How the Concepts of Family Systems Theory Have Affected Me

Gaining awareness of the roles and dynamics I've learned since childhood

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by Kate Delany |

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Though family systems theory isn’t new, it’s new to me. I recently discovered the writings of psychologist Harriet Lerner, and her ideas — family systems theory filtered through a feminist lens — have in many ways been a godsend. They’ve helped me think through my first family’s relationship structure, which is centered on my sister’s cystic fibrosis.

What’s more, it’s helped me see how I operate in that system and how I can begin to opt out of the behaviors and roles that don’t work for me, thus contributing to my personal wellness.

Generational roles

In a nutshell, the theory encourages us to look at how relationships are shaped by behaviors we learn early and that are often formed through multiple generations. Bringing awareness to these family patterns can help us decide what we need and, to use Lerner’s metaphor, how we can try to modify the dance of connection by learning new steps.

This modification cannot happen quickly or easily, Lerner warns, because we get entrenched in an intergenerational pattern of navigating relationships in particular ways.

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One item of particular scrutiny for Lerner is how families respond to conflict and differences. Are conflicts  and differences allowed to be discussed and fully aired? Are differences tolerated? Or is conformity expected?

In her writing, Lerner encourages her readers to examine how their first families, and even previous generations, have responded to these issues. Her advice led me to see how often conflict, differences, and tensions in my extended family led to connections being cut off. Though I’d seen this dynamic in my family growing up, I’d never before considered it as a learned response that had been tacitly transmitted from one generation to another.

Lerner also counsels her readers to notice what topics can and can’t be discussed in the larger family. In my family, health issues can be discussed in great detail, sometimes too much detail (focused on minutiae, bodily functions, and more).

What can’t be brought into these conversations is feeling. The talk is all report, not rapport. I realized a year ago, when I needed a follow-up mammogram after an irregular screening, that this constant “report talk” of health issues meant I wouldn’t share my health concerns with my extended family if at all possible. I didn’t want my privacy violated without the offer of genuine support.

In other words, to borrow a term from Lerner, I don’t want to continue to engage in de-selfing. According to Lerner, we de-self when we fall into a relationship system role that deprives us of individuality and our own needs, goals, or skills.

Caregivers should relate to Lerner’s focus on the need to develop the self, as they may often feel they need to compromise on that commitment. As a woman, I certainly related to her feminist counseling, and I appreciated her call to develop a self not defined by relationships with others. As she says, we’re better off and stronger in our relationships when we aren’t just mother, daughter, wife … or caregiver.

Though I don’t recall seeing the term “self-care” in the pages of Lerner’s books, what she advocates for is certainly in that vein. Lerner’s self-care is not a pop culture version of the word, not bubble baths and manicures. The self-care Lerner recommends delves much deeper, asking us to prioritize a true knowledge of self.

Lerner’s books arrived in my life at a moment when I needed them. Analyzing the way I’ve been shaped by relationship systems — ossified by a family response to cystic fibrosis as well as intergenerational habits — has been illuminating. Understanding this dance means that I can try to innovate steps for myself. Breaking unhealthy habits isn’t easy, but real personal wellness requires it.

Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


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