Systems-Centered Therapy (SCT): An Introduction

Systems-Centered Therapy (SCT) recognizes that we are always in a system, whether it is the system of ourselves as a person, or a couple or a family or a work team or even a whole organization. Learning to take membership in the system we are in rather than one from our past is often challenging.

We have all developed ways of coping ‒ defenses ‒ that get in the way of our development, and manifest as emotional pain, such as anxiety, tension, and depression. In SCT, the therapist works with clients to identify and reduce these painful symptoms. Clients are then freer to use their energy in pursuit of their goals.

SCT values normalizing human experience, de-pathologizing the client and seeing problems in the context from which they arise.

How SCT Developed from Systems-Centered Training on YouTube.

  • Therapy as a Collaboration Between Therapist and Client/Group In SCT, the therapist and client create a collaborative system in which the therapist’s task is to set the structure for the psychotherapeutic work so the client can discover and learn to recognize their defenses. The therapist then offers the client the choice of exploring the effect of the defense, or to explore their experience when free of the defense. The client makes a free choice of which to explore. Clients explore by observing and describing the experience in the present. Therapist and client are then able to work together in real time to undo defenses and to notice the experience of being free of the defenses and the related symptoms.

  • Phases of Development SCT states that any human system (including individual, couples, and group therapy contexts) follows predictable phases of development. Phases of development have been described similarly in many studies of group/system development: flight, fight, intimacy and work. The task of a Systems-Centered therapist is to track development and to guide interventions based on the system’s developmental phase.

For example, the flight and fight sub-phases are part of the first major phase of development: the authority issue. Here, social defenses and anxiety are addressed first. Once these are reduced, members are less inhibited by fear and thereby freer to explore the frustration that inevitably arises as human systems move toward their goals. Life is inherently frustrating! Frustration signifies the beginning of the fight phase. SCT posits that if the information and energy in frustration can be harnessed in the service of our goals, we are less likely to become depressed or outraged. The aggression aroused by frustration can be channeled toward the goal of the system. At the culmination of the authority issue phase is the crisis of hatred, where clients explore blaming authority figures (including the therapist) or oneself, for life’s problems. If we are able to work through this crisis, dysfunctional dependency on authorities is reduced and we are more able to claim our own authority (including the authority to be influenced by others.)

With more autonomy, negotiating closeness and distance within relationships becomes the main challenge; thus, the intimacy phase begins. As we develop through this phase, there is more ease with closeness and distance between ourselves and others, and we move into the last major phase – the work phase. Here, we are able to recognize and reduce defenses (and the symptoms they generate) as they arise. We are able to see what triggers us to lose our common sense and to see our situation from a larger perspective – a systems-centered perspective – taking challenges not just personally. As we regain our common sense we can use our energy to more easily reach our goals.

SCT therapists normalize the common experiences in each phase of development and train clients in skills for reducing the defenses and symptoms that are generated in each phase. Clients can then practice these skills in their own lives and eventually work more independently, reducing their symptoms and defenses on their own.

  • Functional Subgrouping Functional subgrouping is the method in SCT for resolving conflicts and integrating differences. Functional subgrouping is based on the knowledge that we all find comfort in similarities and, when we are more comfortable, we tend to be more open to exploration, growth and change. In functional subgrouping, members in a system are encouraged to find experiential similarities with others before bringing in differences. For example, in working with a couple around a conflict, an SCT therapist encourages both partners to explore one side of the conflict together first, going deeper and deeper into that perspective, before exploring the other side together. Similarities are emphasized first, and differences are introduced and explored second, making it more likely that the differences will be integrated rather than rejected.

Functional subgrouping is used in individual, couples, and group SCT. Functional subgrouping can be particularly useful when a system is trying to solve problems or resolve conflicts. In individual therapy, the therapist uses functional subgrouping to always be internally working along with the client, understanding their conflicts and experiences, and generating a safe and attuned environment.

  • Fork-in-the-Road In SCT, the therapist works with the client to reduce defenses by offering them a series of choices – “forks-in-the-road” – starting with the simplest. The client always chooses which side of the fork to explore first: either the defense and its impact (including costs and benefits), or discovering their experience when they shift away from the defense. Each side of the fork is equally important to explore. Getting to experientially know both sides of the conflict increases the capacity of the client (or the system) to make a choice. For example, an early phase fork-in-the-road is between explaining and exploring one’s experience. After losing a job, a client might notice one set of experiences generated by their explanation for the job loss. They might explain the job loss by thinking, “I lost the job because I am worthless and destined for failure,” generating shame and anxiety which is likely to interfere with the goal of getting another job. The same client might notice a different set of feelings, such as sadness or anger, generated by exploring their experience related to the actual event of being fired. These emotions may contribute to the common sense needed to solve the problem of getting a new job.

  • Protocols for Undoing Defenses SCT views symptoms such as anxiety, tension and depression as arising from defenses against real here-and-now experiences. For example, we all tend to get anxious about a future event when we imagine that it will go poorly. Often, this is a way of managing the discomfort of not knowing how things will go – an uncomfortable reality we all face. SCT therapists teach clients a set of protocols to recognize and undo defenses. The protocols are taught in a sequence from the simplest to the more complex and include protocols for anxiety, tension and somatic symptoms, outrages, and depression. When we are able to be aware of and undo our defenses we all have more access to our here-and-now experience.

  • Think Systems, Not Just People Who we are at any given time (our feelings, thoughts, behaviors) is heavily influenced by the norms of the systems of which we are a part. For example, think of how a child adapts in a family in which the norm is not to show or acknowledge anger, or an adult in a work environment in which obedience is highly rewarded. Seeing ourselves as a part of something larger, part of a system, means understanding the limits of our own and others’ choices. This allows us to take realistic responsibility for what we can change, and to have compassion for the things we or others cannot change. In this way, we can stop blaming ourselves and others and turn our energy toward taking up our role in our systems in a way that supports the system’s goals, without compromising our own.

  • Working with Differences All systems react to differences. These differences can be within an individual (as when we have an internal conflict, such as whether to work or play) or between individuals within a system (as when one member of a couple wants to spend money on a vacation and the other wants to pay off bills). Commonly, we react to differences by ignoring, attacking, or trying to convert them. SCT suggests that if we learn to contain and explore our human reactivity to difference, and if we have a method for incorporating differences, systems can grow. Hence, SCT assumes that systems survive, develop and transform from simpler to more complex by discriminating and integrating differences. The method SCT uses for this is called functional subgrouping. Members learn to explore similarities first, which creates an atmosphere of security in which differences can then be more fully explored. This tends to result in more creative and interesting solutions to life’s challenges.

  • Role, Goal & Context SCT suggests that much of human suffering is related to takings things (the challenges of life) just personally, a person-centered view. An SCT therapist supports clients in developing a fuller awareness of the context (such as a new work project or a changing family environment). This helps to reduce blaming oneself or others for life’s difficulties. An increased awareness of the context allows clients to more effectively align with the goals of that system and increases clients’ ability to influence their own development and the development of the systems of which they are a part.