Systems Theory

The DA Guide to Systems Theory in Therapy

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When you are struggling in your relationships, family of origin, or workplace dynamics, you may want to seek help to improve the situation and your quality of life. You might consider therapy and one helpful therapy approach could be systems theory. Learn all about systems theory and how it can help you:

Systems Theory: What is it?

Sometimes called systems science, systems theory intends to investigate phenomena with a multidisciplinary and holistic approach. It is called systems theory because it more specifically aims to study the systems that people live within. A system can be any natural or man-made, living or non-living entity. Scientists and practitioners that ascribe to systems theory believe that it is actually impossible to break a phenomenon down into more basic components. Instead, to understand some phenomenon, it must be analyzed as a whole, which is why the approach is considered to take a holistic view.

Important Practitioners in Systems Theory

The history of systems theory is rooted in the biological sciences and economics. In fact, some of its first founders were biologists. Two prominent biologists who helped to develop systems theory were Humberto Maturana and Ludwig Bertalanffy. These two researchers put forth the perspective that an individual and even groups of people are their own ecosystems. These ecosystems have moving parts that can affect one another. Such a viewpoint can be similarly applied in the field of psychology.

In psychology, a system may be characterized as being comprised of a group of parts that work together to make a coherent whole. Systems are separated from other elements by boundaries. There can be factors that influence the system, sometimes called inputs. The system can also affect other elements, and these effects are often called outputs. Systems can receive feedback loops or circuits in which the outputs return as inputs. It becomes possible to observe the system and predict the effect of changes.

Some of the psychologists that promoted and advanced systems theory in the field of psychology included: Murray Bowen, Gregory Bateson, Anatol Rapoport, Margaret Mead, and W. Ross Ashby. These researchers all applied the views of systems psychology to explain human behavioral patterns.

When applied to the field of psychology, systems theory is more commonly called systems psychology. Psychologists who take this perspective believe that people seek homeostasis within their groups (or systems). A well-constructed system is one that will work best for all of its members. This means it will meet equally each person’s needs, desires, expectations, and behaviors. When a group (or system) is not functioning well, it is attributed to breakdowns in the whole system, rather than any one person.

Systems Theory in Therapy

Systems theory can be applied not only to psychology, but also specifically to psychotherapy settings. Even more specifically, it has been applied to family therapy, with the family unit being viewed as a system. This approach was developed by Murray Bowen in the 1960s. He described the family as an “emotional unit” in which no one family member can be fully understood without considering the broader context of the entire family group. Bowen’s views grew into a popular form of treatment.

Family systems therapy was developed by Bowen to help examine (and improve) family communication styles, family communication patterns, family interactions/behaviors, and ultimately, the familial relationships across the entire family unit. This examination can be done in the family therapy session.

The family systems therapist is able to observe and assess how certain behaviors and patterns may be affecting the family system. Once these are identified and understood, the family therapist can provide feedback to the family unit. According to family systems theory, the family members can then choose to learn new behaviors that will improve their functioning in the family and the whole family unit.

Family systems therapy has been found to be highly effective at helping people. This caused psychologists to question whether these same principles could be used to assist other groups of people as well. When applied to non-family groups, this approach is called systemic psychotherapy or systemic therapy. The perspectives of systems theory can be used to help any group increase their understanding for how each member may be affecting the whole group and vice versa.

The approach of systemic therapy has become more nondirective and multifaceted over time. At the group level, it can be used to help organizations, businesses, and entire communities. To aid an individual person, it can be applied in many different circumstances to resolve problems related to anxiety, depression, body image, eating disorders, substance abuse, and relationship problems.

How Does Systems Theory Suggest the Mind Works?

Systemic psychotherapy emphasizes the role of the family and community on a person’s mental health and functioning. These practitioners believe that the functioning of a system can play a vital role in a person’s psychological health, including their recovery from mental illness. In therapy settings, it is thought that couples, families, and members of group should be directly involved in their own therapy work in order to best resolve their issues. In this way, it is thought that individuals can transform their behaviors to become increasingly adaptive and productive.

How Can Systems Theory Be Used to Cause Change?

Through the use of observation and assessment to identify areas of concern, followed by the provision of feedback, and then assistance in the development of new patterns, systemic therapists can help people improve their relationships and their sense of well-being. It is thought that communication and dialogue are the crucial tools in this process. These are used to increase people’s knowledge and ability to function within their systems. With these tools and the systems approach, change can be achieved.

What Happens in a Systems Theory Session?

When systems theory is applied in therapy settings, the process often starts with observation and assessment to understand the existing dynamics of the group. As observations are made, conclusions can be drawn, and feedback can be provided to the group. The group can then utilize that feedback along with additional education, to change their behavioral patterns and improve their functioning.

Techniques Used in Systems Theory

Some of the specific techniques used in systems therapy include the following:

  • Strengthening one part of the system to improve the whole—this could involve adding in a missing component of the system or improving what is already there.
  • Networking and making referrals—this involves navigating within and between systems. At times, a provider may refer a group to also work with other necessary providers.
  • Making an Ecomap—this involves making a diagram that illustrates the flow within a group. It can help a family or group to understand how they interact.
  • Constructing a Genogram—this involves making a graphic representation of a family, which includes symbols of the relationships and interactions. This can help a client or family better understand their dynamics and the way that they function together.

Family Systems Theory

As noted, one approach is family systems theory developed by Murray Bowen. It involves the application of systems theory principles to the family structure. In this case, the family is seen as the system. Individual members of the family are seen as influencing the family dynamic and likewise, the family dynamic influences individual family members. Family systems theory can be used in family therapy to improve the functioning of the family system and the lives of each individual family member.

Systems Theory

Does Systems Theory Work?

Research has shown that systems theory can be helpful for couples, families, and other groups at the workplace. It can improve the functioning of these systems of people and help the individual members.

What Kinds of Concerns is Systems Theory Best For?

Systems theory is best applied to situations where there is some group or system in place. It is often used to address family or group dynamics, whether they occur at home or work. The use of the systems approach can also help people to reduce various mental health concerns.

How Are Systems Theory Specialists Trained?

Systems theory specialists can be trained as psychologists, counselors, therapists, and social workers. Generally, to become a practitioner of systems theory, a mental health provider will first receive general education and training, so they can learn how to deliver mental health services. During that education, they may receive additional specialized training in systems theory.

Concerns/Limitations of Systems Theory

Some psychologists criticize systemic psychotherapy because it tends to neglect consideration for the influence of people’s pasts. At times, this could be deleterious to treatment outcomes, when a mental health concern perhaps stems directly from an individual’s personal history.

How to Find a Therapist

If you are interested in receiving family systems therapy or systemic psychotherapy, then you may want to seek out a mental health provider that practices from this approach. To find a systems theory practitioner, you will want to research for licensed mental health providers that use the approach. You can research online for potential providers who practice this approach. You may also ask other existing medical providers and friends or family for their recommendations.

What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?

When you seek out a licensed mental health professional (commonly known as an LMHP) your first concern should be to work with someone who is appropriately trained and adequately experienced in the field of therapy. By finding someone who is appropriately licensed in the field, you can be more assured of their training and experience.

If you want the systems theory approach to be a part of your therapy, you may want to seek out someone with specialized training in this approach. Generally, you will also want to be certain that your potential provider has experience with the specific concerns you want help with. If you are seeking family systems therapy, make sure they have experience working with families.

Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist

When you choose to pursue counseling, you will likely want to ask your potential provider some important questions. You will first want to ask about their previous experience and their general approach to treatment. If you have an interest in participating in the systems theory approach, then you will want to ask about their use of this theory and its techniques. It is also helpful to ask what approach your potential provider plans to take to work with your concerns. Finally, you should ask how they plan to monitor your progress towards the goals that you want to achieve.

Finally, many individuals, couples, and families find they feel most comfortable in therapy when they feel comfortable with the therapist. Therefore, to make your therapy more productive, you can ask questions that will help you discern whether you will be able to feel comfortable.

Find a Therapist Now

If you choose to seek out therapy, there are two websites to can help you locate nearby providers. One site where you can search for providers according to your surrounding location, is Psychology Today. The federal SAMSHA website also has an online locator to assist people in finding nearby low-cost options. Today, many people also choose to obtain their therapy online.

If you select to participate directly in online therapy, you will want to use a confidential and convenient platform. One recommended option is Thrive Talk. This platform is easy for people to use. Anyone can simply set up an account and then get matched with the right therapist to meet their needs. There are many licensed providers available to choose from and you can look for a provider that uses systems theory. Then, you can use the online platform to schedule your appointments and participate in therapy sessions at the time that is most convenient for you.

Final Thoughts on Systems Theory

The systems theory approach is one way to address counseling. It can be used to help individuals, couples, families, and other groups. Participating in family systems therapy or systemic psychotherapy may assist in improving your mental health, daily functioning, and your overall quality of life.

About the Author Depression Alliance Staff

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