Systems view of problems

By August 22, 2022Define self
family system

Systems view of problems.

A system view of a problem differs from how most people think of a problem. The common way of thinking stems from an individualistic cause-and-effect model. In our current culture, there is a quick-fix desire as well. Thus, the result of the cause and effect, quick fix approach is that the fix can be worse than the problem.

A system way of thinking understands a problem to be some kind of undesired functioning. The so-called “problem” is a sign that something in the system isn’t working the way we want it to. Systems are not a kind of linear sequence where A leads to B, which leads to C, etc. Systems have parts, and the parts are in relationship with each other. For example, in family systems, all the parts are in some kind of relationship with all the parts. These parts have a reciprocal (feedback) relationship with each other. Each relationship involves a process that defines that relationship. In families, we call this emotional process. There are emotional processes that define or influence each relationship that each person has with every other person in the system. Yes, that’s a lot to think about. From this perspective, it’s not useful to think about what caused a problem.

The individual model of cause and effect.

An individual model approach looks for a cause to fix the problem. An individual model often views the individual (“identified patient”) as symptomatic, dysfunctional, or broken and in need of being fixed. The terms symptom or dysfunctional can be used, but I think there is an automatic negative connotation with these terms. This is the framework of most of our medical systems. It works well in some situations but doesn’t address the underlying issue(s). For example, a teenager presents with a broken arm in the emergency room. This is a simple case of a broken individual needing a fix. However, what kind of thinking and behaviour contributed to the arm being broken? A systems perspective would seek to understand the process that led to the accident. (Of course, one always has to start with the immediate issues, e.g. get the arm in a cast).

The problem is there are multiple contributing factors.

With an individual model, one asks why did this problem occur? What caused it? Let’s say a teenager fell down some stairs and broke their arm. There’s the cause and the effect. However, they had been drinking. Maybe that’s the cause that created the effect. The teenager claims the problem was that the stairs didn’t have a proper railing to hold on to. Hmm, call the lawyers! Or maybe it was the friend that bumped into them that was the problem. Cause and effect thinking wants to find one cause to fix the problem. All Done. Move on. Families and relationships aren’t that simple.

Systems thinkers ask questions about processes, not problems.

Systems operate via processes; cause-and-effect doesn’t work with systems. The goal is to understand how the system functions by understanding the processes that define the relationships between the parts. Understanding processes, the contributors, and their contribution is how one understands the functioning of a system. This involves asking when, where, with whom, how often, and what happened before, and not “why” type questions. Natural systems don’t have a why. They have a function, so it makes sense to ask about functioning with “w” type questions.

Substance use – a process or a problem?

With substance use situations, understanding the process(es) that contributed to the substance use is very important to achieving a long-term resolution. A systems approach would understand substance use as an adaptive mechanism to deal with the discomfort in an individual’s life. How did substance use become the outcome of the individual’s functioning as part of the system? Gabor Mate wrote, “A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours.” The individual isn’t ‘broken’ or weak. The undesired functional outcome, substance use, results from all the interactions of the system they are a part of. And those interactions result from all the interactions the system’s individuals were a part of (repeat for several generations).

Lack of self is a system’s way of functioning.

Bowen Theory is about differentiation of self. So undesired functional outcomes result from the process of differentiation being impaired. While the loss of self to the system may reduce discomfort in the short term, it usually does not in the long term. The goal is to define self in order to reduce the discomfort that arises from the loss of self. Each part of the system has contributed to an individual’s loss of self so that each part can contribute to the individual developing self. All parts of the system will have to function better to avoid shifting the dysfunction to another part of the system.

Change a part, change the system.

Bowen wrote: “The family is a system in that a change in one part of the system is followed by a compensatory change in other parts of the system.” I prefer to think of the family as a variety of systems and subsystems. Systems function at all levels of efficiency, from optimum functioning to total dysfunction and failure.” Another aspect of thinking systems is that system’s functioning is the sum of the parts’ functioning, and this functioning can change. Parts of the system can function as if they were broken. Substance use is an “as if” type of functioning. The individual is functioning “as if” they were “addicted,” but this is their way of adapting to the system that they are a part of and the discomfort they feel. Change the system AND their way of adapting, and the substance use goes away. It’s simple, but not easy.

Systems: How one thinks about a problem can be the problem.

A system way of thinking about a situation removes the concepts of blame, victim, and perpetrator. It does NOT remove the consequences of individuals’ behaviours. Substance use has consequences, which is why it is problematic. But if one is not a victim, the implication is that they have played a part in the process, so they have to play a part in changing how they respond. This approach puts the ability to effect change back into the hands of the individual. They can learn to adapt to what the system presents to them in a different, more functional manner. This involves defining oneself to their system in a manner that doesn’t impose on others. It involves the individual getting very clear about what is important and acting on that conviction.

The system’s functioning is the problem.

I believe that how one thinks about a “problem” can be part of the problem. A system way of thinking is very different and opens up alternative approaches for resolving undesired functional outcomes, aka problems. In short, there are dysfunctional ways and functional ways to adapt or respond to a system. Defining a self to the system, which can be hard in the short run, is likely to be the most functional and long-lasting approach. The sooner one starts, the better!

Bowen’s definition of a family can be found in Family Therapy in Clinical Practice pp. 154-155.

Read more about Bowen Theory here:

Gabor Mate’s book is called Hungry Ghosts. Listen to this Youtube with Gabor Mate:

Biology of Desire is an excellent book on substance use.  This is a good interview: