This article was written for the QIFT Blog.
Before I trained in systemic family therapy, I did not know that I would become enamoured by general system theory and cybernetics. Nor did I realise the depth of appreciation I would feel for the paradigm shift that a systemic lens would bring to my practice. I found that the more I applied this contextual and relational approach with my clients, the more of their story I could see. The picture seemed more accurate to me – both crisper and bigger.
First, a tiny bit of theory
Cybernetics is the study of self-regulatory systems and provided a lens through which the pioneers of family therapy could examine the individual in the context of their family. According to the principles of cybernetics “all behaviour is communication,” and the system is continually influenced through “feedback loops or cycles of interaction that form a pattern” of behaviour (Hanna, 2018, p. 6-7). Systemic therapists explore these feedback loops both within the family and with external systems. We also use feedback loops that occur within the therapeutic system to help us track the alliance.
Systems theory complements cybernetics by recognising that the family is a living system, like an ecosystem, with interconnecting elements and cycles. The central tenet of general system theory is that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”, and this awareness permits a deeper understanding of both the parts and the whole (Lebow, 2014, p. 41). It’s important to acknowledge that this understanding is not new and indigenous cultures have honoured this truth for millennia. Australia’s First Nations Peoples certainly have, and in his book Sand Talk, Tyson Yunkaporta helps us see this interconnectedness. He writes, “The whole is intelligent, and each part carries the inherent intelligence of the entire system” (p. 95).
Family therapists love their metaphors
Salvador Minuchin likened the therapist to “a technician with a zoom lens, who could zoom in to study the individual’s intrapsychic experience, but could also observe with a broad focus on the system” (Tickle, et al, 2015, p. 124). Under the umbrella of systems theory, the practitioner can move within and between the macro and microview, capturing a wide bandwidth of information. Hanna (2018) describes the macroview as observations made on broad social levels such as gender, race, ability, religion, class and sexual orientation, and the ways in which these impact individual and interpersonal experiences.
As the view contracts the focus lands on intergenerational and extended family relationships. The lens can narrow further to explore those relationships in our immediate circle. The systemic lens is able to focus in even closer and explore the intrapsychic relationship that includes thoughts, feelings, behaviours and biological subsystems that make up the individual system.
This continuum of large to smaller spheres facilitates the numerous and creative ways in which the family therapist adjusts their lens. Within a session we can view the scene from a wide-angle perspective, then zoom in to the detail, and zoom out again (Hanna, 2018). Our choice of lens in any given moment is informed by the data we are collecting and holding – seen and unseen, spoken and unspoken.
One of the great things about Minuchin’s zoom lens metaphor is that it helps us see how individual therapy is not in opposition to family therapy, but rather, systemic practice is large enough to envelope the individual system.
Is that a helicopter I can hear?
The other metaphor that family therapists love is getting up into the helicopter as a way to get a clearer and broader view. Once we have a contextual scene of our client, we can apply systemic concepts, such as circular causality. For example, we might invite the client to explore the couple subsystem through a circular question like, If your partner was in the room and I asked them how they might be contributing to the challenges you’re experiencing right now, can you have a guess at what they might say? By asking the client to think from the perspective of their partner, it moves the lens from the individual to the couple subsystem.
When we go higher in the helicopter and move along the continuum further, we might shine the light on a social construct like gender. Reflections like, I keep wondering about the fact that you identify as female and work in a male-dominated field. I’m curious about your thoughts on the impact this could be having? Adjusting the view from the micro to the macro allows us to integrate individual therapeutic approaches with systemic modalities by placing the individual within the context of their family and society.
Let’s go even higher, baby
The planet is webbed with self-regulating ecosystems communicating through feedback loops, trying to come back to stability. We are in an era of time where our climate and the environment are changing and we are being urged to pay attention to these delicate and interconnecting systems within which all living beings belong. Family therapists push back against our individualistic culture all the time, by shifting therapy from a symptomatic lens to a relational one. It’s what we do. This means we are extremely well-placed to zoom out to see our clients in the context of their humanity, including their kinship with the planet and the natural world.
Casey (2002) argues that “connection needs to include not only the contexts of family, culture, gender and class, but other species, and the very ground we walk on” (p. 143). He goes on to warn, “changes in therapists’ thinking and practice will be necessary” if psychotherapy is to contribute to sustaining “ongoing life on the planet” (p. 143). And I think he’s right.
Earth is our big home
Family therapy is founded on theories that remind us of something most of us in our modern culture have forgotten – that every sentient being on earth, including humans, is connected through systems. As systemic practitioners we have a solid framework to zoom into intrapsychic experiences, like eco-anxiety, and then zoom out to see the broad planetary picture. Let’s embrace these foundations so we can stand steady through change.
My deep wish: That we as clinicians bring our systemic muscles to our sessions and support humans in their repair work. May we hold both an ant’s-eye view through the soil and grass, as well as the bird’s-eye view, so we can see that we are just one of many species. And finally, may this change in our perspective help us cherish every relationship within our big home.
Casey, D. (2002). Therapy and ecology: Viewing the natural world through systemic lenses. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 23(3), 138-144.
Hanna, S. M. (2018). The practice of family therapy: Key elements across models (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Brooks/Cole.
Lebow, J. (2014). The integrative perspective. In J. Lebow, Couple and family therapy: An integrative map of the territory (pp. 25-53). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/10.1037/14255-002
Tickle, A., Rennoldson, M., Schroder T., Cooper A., & Naidoo R. (2015). Systemic Family Therapy: Applying Psychological Theory to Clinical Practice. In. D. Dawson & Moghaddam, N. (2016). Formulation in Action. Applying Psychological Theory to Clinical Practice. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Yunkaporta, T. (2019). Sand talk: How Indigenous thinking can change the world. Melbourne: Text.