What is Systems Theory in Therapy?

Systems theory is a complex philosophy that focuses on the interdependence of individuals in a group to help understand and optimize the achievements of the system. When applied to psychology, it can help a group improve relationships and work more efficiently toward a common goal.

Systems Theory: What is it?

Systems theory is a way of assessing the relationships and reactions between individual components of a system and how that relates to the achievement of a goal. The concept was developed originally to evaluate the environment and ecology, but it has since been applied to many fields including engineering, biology, and psychology. When an individual part of a system is underperforming or has a problem, systems theory assesses the group as a whole to determine what may have contributed to the breakdown. In order to comprehensively evaluate a specific problem within the system, the problem cannot be looked at in isolation but instead has to be analyzed relative to the other parts of the system.

Systems Theory in Therapy

Since the development of systems theory, it has been successfully adapted for use in therapy. In systems psychology, therapists analyze human emotions and motivations as they relate to group dynamics. In most circumstances, this type of therapy is used to help groups of people overcome a problem, however, it can help individuals with mental health concerns related to system dynamics.

While it can be challenging to work closely with multiple people, effective systems psychology therapists can help improve relationships and emotional stability of the groups they work with. They also help individuals in the group achieve valuable insight into their own behavior and how that impacts others. Couples and family psychology are examples of areas in therapy where systems theory can be applied.

How Does Systems Theory Suggest the Mind Works?

Systems theory was created under the assumption that each individual is part of and influenced by many systems. Similarly, systems achieve their goals through the interactions between their individual components. As a part of that assumption, systems theory recognizes the mind as a system itself. Systems theory says the mind is made of competing information and processes.

As they compete against each other for valuable space in the brain, they interact to create a higher level of knowledge and skill. As an individual moves through life and continues to gain information and abilities, the useless information is forgotten and the newer, more relevant information remains.

How Can Systems Theory Be Used to Cause Change?

Systems theory can be effective in influencing change for individuals and groups. Most often, people initiate therapy because they are looking for some type of change in their life or within their relationships. Systems psychology recognizes these moments as opportunities to restructure the defective systems involved in order to make them efficient and balanced again.

Therapists talk with individuals and groups to identify patterns of behavior that may have contributed to the disrupted state the group is in. Once these patterns are identified, they can apply systems theory to help the group recognize which actions and reactions contributed to the instability or break down in the group. Helping people within the group recognize these patterns allows them to come up with solutions to prevent these situations in the future. By focusing on the system as a whole instead of each individual, it allows effective change to be made.

What Happens in a Systems Theory Session?

Systems theory sessions are focused on improving the relationships within the system in order to help the system achieve its goal. Looking at the actions, emotions, motivations, and reactions of the individuals in the group allows therapists to guide the group to an understanding of how their words and actions influence others and the system as a whole. Once these influences are identified, the group can work towards finding effective solutions to optimize the emotional and mental health of the system.

Techniques Used in Systems Theory

When systems theory is applied to psychology, people within a group work individually and with the rest of the group to identify the cause of problems within the system. To do this, individuals share their thoughts, expectations, and feelings about how they interact with others in the group. Some techniques utilized by therapists to help individuals visualize their relationships within the group and with systems outside of the group include the creation of genograms and ecomaps.

Genograms are extensive family trees put together by therapists and families that show the psychological relationships between extended family members. Ecomaps are diagrams that demonstrate all of the external influences on a person’s life; these can include things like faith, work, finances, and family.

Case conceptualization is another tool used by therapists to help systems work through problems. Case conceptualization includes identifying the problems the group and individuals within the group are having, evaluating how interpersonal relationships and interactions within the group relate to the problems identified and developing a treatment plan that is accepted by the group and helps the group achieve its goals.

Family Systems Theory

In family systems theory, the focus of therapy is on the emotional connection between each family member and the dynamics within the group. As different members of the family react to situations, the expectations and emotions of the rest of the group adjust accordingly in an attempt to maintain the family’s cohesiveness. Family systems theory operates under the idea that each family member is emotionally connected to and invested in the best interests of the family. This can lead to some family members to take on more stress and anxiety than others in the family as they try to “keep the peace” among the rest.

Does Systems Theory Work?

Systems theory can be an effective way to evaluate and develop solutions for mental health concerns among individuals. In systems theory therapy, the focus moves away from problems with the individual and instead challenges group members to be aware of how their actions and reactions influence everyone around them. Making the whole system healthier not only helps the individual overcome some of their concerns or problems, but it can also help prevent these issues from recurring in the future.

What Kinds of Concerns is Systems Theory Best For?

Systems theory is best for issues related to interpersonal relationships. It has been utilized for helping people overcome anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse. It challenges people struggling with these mental health conditions to consider their environment and relationships and how those positively and negatively influence their condition. Understanding these dynamics can help the person create strategies to improve their relationships and ultimately improve their mental health. When groups participate in the therapy, the whole system can benefit from solutions to improve the group dynamic. It works well for bad family dynamics or for couples who require therapy.

How Are Systems Theory Specialists Trained?

Systems theory specialists who wish to offer therapy often need a master’s degree and potentially a doctorate degree. This advanced degree can be related to systems theory. There are also different groups that offer certification in systems theory or in specific areas of group therapy. Participating in this training helps professionals develop a deeper understanding of systems theory and its applications in therapy. It can also give them more knowledge about specific systems, such as families or children in school.

Concerns/Limitations of Systems Theory

One of the biggest concerns about systems theory is it avoids looking at how past events or experiences with mental health might shape a person or system. Systems theory focuses on the dynamics of the system and how individuals within the system relate to each other. It does not necessarily take into consideration how trauma or an individual’s history with mental health conditions might influence individual or group reactions. This could leave some contributing factors to a person’s mental health condition unaddressed.

Another concern some individuals have with systems theory in psychology is the need to share personal thoughts with a group of people. People are often hesitant to share their thoughts and emotions with people they work with or see every day. It can also be challenging for therapists to draw a line between confidentiality with an individual and the need to share information with the group in order to help the group achieve its goals. This is where an experienced and well-trained therapist is important; they can help the group navigate through these challenges.

Important Practitioners in Systems Theory

There have been many influential scientists and psychologists who have shaped and defined systems theory. Biologists Ludwig Bertalanffy and Humberto Maturana originally conceptualized systems theory. Talcot Parsons, Robert Merton, Carel Germain, and Alex Gitterman all made influential impacts on the application of systems theory in sociology and related to human behavior. Murray Bowen played an essential role in defining family systems theory by analyzing family dynamics and how they impact emotions and mental health within the group.

How to Find a Therapist

There are many options to consider when looking for a therapist who specializes in systems theory. Your primary care provider can help you find and refer you to a specialist. You might also be able to search online for therapists in your area or for providers who offer telemedicine services.

What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?

When choosing an LMHP, it is important to identify qualities that are important to you. Some of these include:

-Experience: Systems theory is a complex process, and its application in therapy can be challenging. Finding an LMHP with experience in systems theory is invaluable, especially if they have worked with similar groups (i.e. families, couples, etc.).

-Empathetic: It can be challenging to work with a group of people to identify and solve problems. Having a therapist who is empathetic to others can help get group members to better understand the emotional responses of those around them.

-Approachable: Anytime you are working with a therapist, you want to feel comfortable expressing your feelings and sharing your concerns. This can be especially challenging when attending therapy with other people, so having an LMHP who is approachable and makes the group feel at ease is important.

-Critical thinker: Family dynamics are complicated, so having an LMHP who is creative and can identify the root of different individuals’ emotional and mental health concerns is important. They also must be able to come up with solutions that meet the needs of everyone in the group while still helping the group achieve its objectives.

-Accepted by the group: If you will be attending group therapy sessions, it is essential to get the group’s opinion on the LMHP you choose to work with. If the entire group does not like working with the therapist chosen, it can create a lack of trust and emotional investment in therapy sessions for some members, which can ultimately lead to poor results. Make sure to include the entire group when selecting your provider.

Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist

When you are trying to find a potential therapist for systems psychology, here are some questions you should consider asking them:

  • What training did you receive in systems theory?
  • What is your experience working with groups?
  • What is your experience with systems theory?
  • What do you think is causing my problems?
  • What techniques do you use to help the group solve our problems?
  • Do you have group therapy sessions or individual therapy sessions?
  • How can I improve the dynamics within my group?
  • Is there a support group in the area that I could reach out to?
  • What other resources are available for me?

Find a Therapist Now

If you are looking for a therapist with experience in system theory, reach out to your primary care provider or therapists in your area to see if anyone has this experience. Websites like Psychology Today also offer search engines to find qualified therapists in your area.

You can also check out online therapy right here. Thrivetalk has therapists from many different backgrounds and a vast range of experience to help you get your life back on track. This includes therapists with systems theory experience. Go here to get started.

Systems theory can be challenging to understand, but it can be an effective method of therapy for groups struggling to improve their dynamics. Finding an experienced, well-trained therapist can help families, couples, and others improve their relationships and emotional well-being.











author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings

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