I write this Op-ed piece after hearing New York Times journalist David Brooks express surprise at the closeness of the recent presidential election. He had not realized America was such a deeply divided, polarized nation. This profound social divide can be explained by a concept that has not yet penetrated the public consciousness: emotional regression. “World on Fire” in the title conveys that regressions are playing out in myriad other countries around the world.
Emotional regression pushes an ever-increasing number of Americans towards attitudes and behavior that undercut cooperation in groups, such as the Congress, that are charged with solving pressing societal problems. Public awareness of the regression phenomenon can provide a larger perspective that will help people cope more effectively during such anxious times.
The emotional regression concept is part of family systems theory, a theory that has guided my family psychiatric practice for five decades. Heightened chronic anxiety in families is what drives periods of emotional regression. The anxiety is in reaction to real and imagined threats within and external to a family. Regression renders family members vulnerable to replacing rational decision making and a long-term view with intense feeling reactions, subjective thinking, and a short-term view. Anxiety is the polarizing force, not the specific content of the polarized issues. As one family member said, “It’s not what we are fighting about, but it’s that we are fighting.”
Families also undergo periods of emotional progression, which are associated with low levels of chronic anxiety in the family. During progressions, principle-determined decisions and a long-term view override intense feeling-driven biases and a short-term view. By minimizing polarization, different viewpoints augment problem-solving.
Family system thinking frees people from the tendency to blame others or themselves unduly for family interactions. The cause of family tensions is not located within any one individual, but emerges from the way all family members are interacting. The shift from cause-and-effect to systems thinking fosters a more objective view of family process.
Psychiatrist Murray Bowen originated family systems theory based on twenty years of family research. In 1972, he participated in a conference sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency. His presentation focused on the human reaction to environmental problems. By then, he had come to recognize that family systems theory could be extended to help define similar relationship processes in groups as large as whole societies. Societies cycle through periods of emotional regression and progression. When society is more anxious and regressed, it infects vulnerable families.
Threats internal (problematic interactions between family members) and external to a family generate chronic anxiety. When it comes to threats to society, the principle external factor appears to be a disturbance between human beings and the rest of the natural world. Phenomena such as the depletion of natural resources, the human population explosion, and the absence of new frontiers (no place to run, no place to hide) are major stressors. Perhaps the most insidious process rendering our species vulnerable to regression is the pervasive attitude that we merit dominion over the Earth and all its inhabitants, flora and fauna.
Our species is not doomed by the current regression. Regressions have a powerful momentum, but when the pain associated with a short-term view and taking the easy way out exceeds the pain of acting with a long-term view, the regression will subside. Bowen predicted this could happen as early as the fourth decade of this century.
Viewing the world’s current anxiety and despair through the lens of emotional regression can provide a calmer perspective. It can help us get beyond blaming others; e.g., realizing that regressions cannot be blamed on any one segment of society, such as the government. Viewing families and societies as relationship systems makes possible a level of increased objectivity about human behavior. Objectivity gives us an adaptive “leg up” over other species.