Fundamental Principles of Systemic Psychotherapy


Constructivism, Communication Theory, System Theory and Autopoiesis

Communication theory, system theory and constructivism are major theoretical foundations of systemic psychotherapy. Systemic therapists believe that one’s reality is constructed by each individual observer – this means that problems, symptoms or conspicuous behavior do not exist per se, but every person constructs his own reality by describing, rating and explaining situations or actions within a few seconds, filtered by his perception. Accordingly, everyone sees his world as an observer from his own personal point of view, perceives certain things or details to a certain degree according to his experiences, preferences and requirements, and thus creates his own reality. An illustrative analogy is the lighthouse metaphor, where the light cone from the lighthouse always illuminates only a small part of the surrounding landscape. One’s eyes can rest on different spots for a shorter or longer time, and accordingly every person creates individual associations, images and thoughts.

“One cannot not communicate” is a well-known principle of systemic psychotherapy, formulated by communication expert Paul Watzlawick.

Humans are social beings, we interact in many different social systems like a family system, a school and educational system, a work environment, a circle of friends, and hobby or sports clubs, where we take on various roles as father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, student, superior, employee, friend or colleague and communicate with other people verbally and nonverbally. If a person participates in one or more systems in which interpersonal relationship patterns or communication patterns are experienced as burdening, this may lead to physical symptoms and behavior that the person himself or also his social environment find disturbing and that make them suffer.

”One cannot not communicate” is a well-known principle of systemic psychotherapy, formulated by communication expert Paul Watzlawick.

A system can be described as a specific unity consisting of several elements. It is defined by boundaries, has members with different duties and roles, goals, rules and rituals, which provide security and orientation. A system persists continually over a certain period of time and undergoes changes, which is why it can and sometimes must adapt. Every system should have clear relationship boundaries between the elements within the system as well as clear external boundaries. Boundaries can also be diffuse (intensive, mainly non-verbal exchange of emotionality and information) or rigid (minimal exchange) instead of clear (efficient exchange of emotions and content).

bild2Systemic therapy is based on the theory of autopoiesis according to which living systems are autonomous and self-organized and communicate with their environment. In contrast to other therapies, the past and early childhood do not play a major role for systemic therapists. Systemic therapists rather focus on “here and now” and integrate the context of the system and system rules. We are interested in how these system rules contribute to the emergence of symptoms and thus examine relationship patterns. What contributes to maintaining or solving a problem? For instance, are there any diffuse or rigid boundaries, tendencies to avoid communication conflicts, or contradictory messages? This could be indications of limited possibilities of the system and the system members to change, which can be extended through psychotherapy.

Source: Kriz: Systemische Familientherapie