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Is there a "scapegoat" in your family? What System's Theory has to say about that...

“It’s all your fault!”…says every spouse to their partner. Or every teen says to parent. We always want a reason for things going wrong. We want somewhere to point fingers. Yet, this isn’t how it works if we were to talk about General Systems Theory (also known as Cybernetics). Systems theory can be applied almost anywhere; it can be applied within families, on sports teams, within a workplace, and even with society as a whole. The idea here is that all parts of a system impact one another and feed off of one another.


A term I want to target today, partly because it made me smile…is the idea of the “identified patient.” Of course, this is more specific to family therapy, but you can see it in many places. The one person who might be carrying all the symptoms. They are the “scapegoat.”


Let me give you a few examples:


-A teen comes in as the client. They are acting out, skipping school, grades are dropping. The family says the teen needs therapy (they become the identified client). They are the ones that need “fixed.” Yet the parents are fighting, on the verge of divorce and the younger brother has been receiving all the attention because of a medical issue. Can you see how the other aspects of their story would mean all these parts influence the acting out of the teen?


-A husband and wife come in for couple’s therapy. The wife says her husband has been depressed and struggling. He’s not himself. (husband is the identified client). The wife says she does not want to be involved in therapy, but wants him to get back to being himself. Yet, together they are juggling 6 kids, they have a beginning to their marriage that was marked with unfaithfulness and a lack of trust, and the wife carries a religious moral code that can be used to push away necessary conversations between the two of them on the account of “what the Bible says.” Even though he is the identified patient, there is a whole system behind him that leads to the unease.


-A workplace always has that “problem employee.” It seems to be a trend. Almost every year it’s a new person that often ends up either leaving or being fired. Even though they are the “scapegoat”, the whole system is unbalanced. The boss talks to all the employees about the other employees, there is no trust within the system, and each person really tries to be on the boss’s good side so as not to be that “problem person.”


Can you see how systemic thinking works? In system thinking, nothing is “fixed” unless the whole system is fixed. In some settings, that’s quite the project, especially if you look at society problems or within big corporations.


Here are some ideas of how to apply systems thinking:


1) Each person in the system ask, “what’s my part in how we got here?”

Change happens faster when people can take a humble stance to understand that they are also a part of what’s gone wrong.


2) Challenge unhelpful beliefs

You might need help identifying unhelpful beliefs. Sometimes beliefs are so engrained we aren’t even aware they are unhelpful, or even that we are operating by them. An example of an unhelpful belief is that one spouse always gets to make the decisions.


3) Identify roles that don’t work within the system. Possibly adjust any roles that need to suit the individual or system better.


4) Understand circular causality. Circular causality is knowing that husband influences wife to act one way, and her actions then spur him on to do more of what he’s doing…and the circle continues. Example: Husband can be domineering in his pursuit of sex. Wife shuts down and wants nothing to do with it. Husband becomes more domineering. Wife shuts down even more, goes to a separate bedroom. Husband becomes angry, banging on the door. Wife refuses to talk to him the entire next day after the episode. A influences B, which influences A, which influences B…the circle continues on and on.


5) Begin to develop and maintain boundaries. When you become more sure of yourself and what you want, it can leave room for others in your system to change as well. Sometimes it IS actually easier for one person to be the first to change in the system to set the tone for others. If you’re the one to change first, know that every system tries to pull back to homeostasis. That is, the system wants to go back to operating how it was before, even if it wasn’t the best set of rules to go by. Maintain boundaries and get support to help create lasting change!


If you're family or marriage system needs to change, know that it takes time! This isn't to say if you're in a really painful situation it's necessary to change. But, if you're someone at the beginning recognizing change needs to happen, then know that it could be longer road and you will need some support along the way. Cheering for you along the way! Happy Rooting, everyone!