How to Become Less Reactive: A Family Systems View


The best way to not BE alone is to stand alone.

What do I mean? So many clients come to me and have experienced dysfunction in their childhood and felt lonely all their life. They haven’t had a chance or an opportunity to learn much about self-differentiation. In fact, they learned enmeshment, worried states, anxiety, trauma. Thus, being able to stand alone, which is so important for self-differentiation and relationships, is a must. It becomes a treatment goal.

Many people come into a counseling session and say, “I don’t want to focus on my past I just want to move forward.” 

From my perspective as a clinician, it is VERY difficult to move forward with one or two hands tied behind your back. I think a lot of folks who try to put their past out of their thinking or state it is of no value or no importance to be bothered with are actually trying to grow and chance it with one handed tied behind their back (or for some people with BOTH hands tied behind their back).

Clients may respond, “But isn’t that just in the past? How is that affecting me now?”  Maybe you don’t live with your family of origin now or may only see them but once or twice a year. Perhaps you have own children and are focused on the family you have created. Or maybe your parents are dead so in your mind, no need to bring up things from one’s childhood. Maybe you don’t believe in blaming your parents for what your current troubles are so you don’t even want to talk about them.  Or perhaps you believe you came from a wonderful family, so why bother looking at the past. The reasons go on and on for why clients do not feel the need to discuss the past.

So why is the past important? Because it IS the present. It is STILL in US. In a way we have a lifelong dialogue with our family of origin in us. If you don’t believe that, you don’t have to. Yet most people I know are prisoners to their past or rebelling AGAINST their past.

They have not found a way to neutalize or detach from their past. Neither being a prisoner to one’s past or rebelling from it is FREEDOM. 

I believe learning from and healing from our past is a way to navigate knowing yourself and how to interact with others.  Working through your past is how you become free from the emotional traps that are playing out in your present life. I have seen it happen time and time again. I believe dealing with the past is the way to REAL change. It leads to self-differentiation, something most of us don’t have enough of, which causes most of our problems in life.

The past IS present and IN you. Most people try to move away from their past, yet the best way is to move THROUGH the past and BEYOND it.

Many people grow up and develop an addiction to love and approval. Whenever we have an addiction to something, we never can achieve it or have it. We are always just searching for it.

Remember, loneliness is a result or symptom of unresolved issues from childhood. I try to show clients that the solution is often NOT near the problem. So, when people try to solve the problem of loneliness, they often get stuck onto other relationships that end up falling apart leading them to feel abandon, left, and with the scars of broken relationships. Thus what they seek after doesn’t happen.

Many of us fear being lonely and abandoned. Often those of us fear being alone, already experience it. Our fear pushes us into unhealthy relationships where what we fear comes upon us.

It is often our own insecurity that causes our relationships to fail. We are enmeshed, we are reactive.  We must resolve and deal with our fears to be healthier and have healthier relationships. This is a pivotal part of self-differentiation.

Standing alone with one’s self and giving up on one’s neediness for approval will result in true intimacy, true connectedness, and lifelong relationships. Self-differentiation is the key to connectedness.

The paradox of love and approval is if you need it you will not get it.  If you let it go, it will come to you. If you really want it then don’t need it. It needs to become internalized to us.

Remember, standing alone is NOT the same thing as BEING ALONE.  I believe the best way to be alone is to not stand alone. Self-abandonment is the root of all adult abandonment issues.  We were abandoned when we were young and then we continue that abandonment and we continue that abandonment of ourselves–we then look for someone to fix that abandonment when that fix is inside us.

When we learn connectedness with ourselves, we can then in turn connect with others.

You must be a self to have healthy relationships. You must be able to stand alone to be with others.  You need to be okay with yourself.

The goal in developing healthy relationships is to learn how to stop being so reactive. Our reactivity is what causes us to enmesh with those unhealthy people. Learn how to use your reactivity to learn new things about yourself and the relationship. Your reactivity can tell you a lot about how to proceed, what to do, and what to do with yourself. When I’m being reactive, I know it is not healthy and I am being immature. There is something deficient in me that causes this reactivity and I want to learn something about that.

How does one become less reactive and more self-differentiated?

To clarify, reactivity, as it relates to family systems theory, is when the emotional field of the relationship system “pings” one another and we become reactive as a result of it.

It is our deep emotional system that we often inherit from family of origin. It is often deep inside us.

Often it is subconscious and can be traced back to the pinging that went on within our family of origin. Now we can then in turn have conscious feelings that come as a result of being “pinged” but often how we act in relationships is automatic, subconscious, and reactive ways.

Therefore, it is important to explore this and work on becoming less reactive. Rather than dealing with feelings, which are important, we must focus on the primitive part of our emotional field that formed during our early years. It is here that our reactivity should be dealt with and resolved. If we want to have healthy relationships, we must do the work of working on our self and self-differentiation. We need to look at the underlying emotional field.

This emotional field is always working within us and is tricky. When it is triggered, we feel feelings and often “react” as opposed to “responding.” Often in counseling, a therapist will address a client’s “presenting” feelings but not address the client’s deeper “lizard brain” part of them–which is part of this emotional field. The lizard brain is the most primitive part of our self where we process feelings and emotions. If you change that lizard brain, you change that emotional field and you will change your sense of self.  Basically, Bowen Family System theory is this view that the deep emotional part of us, the limbic part of us i.e. the lower brain, needs to get changed and it in turn we can feel more mature and less reactive.

Changing the emotional system is the way to make meaningful change as adults—emotionally, behaviorally, and in relationships. Yet oftentimes in our family of origin we have a “fixed role.”

This fixed role is the way we are expected to function and perform in our family. If we don’t comply, we are often made to feel guilt, shame, fear. If you don’t do way your family system wants, you may find your mother, father, etc. are disappointed in you and in turn they withhold their “conditional” love.  With this conditional love being withheld,  you will in subsequently feel abandon. Thus, oftentimes, we take the path of LEAST RESISTANCE—we continue to stay in these fixed roles despite it not making us happy.

Our choices often are a fight or flight response. We can come and be mad at our family. Or we can withdraw in reactivity and not come around anymore because we don’t want to confront everybody.  One is too aggressive; one is too passive. We all find ourselves falling between those two sides when we can’t deal with the emotional minefield within us or playing out in our family of origin.

What do we do to become less reactive?

1)Observe. Work on observing not absorbing. We often absorb other people and relationship systems and then our functioning remains immature and the same.  Observe the pinging rather than think “I’m JUST my feelings and you are JUST your feelings.”

2)Listen more. Listen to you, listen to others. Resist absorbing the other person and their feelings, take a think more and feel less focus, identify and break the family of origin beliefs/values/rules AND roles. We challenge those innately when we become self-differentiated. Our authentic self may go along with our family of origin’s values, rules, roles, etc. If it doesn’t, we begin to resist it, slowly, calmly, and maturely. Over time that changes our lower brain and our functioning, and we begin to become less reactive.

3)Focus on deep change and the hard work of changing your INSTINCTIVE brain to raise your level of self-differentiation. Change your emotional functioning position in your family of origin. Bowen always talked about our family of origin imprinting on us the most–that deep level, that family brain. When we begin to change how we function there it will begin to change how we function in every other relationship. Increase your awareness when you are pinged and function more independently. Meaning if I am pinged, I need to resist doing what the other wants me to do and be my authentic self.

4)Act to be more of a separate self. Embrace your emotionally reactivity and embrace your patterns of distancing, over focus on others.  Remember it takes work to increase your emotional backbone and go without love and approval.

5)Deal with and resolve with your resistance to becoming a self. Oftentimes we have so many anxieties, fears about becoming our real self and we need to work on those. We need to work on those downsides of what we believe when we become a true self. If you can learn to resist the pull and push for you to remain in your allotted role in your family of origin and the powerful forces that want you to function as you always have, the system will eventually recalibrate to a higher level of functioning. This is best for everyone and will result in more authentic, healthier relationships.

If you are able to function at a higher level and be the more authentic you, many will not like that at first, including members of your family of origin. People find comfort in the familiar and may fight to keep you in the box they put you in. The key here is to allow the resistance phase and your family wanting you to change back. Eventually this will recalibrate your family and the relationship system. You will be more accepted–the newer you, the higher functioning, more authentic you.

6)Become more aware of your programing and emotional circuitry as you are connected to others—you ping them, they ping you. This holds true in all family systems. Begin to learn that system. You can then begin to make changes in it.

7)Define yourself—WHAT DO YOU WANT? WHAT DO YOU NEED? WHO ARE YOU? WHAT DO YOU PREFER? WHAT DO YOU CHOOSE? WHAT IS YOUR TRUE, AUTHENTIC SELF? That is who we want to be–it will calm our system down the more we choose to be that true, genuine self.

To become your true self requires strength of conviction, an understanding of the way family systems are organized, a sense of humor, and an ability to become more objective and strategic. 

Start small in defining yourself with others and your family of origin. Become more authentic in small ways that don’t challenge the system so much while staying confident you. You want to choose you while also not rejecting them. Watch and observe resistance in the relationship system. You will get pushback. Either ignore or say WE ARE JUST DIFFERENT or that is what I choose.

7)Become more of your true self with each person in your life. Do more self-care. Become more authentic in relationships. Work on discovering the difference in your life between fact and feeling. Many of us feel/think. We just have those feelings and it causes us to think in a certain way. We want to be able to separate what is feeling as opposed to what is thinking.  If we can separate our feeling and thinking processes, we will feel much more self-differentiated, calm, less reactive, etc.

8)Grieve the loss of love and approval. If we are addicted to love and approval, we need to grieve that because when we are being reactive, we are trying to get our “fix” of said love and approval.  Visualize being supported by you. Give to yourself what your family of origin was not able to give to you. If I am behind me, then others don’t cause all these reactions in me as much. I can stand there and be me with other people.

Self-differentiation is achieving the balance of staying connected while being yourself.

9)Think about this is–if everyone left you and you were left alone, what would you choose to do? If I didn’t need the love and acceptance of others, what would I choose to do?

10)Work at being or standing alone when interacting with others. Is it okay to be an island? Some people say nobody is an island, but I say everyone is an island! The healthy ones have bridges, walkways, and ferries that bring people in and out of your life. Every healthy man or woman is. I don’t mean a cut off island but an interconnected island.

If you find you are struggling with being reactive, consider seeking out counseling to help you better yourself and form better relationships in your life.

If you find you are struggling with reactivity in YOUR LIFE and would like to schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):

Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC

Anew Counseling Services LLC

617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649

(551) 795-3822

Am I a Good Parent?

Have you ever asked yourself….am I a good parent?

I think we would be hard pressed to find a parent who doesn’t from time to time question their parenting abilities.

It is a question most if not all parents WANT an answer to.

Parenting is not something you get a lot of feedback on. In our culture, many parents, appear annoyed or peeved by other people correcting their children, let alone commenting on their parenting.

Even if the feedback is coming from the MOST innocuous source it tends not to be well received. I have had grandparents share with me they want to give some feedback to their child about their grandchild and parenting, but fear being lashed out at or their child getting mad at them for voicing their concerns. It seems, as parents, there is no one we really feel comfortable with giving us constructive feedback on our role as mom or dad. Which is understandable. It is easy to be hypersensitive about our parenting. There is nothing more personal and meaningful.

Yet the lack of feedback we get as parents make it hard to know if we are on the right track with raising our children.

Maybe just maybe we will never know if we are doing a good job as parent until our children are grown. Maybe the best indicator of how well we did as parents is how our adult children FEEL about us. And at that point we are done in the functional sense of being a parent.

The culture of parenting has certainly changed with the passing of generations who assume the role.

The sad truth is in our society parenting has become very competitive in nature. Something about having kids seems to bring out this competitive streak. Wisdom long-held that having children made you a better person. Yet it seems in recent times in many ways parenting has made us worse people due to the competitive nature in which our society now raises children. Instead of a communal endeavour where we focus on what is best for ALL the children in our community, the culture has shifted to where many parents focus on how to give their kid the edge over other children in the community. We don’t want a level playing field but we aim for our child to have a leg up on other children.

No longer does it take a village to raise a child.

We even see such competition play out in families. Siblings who are competitive with each other’s children–competing over whose child walks first, reads first, gets better grades, is better at sports, reading two grade levels ahead, etc. It is disheartening when such competition exists in the family unit.

The way we as a society view the role of a parent has changed. The expectation has changed dramatically from a couple of generations ago. Maybe the shift started with the famous Dr. Spock and his book on child rearing practices–treating the child as an “individual.”

In the day and age, we parent not just competitively but in a very child centric way. The family oftentimes is centered around the children and their schedule.

Even social media has changed the way we as a culture parent–we see the highlight reel of everyone else’s parenting–well, at least we see the good—- most people do not seem to share the bad and the ugly (although I would definitely “love” a status of, “My kid won’t listen for shit today and is acting like a total spoiled brat.” It would be so refreshing. Who doesn’t love people who keep it REAL?!)

But rarely do people post about their child’s setbacks or struggles (“My son was sent to the principal’s office today for the 5th time this month”–yet to see that one up on Facebook).

Instead it would appear, social media is a way as parents we get to compete with our “friends” to see who is doing the BEST job as a parent–posting picture after picture of our child–gauging our parenting success in likes, loves, shares, retweets, reposts.

Our kids even ask, “Mom, are you going to post this on Facebook?” It is like we have them programed to strike a pose and get those likes.

Personally, I love seeing pictures of all my friends’ children. I am a compulsive “liker.”

Yet while social media has its benefits, it is also it is a great way to get hurt and offended. Such as when you post a picture of your kid eating leftover Halloween candy for breakfast and your “friend” comments they would never feed their kid candy for breakfast. Good for you SUSAN.

We open ourselves (and our children) up to comments when we post about them on social media.

As parents we post pictures of our children winning awards, getting trophies, getting on the honor roll.

No longer are such accolades just shared with close family and friends like they were a mere generation ago.

It is a different time now that we are raising children in. The values we hold have changed. Parents want their children to ACHIEVE and get recognition from a very young age.

Many want their child to be a star. A top student. A great athlete. Special. Superb musician. Voracious reader. Anything but ordinary.

Largely this is a reflection of our increasingly cut-throat society. We live in a fast paced, ultra competitive world. We want our children to be successful and from a young age we are training them to compete in an intensely competitive, globalized world.

As a counselor, I see a common measure of how good parents feel about how they are doing being measured by what their kids are accomplishing.


High honor roll=I am doing a great job as a parent

National Merit Scholar=I am doing a great job as a parent

Making the Varsity team freshmen year=I am doing a great job as a parent

Getting into first choice college=I am doing a great job as a parent

We look at our kids’ accomplishments as a reflection of AND on us. It validates us that we are doing a great job and raising our children right. Yet this is not universal seal of approval on good, effective parenting. (Also, if we look at our kids’ accomplishment as reflection of AND on us, do we not also have to do the same with their struggles and failures? This pendulum has to swing both ways, right?)

Our kids are NOT extensions of us. They are individuals with minds of their own, interests of their own, and personalities of their own. We should not try to control our children or mold them into what WE want them to be. If we do this, we are essentially putting on our children our own baggage, our own hopes, our own fears, our own dreams. That is when we begin to blur boundaries. This is when we become enmeshed.

More importantly our ultimate goal as parents is to raise people who can function independently and think for themselves. A large part of becoming an adult is DIFFERENTIATING from your parents. We all remember when broke free from our OWN parents.

The competitive, all-consuming, child centric nature of parenting comes with so many detriments to our children’s mental health. It leads children to struggle with self-worth, anxiety, depression, self-efficacy, and a myriad of mental health issues. I see it every day as someone who works in mental health.

As a counselor, I have had teens share with me how frustrating it is how everything they do is repeated by their parents to their friends or family. Often on social media. From their perspective this is strictly for the purpose of bragging rights. “My mom has to brag about my GPA. Or if we won the game. Or post what colleges I am applying to. It is so annoying!” End quote. I don’t blame the kid for feeling this way as it turns the pressure on high.

I think if we are honest with ourselves we can see this current parenting culture puts a lot of undue pressure on children.

As a parent, you try your best. There is no perfect parent. Children do not need perfect parents they need happy, stable parents.

We also do not need perfect children. If we want our children to be happy, we need them to empower them to feel free to be happy on their own terms.

I share below with you a wonderful TED talk on how to raise SUCCESSFUL kids without over-parenting. Our children deserve the freedom to explore who they are not, make mistakes, and realize they can fall AND get up ON their OWN.


To schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):

Anew Counseling Services LLC

617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649

(551) 795-3822