Overview of Systemic Therapy and Its Role in Gestalt Therapy

Systemic thinkers view things in the context of their environment, and not in isolation. For example, some motor mechanics faced with cars that will not start will look further than whether there is petrol in the tank or not – they will also consider whether it rained the previous night, and whether this could have caused an electric contact to be damp. Mechanics like these have a similar view on life as do Gestalt Therapists, although perhaps neither would appreciate the connection.

Gestalt therapy is a system-based approach that views human beings as having infinite potential, although this is often stifled by environmental experiences both present and from the past. Gestalt does not claim exclusive rights to Systemic Therapy though. It just draws on the technique when this is appropriate. Systemic Family Therapy (also referred to as Couple and Family Therapy, and sometimes Family Systems Therapy) focuses on family and intimate relationships to nurture change. It examines the patterns of interactions, and emphasizes the contribution that a healthy family makes to psychological health.

The common thread that runs through all the different permutations of Systemic Family Therapy is a belief that involving families and other intimate relationships in psychotherapy is beneficial. Significant others may be encouraged to participate in healing sessions and play significant roles in the transporting therapeutic decisions to reality. These significant others do not need to have played a role in the problem under attention, are not necessarily wives, husbands or lovers either. They may include anybody who has been involved in a long-term supportive relationship with the subject.

Systemic Therapy was born out of Family Therapy. It traces its roots back to the Milan Systems approach developed by Mara Palazzoli in 1971, and based in turn on Gregory Bateson’s Cybernetics theory. Bateson (married to Margaret Mead) had built his theories on what he perceived to be the natural order of the universe. In the 1940’s he worked on theories that extended this logic to help understand people within their social context.

Early adaptations drew heavily from existing bodies of biological and physiological knowledge. Later Mead and Bateson built models of second-order cybernetics in which the subjective observer becomes a part of the observed system too. Following on this revelation systemic therapy moved away from linear causality towards a model in which individual reality builds linguistically and socially.

Narrative Theory is a second string to the same bow. Here the focus lies on how individual and group culture affect behavior. As the individual’s life story unfolds, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as absolute truth, and that we create meaning out of the stories of our lives. Moreover, the person is never the problem – the problem is the problem, period.

There are strong links between Systemic Theory, Narrative Theory and Gestalt. The ways in which people lose and then re-instate their sense of equilibrium fascinated Perls and other Gestaltists. Narrative Theorists tell of how relating stories contributes to this process therapeutically. Systemic Therapy emphasizes the roles significant others and therapists play. Gestalt therapists combine these theories to help their patients understand themselves in terms of where they come from and where they are. Then they assist them to shed unnecessary baggage, and move onward towards achieving their true potential.

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