Family Systems Theory teaches us that individuals cannot really be understood in isolation, but rather, through the lens of relationships. We are all parts of emotional, social units, and we impact them and are being impacted by them in dynamic ways. Family Systems Theory, introduced by Murray Bowen and popularized by others, takes a look at how groups function — families, workplaces, schools, religious communities — and considers how self-differentiated people can impact the overall health of a system.
For instance, what happens when a person expresses a conviction? What happens when a person or small group of people say, “No more,” to harmful behaviors? What happens when someone tells the truth, perhaps uncovering what has been hidden? What happens when someone practices stronger, more healthy boundaries? What happens when certain people defy expectations and add health to a system, simply by choosing emotional health for themselves?
I think of an analogy that my friend Karen Wright shared with me many years ago:
It’s as if a small group of people are sitting together in a tiny fishing boat, and then someone suddenly shifts their position. That destabilizes the equilibrium. Now the people in the boat have a choice: They can pull that person back or down (and goodness knows, families, workplaces, schools, and religious communities do just that at times) or… they can shift their weight and change their positions.
One of the best things we can do for the emotional health of a community is to choose emotional health for ourselves — again, not in isolation but in relationship to the whole. Sometimes, that has a vital way of impacting the whole.
It can involve risks. Sometimes the community responds by pulling you down or by scapegoating. But this can also create new possibilities.
We can choose health. We can tell the truth. We can set boundaries. We can stop tolerating harmful behaviors. We can choose vitality.