How Family Systems Theory Helps Us Understand Ourselves and Others

Jan 09, 2023

''An entire family can be changed through the effort of one person.'' -Murray Bowen


Have you ever felt like you were stuck in a role that your family has assigned to you? Do you feel like your siblings have specific roles within the family dynamic, and that you’re expected to follow suit? If so, then you may be familiar with Family Systems Theory. This theory was developed by Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist who spent his life studying families and their intricate dynamics. Here’s what you need to know about classic family roles, the contributions of Murray Bowen, and how to break free from these roles.


Classic Roles in Family Systems Theory

According to family systems theory, there are several classic roles that children often adopt in order to fit into their family system.

The Hero/Heroine is the child who takes on all of the responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family. The Mascot is the funny one—the one who makes light of difficult moments and brings comic relief when tensions are high. The Scapegoat is the one who gets blamed for everything—even things they didn’t do—in order to distract attention away from other issues within the family. And finally, there’s The Lost Child who tries to stay out of sight and blend into the background as much as possible.

The Contributions of Murray Bowen

Murray Bowen was an American psychiatrist whose research focused on understanding how families interact with each other. He believed that humans have a basic need for connection and security, which drives us to form relationships with others—even if those relationships aren’t always healthy or beneficial for us. He also identified eight core concepts that help explain why families operate in certain ways; these include differentiation (the ability to recognize our own thoughts and feelings independent of those around us), triangulation (when two people in a relationship bring a third person into it), nuclear family emotional process (how emotions are passed down through generations) -and more.


Breaking Free From These Roles

It can be hard to break free from these familial roles once they have been assigned—but it is possible! One therapeutic intervention that a Family Systems therapist might employ when working with such a family is Structural Family Therapy (SFT). SFT focuses on changing aspects of a person’s behavior by shifting dynamics between members within a system, rather than focusing on changing beliefs or feelings about themselves as individuals (Robbins & Kirmayer, 2018). By helping each person identify which role they have been assigned within their family system, therapists can then work with them to create positive new patterns outside of those traditional roles so that each person can learn to be an individual instead of just part of a dysfunctional whole. 


All too often we find ourselves stuck in roles that our families have assigned us without even realizing it! By understanding classic roles within a family system, learning about Murray Bowen’s contributions, and utilizing therapeutic interventions such as Narrative Therapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), we can start breaking free from these restrictive patterns so we can become our true selves – independent of any familial expectations or preconceived notions. It won't be easy but it will definitely be worth it! With dedication and determination we can all learn how to live our lives on our own terms – free from any external pressures or obligations!

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