What Does “Systemic” Mean When It Comes To Therapy


I’m so glad you asked!


Words like “relational” and “systemic” get used all over the place and it can make it frustrating and confusing if you are trying to work out what kind of therapeutic approach will actually help you.

Before I go any further, I want to let you in on a secret: the ‘best’ kind of therapy - according to researchers - is one where you feel confident that the process will be helpful for you now.


And one of the vital things which supports a sense of hope and helps to create a positive experience of therapy is the relationship you build with the therapist. If you feel ‘this is a person I can trust’, that is a great place to begin. Notice I didn’t say ‘find a therapist who will agree with me all the time’ or ‘pick a therapy that always makes me feel comfortable’…good therapy is a process that is safe enough to talk about difficult things, because let’s face it, life is difficult sometimes.

So now, we get to what I think is the next really exciting part. What is a “systemic” approach, and is it any good for things like depression or anxiety?


The basis of the systemic approach is that everything is relational.


Let me offer some examples to help us understand together how this works:

Imagine a mobile hanging from the ceiling: the kind that you might see hanging over a child’s cot for instance. Notice that each of the elements – in this case each element is a brightly coloured toy, and in a minute we will adapt our visual metaphor – is separately attached and also part of the whole mobile. If I were to touch only one of the toys and move it, you would notice that the others also move in response even though I didn’t actually touch them physically.


Relationships are the same. Simply by existing, when one element – and we can relate our metaphor to literally any kind of system, be it human, plant, machine, etc – is impacted, all of the other parts respond in some way, regardless of whether we can actually perceive the shift.

This makes sense when you hear people say that doing exercise is helpful if you are experiencing depression or anxiety. Being present in your body can allow your emotions to soothe, to release, and bring about a different balance of tired body and exhausted mind. In this case, the system is your whole self.


I happen to be fascinated by the work of many of the great Continental Philosophers. One of them, a fellow called Husserl, had a lovely metaphor about a hammer, and it’s a nice fit to help us share a perspective on just how visceral, to the very core of our existence, relationship is.

The story goes like this: Husserl says that it is only in the process of relationship that we exist…a pretty bold claim, isn’t it?! In fact, he goes even further, when he says (and I’m paraphrasing rather than quoting because I like telling stories too) that it is the relational experience which creates the self that is us. If the relationship changes, so does the self.


He gives the example of a hammer. Imagine a hammer sitting on a bench. Is it a hammer whilst it is sitting there…or is it just a piece of shaped metal that we call the head fixed on a piece of wood or other material that makes up the shaft? Husserl’s suggestion is that whilst it is just sitting there alone, it is only the parts. It doesn’t Become a Hammer until you pick it up and strike a nail with it. It is the process of the relationship between the hand that wields it, the hammer, and the nail - the action of Hammering - that makes the separate parts Become a Hammer. 

Fascinating idea, isn’t it? 


 So how is that helpful for depression or anxiety for example?


Husserl is offering us a new perspective, one that we can use together to understand just how profound and powerful it can be to use a systemic approach if you are struggling with your mental health or to make changes in your life.

It’s helpful across the whole spectrum, regardless of where you find yourself in this present moment. A systemic lens offers you the unique ability to bring new awareness to your relationship within yourself, your relationship with another or others, even with the world around you.



Working with only one perspective is certainly an option that can be useful. Bringing in the multiple perspectives of the systemic relationships, though, is like shifting from black and white to HD colour with full surround sound…and working with an experienced systemic psychotherapist can help you to safely adapt and contain the process in a way that makes space for curiosity without the overwhelm. Just enough difference to make the smallest difference…and see what happens next.

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