Family Systems Theory

Family Systems is a look at the dynamics that go on within the whole family and the relationships in the family. Unlike Freud who sought to go inside the psyche of the individual, this therapy takes into account all the relations in a family and in the community. Murray Bowen is one of the fathers of Family Systems Theory. He noticed that in families anxiety controls and maintains the status quo of the family. Some families deal with conflict by moving closer and closer, creating what Bowen called “enmeshment.” Other families deal with anxiety and discomfort by a cut off. Cut off means disowning family members who don’t agree with the family rules, values and practices. Bowen also noted that individuals in families often deal with conflict by triangulation. Triangulation means, if George has a conflict with Jim, George speaks with someone else about the conflict rather than talking directly with Jim. This keeps the conflict going because those involved in the conflict never speak directly with each other. Bowen spoke about families rather than individuals because he saw families as objects of treatment. He coined the term “undifferentiated ego mass” to refer to family systems. Treatment from his point of view results in individuals becoming more differentiated. In becoming more differentiated family members are enabled to make decisions based on their own higher thinking rather than following the rules of the family.

I find this perspective extremely helpful in understanding the life of Jesus. Jesus was reared in a tradition with very strict and exacting rules. He sought to reform his culture by standing in it and speaking the truth about the social structure. His truth telling raised anxiety that eventually caused the system to put him to death.

In my family system it was understood early that children were not allowed to speak back to their parents. I felt that no one really cared what I thought or felt. The family system demanded that I meet the expectations of my parents and obey the rules and customs of our family. If I had gone for therapy with a Family Systems therapist, he/she would have discovered too many rules and expectations. First, my mother was reared in a Roman Catholic family that was wealthy and high class. She was sent to England for her schooling at the age of ten years; she lived in a convent with nuns and was educated by them through high school. She was taught that children are to be seen and not heard. Her perspective and values were transferred to our family. The Family Systems approach suggests that these values pass through one generation after another.

Biblically speaking, this perspective sheds light on how the sins of the fathers are visited on the second and third generations. When we look at these generational patterns, individuals can discover that their parents are not wholly to blame for the problem; they were unconscious victims of hand-me-down rules. They followed the patterns that had been handed down to them. In Family Systems Therapy the door opens so that different decisions about patterns of behavior are freely chosen or rejected. As members of a family differentiate, their decisions create a whole new family dynamic.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous is a splendid program of recovery from alcohol addiction founded by Bill Wilson. Alcoholics Anonymous centers on the twelve steps of recovery. These steps genuinely help persons who suffer from arrested development through their alcohol and drug use. A problem shared by many addicts is an enormous sense of self-absorption which creates a narcissistic bent. Their self-centeredness creates chaos and confusion for them and everyone around them. The process of breaking down this narcissism and enabling them to grow up starts with the first three steps of AA, as it is popularly called.

These steps have been described as “I can’t, You can, Please do.” The first step is actually a confession, “I am powerless over alcohol, and my life has become unmanageable.” Number two is a faith statement: “I have come to believe that a Power outside of myself can restore me to sanity.” And the third step is, “I made a decision to turn my life and my will over to God as I understand God.” These first three essential steps are followed by a moral inventory which includes a confession of one’s errors, making amends and then reaching out to care for others who suffer from this disease.

I began my journey of recovery with my conversion to Christ. That conversion involved giving up drugs and alcohol plus a serious study of the Bible. It also involved my strong participation in the church. It was not until later, when my son got overpowered by alcohol, that I began going to Alcoholics Anonymous and Alanon with him. The heart of this program of recovery contains Twelve Steps that describe the experience of the earliest AA members who:

  1. Admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. 5Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

In Alcoholics Anonymous I experienced one thing that was very different from my church experience; among these men and women I experienced a candid honesty with each other. Note the fourth, fifth and tenth steps in which the program demands complete honesty. Alcoholics Anonymous focuses on a continuous probing of the depths of one’s failure, dysfunction and wreckage, which alcohol causes in the person’s life and that of others. The undisciplined use of alcohol blocks relationships, creates distance, provides a shield and without alcohol many cannot be intimate.

I experienced Alcoholics Anonymous taking very seriously the biblical notion of the confession of sin to one another in order to find healing. The founder of AA, Bill Wilson, very wisely chose the way he stated the third step as turning our lives over to the power of God as we understood God. This perspective opens Alcoholics Anonymous to anyone and everyone regardless of their theology or lack thereof.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a twelve-part tradition that lays out the nature of the relationship of its members.

  1.  Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.
  2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.
  3. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
  4. The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
  5. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.
  6. Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  7. An AA group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
  8. Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  9. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
  10. AA, as such, ought never to be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
  11. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never to be drawn into public controversy.
  12. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.

Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

Ericksonian Hypnosis

The same Milton Erickson whose work inspired Neuro-Linguistic Programming was a brilliant psychiatrist who also utilized hypnosis to help people change their lives in positive ways. From Erickson I learned about the hypnotic or trance state of consciousness in everyday life. Erickson pointed out that more often than we are aware, we are in a trance. A common example can be seen in the times that I have driven from Atlanta, Georgia to Greenville, South Carolina and during the trip my mind wanders in many directions while I am driving up the Interstate. Often I waked up and realized that I had no consciousness of where I was on this trip. Yet, I drove safely up the highway while my mind generated numerous ideas. From time to time I have awakened from this trance and wondered where were the markers that would tell me where I am? This is just one illustration of the trance state.

Erickson had the ability to meet with people and utilize his voice, his posture and his presence to help the person with whom he was working to calm down, to slow down, and to move naturally and easily into a trance state. When the patient was in the trance state, Erickson made suggestions to the patient that were congruent with what the patient had decided to accomplish. He stated these suggestions as possible outcomes rather than demands. He might say, “When you leave my office and are on your way home, you may realize that you are feeling much better. You may begin to realize that your problem is going away.” Erickson was a master of hypnotic suggestions to individuals that were in keeping with the individual’s desires, and he did it in a way that the patient embraced.

I have learned from Milton Erickson the importance of being deliberate and conscious of the way that I use my voice. The tone, the tempo and the emphasis that the therapist uses when speaking to a client often communicate more powerfully than the particular words spoken.

The story has been told of Milton Erickson’s testing this theory of tone and tempo of voice at a cocktail party. As he went through the receiving line, he spoke to the host and hostess in a delightful and soothing voice, “Oh, I just loved the fried horse meat that you offered at the party, and the frog eyes were also delicious.” Erickson noticed that everyone smiled with delight at the compliments that he gave the hosts of the party. Yet, neither the hosts nor the guests heard the content of Erickson’s compliment. How right he was that tone and tempo communicate in powerful, convincing ways.

I also learned from Erickson that tone and tempo often communicate something about the quality of the relationship with the individual to whom you are speaking. Just imagine the different ways that you can say a simple phrase like, “How are you?” It can be said in a slow, deliberate and warm tempo that communicates acceptance and intimacy, or it can be said in a high-pitched, loud and rapid tempo that communicates rejection. Erickson has caused me to be very deliberate about the way I use my voice in therapy sessions.

Psychoanalytic Studies

My original clinical training in Pastoral Care and Counseling was at Georgia Baptist Medical Center where I did an internship and residency. The primary theoretical framework for the training was psychoanalytic. We studied the work and contributions of Sigmund Freud. In addition to the study of Freud’s work we were all in analysis with psychoanalysts. Other training centers focused on a more eclectic approach studying many psychological theorists. The perspective of the training team at Georgia Baptist Center for Pastoral Care and Counseling required all interns to gain an in-depth understanding of Freudian Analysis.

Without going into great detail about this theory the major perspective is that personality and patterns of behavior, thought and emotions are formed in the first five years of life. This being the case, problems in the here and now have their basis in mostly unconscious patterns, which were established very early in life as a way of adapting to the context that the individual was born into. These patterns continue to play out throughout our life until we gain insight into where they originated. This insight is seen as the intervention that frees a person to adapt to the current context.

From this deterministic perspective early patterns of adaptation continue throughout life in spite of its changing context. With this general theory as a guide in therapy we habitually say, “Tell me about your Mama and them.”