A New Year is almost here. This is a natural time for Reflection and Resolution. The 2020 metaphors for seeing clearly are everywhere.  20/20 vision represents the ability to see at 20 feet what someone with normal vision can see at 20 feet. If you can achieve this … your vision is average.

What can you see in the picture above?

What if you could see at 20 feet what Dr. Murray Bowen could see at 20 feet? Now you are stepping out of average territory!

We can see that the bearded individual, in a brown coat, wearing blue & white gloves is yelling. That’s about as far as the facts will take you.

A major distinction between what most people see and what Dr. Bowen sees is the “individual”. Let’s assume that this is a man at a hockey rink yelling at his child to get the puck. Most people would see this man as having a short fuse, or anger issues caused by some type of diagnosable psychological defect or chemical imbalance. Dr. Bowen would see this “individual” as a part of a multigenerational family system.

Observing individual behaviour through the broader lens of the family leads to greater understanding. Dr. Bowen identified a pattern that occurs within nuclear families known as the projection process. This process leads to the projection of anxiety within the family onto one or more children. This anxiety is often generated within other relationships and then projected onto the children. These children either repeat the process within their own nuclear families or emotionally over-compensate to reverse the pattern. Identifying this process and assigning blame to the parents doesn’t get you very far as they too were once children in a nuclear family and took on automatic ways of dealing with anxiety. The projection process can lead to the following relationship sensitivities:

  • heightened need for attention/approval
  • difficulty dealing with expectations
  • blame of self or others
  • feeling that you are responsible for others happiness or that others are responsible for yours
  • acting impulsively to relieve anxiety

Can you relate with any of the relationship sensitivities listed above?

Where did these sensitivities originate? How might you be passing the anxiety of past generations on to your own children? What can you do to shift the patterns rather than overcompensate? How can you interrupt these patterns of behavior? Why does any of this matter for leaders?

These are great questions to ponder in 2020 to improve your vision.


I observe the projection process showing up in my functioning in the following ways:

  1. Projection of anger. This was especially prevalent with my older children. Unresolved anger generated in the relationship with my ex-wife was directed towards the children. It is anger, over my anger, that started my journey of self improvement. One of the first resources I discovered was the book “Becoming the Kind Father” by Calvin Sandborn – spoiler alert – it starts with becoming a kind father to yourself and paying careful attention to self talk. My later exposure to Bowen theory provided a much wider lens and framework to understand the emotional process underlying the negative self talk and projection of anger.
  2. Projection of blame. This is especially prevalent in my marriage. When things do not go according to plan I often look for someone to blame. The typical pattern is a projection onto my wife followed by self blame. I often can’t see the process occurring in the moment and it is only in reflection that I can see it and understand the origins of the blaming pattern within my family system. At work I bypass the projection of blame onto others and go directly to self blame.
  3. Projection of irresponsibility. This shows up when I spot irresponsible behaviors in others such as selfishness. I criticize and judge but underneath the surface it is coming from a place of condemnation of my own tendencies towards irresponsible behavior.
  4. Projection of untapped potential. I know all too well the parent yelling at their child from the hockey stands. When you are this person it can be very difficult to see yourself. Your thinking and judgement are clouded, you may even tell yourself that you are helping your kid to become a better player, while this may actually be true, it comes with the heavy price of creating one or more of the relationship sensitivities listed above. More on  the projection process can be seen in my Pecha Kucha speech, “It’s just a game“.


These projections are occurring within the tapestry of a long family history. In 2020 I resolve to be more observant of the projection process in self, the relationship context in which the process occurs and the multigenerational history of my family of origin.

When you are the target of a projection process, at work or at home, being able to see the process unfolding in an objective manner can position you to be less reactive. A comment along the lines of, “It looks like your anxiety is getting the best of you today,” delivered in a non-defensive, matter of fact, almost playful way can stop the pattern dead in its tracks.  The target plays a part in the perpetuation of the process. If you are a target, become a mirror.

If you are a hockey fan, how did you come to select the team you cheer for? Note the blue & white gloves on the man in the picture. Perhaps this indicates he is a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, perhaps his dad was a Leafs Fan – how about his grandfather? To what extent was the selection of your favorite team influenced by your family of origin in either a repeating or a compensating pattern? Are you a Bruins fan to spite your father? Who do you like more … the Habs or daddy?

One thing is for certain … multigenerational Leafs fans have a lot of disappointment to process!