I began thinking about this topic several years ago when I realized that I had met many people in my practice and in my personal life who are considered successful in life, but appear to be lower in level of differentiation of emotional functioning. Many people have the thinking, “If a person and his family have a nice house, good income, a nice car, kids succeeding in school, fabulous vacations, then they must be mature and doing something right.” But I would contend that these kinds of successes in life have little or nothing to do with the quality of one’s emotional functioning.
Currently, there is a range of opinions about this assertion. Agreement, disagreement, silence, and indifference. There are no authoritative pronouncements one way or the other. What do you observe? What do you think? I would suggest not taking what I or anybody else reasons about this topic as settled truth. It’s a topic that is far from settled. How would you reason about it?
Bowen developed a theory of individual and systems emotional functioning. I could be wrong, but the only thing I’ve found in Bowen’s writings that makes any claims about what differentiation influences is what he said about symptom development. An individual or system lower in level of differentiation will tend to develop more physical, social, and emotional symptoms and those symptoms will be more serious the lower the level of differentiation of the individual or system. That’s a big assertion, but in over 49 years of practice and more years of living, I’ve never seen research nor clinical observations that conclusively contradict that assertion. It has turned out to be a good guide for clinical observation.
Some have reported that Bowen said that occupational and educational success were associated with level of differentiation, but I’ve never found it anywhere in his prolific writings.
I’ve been exploring the opposite. Yes, level of differentiation is inversely associated with symptom development but has little or no association with what many regard as success in life. High SES (socioeconomic status), education, occupation, wealth, IQ, competence at skills, accomplishments, where you live, generational wealth, social status. I assert that differentiation of emotional functioning is extremely important but that it does not guarantee what many regard as success in life. I’ll present one case of a man who was extremely successful in his accomplishments in his life and extremely high in SES and wealth, but was considerably lower in his individual level of differentiation and came from a family similarly lower in level of differentiation of emotional functioning.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
Ludwig Wittgenstein was a noted philosopher, some say the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, making new contributions in logic, philosophy of language, and logical positivism. He certainly jogged philosophy out of its conventional ways of thinking. That alone seems to be an important contribution to the evolution of philosophy, a worthy accomplishment. At the same time, he was from the richest family in Austria; his father was a self-made owner of big steelmaking companies.
Ludwig had the academic accomplishments. His brother Paul was a concert pianist of some note. Clearly, the family was high SES with accomplishments and intelligence.
However, the family was a mess. Of the eight children, three were girls, five boys. Three of the boys committed suicide. Ludwig the philosopher did not commit suicide, nor did Paul the pianist. But Ludwig was plagued by suicidal thinking from his teens until into his thirties.
More to the point, Ludwig was a brilliant high IQ person who was emotionally abusive to others.
Philosophers, friends, to wives of friends, to just people he’d run into in his daily life could be objects of scorn. He didn’t tolerate people who disagreed with what he regarded as the correct ideas about philosophy and didn’t tolerate others being imprecise in their use of language. He intimidated them into fear with his impulsive temper. In Vienna and later at Cambridge University, it appears that these very bright academics were so awed by his brilliance and his temper that they acted like puppies following a cult leader whose remarkable thinking they worshipped.
In conversation and group discussions, he continually interrupted others and claimed the floor. No one dared cross him (low differentiation). Most worshipped him. Ludwig never had any long-term relationships that we know of.
The father Karl was an angry tyrant reminiscent of Donald Trump’s father Fred. Cold and intolerant of any of the children, especially the males, pursuing anything other than following in his footsteps managing the family business and being as successful at making money as he was. Anything else was regarded as failure, freely told. Both Ludwig’s mother and Trump’s mother dared not cross these successful angry husbands.
Trump may have accomplished things and may have made money but it’s hard to know since he has lied so much. His older sister was a federal judge and his uncle John Trump (brother of the father) was a successful MIT professor of engineering and physics. But a sibling Fred Jr. (niece Mary’s father) died at age 42 after years of alcoholism. He had been fired from his job as a commercial airline pilot because of his drinking. Mary had depression and drug problems as well as being a successful clinical psychologist and author.
Wittgenstein was high in SES and accomplishments. The accomplishments seemed to have made genuine contributions to philosophy. However, his emotional abuse of others gives him a lower level of differentiation. His family was low in differentiation in spite of their wealth and accomplishments.
The House of Wittgenstein, Alexander Waugh, 2008.
Wittgenstein’s Poker, David Edmonds and John Eidinow, 2001. Take a look at the chapter titled ‘Poor Little Rich Boy’.
Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, Mary L. Trump, 2020.