How “family systems theory” can help us change the people around us
The main mantra in psychotherapy is that you can only change yourself, not others.
So why do I now say that it is possible to change the people around us?
Bear with me, it’s all going to make sense in a minute.
When a client comes to see me and tells me how unhappy they are, and could I please change their wife/husband for them, I have to let them down gently: I am not in the business of casting spells, I can only work with the person who is actually in the room with me, not with the one at home…
So how does family systems theory help us change the ones at home?
A family is a system like any other. There are inputs – the acts and words of all the people in the system, there is a “system” that mixes them up, interprets them etc. according to their own underlying and unwritten rules that differ for all families, and there is an output – the stuff that happens in the family.
Now like any system, if you want to change the output, you simply need to change the input.
Concretely, in your family system, what does that mean?
It means that every member of the family has the power to change things by changing their personal input. What does that look like?
Well, if you usually nag and don’t get results, it might mean to stop nagging.
Or if you do everything for everyone, and get frustrated that they don’t pick up the slack, it might mean doing less.
Or if you usually take the same person’s side in every argument, to stop doing that.
And because the family is a system like any other, once you have changed the input, the system will give you an outcome that is different to the one who’ve had so far.
A bit like this: if your system were an adding machine, and you changed the numbers you were adding, the result would become a different one.
Basically, the other people in your family system will have to adapt to the “new you”, and that means they’ll have to change. Now, I cannot guarantee that your outcome is going to be exactly the one you’re hoping for – every system complex, but there are certain rules that generally apply, which will help you work towards the outcome you want.
And sometimes, the change in input might be that you remove yourself altogether from the system.
This is how psychotherapy makes a difference. By working on yourself, by changing yourself, you are changing your input in your family system, and you will get a different outcome.