A Systems Perspective
Most theories about the self in human psychology focus on the individual person, going inside the person to understand and explain his various motivations and behaviors. Family systems theory starts by taking at least a three-generational overview of the person’s family, with a focus on the external structure of the relationship system within the extended family. The individual’s internal motivations are considered to be a component of this external system, and are understood by what exists in that system.
From this viewpoint, there is no fixed self—the self is always in flux, changing in response to the variables in the system of which the person is a part. A person is more than the sum of his or her beliefs and opinions. Not only does an individual come by those beliefs and opinions as part of the external system around him or her, but the individual shifts his or her way of being depending on the context of the moment.
Different contexts bring out different aspects of the self, such as when he or she’s at work, at home with the family, or at a party with friends. In each of these contexts, the individual “compromises” some of his or her personal desires in some way in exchange for certain rewards, such as power, closeness, or pleasure.
When Systems Run People
While individual therapies focus on the self as a single entity to the detriment of the family system, family systems theorists focus on the system to the (potential) detriment of the individual. It’s important to remember that systems are influential but not determinative, and that problems occur in systems when they run the individuals in them.
The self is an ever-changing person within a system, a person who has internal dimensions that contribute to defining the individual, as well. We’ll take up these dimensions a couple posts from now. For now, suffice it to say that different aspects of the individual manifest in different contexts at different times. In a different family, the individual would have developed into a different person. The search is for balance within the self and the system, and the family is the construction site of the developing self.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at that construction site from the perspective of attachment theory.