What Is Systems Theory?

Theory drives practice.

This axiom is true with numerous professions. Mechanics fix cars based on an understanding of auto mechanics, which includes how engines, heating and air-conditioning units, electrical structures, and brake systems individually and interdependently operate. Dentists use their knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of mouths and gums to clean teeth and fill cavities. Lawyers read numerous legal documents and study the practice of precedence--what's already been established--to understand how the law works in particular contexts.

Many professions have competing theories to describe success for their particular product. A common theory for mental health suggests that problems such as depression and anxiety are created by a chemical imbalance in our brains, caused by some combination of genetics and traumatic experiences. Restoration, according to this theory, involves a combination of behavioral techniques and psychotropic medication.

While this model of change (we'll call it "the medical model") may be the easiest to research and quantify, it is by no means the only, nor most effective theory, to define how change happens in mental health. There is also systemic therapy (also known as family therapy), which consolidates several methods and approaches.

While systemic therapy is incredibly complex, it assumes that systems, or collections of people, tend to operate under these 11 principles:

  1. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A system of different parts is organized to work together to accomplish shared goals, such as survival, growth, and adaptability.
  2. Homeostasis: Systems desire harmony and stability. A system will do whatever it can to not change, which leads to...
  3. Morphogenesis: Systems also need adaptability and flexibility in order to deal with the necessary changes that come with aging, new members entering and leaving a system, and policy and cultural shifts. Conflict often happens around a system's inability to adapt.
  4. Boundaries: Every system, be that familial or cultural, has explicit and implicit rules for how to communicate, involve and exclude others, and behave. Anxiety develops around adhering (or not adhering) to these boundaries.
  5. Interaction Cycles: Two or more people develop fairly routine communication patterns. In relational therapy, the interaction cycle is the client.
  6. Feedback: Relationships have distinct ways for extending an interaction (positive feedback) or ending it (negative feedback). Both of these strategies can have positive and negative implications, and are often driven by one's avoidance or dependence on conflict.
  7. Process is more important than content: The how--how an interaction, rules, or structures are created--is more meaningful than the what--the specific details that folks are talking about. 
  8. Triangulation: Two people will manage their anxiety around conflict by roping a third person, often unwillingly, into the conversation. Having two people discuss something without the third person involves managing a lot of anxiety.
  9. Parallel Process: The dynamics that happen in one arena of a person or system's life will replicate themselves in other areas, including the therapy room. 
  10. Differentiation: Change happens through developing interdependent relationships--finding an appropriate balance between autonomy and connectedness--and managing the anxiety that comes with balancing those two.
  11. Second-order change: Long lasting change happens through changing interaction patterns. Sometimes that involves coping skills (first-order change), but it usually involves a lot more emotional and relational work.

Many other therapists have contributed to the evolution of systemic therapy (also known as family therapy), and NEAFAST members are among thousands of therapists who actively practice systemic therapy. To learn more about systemic therapy, check out our list of continuing education opportunities that are happening in our state, and sites in Massachusetts that specifically train systemic therapists.

And to become a member of the professional community for family and systemic therapy in Massachusetts and New England, please fill out our NEAFAST Application.