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What is systemic therapy, anyway?

February 05th, 2016  /  Category:  / 

I realize that when I talk about my approach to therapy, I have a tendency to talk in jargon-y words that are understandable mostly to other therapists! In the hopes of demystifying things for clients, I want to talk a little about my approach to therapy and what systemic therapy means in terms of philosophy and practice.

Systemic therapy sees people as parts of a system and looks at how they fit into, respond to, influence and are influenced by that system. In therapy, the system I’m looking at is made up of my client (which can be an individual or a family), the client’s relationships (ties of family and friendship), and the communication and behavior between the client and others. None of us exists in a vacuum – we’re always interacting with and responding to others around us. Systemic therapy also looks at bigger, broader systems such as governmental or cultural systems and how our identities – gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnic background, and so on – impact our lives.

This means that in therapy, I often ask questions that might not seem directly related to the client’s stated concern. I’ll ask about things like other relationships, important experiences, work, or spirituality. All of this helps me see how my clients fit into their systems and what systemic factors might be impacting what we’re working on in therapy.

Sometimes people think that my degree specialization, which is Couples & Family Therapy, means I don’t see individuals. Not true! What it does mean is that whether I’m seeing one person, a couple or a whole family, I am always aware of and thinking about those broader connections. For example, if I were seeing a client who struggled with severe social anxiety and rarely left the house, my approach would change if I knew that the client couldn’t drive and lived in an area with poor public transportation. That external system would have a major impact on the client’s ability to venture out for social events. For couples work, how a client’s family expressed affection when they were growing up can have a major impact on their adult relationships.

What systemic therapy means, for me, is that my clients make sense. Most people don’t set out to sabotage their lives or relationships; we just get stuck in patterns that made sense in context, and when I can understand the background context, usually I can understand the behavior. I think most clients find this very freeing; I’m not looking at them as problems, but as people with struggles – and it’s my job to join in that struggle.

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1 Comment

  1. Rae,
    I love your explanation of systemic therapy, particularly this:

    “What systemic therapy means, for me, is that my clients make sense. Most people don’t set out to sabotage their lives or relationships; we just get stuck in patterns that made sense in context, and when I can understand the background context, usually I can understand the behavior.”

    I notice that clients often come in feeling like there’s something wrong with them or fundamentally broken somehow, and anytime we can shed light on how their behavior and their pain make sense, they do experience more freedom! It’s like there’s a sigh of relief, and then we can work on how to go about expanding their options without minimizing their pain or the constraints they’ve been working under. Acknowledging the truth together frees up energy and also helps them feel like they have an ally that notices the obvious!

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