* This translation (by Henry
D. Cooke) is based on thesecond chapter of my book: "Chaos,
Angst und Ordnung. Wie wir unsere Lebenswelt gestalten"
(engl.: Chaos, Fear and Order. How we Shape our Existence),
which is published in October 1997 by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht,
II. Creative Chaos in Psychotherapy
Of Living Stones and Petrified Life
For a long time the boulder had been lying in the old man's front garden. It was round and despite innumerable pores incredibly smooth, not particularly large, weighing no more than 20 kilograms, and dull gray in color with only traces of an anthracite marbling here and there. The previous owner of the house had surely not deliberately positioned the stone in the front garden but had presumably at one time or other simply dumped it there. In short: it was not a precious stone, not even a special stone, but simply a stone, one which was actually not worth talking about.
Consequently, the man had walked right past it for many years whenever he left or returned to his house. When restructuring the garden he had, it is true, noticed the stone and thought about whether it should, in all its plainness, remain there. But as it did not bother him particularly, he left it where it was.
What could there be about such a stone that would make one want to look at it? A stone is a stone - the quintessence of immutability, even more immutable and boring than the planets in their orbits or the pendulum of a clock. The planets at least move, although with an absolutely unnewsworthy regularity and predictability. Still, they presented a real challenge for the intellectual powers of scientists of varying cultures and ages and were at times even considered major players on the stage of natural phenomena. The boulder, however, simply lay there - an inert mass. In the world as perceived by the old man, attuned as he was to the new and changing, it had long since faded from view.
But this all changed radically one cloudy morning as the old man sat dozing with half-opened eyes on the front steps of his house. Unconsciously and by chance the boulder returned to the center of his field of vision - it suddenly emerged from the background and began to live. At irregular intervals it lit up in gorgeous colors, a sparkling spectacle that unfolded sometimes slowly from the left, sometimes from the front right and then again simultaneously from all over the stone.
Of course the old man's reason quickly told him that this unexpected liveliness was the result of changing gaps in the cloud cover, gaps which briefly let through the sun's rays and caused lingering drops of dew to glitter. This knowledge, however, detracted only slightly from the fascination of the unfolding spectacle.
For the old man the stone was thereafter one of those friends that shared their lives with him. He seldom walked past it heedlessly but instead enjoyed and admired the liveliness of each encounter. And once he had entered into this relationship he detected almost daily the changes brought about by the branches and leaves of the surrounding trees and detected the subtle differences in color caused by the seasonal cycle, among them the faint greenish shading produced by microorganisms in the spring which was then sometimes covered by a layer of dust in summer.
Even more impressive for the old man was the stone's ability to share his moods: from the way in which they encountered each other he could tell just how he himself felt - just as a musical instrument often most honestly and unimpeachably communicates our emotional state to us. For even if we fool ourselves into believing that we are feeling quite good and are convinced that we are relaxed and that the daily stress and strain have not affected us, the tones we elicit from the instrument reflect the true depths of our emotions.
After the old man had died friends found the following recent entry in his diary: "As long as I live" he had written, "I hope this boulder will continue to live with me. If I am ever unable to respond to its spectacle, its utterly unique transmutations, its living messages, then I will know that my life is petrified, that I have given up taking part in life as a continually creative process. At this point I hope that I will cease to exist physically, too." And his friends understood why the old man, despite his great age and various infirmities, had possessed such a lively spirit to the end of his days.
They took the boulder and placed it on his grave
as a symbol of living. -
Of all the reduction and categorizing mechanisms with which we wrest regularity from the uniqueness of the "occurring world" the most widespread in our society is that of "reification". By reification we mean dealing with processes and phenomena which we have created by means of cognition and language as actual "things" and treating them as entities with an ontological existence of their own. Our patients then "have" schizophrenia and our children "have" personality disorders - like set characteristics. In this way, it seems to us, we are much less involved, than if we said that "our children behave abnormally", for then we would have to ask ourselves when and under which conditions this was so.
Objects, blows of fate, the personality traits of other people, possibly even inherited ones, all have one thing in common, that we consider them as belonging to our "environment". In this way we distance ourselves from them and are at most only indirectly involved. And then, of course, changes cannot be made so easily. We accept things as they are, at best trying to find "coping strategies", to use a term that has of late become very fashionable. Things are the way they are. Or are they?
It is not the things themselves that disturb us but
the opinions regarding them, as the Roman Stoic Epiktet claimed
back in recent antiquity. And if we follow the reasoning of the
first chapter then it is only our powers of reduction and abstraction
that make it possible for "things", constants within
a framework of time, to come into being. Neither mornings nor
evenings simply "are". Even a stone, the quintessence
of that which is dead, immutable, is an abstraction. But we can
experience something extremely lively and changeable instead of
an inanimate object if we become aware of the many varied perceptions
of it and do not simply file them away as a repetition of that
thing we know so well as a "stone".
The Dynamics of Victims and Perpetrators
Instead of developing life in our experiences we often achieve just the opposite: our perceptions and experiences cause many things to truly turn to stone. And this is true both of that which we can physically touch and also of our experiences with relationships. Not only does the way in which we shape our "Lebenswelt" create all too rigid and largely inflexible "Gestalts", these Gestalts themselves confront us as something which seems to be approaching from without. And in particular when that which we have formed does not please us, when we suffer under it, we gladly deny our responsibility and consider ourselves victims of these "Gestalts".
An oft-quoted, typical example of such victim-perpetrator dynamics in a relationship involves the wife who nags and the husband who withdraws.(18) An impartial observer of this couple will simply register a perpetual sequence of nagging and withdrawal. The wife, however, claims that she only nags because her husband constantly withdraws instead of being there for her and the family, while the husband, however, asserts that he only withdraws because his wife is always nagging and he cannot bear it any longer. Each of the two sees himself/ herself in his/her version of what has happened as the victim, places the blame on the other and feels incapable of changing anything. Then it is only a small step to more reified accusations: "You are a nag" and "You are a loner." The recourse to mentioning congenital defects or at the very least a failed upbringing as an explanation for such behavior is sure to follow.
While we are able to largely agree upon a clear intersubjective division of the categories "morning" and "evening", when separating "nags" and "loners" the division will differ according to one's view of the sequence under discussion, resulting in either "withdrawal leads to nagging" or "nagging leads to withdrawal". Unfortunately, each of the two partners is utterly convinced, as therapists discover in innumerable variations of this "schema" among those seeking help, that his or her way of seeing and recounting events is the only correct one. Moreover, it is worth noting that both partners choose the perspective and role of the victim. In this manner the structure of this process becomes as petrified as stone. The sequence can thus be repeated indefinitely, and with each repetition of the same experience the respective views of the character traits of the partner and the script of the marital drama are confirmed.
Of course one can easily retell these victims' accounts from the perpetrators' perspective: the wife nags so that her husband withdraws, and the husband withdraws so that the wife nags. This second variation may seem unusual at first glance. Perpetrator accounts are neither common nor popular in our society. Our everyday experience, however, (and even more so clinical observations) enables us to quickly find motives for deliberate perpetrator behavior: the husband could eagerly seize on his wife's nagging as a welcome excuse for not reducing his own interests and pursuits out of consideration for his family. And the wife could also benefit from being pitied by her friends for having such an "antisocial loner" as a husband, or from gaining a certain distance from him and his claims on her (to mention only a few possible aspects).
When the "perpetrator" role is played more consciously than that of the "victim" in a rigid marital scenario, therapists generally see greater chances of improvement, since subjectively willed actions are deemed more easily changed than subjectively experienced reactions. That which previously was attributed to the "environment", that is a behavioral or even character trait of the partner, is now attributed to a greater or lesser degree to one's own behavior and thus considered, principally, amenable to decision and change (unless one establishes a new "environment" for one's behavior, e.g. a biological-genetic one, by means of reductions such as: "That is the way I am. That's me. There is nothing I can do about it").
Of course, in the above example it would be more appropriate to recognize the systemic enmeshment of the two modes of behavior, in other words, to extricate oneself from the experienced and subjectively perceived cause and effect paradigm involving "nagging" and "withdrawal". Seen from the perspective of a neutral observer the two views could be integrated to form a whole. The "rule" would be recognized and could be changed. But extricating oneself from the trap of one's own one-sided version of events and adopting the view "from without" of a neutral observer is virtually impossible in the real-life relationships of couples and families, for the problems are often far more complex than in the simple example above. Furthermore, the emotional ensnarement makes it more difficult to gain distance from events, especially when they are felt to be painful.
For partners in an enmeshed communication structure who would like to change their situation without outside help, it is not particularly useful to be told that by adopting an observer's perspective they can extricate themselves from their difficulties. It is more promising to try to adopt the perpetrator's perspective, even if this is at first only on a half-hearted, reluctant trial basis. The key question here is: "What exactly is my role in the situation under which I suffer", augmented perhaps by the auxiliary question: "What would I have to do to make the other person do even more of that under which I suffer?" I have found that these questions - varied to fit the persons and situation - can lead to dramatic changes.
No social reality can be harder and no relationship more petrified than the boulder mentioned in this chapter's introductory anecdote. We can safely assume that, in the realm of physical objectivity, the boulder does not react physically to the manner in which one approaches it (if one does not apply direct force). And yet the stone itself underwent a transformation in the "Erlebenswelt" (personal universe of experiences) of the old man and came alive when he transferred it from a neutral objectivity to his "Erfahrenswelt" (experienced reality) and accepted the responsibility for his experiences. It would be even easier to break down and enliven painful behavior patterns, for unlike stones, humans usually react when we encounter them differently , when we are prepared to experience them and their behavior differently, or at least to be more sensitive to the uniqueness in every seemingly well-known situation.
But improvement cannot always be achieved without
outside help. In a social context which tends to stress rules,
order and reification anyway, the interactive processes of a relationship
can become so rigid that new viewpoints can appear to be too painful.
And the more painful and fear-inducing new experiences are considered,
the more easily one will seek refuge in order and in habit. Thus,
the two partners, as described in the last chapter, prevent each
other from experiencing and carrying out changes. Here the help
of an outside observer is indeed needed - be it a friend or a
professional counselor (who can maintain his neutrality more easily
and whose understanding of such interrelationships will be more
acute as a result of his training and experience).
The Perspective of Systems Therapy
This mutual interference which prevents change was one of the main reasons for the development of family therapy about half a century ago. Virginia Satir, who is considered one of the founders of systems and family therapy, has often related how she came to develop this therapeutic method.
Around 1950 she began working with juveniles who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. The term "schizophrenic" is used to describe a spectrum of symptoms which is characterized by a complete displacement from normal everyday reality. Typical of such symptoms are hallucinations, delusions, severe withdrawal and feelings that the world or one's own personality has been altered. However, these symptoms often only appear in limited phases, between which there are other periods of largely or even completely normal behavior.
Until after the Second World War there were hardly any therapeutic treatment programs for people with such problems, as classical psychoanalysis, according to Sigmund Freud, had declared these symptoms to be unresponsive to its form of therapeutic treatment. The beginnings, around 1950 when Satir and others became more actively involved with such persons, actually resembled a form of social work. The goal of these efforts was to teach the patients to take as many aspects of their everyday lives as possible into their own hands.
Satir reports that every time she felt she had achieved a small measure of progress with her young people, they would tell her of increased problems and conflicts with their parents. The parents, in turn, when conversing casually with her, reported that the young people were "not getting better at all." On the contrary, since beginning treatment they had ceased to be sociable, friendly and polite and were now rebellious, unfriendly and uncooperative. This change was seen by the parents as a sign of a worsening or aggravation of their child's illness.
An external observer would say that those first steps towards change which Satir and her young people considered positive were largely seen as negative by their parents. Therefore, they resisted change in order to stop what they perceived as a worsening of the situation. For the therapist it appeared as if the parents were deliberately opposing and thwarting her therapeutic progress. As the parents, and in many cases also the siblings, were already strongly involved in the therapeutic process, and as in numerous cases the work was in danger of being terminated as well, Satir began, logically enough, to invite parents and even whole families to take part in the therapy.
Independent of Satir's work but proceeding from similar experiences, other therapists in the U.S. began at this time to involve families in the therapeutic process. The decisive common factor in this otherwise widely differing therapeutic work was the awareness that behavioral changes in one member of a family simply cannot be regarded separately from the behavior of the family as a whole. In the eyes of the therapists typical familial interaction patterns appeared to be preventing improvement of any kind.
No matter how much all of those involved wish each other well and desire a change for the good, their rules of interaction can have become so inflexible over the years that a sudden change is by no means seen as an improvement but rather as a threat to the status quo.
Even when all of those involved suffer as a result of particular illnesses, symptoms or behavior patterns, they have over the years still found ways of living with the typical dynamics of their situation. A change is then first and foremost something which causes more insecurity. The familiar is to be given up, and this in only the vague hope that it will eventually be replaced by something better. The fear that in the end matters could be even worse seems quite real. This fear is indeed substantial, to the extent that the status quo usually represents a certain improvement and relief when compared with much worse experiences associated with life and illness. Furthermore, not every illness, not all problems and symptoms, have solely negative aspects for all of those involved.
Let us take the case of a chronically ill child - a child, say, with severe asthma: perhaps it has numerous attacks every month, attacks which almost suffocate it. In addition to its daily medication it must also take special medicine for such emergencies.
For the parents, who must witness such life-threatening attacks, as well as for the child, who suffers them directly, this causes terrible emotional stress. It is therefore understandable when parents attempt to protect their child and to relieve it of a part of the heavy burden it must bear. In this manner they can perhaps show their child - You are not alone in your pain!
Despite all the stress, the shared concern of the parents for their child can, without question, have its positive effects for them. Perhaps as a result of this concern they are able to experience a a particularly strong feeling of togetherness . This can even distract them from their own worries and from problems in their relationship, and give their partnership an indisputable meaning.
The child, too, normally welcomes this protection and increased attention. It may understand this as a kind of compensation for the many things it has to do without in its everyday life: certain outdoor activities with friends, carefree, unencumbered romping and much more which is prevented by the discipline which the regular taking of medicine and the use of an inhaler require. In this situation the child is truly happy to receive some additional solicitude and attention.
This is the positive side of the interaction. The negative side is that protection and solicitude can all too easily be exaggerated, as experience has shown. The child then becomes more dependent than it should be, and this can interfere with its ability to make friends among children its own age. There is also the danger that the child learns, more or less unconsciously, to use its illness as an excuse when, for other reasons, it finds itself in an unpleasant situation in which demands are made of it - when, say, the child is afraid to go to school because it was too lazy to study for a test. The child can also use its illness to obtain more affection than that given his siblings instead of learning to confront the usual rivalries and to assert itself.
In such contexts the psychologist speaks of a "secondary illness gain". But the term "gain" is, of course, deceptive, for if the child learns to use its illness to attain goals, it does not by any means do this consciously, independently and from a position of strength. On the contrary, it is caught up in what is happening and suffers equally under the "negative sides" of this dynamics, and the "utilized" symptoms can easily become severe ones. The child is therefore just as much victim as perpetrator.
These few examples should be sufficient to make it clear that even such a severe illness as asthma can have aspects that fall within the range of human expectations, wishes and life views each person has for himself and others that can seemingly influence family life and its spectrum of expectations positively. Such aspects have a functional value for the structure of familial interactions and can therefore reinforce symptomatic behavior or tend to stand in the way of change.
This process can also cause additional problems, that which was described above as "the negative side". If asthma, which unquestionably has clear somatic aspects, is so strongly influenced by the dynamics of interaction, then one can easily imagine that with so-called "behavioral disorders" the combination of symptoms and familial interactions has an even more pronounced influence. This is similar to the way symptoms of a mental "illness" , say a diagnosed schizophrenia, form an almost inseparable whole with the familial views, wishes and valuations.
It is indeed not easy to decide just which behavior of a "schizophrenic" young person more likely represents an improvement and which more likely a worsening of his condition. On the contrary, this is to a large degree open to interpretation by all of those involved. And even when the family members have the best of intentions, their views of the situation and the resulting interpretations are often not conducive to change but rather stand in its way.
Therefore it was a logical decision on the part of
Satir and the others to involve the families in the therapy, that
is to attempt to match factual changes resulting from actions
with changes in meaning and perception, and by so doing effect
a change in the familial interaction patterns.
The Overly-simplified Order in the Thinking of
Some Family Therapists
If one examines the first quarter of a century of the development of family therapy, that is from about 1950 to the middles of the 1970s, what stands out most is the rapid spread of this innovative treatment in the U.S. and then in Europe and Germany. This involved primarily the working out of a broad spectrum of effective therapeutic interventions - in short, the development was characterized above all by the testing, expanding and differentiating common to therapeutic practice. The theoretical concepts and explanations of this quickly flourishing therapeutic approach lagged far behind its practical development and were at first often little more than ad hoc explanations or ones based on classical thinking.
For example, it was often observed that curious interaction patterns were to be found in families with a schizophrenic child, an observation which therapists even before 1950, that is before the beginning of family therapy, had found worthy of note. What was particularly striking was the vagueness and inconsistency both in statements made and in emotional interactions. In clinical literature one case study is presented as typical in which a mother visits her son in a clinic. The boy approaches his mother and wishes to hug her. The mother stiffens visibly. The son, sensitive as he is, stops and takes one step backwards. Seeing this, the mother says, "Why don't you give me a hug? Don't you love your mother any more?" Here we clearly have a strong emotional ambivalence and the actions resulting from it: no matter what the son does it always appears to be wrong.
From the rich store of such observations and descriptions one at first developed the concept of the "schizophrenogenic" mother, that is the mother who "makes" her child schizophrenic through the manner in which she interacts with her child.
In a highly regarded study by Bateson and others (1956) schizophrenia was largely explained on the basis of communicative patterns, that is to say as "the only possible reaction to absurd and unbearable interpersonal relationships." Later one spoke somewhat more cautiously of "the schizophrenic family", "the psychosomatic family" and the "alcoholic family".
The problem with such concepts and labels is that they result in more or less directly assigning guilt to the mother or at least to the "family". This, however, is not only ethically questionable but also theoretically in no way tenable. For one cannot say, particularly not from observations made after the fact, whether problems and illnesses result from the interaction patterns, or whether, inversely, the interaction patterns result from the illness and from the way others experience and deal with it.
As with all reductions, these two attempts at interpretation are false in their one-sidedness. On the contrary, both the symptoms of the illness and the interaction patterns have developed over a period of years. It is therefore logical to assume that the two patterns had "coevolved" (an evolution involving successive changes in two or more patterns that affect their interactions each other).
At least as important as the flaws in the theoretical reasoning behind such assignments of guilt is their actual uselessness in therapeutic practice. One cannot turn back the clock anyway; and it is not very helpful if one accuses, directly or only indirectly with an awkward label, those persons from whom one wishes cooperation - the parents and other family members - of having themselves contributed to all the suffering.
For this reason one began to think less and less about various interactive "causes" and began to concentrate on how one could actually deal positively with the interaction patterns of a family in order to change them. The underlying thought, outlined roughly, was as follows:
If the problems which led the family to take part in therapy - for example symptoms of schizophrenia - are really thought to be the product of familial communication structures (or at least to be sustained by these structures) , then changing or destroying these structures must bring about an improvement. And while doing so one would not even have to go to the trouble of ascertaining exactly which structure it was that one was destroying.
Accordingly, an "illness" like "anorexia nervosa" need not necessarily be described as an "endogenous loss of appetite", as it is in a medical lexicon published in 1984. On the contrary, it can also be described and understood as an expression of interaction structures. Numerous examples of family therapy, in particular, have shown that symptoms disappeared when one had achieved a change in these interaction structures -or "family rules" as they are also called - and this often after only a few sessions.
Indeed, the systems therapy literature of the 1970s and 1980s considered the most important progress in this field to be the shifting of psychopathological and psychotherapeutic processes away from the "individual" to "the family". In many other approaches to therapy mental illnesses, including so-called psychosomatic disorders, were seen as being of a predominantly individual nature and were treated accordingly. They were attributed to "causes" such as "internal conflicts", "learning disability" and "irrational thinking". In the systems therapy approach, however, these phenomena were analyzed primarily with regard to their importance and function in the social interaction process, whereby the "family system" was assigned a central role, for it is here that expectations regarding security and (personal) reassurance are particularly great, as was already pointed out in chapter one.
Still, up till the 1980s a view dominated which is characterized by so-called "first order cybernetics". The term "cybernetics" is used to describe a classical systems therapeutic view which was based on the technology of a feedback control system. A typical example of this is central heating, which uses a thermostat as a sensor to measure heat. This device opens the heating valve whenever it is too cold, that is when it detects a temperature below the minimum set on the control knob.
First order cybernetics then described human interactions as if they were similar to such feedback control systems: leading teams of therapists like the Milan group led by Mara Selvini Palazzoli, who also had a great influence in Germany, interpreted family dynamics from an external perspective. They spoke of "maneuvers" and "strategies" that had to be "thwarted". And they intervened from outside as well: they acted as if they could turn the control knob without becoming involved themselves. In doing so they disregarded something that we have long identified as one of the most (if not the very most) important aspects of systems theory: feedback (at least in so far as it concerned the therapists themselves).
All in all, this way of viewing and approaching matters, that is by describing events on the level of interactions and the rules governing them, has enriched the spectrum of clinical knowledge and therapeutic methods in essential aspects. At the same time, however, the baby was emptied out with the bath. One could also say: in the family therapy debate of those years the human being, with his need to give meaning to his world and to express and assert himself as a unique individual in social relationships, simply slipped through the analysis net woven from abstract interaction structures.
In order to strictly counter this one-sidedness I began over a decade ago to develop a concept which bears the name "person-centered systems theory". Here it is considered vital for an understanding of interaction patterns that each interaction has to pass through the filter of individual interpretation of meaning and comprehension processes. For only then can our chaos management programs lead to a reduction of the personally experienced categories of meaning and, consequently, develop interaction categories. The person-centered systems theory in its core focuses on that dilemma which was elaborated in the first chapter: our vital ability to reduce chaos and complexity to categories can, under unfavorable interaction conditions, produce rigid patterns which are self-organized and self-reinforced and in which everyone involved is trapped as a victim although simultaneously taking part in the interactions as a perpetrator. An assertion which was made even up into the 1980s: "In systems psychological examinations the inner structure of the individual, separate unit is considered irrelevant" is therefore at best short-sighted. Without personal memories, without the aforementioned categorizing, each situation would be experienced uniquely - and consequently there would be no interaction patterns, as they, of course, presuppose the repetition of something. A systems psychological understanding of interaction processes therefore requires taking the inner structures into consideration.
By now most systems and family therapists would agree in principle with this description. This means that the great importance which the individual and his personal interpretations have for the development and stabilization of interaction patterns has now for the most part reappeared within the scope of "second order cybernetics". Consequently, the approach has changed from "intervention from outside" to "conjoint discussions" about just such interpretations of "problems", "possible solutions" and "explanations". Therapists have thus become more and more aware that interpretations, woven into stories, create and construct reality, and that the therapists themselves are also woven into these stories and their variations.
The impact of these more recent developments has made it ever less important for the therapist to possess the ability to analyze the essence of a problem or of an interaction pattern. On the contrary, what now counts is competence in dealing with the transformation process of the stories about the "causes" and contexts of problems. This means that the specialists for the facts of a problem are the patients, the couples and families themselves. The therapists, on the other hand, are the specialists for the conversation during the sessions - the stories that are told and how these can be modified. In this process stories which tend to restrict the range of perceptions and experiences, which leave little room for alternative behavior, which always lead to the same result, should wherever possible be transformed into stories which offer new ideas, perspectives and ways of approaching and dealing with problems.
As was described in the first chapter, and as we can observe with individuals, couples and families in therapy, many people are victims of their all too inflexible ideas of what is right and wrong or what is sick and healthy. There are petrified categories of expectations as to how the partner should "actually" react, as to what he "really" means when he says or does a particular thing. In short: those cognitive mechanisms for the reduction of the richness of one's life and experiences to a too small number of categories are at work here, and they are embedded in corresponding stories having to do with causes and effects and the impossibility of change. And it is exactly these stories which must be changed.
After all that has been said so far it should not come as a surprise when I say that to effect these changes the creative force of chaos can and must be used. From all of the systems investigated as part of chaos- and self-organization research in the last decades we know that the transition from one state of order in a system to another entails passing through a phase of chaos.
This is not unlike that which is experienced during important developments in a person's life or during changes effected by psychotherapy: an essential reorientation can only be realized by passing through a phase in which the old structures are largely dismantled and the new order is usually at best only a vague promise. The typical insecurity and anxiety which we associate with chaos, as described in the first chapter, then overcomes us. This is, however, accompanied by a feeling of great freedom - we suddenly have many more possibilities to make decisions and to act.
Often, however, we are not consciously aware of this feeling of freedom until much later, because our insecurity is at first often too overpowering. And after the successful reorientation a degree of the familiar and well-known creeps back in. One's opportunities and personal freedom are then again strongly restricted.
This brief outline of a transition through various chaotic phases - chaos in all its complexity would be unbearable, and therefore many aspects of life remain stable and reduced even in this transition phase - correlates the descriptions of modern systems theory with human experience. This is also expressed in the motto "Die and become", which characterizes numerous radical transitions found in various initiation rites.
Systems therapy also has to do with introducing more chaos, that is with reinvigorating paralyzed life structures through more complexity, more perspectives and more of the unexpected - and not through some putative truth. Indeed, I know of no systems therapeutic intervention which did not at its outset primarily involve creating more chaos and exposing life structures to more interpretations in order to enable petrified processes, reduced to encrusted "things", to become flexible again. This can be illustrated by means of an example of "circular questions", one of the most important and most powerful techniques.
In the technique known as "circular questioning" the usual rule for couples and group therapy, "Each person speaks only for himself!", is radically broken by asking each family member in turn about particular aspects of relationships between two or more of the other family members. For example, the therapist asks a teenager: "Who intervenes more in the arguments between your parents, your grandfather or your grandmother?" Similarly, persons not present and hypothetical situations are also talked about - such as: "If one of you children were never to leave home and never to marry, which of you would probably be best for your father? And which for your mother?"
It is also important that many of the contributions made by individual persons are now examined carefully to detect their possible communicative function. Let us assume that the mother begins to cry. While therapists of other schools would now ask something like: "How do you feel?", "What are you experiencing now?" or "What is going on inside you?", the circular question directed at the son could be, for example: "How do you think your father feels when he sees your mother crying like that?"
I do not, however, want to stress one aspect, that involving interactive communication, at the expense of the other, that involving the expression of personal feelings. The latter is, of course, also important, for what goes on inside a person is (as was addressed in the above question) definitely meaningful. The communicative aspect, however, is dealt with more seldom in our everyday life. Addressing it, therefore, usually results in more surprises and, consequently, the possibility to deviate from previous comprehension patterns and approach events from new perspectives.
Similarly, the many-faceted perceptions and assumptions regarding relationships which are elicited by these circular questions are intended to make explicit those tacit patterns which normally are never mentioned but which as imagined expectations and interpretations substantially influence our behavior.
At the same time, however, the diversity of the various assumptions, perceptions and interpretations also creates that chaotic complexity which is diametrically opposed to the reduced, deeply imbedded "official" interpretation of familiar events (among them the problems which caused the family to seek therapy).
Here it matters little whether one of the proposed interpretations is "better" or "more likely". What is important is, firstly, that the diversity of interpretations dispels the belief that there is only one "correct" interpretation. Secondly, this same diversity overwhelms the cognitive thought processes, so that a search for a new order (i.e. reduction) becomes necessary.
No one can guarantee that this order will be "better", that is, possess fewer or less stressful "symptoms". But there is a good chance, as experience shows, that unproductive new orders which crop up briefly can be successfully modified in later sessions.
The development of a new interaction structure normally takes place over a period of time in the family dynamics at home. In the therapy room one only attempts to lay the foundation by employing chaos and a diversity of views and alternative interpretations of events to change some of the categories - at first perhaps merely to touch upon their limits.
Consequently, an expanded view of even a few interactions can result in a slight modification of various allegations. Impressions of others' actions are then changed slightly (or merely differentiated). This, however, increases the probability of a "reaction" that also features slightly modified behavior. As this behavior in turn determines the impressions for the other communication partners, the oft-described self-reinforcing process of reduction can now proceed in reverse. The family system with its mutually experienced perceptions, interpretations and behavior gains an increasingly greater degree of freedom and complexity.
This increase in new approaches, experiences and freedom of action is, to be sure, eventually stalled by a new categorizing. The resources of that which is "new" are exhausted, and are perhaps compressed into a largely rigid process. It is, however, extremely improbable that precisely that process structure will be adopted which possessed the symptoms which caused the family to seek therapy.
After having employed powerful intervention techniques, systems therapists have in the last decade developed methods in which change is achieved by relatively non-interventionist means. This involves enabling inherent possibilities within the system to unfold and helping the participants to achieve more "freedom", as well as not interfering (or as little as possible) from outside by employing medical and therapeutic concepts.
Altogether, therefore, it is a matter of making that compulsive order which established itself through an overly effective banishing of chaos again receptive to the creative aspects of chaos. To achieve this I believe it is helpful if therapists, too, gain a better understanding of the great importance which this banishing of chaos has in evolution, in social and individual history and in the coevolutionary development of a family, so that they can properly appreciate the need for security of those participating in therapy.
Therapy is then, to return to the story related at
the beginning of the chapter, breathing life back into that which
has turned to stone.