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Systemic therapies: origins, principles and schools

Systemic therapies not only revolutionized the field of psychotherapies, but also gave rise to new approaches and paradigms on the conception of the human being. We will address the main schools.

Systemic therapies have their roots in family therapy, although currently the family is not necessary as a focus of attention for the view to be systemic. From this perspective, what prevails is the relationship, that is, the process of interaction between people and not so much the observation of the isolated individual.

It was the Austrian biologist and philosopher Ludwig Von Bertalanffy who formulated the General Systems Theory in 1968. He used the concept of a system as “a complex of elements in interaction” and later applied it to the therapeutic field until it became the predominant model in family and relationship studies.

However, The systemic perspective is also nourished by contributions from other disciplines, mainly in relation to the theoretical field. Some of them are cybernetics, pragmatic developments in communication and family psychotherapy. This integration of perspectives has allowed the development of a wide scope of application that ranges from individual to group, couple, and obviously family treatments (Hoffman, 1987).

The system as a whole

The uniting point of the various approaches is the concept of “system”. From which it follows that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Which means that from the systemic approach emphasis is placed on the properties of the whole that result from the interaction of the different elements of the system. If we translate it, this means in general terms that what is important is the relationship that arises from the interaction between people.

Thus, systemic psychologists assume a general idea: a system, whatever it may be, family, couple or social, It is composed of one element or more linked together in such a way that a change in state will follow another change in the system; being able to get to know fundamental aspects of the individual pathology of one of the members of the system.

Background of Systemic Therapies

The most notable antecedents of systemic therapies can be found in psychoanalysis. Examples of these are the terms “Schizogenic Mother” by Frieda From-Reichman, “Perverse Mother” by Rosen or Bell’s use of family interviews.

Even so, The clearest beginnings of this therapy arose with the anthropologist Gregory Bateson and his team of veterans in the “Administration Hospital of Palo Alto”. Bateson joined other researchers such as Jackson, Haley and Weakland to analyze the communication system of schizophrenic families.

Gregory Bateson

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One of the most interesting theories that emerged from his research was the double bind theory. This theory explains how the contradiction between two or more messages can induce delirium to escape reality. Since contradiction implies receiving two simultaneous orders that are impossible to fulfill, since carrying out one implies disobeying the other. An example could be the expression “I love you” from a mother to her daughter that conveys rejection at a gestural level or saying to another “Be more spontaneous” or “Don’t be obedient.”

In parallel, in 1962, Jackson and Ackerman founded the journal Family Process and Bertalanffy formulated the General Systems Theory; The latter being the theory that develops a series of factors common to all systemic therapies.

Common aspects of systemic therapies

Despite Systemic therapies are very broad and cover a large group of disciplinesthere are a series of aspects common to all of them. The most important is the concept of system which we already mentioned as “a set of objects or elements that relate to each other.”

In his General Systems Theory, Bertalanffy also highlighted the concept of interaction, thus presupposing that a system implies an interdependence between the parts. or in the case of systemic therapies, of the people involved in the relationship.

Furthermore, in the General Systems Theory It is argued that each of the parts that make up a system can be considered a subsystem. In this way, the family can be the system and the mother-child relationship the subsystem.

Also It is important to differentiate open systems from closed ones, although there is no unified criterion among researchers for their differentiation. If we follow Bertanlaffy’s conceptualization, a closed system is one that does not carry out any type of exchange with the environment, while an open system is in constant exchange with the environment or with other systems.

For example, Closed family systems do not maintain any type of exchange with their environment. The final state depends on the initial conditions of said system and there is a progressive impoverishment of energy in the union and family system.

Theory of human communication: a fundamental part of systemic therapies

From this observation authors such as Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackon of the Palo Alto school and From the derivation of the study of other concepts of the General Systems Theory, “The theory of human communication” arises. This theory provides aspects and ideas common to all systemic models such as:

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It is impossible not to communicate. This theory is based on the idea that all behavior is communication, including silence. Furthermore, he considers that it is possible to situations in which the “symptom” is the form of communication. The mechanisms of the systems are self-regulating through feedback.There are two levels of communication: the digital or content level and the analog or relational level. If there is incongruence between both levels, paradoxical messages appear.The interaction is conditioned by the scores entered by the participants. This means that depending on the version we construct of what we see and experience, we will mark the relationship with other people and vice versa. So the lack of agreement regarding the way to score facts is the cause of numerous conflicts in relationships.There is a system of rules that the systemic therapist must get to know: the recognized rules, the symmetrical rules, the secret rules and the meta-rules.

Even so, each systemic school also has a series of peculiarities. Let’s look at some of them in greater depth.

MRI Interactional School: Watzlawick, Wakland and Fisch

This systemic school identifies with the second generation of Palo Alto researchers (Watzlawick, Weakland & Fisch, 1974; Fisch, Weakland & Segal, 1982).

Some maxims of this school are:

The solutions attempted are those that maintain the problems. That is, what the person does to remedy what happened, sometimes the only thing he does is maintain it. The interventions are aimed at identifying the circuits that intervene in the relationship and the solutions attempted. The objective is to modify the interactional patterns, which is known as Change 2, since the failed attempted solutions are Change 1 or “more of the same”. One of the strategies used are paradoxical interventions. That is, you prescribe tasks or communicate ideas that are very far from the common system, but in accordance with the system’s referential framework. To do this, he uses “speak the patient’s language” and “load the prescription with suggestion.”

Paul Watzlawick

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Structural and strategic school: Minuchin and Haley

Minuchin and Haley are the main representatives of this school. For them It is essential to analyze the structure of the system to know the type of relationships that its members have and thus apply the treatment.

Both They propose that families are organized around alliances and coalitions. For example, an alliance is defined by the proximity of two members in contrast to a more distant third. While a coalition consists of the union of two members against a third. Coalitions of different generations are called perverse triangles (mother and son against father).

From this perspective, he The therapist uses a series of techniques to modify the family structure, challenging the family’s definitions and carrying out a positive redefinition of the symptom. It is also bet by prescription of tasks to certain family members, disequilibrium – in which the therapist allies himself with a subsystem – to provoke a restructuring of limits or Haley’s paradoxical interventions.

Systemic school of Milan: Selvini-Palazzoli, psychosis in the family

This school arises from the work of Mara Selvini-Palazzoli and her team. They focus on disorders such as anorexia or psychotic disorders, which usually arise in rigid transaction families.

The systemic school of Milan shows special attention to the data collected from the moment of referral and first contact. From there, They build a working hypothesis that they contrast during the first session. They work above all with the family’s meanings in relation to the symptom and the identified patient with the aim of finding consensus and disagreement.

One of the interventions created by this school is invariant prescription. A specific program to work with psychotic families that consists of giving the same task to the entire family, trying to ally the parents through a secret, which favors the separation of the subsystems, especially that formed by the children.

In conclusion, systemic therapies offer another perspective on problems and difficulties. A perspective that prioritizes the relationship over the individual as a focus of work to help improve people’s lives. A curious and interesting path that is increasingly gaining importance in the therapeutic field.

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