I’m trained as a systems therapist. My approach to therapy is that our lives are all a part of multiple systems. Think of your family system, your work system, your friend system as examples. We operate in those systems and get to know the “rules” of each system. What is it okay to talk about or not, who makes the decisions, what behaviors are acceptable, etc. Sometimes those systems work well and other times they may not.
When people come to therapy they are usually unhappy with how one of their systems is operating. Oh, they don’t frame it that way but that is what it boils down to. They may be unhappy with how things are going with their partner or parents or children or boss. What I do is to help them try to change the system so it works better for them.
One misconception is that you can’t affect a system without working on the whole system. But that isn’t true. We have expectations of how others will behave in certain situation. We have those expectations because past experiences have shown us what to expect. However, if one person changes their behavior, everyone else has no choice but to change in response. They have changed the system.
When clients come to realize this it makes a lot of sense. They leave therapy excited to try it. They see their friend that has their usual negative attitude and instead of getting angry or just listening and being resentful, the client says, “hey, it is difficult for me when you are always negative. I’m tired of getting angry about it so I’m going to change my behavior. When you start getting negative I’m going to stop you and excuse myself. I really enjoy being around you when you are positive and I want to wait to spend time with you when I won’t be resentful.”
That response is going to cause the friend to have a different response than they would have had before. While we can’t guarantee what the change will be, our hope is that they will want to spend time with you so they will be less negative. And while it often works in just the right way, clients are sometimes surprised that the next time they see the person the old behavior has returned.
That happens because one time is usually not enough. We create our expectations of behavior from past experiences…usually many of them. Just because we act differently one time it isn’t enough to override the history of experiences. The other person may believe that it was simply an aberration. What we need to do is to repeat our new behavior multiple times. We need to teach the rest of the system that this is real change. That this is how we are going to respond now and that they can’t rely on our old behavior. That’s what creates lasting change.
If there are relationships in your life where you would like to change the dynamic, know that you have the ability to create change simply by changing yourself. Start acting in a way that encourages the behaviors you want from others. If you get the changes you want just remember – once is almost never enough.