4 Nonlinear, Systemic-Minded Psychotherapy Interventions

We are not the sum of our parts or our problems.

Posted Oct 03, 2020

Allec Gomes/Unsplash
Source: Allec Gomes/Unsplash

Psychotherapists often ignore the complex webs in which individuals are entangled. Systemic psychotherapists view problems as being stuck in an intricate web of interrelationship that makes it difficult for clients to sustain changes made in the vacuum of individual therapy. For nearly a century, systemic psychotherapists—predominantly known as "marriage and family therapists" in the United States—have innovated psychotherapies shaped by the understandings of general and natural systems theories.

Life's web of feedback loops is sufficiently complex to confound common notions of linear causality, as while thinking affects perception, states of mind affect thinking, and emotional experiencing affects thinking. Behavior itself influences emotional experiencing and thoughts. The paths of influence are multidirectional and, in many cases, self-reinforcing. Philologist Friedrich Ast (1808), among the first to parcel out errors in philosophical and psychological reductionism, argued—

"The foundational law of all understanding and knowledge is to find the spirit of the whole through the individual, and through the whole to grasp the individual."

Four strategies provide a glimpse into a systemic psychotherapy mindset—

1. Using client feedback about the therapeutic relationship to engage the isomorphic emotional process between our relationship and others.

I (2016) argued elsewhere that "the person-centered process in psychotherapy is the soul of therapeutic change." At every turn, I believe it is my responsibility to circle back around to mindful reflection of my therapeutic interaction with clients. I tell them about my experience of them—what I have felt, wondered, observed, and thought, including my evolving hypotheses. I sometimes go to great lengths to understand and cajole clients to understand some of the basic relational dynamics taking place between us in therapy to stir perspective outside the therapy room.

Simultaneously, I elicit client feedback regarding their experience of the process of the therapy and of my own presence and engagement with them, remaining warmly accepting and encouraging of, and dialogical with, client critique. When built on openness, respect, and curiosity, engaging at this level has the potential to infuse the transformative powers of both experiential insight and relational accountability into the therapy process.

2. Disentangling perceptual and communicative patterns from one another.

Gregory Bateson (1979), pioneering social scientist and cyberneticist, described how people become stuck in their own rigidity—how, for instance, presupposed ideas are supported by a social system which conversely supports the presupposed ideas because the social system itself is a vast recursion full of individuals with presupposed ideas. The proverbial “chicken or the egg” really cannot do justice at this level of complexity.

Bateson emphasized the need to extrapolate patterns of mental processes alongside patterns of adaptive processes—all forms of communication have an adaptive function, and perception is nearly inextricably tied to processes of communication. We must move beyond learning as insight-comprehension to learning-while-learning—communicative shifts occurring simultaneously alongside perceptual shifts, each reinforcing the other. Bateson (1972) called this “deutero-learning” or “Learning II.”

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Source: Zulmaury Saavedra/Unsplash

As people in therapy grasp shared aspects of the perceptual and communicative processes within themselves and their families, the possibility increases that as they gradually decode interrelationships, they will learn to disembody the problem transfixed within them. In other words, they may learn increasingly to dissociate themselves in some way from their problem and thereby become disentangled from it.

Bateson (1977) once wrote, “As you become aware that you are doing it, you become in a curious way much closer to the world around you,” and this is its therapeutic power. This, Bateson (1991) argued, is because “meaning is not internal. It is between parts.”

3. Practicing the problem in order to demystify and rend it less powerful.

Once people in therapy have come to experience a problem differently in-session, they will come to experience it differently in life. Experience will beget experience, as it nearly always does. For our therapeutic relationship to effect change in the lives of the people I help, we must somehow experience the problem together in vivo.

When clients are tempted to go on recursively explaining problems, I let them know they can choose between carrying on—remaining in the position of knowing what they know already—or experientially exploring aspects of emotion or communication to risk gaining what they may have never known.

4. Evoking images and feelings that support self-extrication from forces within and between relationships as well as within and between meanings.

When the positive end of one magnet is placed against the negative end of another, an invisible force pulls them together. When the magnet’s positive end is placed against the positive end of another, they repel one another. Two pieces of uncharged metal neither attract nor repel.

There is magnetism in the emotional systems of families and, to greater or lesser degrees, between every member. The force between two is skewed by a third, and so on. To grow, people must experience freedom within the pushes and pulls of powerful self-perpetuating life forces in which problems—and families—maintain themselves.

Jade Stephens/Unsplash
Source: Jade Stephens/Unsplash

Bateson (1972) suggested that painting, poetry, music, dance, and other metaphoric art forms serve as bridges between the conscious and unconscious, ways of communicating outwardly what dwells inwardly in order to explore relationships between the meanings they express. Whitaker (1989) taught us that what is therapeutic is not necessarily the experience itself but the meaning attached to it. If the person is to change, creative and transformative experiencing must occur.

Systemic psychotherapists recognize that clients are not the sum of their parts or their problems and understand that the intimately personal, meaning-centered encounter is the instrument of therapy's fundamental utility. We see potential linkages, and power, between the client and every other person, challenge, and opportunity in their world and lean toward them, respectfully and intentionally stirring some of their anxiety-evoking interrelationship within the flux-and-flow of the here-and-now in order for the problems out there to be brought into here to engage the hope for meaningful, second-order, and sustainable changes to occur.


Ast, F. (1808). Grundlinien der grammatik, hermeneutik und kritik. Landshut, Germany: Jos. Thomann, Buchdrucker, & Buchhändler.

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bateson, G. (1977). Afterword. In J. Brockman (Ed.). About Bateson: Essays on Gregory Bateson (pp. 235-247). New York: E. P. Dutton.

Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: Bantam.

Bateson, G. (1991-published posthumously). A sacred unity: Further steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Harper/Collins.

Edwards, B.G. (2016). Person-centered process: The soul of therapeutic change:

Whitaker, C., and Ryan, M. (1989). Midnight musings of a family therapist. New York: Norton.