What is Systemic Therapy? And Can it Help You?

what is systemic therapy

photo by Dimitri Houtteman

Many talk therapies help by looking at your past experiences, and how you personally think and feel. But systemic therapy takes a very different approach to helping your feel better about yourself and your life.

What is systemic therapy?

Systemic psychotherapy believes we are interconnected to those around us. So any problems we face are shared, and from a flaw within the system, or systems, we live in. This might be our families, communities, and social and work groups.   

These systems can get stuck in unhelpful patterns, created by the roles they make us play, the beliefs they are based on, and the ways of organising and communicating they rely on.

So systemic therapy is a talk therapy for individuals, couples, families, groups and organisations that helps them-

“mobilise the strengths of their relationships so as to make disturbing symptoms unnecessary or less problematic.” (Peter Stratton, professor of family therapy at Leeds University). 

Is systemic therapy a short or long term therapy?

It depends what you and your systemic therapist decide would be best for your particular needs. It could be several sessions, or as little as one or two.

systemic therapy

photo by Mindy Jacobs

And unlike other forms of therapy that involve meeting at least weekly (or more than once a week in the case of Jungian therapy or psychoanalysis)? Systemic therapy can be biweekly, or even once every four weeks.

How is systemic psychotherapy different than other forms of therapy?

1. It looks to group over individual experiences.

We don’t function alone in life. If we are having problems, they can be fixed by looking at the dynamics of the groups we are in. 

Systemic therapy helps you reframe issues from intrapersonal terms (“my teenage daughter is selfish”) to interactional or ‘relational’ terms (“we have a pattern of communicating that means she backs down to do her own thing and I feel unheard”). 

2. It works with present day patterns over past experiences.

Other psychotherapeutic approaches feel that difficult past experiences become ‘roots’ that lead to our present-day problems. For example, psychodynamic psychotherapy sees you talking about your past each session. 

Systemic therapy doesn’t try to find the cause in the past. Instead, it looks to the groups we operate within and believes a pattern of dysfunctional behaviours and beliefs cause our issues. 

3. It doesn’t see you as ‘flawed’ or needing a ‘diagnosis’.

This places the blame on the individual. Systemic therapy would suggest you are a resourceful, powerful person. You are just unfortunately operating in a family or group that has unhelpful patterns.

It doesn’t blame any individual in a group, but sees the operating system of the group as the problem.

4. It is circular over linear.

Most types of therapy are linear. They believe in cause and effect over time. So what happened in the past created a result in the present. You have an eating disorder because you felt overlooked growing up.

Systemic therapy is circular. It sees things as repeating patterns and processes. You have an eating disorder because every time you talk to your parents, you feel you aren’t asked your opinion. So you feel driven to take control by limiting food instead.

5. It’s practical over analytical.

Many types of therapy seek to understand. Why are you are who you are, and what causes you to do things? It’s analytical.

Systemic therapy seeks to troubleshoot and solve. What is causing the group to be stuck? What nudge could create new movement in the ways you relate  and communicate? It’s practical.

What sort of issues can systemic therapy help with?

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends systemic therapy for:

Systemic therapy can also be helpful for things like:

Benefits of systemic therapy – is it for you? 

How can systemic therapy benefit you, your family, or your group? It’s a therapy for you if you’d like to:

  • see your problems in new and different ways
  • understand different perspectives
  • recognise your strengths and resources and how to use them
  • learn how to work together (if attending as family)
  • find ways to deal with difficulties that work for you and those around you
  • identify beneficial changes
  • cope better as a unit.

Systemic therapy vs family therapy

Sometimes you will see systemic therapy being used interchangeably with ‘family therapy’. This is because many family therapists use systemic therapy here in the UK. 

It’s further complicated by the fact that ‘systemic therapy’ can sometimes be used as an umbrella term to describe a wide range of therapies that see issues as coming from a ‘system’ over individual experience.  It can refer to therapies like emotion focused couple therapy (EFT), narrative family therapy, and  attachment-based family therapy (ABFT).

In summary,  systemic therapy did develop from family therapy and can be a form of family therapy. But there are other forms of family therapy that are different. And systemic therapy is also its own approach that can be used with groups and organisations. If you and your family want to try this approach, look for a  ‘systemic family therapist’.

What to look for in a systemic family therapist

A good systemic therapist doesn’t judge one person as a perpetrator, or point fingers. They look to the system as the root of the issues instead. 

They do not try to change you or your family. Instead they just nudge, attempting to create movement, and leave you to find and activate the changes you agree on. 

They ask good questions that act as catalysts, helping your family or group system to capitalise on its strengths, resources, and wisdom.

You feel gently supported by a good systemic therapist, over pushed or led. In fact he or she will sometimes have you so engaged in talking with the members of your group or family you even forget for a moment the therapist is there. 

Want to try systemic therapy for yourself, your family, or group? We connect you with highly experienced London systemic therapists. Or try our online platform to find a UK systemic therapist near you.


Still have a question about ‘what is systemic therapy’? Ask below. 

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