition to family wealth and values”).

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