Systemic thinking versus linear thinking
The distinguishing difference between systemic thinking and its linear counterpart is the basis on which each is derived, which is causality. Linear causality takes a direct approach and is more scientifically driven with its emphasis on cause and effect. This school of thought encourages the idea that one’s behavior results in an effect on either that individual or another closely related (i.e. nuclear family members). Systemic thinking occurs at the opposite end of the therapeutic spectrum. The primary concept for which systemic thinking is centered is that of circular causality. Circular causality is in fact the antithesis of linear causality in that an individual’s behavior is not only the result of one relationship or event, but also the result of all emotional relationships with one’s system. The basic cycle is that the functionality of the system has an affect on one individual, then that individual’s emotionality and behavior then has an affect on the system. The systemic approach also takes into consideration the broad variety of possibilities for a client’s functionality—familial relationships, nodal events, social happenings, etc. This is a predominant reason that, therapeutically, systemic thinking seems to be more beneficial as it is holistic, as opposed to the idea of simply treating one behavioral or psychological issue. Also, by involving a client’s family of origin—whether present during therapy sessions or by dissecting a genogram—clinicians are able to aid the client in understanding the origin of the issue, how it has been perpetuated, and then properly guide the client through treatment allowing them to be objective in their system. This results in a lesser likelihood of continuing or creating multi-generational patterns of behavioral or psychological issues.
So, how is the systemic approach applied to families? And how is it different from individual therapy?
When adhering to the avenue of systemic therapy, the clinician must tailor his therapeutic approach to an individual’s family, not simply the individual. Commonly family systems therapists will have the client create a genogram depicting not only the individual’s family of origin, but also several generations of his or her familial lineage in order for them to begin to grasp the possible origin of their issue, as well as to signify any multi-generational behavioral patterns. For example, after studying one’s genogram, it may become apparent that the client’s behavior could be attributed to the role one of their parents held in their own family of origin. For instance, the client has developed an alcohol dependency to aid in coping with his mother’s deteriorating health. The client’s mother was the oldest of five children in a family where both parents were alcoholics. The inability of her parents to fulfill their parental roles left her as the primary caregiver. She now has a husband who spends a great deal of time traveling for his employer, as well as four children of her own. Again, being the primary caregiver in her home has inevitably resulted in her absorption of familial anxiety and has recently begun developing symptoms causing her health to rapidly decline. This results in her child—who has a significant dependence on her—being unable to operate at a high level of differentiation, thus developing a substance abuse problem. By the therapist uncovering this information, the client’s family of origin can now become involved in therapy to promote positive change in the entire family system. Whereas, in individual therapy, the client may have solely been treated for the alcohol dependency, preventing the potential for an overall positive adjustment for the system, as well as increasing his risk for relapse as his level of differentiation has not been improved.