- This page is about the form of psychotherapy. For systemic medical therapies see, e.g., chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, or immunotherapy.
Systemic therapy is a form of psychotherapy which seeks to address people not on individual level, as had been the focus of earlier forms of therapy, but as people in relationship, dealing with the interactions of groups and their interactional patterns and dynamics.
Systemic therapy has its roots in family therapy, or more precisely family systems therapy as it later came to be known. In particular, systemic therapy traces its roots to the Milan school of Mara Selvini Palazzoli, but also derives from the work of Salvador Minuchin, Murray Bowen, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, as well as Virginia Satir and Jay Haley from MRI in Palo Alto. These early schools of family therapy represented therapeutic adaptations of the larger interdisciplinary field of systems theory which first originated in the fields of biology and physiology.
Early forms of systemic therapy were based on cybernetics. In the 1970s this understanding of systems theory was central to the structural (Minuchin) and strategic (Haley, Selvini Palazzoli) schools of family therapy which would later develop into systemic therapy. In the light of postmodern critique, the notion that one could control systems or say objectively “what is” came increasingly into question. Based largely on the work of anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, this resulted in a shift towards what is known as “second order cybernetics” which acknowledges the influence of the subjective observer in any study, essentially applying the principles of cybernetics to cybernetics – examining the examination.
As a result, the focus of systemic therapy (ca. 1980 and forward) has moved away from a modernist model of linear causality and understanding of reality as objective, to a postmodern understanding of reality as socially and linguistically constructed.
Praxis of systemic therapy
This has a direct impact on the praxis of systemic therapy which approaches problems practically rather than analytically, i.e. it does not attempt to determine past causes as does the psychoanalytic approach, nor does it assign diagnosis (who is sick, who is a victim), rather systemic therapy seeks instead to identify stagnant patterns of behavior in groups of people such as a family, and address those patterns directly, irrespective of analysis of cause. A key point here of this postmodern perspective then is not a denial of absolutes, but far more a humility and recognition on the part of the therapist that they do not hold the power to change people or systems, rather the systemic therapist's role is to help systems to change themselves by introducing creative “nudges”,
“Systemic therapy neither attempts a 'treatment of causes' nor of symptoms, rather it gives living systems nudges that help them to develop new patterns together, taking on a new organizational structure that allows growth.”
Thus systemic therapy differs from analytic forms of therapy, including psychoanalytic or psychodynamic forms of family therapy (for example the work of Horst Eberhard Richter) in systemic therapy's focus on practically addressing current relationship patterns rather than analyzing causes such as subconscious impulses or childhood trauma. Systemic therapy also differs from family systems therapy in that it addresses other living systems (i.e. groups of people) in addition to the family, for example businesses. In addition to families and business, the systemic approach is increasingly being implemented in the fields of education, politics, psychiatry, social work, and family medicine.
- Arist von Schlippe and Jochen Schweitzer, Lehrbuch der Systemischen Therapie und Beratung (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) 1998, p 93.
- Arist von Schlippe and Jochen Schweitzer, Lehrbuch der Systemischen Therapie und Beratung (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) 1998, pp 245-261. For the field of family medicine see also Susan H. McDaniel, et al. Medical Family Therapy: A Biopychosocial Approach to Families with Health Problems (New York: Basic Books) 1992 pp 26-35