It Takes a Village: Understanding How Systems Shape Us

Photo by  Duy Pham  on  Unsplash

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

We are all part of a system, several systems in fact. Systems range from our partner, family unit, school/work/organization, community, culture, and everything in between. Systems often develop patterns of functioning that support the system in accomplishing tasks, moving forward, and maintaining balance. The evolution of patterns can be intentional, they might present an imbalance in who the system serves, or perhaps they came about over time through events and experiences that shape patterns without members attunement to the helpful or unhelpful results. I have felt inspired by my work and personal experience to reflect on the systems in which individuals exist, how systems function, and if that function is serving individuals and the systems as a whole.

To further understand the operation of systems, I offer the example of coming to therapy (coincidence?) … Perhaps you chose to begin therapy or maybe that was a choice made for you by someone in your life who cares about you. Whatever the circumstance, you are the client in the room. Maybe you or a loved one identified that you can benefit from having an unbiased, safe space. This sometimes implies that you bear the sole responsibility of making a change or committing to yourself. While this can absolutely play a role in what therapy looks like, it would be a disservice to ignore how the systems you exist within also impact your experience and furthermore how the other members contribute to your identity & well-being and that of the system at large.

Let’s say I come to therapy with the goal of enhancing my ability to be more assertive with my feelings in relationships. It might be helpful to look at what communication has been like in my family, for example. Perhaps I found it challenging to be assertive with family because I was expected to “keep the peace,” insert humor in place of vulnerability, or avoid rocking the boat at times it was on the edge of capsizing. This style offered my family a sense of protection, that everything will be alright, and that I am capable of “going with the flow” to avoid exacerbating conflict. While my willingness to mute or soften my emotional expression appeared to function well in our family system to keep us moving forward and establish rhythm, it also presented a later consequence of fear/hesitancy/confusion around how to be assertive in other relationships and areas of my life.

To avoid placing “blame” on any single family member, including myself, I might remember that this pattern of communicating was protective, and it supported my family moving forward and maintaining peace. Rather than viewing our family system as flawed, I might say this pattern functioned for a period of time for a particular purpose; however, that function no longer serves me or the system as a whole. It truly does take consideration of the systems we participate in to understand how patterns develop and how we might want to change a pattern that is no longer serving us. The shift in system function is not any single individual’s responsibility, but a product of all members role in that system; however, when one person chooses to create changes in how they move within the system, there's a ripple effect that can occur, offering an opportunity for growth for the whole system. In re-framing your experience, identity, and worldview to include how your systems have shaped you, you may notice you experience more self-compassion and compassion for the systems that you are a part of, which in turn connects us more deeply to our humanity and the humanity of others.

I offer some tips in considering your village, how it functions, and how it serves you:

  • Reflect on your systems - identify who and what your systems are, what your function is within the system, and the function of the system as a whole

  • Take inventory on what is serving you and what does not seem to work (anymore)

  • Communicate with members of your system on what’s working and what’s not

  • Practice approaching change to the system with curiosity, willingness, flexibility, patience, and compassion for yourself and others

  • Resist the urge to fall back into old patterns that you know are not serving you, practice a beginner’s mind with each situation you are faced with

Remember that it takes a village for your experience to shift, and you are neither the purpose for unhelpful changes in the system nor do you bear the sole responsibility of enacting change. Use your supports and practice self kindness 😊