Help clients understand and break the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle

An Introduction to Human Systems, and
its Application to Effective Clinical Work

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


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        Since the 1950's, many clinicians and training programs have adopted a systemic (vs. individual) model of client assessment and intervention. Do you use such a model? In my experience, many human-service professionals say "yes" without being able to clearly define what that means. Based on 27 years' study and experience, this page proposes answers to "What is a system?" and "How does 'systems theory' apply to typical human-service clients?"

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        A system is a group of elements that interact within a boundary according to rules or "laws." The classic example is the solar systema collection of sun, planets, moons, space, and "space matter," moving through "space" (a larger system) and affecting each other dynamically according to physical (e.g. chemical and gravitational) laws. The system's boundary is traditionally the outermost planet's orbit in space-time.

        Most systems are composed of smaller subsystems, each with its own set of interactive elements, boundaries, properties, and laws. Each organ of your body is a subsystem, within the larger metasystem (system of systems) defined by the boundary of your skin. The smallest (known) systems are atoms, composed of subatomic particles, and behaving according to the laws of atomic physics. 

        A change in one element of a system may cause changes in (upset the balance of) related elements and systems. That's why one member of a household or family system getting "upset" affects other members emotionally, mentally, physically, and/or spiritually. Those effects cause needs, which cause behavior.

        Every system has properties - traits or characteristics that help make it unique in a universe of systems. An important property that all physical and human systems have is balance, or a normal state ("homeostasis"). That means that the rules that govern how the system behaves will automatically try to resume the normal state if events or forces inside or outside the boundary upset it. Exchanging internal and interpersonal feedback is a common way of seeking balance in human systems.

        The state of personal and family balance can be described as peace, harmony, and serenity . If these persist for a while, the people involved feel happy. Note the paradox that in some ("dysfunctional") systems, the normal state is perpetual imbalance. People from low-nurturance childhoods often perceive "dysfunction" (imbalance) to be normal, and get "uneasy" if too much balance ("boredom") appears.

        Our immune system automatically promotes our resuming a normal state ("health") if our body system is upset by the presence of certain microbes, viruses, or cellular disturbances like cancer. Police "automatically" restore community order (balance) if a riot occurs. Mates "make up" (rebuild inner + relationship balances) after a fight or time apart.

        Systems are open or closed. Neither is inherently better. An open system allows things to pass in or out through its boundary. The laws and construction of a closed system won't permit anything to enter or leave the system. A nuclear (step)family with a rigid set of beliefs which won't allow "strangers" to enter their home and bring new ideas, beliefs, emotions, or customs can be said to be a closed family system. Bigots and hate groups are usually closed human systems. One way some systems preserve their balance (resist upset and dis-integration) is by hardening or "closing" their boundaries to resist terrifying change.

        Systems can also be classed as static (changing imperceptibly) like a boulder or dynamic (changing perceptibly). In the latter our senses detect activity, motion, or change _ inside the boundary and/or _ between the system and its environment (metasystem). A corpse appears static, but is imperceptibly decaying toward a new stable organic state. All human systems are ever-changing and dynamic. Paradoxically, change appears to be a constant property of all organic systems.

        These concepts and definitions form a theory about "systems." Pause and reflect - could you have described the above to someone before you read it? If you just learned something, what is it?

Applying Systems Theory to Clinical Work

         Systems theory can help professionals assess and strategically intervene with (change) individual and group behavior. Professionals can focus on different subsystems at different times during the course of the work with each case:

  • one adult or child's inner-family system of subselves;

  • a dyadic system - mate-mate, parent-child, co-parent - co-parent, client-therapist; therapist-supervisor or consultant,...

  • the attending-client system - those who participate in therapy, including the therapist;

  • the client-nuclear stepfamily, including those adults and kids who don't participate in therapy;

  • the extended (multi-generational) stepfamily system;

  • the therapist-agency or department system; and...

  • the client-professional metasystem - i.e. the client and related service-provider systems - like school staffs, local judges, mediators, and attorneys; law-enforcement officials, case workers, medical service providers, clergy, the state welfare system, and relevant church or neighborhood communities (systems).

        A guideline to help choosing "Which subsystem do I focus on?" is: which subsystem/s cause the most imbalance (discomforts) in each leader of my client stepfamily, directly or indirectly? several         See how this application of system theory to (step)family clients compares to your beliefs:

        Each child and adult (like you) is an open system. Skin forms the boundary around our many interactive organic and spiritual subsystems. Any home and family is a metasystem of members' systems, with a boundary that separates it from the human and earthly environments. This boundary is created and maintained by the dominant adult/s, and ranges from open ("permeable") to closed ("impermeable"). Families with "no boundaries" and rigidly closed boundaries are usually (always?) led by adults with significant psycho-spiritual wounds (imbalanced inner-family systems).

The Quest for Balance

        The preferred (least-stress) state of each person is wholistic balance. "Life" is a span of years  between egg-sperm union and death, during which we each ceaselessly try to maintain periods of enough balance ("comfort") as our body and environment inexorably change. Stress is a subjective measure of how much unbalance (discomfort) a person or family system feels now and over time. (Possible reframing intervention: "Instead of your saying 'I'm so stressed, see what 'I'm so unbalanced.' feels like.")

        Human-service professionals (clergy, therapists, counselors, case workers, lawyers, doctors, dieticians, beauticians, pharmacists, mediators, teachers, realtors, tutors, coaches, consultants, entertainers, media people, ...) are motivated and trained to _ help persons and groups regain enough current balance, by reducing key discomforts. Some professionals try to help clients _ learn to become aware of their current mind-body-spirit comfort-balance, and _ to intentionally stay balanced enough. In this site, co-parent and the related guidebook offer a four-level framework for maintaining personal and stepfamily-system balance.  

Needs Cause Family Systems to Change

      Needs, aging (cellular changes), and environmental events cause human systems to change all the time. Our needs range from mild to intense, and are neither good nor bad. At each moment, we all have a kaleidoscope conscious surface needs ("I need to talk to you") and semi-conscious or unconscious primary needs ("to ease my anxiety that you're pulling away from me and I'll be alone and lonely") Effective clinical work empowers all involved people (including therapists, supervisors, and administrators) to (a) identify and (b) fill their primary needs well enough.

        We each have many concurrent needs, which flux (change) all the time. We strive to fill our needs consciously and unconsciously. Our priorities now and over time rank which needs are most to least important - i.e. which needs we'll act to fill before others. Crises occur when someone feels too many intense needs at once, and temporarily distrusts that balance will return safely, soon enough.

        The paired concepts of _ inner family and physical-family systems and _ human-system dynamics being caused by unfilled subself (primary) needs (imbalances) create an effective way to assess client systems for unbalance, and intervene to improve personal and family balances over time - as judged by client-family members. These concepts also empower therapists, supervisors, and case or program managers to identify and reduce imbalances in _ individual professional-client metasystems, _ their service-provider organization, and _ key professional metasystems.

Relationships and Family-system Therapy

        Human relationships form between people who choose to (or have to) fill their needs with each other over time. In a nurturing relationship, each person consistently gets many of their needs filled in a pleasing (vs. painful) way. An unhealthy, dysfunctional, un-nurturing, or toxic relationship blocks filling key needs of one or both people. Relationships can change from bad to good (as judged by each person), and vice versa. Because each person constantly changes, their relationship does too.

        Emotional/spiritual attachment (" bonding") is the complex process in which two people learn to need each other to help maintain their wholistic balances. Expectations are un/conscious assumptions about how, when, and why other people will fill our needs and ask or expect us to fill theirs. Betrayals occur when someone's expectation of another or themselves doesn't happen. Co-parent Project 4 here aims to help stepfamily members and supporters form realistic stepfamily role and rule expectations of themselves and each other.

        Infants, kids, and adults all try to satisfy their needs (balance their system) by communicating verbally and nonverbally. When everyone's _ current primary (vs. surface) needs get filled well enough _ in a pleasing way, interpersonal communications are effective (vs. "open and honest"). Human systems which operate with effective communications are more often in balance, as judged by the people in them. Co-parent Lesson 2 here aims to improve innerpersonal and interpersonal communication effectiveness. Clinicians who are _ knowledgeable about and _ fluent in effective communication are best able to _ assess inner-family and stepfamily-client communication sequences, patterns, and outcomes, and to _ facilitate clients' improving them. A universal human-system stressor is unawareness of effective-communication basics and skills, among other key topics.

        Families are meta-systems of people living in one or more related dwellings. Families form spontaneously and universally because they best fill key adult and child primary needs. A household is a dynamic, open physical/human system. A nuclear family system is a group of caregiving adults and kids related by genes, emotions, and social, spiritual, emotional, and physical laws, who regularly live with each other. Key elements that comprise their system of subsystems are knowledge, boundaries; needs, roles; rules; rituals; relationships; communication beliefs and patterns; and human, spiritual and physical resources. Each relationship can be seen as an interactive subsystem within the family. Nuclear stepfamilies are comprised of all people regularly living in two or more related caregiving homes. 

       A high-nurturance ("functional") nuclear or extended family system is one which all members genuinely agree that (a) their main primary needs get met well enough, (b) in ways that each person likes well enough. Because multi-home stepfamilies usually have many more people, roles, relationships, tasks, and hazards than intact biofamilies, consistently filling everyone's current primary needs well enough in a pleasing way is usually much harder to do.

        Nuclear and extended family systems expand at times to include key other people who fill special needs. So at a point in time, a stepfamily-client relational (vs. household) system may include a therapist, several lawyers, a judge, key teachers, an inspiring, comforting minister, financial consultant, law enforcement and medical professionals, and kids and adults' "best friends." Each of these supporters is (a) a system of personal subsystems and (b) a member of an interactive group of dynamic, open subsystems and metasystems - like departments, agencies, communities, and professional societies. Each person is striving un/consciously to gain and keep enough personal and environmental balance - often without clear awareness of their and each others' true (vs. surface) needs. 

        To provide effective service (fill clients' needs), I propose that clinicians, supervisors, and consultants need to maintain _ awareness of all these systems, and _ how they dynamically interact and affect each stepfamily client's system. Service providers also need to be able to communicate effectively with different members of this larger relational system. That's why Lesson 2's seven skills are as vital to us professionals as they are to our clients, congregations, students, and patients.

      A core application of systems theory in this site is the (experience-based) premise that every person - clinician and client - has an inner family system ( personality) constantly striving for experiential balance. If you're unclear on this or don't find it credible, most of the ideas in this site won't help you raise your professional effectiveness. 

Key Implications

        The relationship between any two people (e.g. client-client, client-clinician, clinician-supervisor) can be assessed as the complex sequences and patterns of interactions ("communications") between the members of (a) each of their inner families and (b) between the members of each other's families. Thus there are three systems to assess in any dyadic interpersonal interaction.

        Teaching adult and child clients to...

  • be aware of (a) who comprises their inner family system, (b) who usually leads it (true Self or false self), and (c) how their inner families interact with each other ( Lesson 1), and..

  • teach them to communicate effectively internally ("thinking") and interpersonally (Lesson 2)...

... can help empower individual and nuclear-stepfamily clients to understand and solve their own relationship problems. This also applies to client-clinician relationship problems.

        Family harmony or chaos is a clear, reliable symptom of the degree of true (vs. perceived) inner-family chaos or harmony in each member of the client system. Thus high-nurturance families are led by adults whose inner families are harmoniously led by their true Selves. Our horrific American (re)divorce, crime, homelessness, suicide, "depression," obesity, social welfare, and drug statistics suggest that _  most parents' and national policy makers' inner and outer families are relatively chaotic (out of balance) now, so _ that's passing on to their (your) kids. The multi-billion dollar clinical psychotherapy and psychiatric, and law-enforcement industries exists because of this reality.

      Clinical vision statements, policies, programs, and interventions that don't include informed, empathic focus on improving family leaders' inner-family (personality) harmony will inevitably be less effective over time, than those that do. If true, this implies that effective clinical work - in general, and with complex stepfamily clients - requires the leaders of each involved service-provider system to be informed and aware of (a) inner family ("intrapsychic") and (b) interpersonal family-system concepts, dynamics, and realities. 

       It also implies that educational systems which teach kids, parents, and professionals to be aware of, and harmonize, their inner-family systems will promote more personal and group harmony, health, and productivity than those that don't. In my experience since 1979, very few public or professional educational institutions teach this awareness so far. Reality check: what's your personal and social experience?

        To stay "sane," (balanced) most of us avoid awareness of the dynamic complexity of the many interactive systems within and around us. I suggest that human-service providers and consumers can benefit by using a framework like this to help resolve local need conflicts ("problems"), without having to consider the whole incomprehensible metasystem... 

        Many lay and professional people have never seen the "systems theory" basics you just read. They're unaware of them, or are intuitively (semi-consciously) aware of the principles and how they affect their lives. Human-service professionals who really are "systemic" can spontaneously describe a coherent version of these principles, and  demonstrate how they increase the effectiveness of their service. Can the people you work with do this now?

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Updated January 20, 2015