This is the fifth episode of our 6-part Psychology of Life Coaching series where we explore the Family Systems Theory. Join us as we explore the models of psychology used most in personal development and how they each create change. Uncover the benefits and limitations of each model to reveal which coaching styles create deeper, lasting change. This series will help you understand your options for personal growth and how to choose the right coach training.
In this episode we discuss:
- A review in “Family Systems” theory and how your roles in your family impact your current results in life.
- How you cannot understand yourself if you don’t understand your family dynamics.
- If one person changes in the family, everyone changes.
- The “identified patient” in your family and the power of that role.
Watch the next Soul Session in this series on our YouTube Channel.
Debra Maldonado 00:01
Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Soul Sessions with Debra Maldonado and Dr. Rob Maldonado. How are you today, Rob?
Robert Maldonado 00:10
Very well, thank you. The saga continues. Now we’re talking about family systems in therapy and coaching.
Debra Maldonado 00:20
And we’re doing a series this past couple weeks on the psychology of coaching and trying to introduce some psychological concepts that people might not be aware of or maybe they are. You know, psychology is filled with so much knowledge in the academia world. It’s not usually publicized or promoted publicly, but it influences all of our lives in different ways. So we’re going to talk about the different models that people use in coaching and therapy, and the strengths and weaknesses of both and how they apply in coaching. So yes, we talked about behaviorism, we talked about cognitive behavioral, we talked about the psychodynamic model, working with the unconscious. And this episode is about family systems. So let’s start with the definition. What is family systems?
Robert Maldonado 01:20
Let’s talk a little bit about your personal or our personal experience with it. Now, my experience was, you know, when I went into grad school, I thought, family therapy, yuck. Least interesting to me. I wanted, you know, to work one on one, psychodynamic, go deep into dreams, personal experience. But they forced me to do it. And I’m very glad they did.
Debra Maldonado 01:53
Is that like— primarily, it sounds like most therapists are forced into that family therapy.
Robert Maldonado 01:59
I don’t know, there’s a Master’s that is primarily focused on family therapy — MFT something. So it is a big part of the therapy culture to work with families, and rightly so. But anyway, once I got to do it, oh my God, it was the most exciting and the most intense experiences I’ve ever had in therapy. It’s because you’re dealing very much like a group session, where you have a lot of different ideas going on at once. But these are family members, meaning they have a collective history together. And, let’s say, the model is that you’re working with the family as a whole. You’re seeing the family as a client, as a system. And it’s incredibly dynamic. I mean, as human beings we are social animals. So we’ve evolved to be very, very aware, even if we’re not aware of, meaning, even if you’re not conscious of it — we’re always reflecting on how others are seeing us.
Debra Maldonado 03:26
Yes, it’s how do we fit into the group all the time. So that’s family systems is really that “What role am I playing in the dynamic of the group?” Oh, you know what, could you put your mic on? There you go.
Robert Maldonado 03:42
Well, we hope you heard some of that. But yeah, so family systems, let’s just give a basic definition. It’s a human behavior model, defining the family as a unit and as a complex social system in which members interact and influence each other and each other’s behaviors. Family members interconnect, making it appropriate to view the system as a whole rather than the individual elements. So what that means is that the family is your client, the family is your patient, whatever system you’re working.
Debra Maldonado 04:25
So you’re not working with an individual, you’re working with the family as a whole.
Robert Maldonado 04:29
Yes. And as a living system, the family has subsystems. It has like
Debra Maldonado 04:39
It’s like our own individuality. We have an unconscious and we have— you know, if we eat certain foods, we’ll get digestion. There’s other systems within our individuality. So this is kind of like an extension of ourselves that is experienced to the family.
Robert Maldonado 04:57
Absolutely. And it has the tendency towards equilibrium, towards balance. And so even when families are neurotic, or the individuals in the family are neurotic, there’s a tendency to find a balance, it finds a way to exist, to balance the different dynamics going on within the family. So that it functions somehow, just like individually, we learn to deal with our little phobias, our little peccadilloes and find a way to be in the world, the family system does that kind of automatically, it is like a self-organizing mechanism that’s going on.
Debra Maldonado 05:45
Well, and then when there’s change that happens, it affects the whole system, just like if you have a garden, and you plant, you know, this food, and then you add an ingredient, the system changes, different things start to grow. You bring a puppy into the household, the system changes. For me, what stands out when you talk about this is when my father passed away. You know, he was the patriarch of the family, he was the rock for everyone. And then when he passed away, suddenly it was like, we all kind of were sitting around, and we just didn’t know how to— like we were off our equilibrium. So when we have a family member that passes, or gets sick, or, you know, is having trouble, we feel the whole family needs to adjust, and it affects everyone. So, you know, I think a lot of people, that’s why when a family member— something’s happening to them, or they’re having a struggle, it affects us because we’re part of that system. Like they always say “Blood is thicker than water”, no matter how much you disagree with a family member, they’re still your blood. And it’s something that unites you in a different way. And is it over time that that system develops? Or is it genetic?
Robert Maldonado 07:02
Well, let’s say, in the models of psychology, not all those things are considered important. So definitely there are genetic components that we see in the family systems. Epigenetics, cultural, biological, psychological, at all these different levels — environmental, of course, you see these factors play into kind of the challenges, just like an individual faces these challenges throughout life. And they have to adapt somehow, that you can think of the family as facing these challenges and finding ways to adapt.
Debra Maldonado 07:52
And not only families but it affects every type of system of people. So I know, with my friends, there’s like a group of us that would hang out, we would hang out all the time, and everyone had their kind of role to play. And then when someone took on a different role, it was like with the whole system change. When I worked in offices, and I’ve worked in a lot of internet startups, which is highly, highly intense experiences. And when they would bring another person into the work, or the boss, and the dynamic changed. There was like, who was the bad guy? Who was the good guy? Who is the boss? And how does this system work together? And I remember people talking about the culture of a company, you know, like the company culture. And so family systems would be part of that, because it’s that unspoken rules that we have. And then you walk in and you like— it’s anything you walk in and you feel something. When you walk into an office or even in a classroom, when we have a class or a community, there’s a culture to it, there’s unspoken rules.
Robert Maldonado 09:00
That’s right. So let’s say that’s one of the qualities that you want to understand when you’re working with a family system approach or through a family system approach. You want to understand the unspoken rules, which is the culture of the family, or if you’re working with corporate situation, those unspoken rules of the office, like who’s in charge, and who’s playing what role in those kind of dynamics?
Debra Maldonado 09:35
Then I also think too, culturally, when I worked in New York, the culture was work till 10 o’clock in the night and work really hard, don’t take a lunch, eat lunch at your desk. And when I moved to Colorado, people were taking lunch and leave, “Oh, it’s five. It’s five to five. I got to pack up my desk.” I was thinking “Why is everyone going home early, there’s work to do.” And so all that culture to based on geography. What you’re used to, and then you bring someone in, like for me, a Jersey girl, going into Colorado office, I’m sure I disrupted the environment because I was such, you know, willing to work later and harder, and people were like “Wait, wait slow down a little bit.” That sounds really powerful for work, it’s powerful for relationships.
Robert Maldonado 10:24
Yeah, we can definitely say that the lessons learned in the psychology of the family are applicable to any group. So if you think about group of friends, an office culture, a therapy group, any gathering, any system of human beings together operates under some of these principles. So one of the main ones is the myths that are transmitted down through the generations of the family. For example, every family has a myth of Uncle John who went off to Alaska or, you know, was an adventurer.
Debra Maldonado 11:11
or how they came to America, and they had so much strife and,
Robert Maldonado 11:15
Yes, different events, different important kind of milestones in the history of the family that get passed down as part of the mythology of the family, that really kind of give the individual in that family a sense of belonging, like they have a history connecting them to something bigger than themselves.
Debra Maldonado 11:42
My grandmother was, when they met she was just this do-gooder. She was the president of the Democratic Women’s Association for 40 years. And she dedicated her life to helping people find their resources after the Great Depression. And she was just as powerful woman, she had 12 children, I don’t know how she did it all. But she was this kind of matriarch of our family. Everyone thought she was, you know, this angel. And so that’s kind of the myth of she was so perfect. And you know, the mother Mary. And when she passed away, it was just really devastating for everyone. Just like, what do we do now? That’s when my cousin said to me at our funeral “What are we going to do now?” And so that myth carries on, you know, that we kind of take on the gauntlet, from the ancestor, and we say “I want to carry on her name, I want to live out her legacy, I want to do good in the world.” And so personally for me, she’s been an inspiration to be a leader, to be a woman of power. And against all odds, you know, she really gave that. And she taught us a lot about love. Unfortunately, the family had also myths about money. And, you know, the myths about money and those things impact our personal life, because if we decide we want to be successful and have money and have jobs of our own, and no one else in the myth of the family had that, we feel like almost like we’re abandoning our family in a way, you know, to betray them in a way, the black sheep.
Robert Maldonado 13:24
Yeah, and that has to do with the roles that the individuals in the family systems play out. So some of the roles, for example, are the hero, the rebel, the scapegoat, the jester or trickster, the saint. And in therapists systems, they talk about the identified patient. So the identified patient is the person that everybody points to and says “They are the problem, right?” And they actually might be kind of concentrating all the neuroses in the family—
Debra Maldonado 14:04
Onto that person?
Robert Maldonado 14:06
Yeah. And expressing kind of that illness or that—
Debra Maldonado 14:10
It’s sort of a projection of your own things that you feel insecure about, or that you don’t feel okay with. Well, they’re the problem, this family would be great if it wasn’t for Billy who just keeps drinking and he won’t stop or, you know, that identified patient. I remember you and I, and my sister Kim driving to see my mom in our parents’ back then — my father was still alive — in North Carolina, it was eight hour drive, and Kim was in the backseat. And you were playing this thing on family systems. And she just was like “identified patient”. She was so fascinated with this idea that there’s someone that’s always the one that everyone’s looking at going there. The problem like “This family would be fine if Billy would just stop drinking, you know, or if Mary would just get married.” And I think that we all have to think about who we’re pointing to in our family for that, and what are we projecting onto them that we’re not looking at ourselves about?
Robert Maldonado 15:08
Yeah, we were talking about that earlier, how in families, there are these narratives through myths and stories that carry on inter-generationally. And then we all fall into these different roles. So somebody will be the rebel—
Debra Maldonado 15:28
I think I was the rebel in my family.
Robert Maldonado 15:29
Or will play the rebel in different parts, at different times of our lives.
Debra Maldonado 15:34
Like they could be the rebel as a teenager, and then maybe they grew up to be the saint, so these characters. And if you think about movies, as we were talking earlier, you see these rom-coms or these adventure movies, where there’s a group of people, there’s always that system, there’s always that person. Like, in Alien movie, there’s all these characters as the hero, there’s the jester, there’s the scapegoat, that person that’s the problem, and then the saint, and all those roles play out. And so if you’re a writer, or a movie creator, actor, you take on those systems, and then that’s really what makes the movie interesting, or the story interesting is having those different characters. If everyone was the same, it wouldn’t be any drama. Just boring. So kind of complement each other in ways.
Robert Maldonado 16:32
Yeah, it’s incredibly interesting, because you notice that when people change, let’s say the rebel then settles down and becomes the hero. Then somebody else has to take that role because that’s the way the family system had been functioning, they needed somebody to upset the balance. And then they adjusted to that.
Debra Maldonado 16:57
Is their power struggle to be the hero? “I don’t want to be the rebel anymore, I’m going to be the hero.” But the person who is the hero is like “Wait a minute, I’m the hero. I’m the one who does everything right.”
Robert Maldonado 17:10
Yeah, there’s certainly those unconscious tendencies to want to keep people in that role, to not upset the balance, because any change, even positive change requires now a reworking of the system, right? A rebalancing of this system.
Debra Maldonado 17:28
And so when you worked with families, a lot of times there would be one person who has a disability or some kind of challenge, depression, or whatever, and then you bring the family in to deal with it. But most of the family members were focused on that identified patient and not their own stuff. And I think that happens in families, if someone’s sick or has special needs, people, especially other siblings, are not really worried about what’s happening with them. Everyone’s focused on getting that person well. It’s kind of negative. Sometimes it’s like we forget our own needs, like a mother would forget her own needs for the child, and the family sometimes forgets their own needs for the patient.
Robert Maldonado 18:13
Well, that’s definitely one of the problems with the medical model in psychology. In the medical model we’re used to thinking, there’s a patient who needs treatment. And so often families come and say— bring the kid or the identified patient and say “Fix them” or “Work with them”. But I would say “Well, no, you come in, all of you”, right?
Debra Maldonado 18:38
You’re also patient.
Robert Maldonado 18:40
Well, if you want to help this individual in the family, it has to include everybody, right? Everybody has to be on the same page, everybody has to participate. And that concept is alien to a lot of people because the medical model simply says, when you go to a doctor or a medical doctor, the family waits in the waiting room, and they send in the patient, and then they come out and all that stuff. But in psychology and therapy and in coaching, it’s more about understanding the system as as a group, as a family.
Debra Maldonado 19:21
Yeah, you know, when I work with clients, sometimes they’ll talk about their ex or their boyfriends or their husbands or their family members, their mother, and it’s a lot of projection, like they’re the one who is with the problem. And I’m always bringing it back to them, like you’re entangled in this system, you know, like you’re not separate. You’re not an island. This is a part of your system. You have to look at yourself and what is contributing in your mind to this, and a lot of people they feel almost a lot of resistance to it because they don’t want— so in a way when they’re projecting onto that person, you’re seeing their defenses. And so those of you listening at home, think about who are you projecting? Who has the problem in your life, if they would just change, then everything would be okay. So it’s that if they’re in my life, there’s part of me in that person. So when we look at family systems, what I love about this idea is that we are a system, that we are all part of the same system, humanity and countries and cultures, and so not only our individual family, which is what this was based on. But if we think about just everything in life, you know, there’s a collection of people, where they gather, there’s that kind of dynamic that happens.
Robert Maldonado 20:44
Absolutely. So some of the mechanisms— just like us individually, we have defense mechanisms, we have resistance, we have ways of coping, the family system also has a lot of those mechanisms. One of the most interesting ones is this triangulation or alliance building that goes on within family members. So the mom and the son might create an alliance to keep the father away, or to keep the father out of power in a sense.
Debra Maldonado 21:26
Or if the father is causing harm to the mother, and the son and the mother bind together. And it’s against, he’s the problem, you know, and it’s more protective because there’s there’s power in groups.
Robert Maldonado 21:41
Yeah, again, these principles apply to any group. But we’re just looking at the family as kind of a way to make it easier for us to understand, think about our own family — who is aligned with who, who is the favorite, Mom’s favorite, Dad’s favorite, and how their alliance then created that triangulation, that keeping away others from power, those kind of things. The other interesting phenomenon — and this is important in working in therapy and in coaching as well — is to look at the patterns of communication. How are people communicating? And this is where emotions come in, often that unspoken rule of how are we going to deal with emotions in this family?
Debra Maldonado 22:40
Yeah, I had a client once, you know, a couple clients said, it wasn’t okay to talk about your feelings. And I’ve seen that a lot. And instead, the way they communicated was just not say anything, you know, or that passive aggressiveness, like, I’m just gonna remove myself, and it’s almost hoping that they’re gonna get the message, you know, if I just play this game. And that’s what we do with each other, we have that, like you said, again, that unspoken rule of when I walk out of the room that means I’m mad at you, but you won’t say directly, you know, I’m mad at you, I want to talk about this. So how intimate we can get with our siblings and our parents and all that. And that affects one of the things is when you bring another person into your life or whatever, another family system, so your system and your family and my family were very— I mean, we were similar in a lot of ways. I think that’s why we get along, because we kind of had very similar kind of loving families, but you could see how those are the spoken rules of your family. And then you get into a relationship with someone, a partner, romantically, and there’s marriage, there’s a difference. And then you have to learn how to communicate, you have to learn all these new rules. And then the other person feels like you’re trying to change them because it doesn’t fit in their mode of how they communicate. And so that, I think, causes a lot of friction with relationships because of that kind of background of how we act and how we talk, and you go visit your in-laws and you’re like, oh, okay, I can understand now, how you’re the way you are.
Robert Maldonado 24:24
Yeah, and even pointing this out in therapy to individuals and family groups is such a big breakthrough, because often they’re not aware of how they’ve been communicating, right, because it’s that unspoken principle again, that, you know, just assume that this is the way our grandparents did it. And so now we’re doing it. And, you know, nobody questions it. So when individuals really start to gain insight into their communication patterns, then it changes the game because now they can consciously change the way the family system has been operating. So I know between us, I was not used to your family’s way of hugging and kissing every time. Every time they would get together, right?
Debra Maldonado 25:32
And even when we left him in the middle. Yes, very, very affectionate.
Robert Maldonado 25:36
Yes. And in my family, that wasn’t the case. We were very close. We were very loyal to each other. But it wasn’t expressed that way. So there’s not a right or wrong way.
Debra Maldonado 25:53
But now you’re so lovey and dovey with them.
Robert Maldonado 25:55
Right. Because then you understand, okay, this is the way they’re communicating. There’s nothing wrong with it. Again, there’s not a right or wrong way. It’s simply that the more you become aware of these systems, then the more you can adapt in a conscious way, without feeling awkward or rejecting it.
Debra Maldonado 26:15
And so let’s talk about genetics and how does the system start? I mean, where do the systems get born out of? I mean, you could look generationally and culturally, certain cultures have patterns and certain socio-economic levels have different patterns. Don’t talk about money or we do talk about money. We don’t talk about our feelings — we do talk about our feelings. We don’t have family time— like for our family, our culture was we had dinner every night, we had to be home at dinner, we had dinner with the family every night, where other cultures, it’s like, pick out what you want. Is there stay at home mom and all that. But then genetically, how do we choose what role we play? Is that genetic?
Robert Maldonado 27:14
Yeah, well, they’re called multifactorial systems, which simply means that there’s a lot of factors, a lot of elements playing into it, right, but we can break it down into these concentric circles. So you have the individual and we’re kind of in our little personal bubble, but our little personal bubble is within the bubble of the family, meaning the culture and the unspoken norms and rules of the family. But the family also exists within a culture, right? We have a common language, we have customs that we follow, religious traditions. All those then support the family system, and give that family system context, then the culture that exists within a bigger society and the world and those kind of things. And then genetics, of course, we evolved from animals. So we have that tradition of—
Debra Maldonado 28:19
Robert Maldonado 28:20
Yeah, very tribal. We know of chimps, for example, which are our closest relatives, they live in groups, they share food.
Debra Maldonado 28:28
And they have an alpha or the kind of the leader.
Robert Maldonado 28:34
Absolutely. And so those elements are really key because we’re not born as blank slates, you know, we’re born with these predispositions already.
Debra Maldonado 28:52
So a lot of these urges are very animalistic sometimes, of power and power struggle.
Robert Maldonado 28:58
Yes, and for us that’s really important. The reason it’s so important for us to be aware of these systems and to be conscious of them is because if we’re not, we’re simply carrying out these patterns kind of blindly.
Debra Maldonado 29:19
Can I ask you a question, the identified patient, I’m always fascinated by that. Is there something that that person chooses that role because they get the attention?
Robert Maldonado 29:29
There could be some of that.
Debra Maldonado 29:31
Where they’re like I’m sick all the time.
Robert Maldonado 29:35
But there are people that do have disabilities.
Debra Maldonado 29:37
Yes, but there’s people that actually use that role to be the one that’s I’m always broke, I don’t have any money, and so they never get better. And it’s almost like a way for them to get attention from the rest of the group.
Robert Maldonado 29:55
Yes, and it doesn’t mean it excludes other things. Let’s say learning disabilities, right? Very common nowadays. You do have some biological imperatives to that, meaning, maybe there was a problem with the birth process.
Debra Maldonado 30:15
Or with the pregnancy?
Robert Maldonado 30:16
Yeah, anything like that we know impacts the brain’s development. And language is one of the first things that’s impacted. But then, like you say, maybe the attention that the child is getting because of that disability is reinforcing to them. I noticed every time I say I can’t learn this or I’m having trouble with this, mom pays a lot of attention to me, and gives me sweets and candy and attention and hugs. So that’s reinforcing that behavior. Now the psychology of the family dynamics is playing into the biology of it. And those interactions are very hard to tease out, which is which, but you will definitely want to be aware of those things.
Debra Maldonado 31:12
And then I know that there’s also that path of people taking on those roles, even careers. I see people, everyone in their family was a lawyer, so they’re a lawyer, or everyone’s a doctor. And then you get to this point where someone’s like, you know, I really don’t want to do that, I don’t want to live up to my expectations. That would break the family’s agreement that everyone here goes to this college, and they get a degree, and you become a doctor, and you, you know, specialize in this, and you’re going to be successful. And then if you’re the person that says “You know, I just want to do art, and I want to be creative”, then the whole family’s like “What are you doing?” You’re not buying into that agreement. And that’s really where we come with individuation, where we’re breaking the chain. And I think that it’s like a fish in water, you don’t even realize you’re in the system. It just feels normal, you feel like you’re making conscious decisions. But if you think about the system, it’s almost like this unconscious kind of flow that happens and patterns that arise. We’re not choosing them.
Robert Maldonado 32:32
Yeah, if you don’t choose, if you don’t individuate, meaning if you don’t really learn your own psychology in your own process, you’re forced to play the role that was assigned to you by the family system in a way. You can alter it a little bit perhaps by choosing or rebelling or switching roles with somebody else. But you’re still caught in that family system and you’re playing it out in your life.
Debra Maldonado 33:02
You know, when I see this show up, it is not only doing what you love and living your purpose, I think that’s a huge part of this family systems. When I left— I worked at MTV when I was my 20s, my wild years. It had a culture about it, it was a really cool place to work. We were entertainment, we got to meet celebrities and, you know, go to all these interesting things. And I’m sure anyone who has been in the entertainment industry, you feel like this kind of a special like backdoor secret, a backstage pass to things that ordinary people don’t get to see. And it was just exciting to work there. And everyone’s young, and it was just a big party. And I decided that I wanted to not do marketing anymore. I wanted to move to Colorado and just start over and all the people around me were pulling me back, they were saying “What are you doing?” A friend of mine said to me “There’s nothing out there for you, there’s nothing out there. It’s just a bunch of mountains. Wait, what are you doing?” And it was like a threat to the system of what is she doing? Why is she leaving? This is like the best thing in the world. Why would you leave? And then it makes you question. Why is she leaving? And so when we do this with a family, and someone steps out and says, you know, “I don’t want to be a doctor, I want to draw, paint and or be a coach, I want to do something else.” And the families will try to force them back into that role. And so there’s that resistance to individuation because we feel we don’t want to betray our family and the system. But the system is actually working against us as well. Not just our own personal fears about changing, but the whole family system of “You’re the one who makes all the money and you’re the successful person. Now you’re going to take this risk and start your own business. What if you fail, and then you’re not going to be the hero anymore. You’re going to be the identified patient”, you know, you are kind of giving up that role. What do you think of that? As far as coaching, I think it’s really important to understand that kind of powerful pull the family and the system has on your individual choices.
Robert Maldonado 35:15
Oh, yeah. And again, because we’ve evolved this way, if we don’t see it, we just assume “Well, that’s just the way it is.” individuation really means being aware of that. And then freeing your mind not by rejecting the family but by understanding that you can have higher choices when you understand these mechanisms, and you come to terms with them.
Debra Maldonado 35:47
And actually, it’s really interesting, because I had a dream, I talked about this before, I had a dream. When I left to go to Colorado, my mother had dreamed I died. But I was still alive. And I was in the coffin. And I was trying to get out saying “I’m not dead yet.” And my mother was putting down the coffin going “Okay, no, you had to stay. We paid for the funeral already.” And it’s that kind of life, the family forcing me to not have a free choice to reawaken, you know, like, no, you have to do what we say, you know. And I think now, my mother’s not like that, she always says “I would never do that.” But it’s really within yourself that you think it’s your family that’s forcing you to limit yourself, but it’s actually your own buying into that culture, in that system that you’re unconscious of.
Robert Maldonado 36:40
Absolutely. And that’s an important piece. Even if you’re working with an individual, it’s important to understand these mechanisms, because as individuals, we internalize our parents, they’re inside of us, whether we like it or not. And we hear their voices, we hear their messages, just because that’s who we are. We’re social animals. And we’re designed for that. And so we carry our family systems with us, wherever we go, we may go to the ends of the—
Debra Maldonado 37:13
We have our family in our head.
Robert Maldonado 37:14
Yes, that dynamic is still very much in our minds. Until we individuate.
Debra Maldonado 37:23
And so let’s talk about the strengths and weaknesses of this model, if you just work with— You know, there’s people that just work in family systems, they don’t really go into the unconscious. I think there’s an organizational psychology play into certain aspects of this. People go into a company, and they talk about the culture of the company.
Robert Maldonado 37:48
Definitely some of the strengths of the family systems approach is that it’s looking beyond the individual. And as social animals, you have to consider the individual’s history, where they come from, their culture, background, all that good stuff. So family systems are very powerful in that regard. It’s applicable to any organization, anywhere there’s a group of human beings, whether they’re working on a rocket to go to Mars, or starting a new company, office groups, couples— even couples, you know, they’re creating a new family system in a way. And so it’s applicable in many different situations. Some of the weaknesses— I would say it’s complicated. Like we were saying, there’s so many factors that are playing — biological, genetics, epigenetics, biology, environment, culture, different—
Debra Maldonado 39:00
Pinpoint, like what you can tweak to make it work, because it’s almost like when you make one move, it’s like a chess game, you make one move, and it affects the whole system.
Robert Maldonado 39:09
That’s right. And so it requires that kind of skill, that openness to understanding complex systems, instead of looking for the simple 1-2-3, here you go, here’s the answer.
Debra Maldonado 39:28
Just say this affirmation and do a vision board and your family will be better. Everyone will get along. And this is really important too, because I hear a lot of people talk about the family feuds and there’s one family member that’s the problem. And there’s a lot of dynamics between, you know, “I’m not talking to my sister anymore or my brother.” I talked to all of them, but, you know, that kind of ostracizing a family member because they’ve done something. So I think it’s important to understand this in a way, so they could understand themselves and why are they rejecting that person? But it is that complex. And we are also not meant to just live as a group, we’re meant to individuate. So how can we have both? How can we be in a system but also be individual at the same time? I guess that would be the question.
Robert Maldonado 40:24
It is a balance obviously, we want to become our best selves, or our higher selves, not by rejecting our culture, our background, our families but by coming to terms with it, that yes, we experienced those things. And we got conditioned through that culture, through that family system but we can free ourselves, we can work at becoming individualized, individuated not out of rejection, but out of transcendence.
Debra Maldonado 41:08
One of the other, I would say, weaknesses with this system would be that you’re really looking at— it’s more mechanical, like what roles you’re playing, but it’s not really going into the unconscious, even though the unconscious is dictating it, you really don’t go “Let me visualize” or “Let me go inside. Let me look at my feelings.” It’s more mechanical of moving objects or maybe thinking “I don’t know how they adjust the system. But it’s more on a conscious level that you’re working with, not an unconscious level. I mean, you’re always working on the unconscious, you’re not like having the patient or client in a family systems model go look at the unconscious.
Robert Maldonado 41:48
What I saw in knowing many therapists and experiencing many different professionals is that it depends on the individual therapist or coach. There are people that are just very intuitive. They work at many levels when they’re working with an individual or family. And they do understand the psychodynamic principles at play. And so they do take into account the unconscious processes going on. And just like in any profession, there are people that just rise to the top and are the best at what they do, and others are simply going by the book and, you know, very superficially, perhaps applying some of these things.
Debra Maldonado 42:39
I mean, we’re always working with the unconscious, but are we intending the client to approach the unconscious or we are just telling them, you know, keep your boundaries and do this, you know, or think positive.
Robert Maldonado 42:54
In general, these family system theories are not really being applied in coaching that much. There are coaches, of course, that understand some of these things, or they may have come from a background of therapy. And so they bring that understanding, but it still needs to be developed to where we could approach a family just like we do individuals as not seeing them as broken but as more potential, as more adapting, as more becoming.
Debra Maldonado 43:29
I think I’d see this as the benefit of coaching as someone who can go into an organization and especially startups, what’s the culture and then really understand the dynamics of when you promote Suzy, when she was, you know, among the tribe, and then she rises to the higher level, there’s going to be a power shift, you know, there’s going to be change. I know, for me, when I was really young, I worked in the secretarial pool when I was like 18. I was really, you know, typing away. And I did really well. I mean, I was like breaking. I mean I was totally overqualified. So I was busting through briefs — I worked at a law firm, and they had just started in a month. And this pool is like the pool of people. And then when you’re worthy, you get to work directly with a lawyer. So I was there for a month and some people had been working there for years waiting to be called up to get a Primo position. And they pulled me up the first month. Guess what all those women did. I was the enemy. I was the bad person, and you know, it was that system. This new girl gets to get promoted right away and it’s not fair. And so that’s kind of that idea. Imagine being able to coach that culture because it lowers productivity. People are not at full potential because their mind is kind of worried about where they are, where their power is in the organization. A lot of just really look at that as a family system, like we’re a family here, we’re all working together, even though we’re not related. There’s this kind of connectivity that we have. I remember I read a story once about a spiritual community, and their group was all very light and positive. And no one was talking about anything negative, everything was like shiny, shiny, shiny, and there was a lot of repression. And then this person came in and did a talk. And all their anger was put up this person, and it came out, and this dynamic gave an opportunity to— it’s almost like there’s a disrupter that comes in that kind of disrupts the system. And to understand that that’s not a bad thing to have a disruption. I think the hardest part with groups is that we all want everyone to get along. And then when people aren’t getting along, it’s a bad thing. But maybe it’s a restructuring of the dynamic so the company can grow or the community can grow and get more balanced. Because everything’s about psychological balance internally and in the group.
Robert Maldonado 46:18
Yeah, if you don’t address anger in the group, just like any system, it will find a way to express it, you know, either passive aggression or those blowup periods where everybody loses it and everything goes crazy. So that expression can take place. I would say that one of the strengths about these family systems models is you can integrate them with other modalities and other theories very well.
Debra Maldonado 46:52
I see this going really well with Jungian because we talked about the archetypes. So the roles are basically like the hero, the princess, the queen of the house, the king of the house, the fool, you know, all those archetypes basically — the trickster — play out in the family, and so we can actually work with them. And bring balance back to a family that may be in disarray, may be not communicating, and work with them. I’ve done some meditative work with imagine, like Gestalt, you know, you can talk to the person, but you can do that in meditation. And it sometimes shifts the dynamic unconsciously without even having to have the communication with a person. It’s like the passive way to do it. But there’s a lot of ways to use creative ways, and especially the Jungian coaching that we teach, to go into the depth and the collective and work with it on a systematic level with changing the world, not only our families.
Robert Maldonado 47:53
Yeah, I mean, that would be the dream is to be born into a family of enlightened Yogis.
Debra Maldonado 48:01
Which never happens. Well, I always find that there’s in every family— it just seems common and I want to hear what you think about this. But I always feel like in every family, there’s one Yogi and everyone else is not up to speed, and you’re just feeling like the black sheep or feeling like that intuitive one that knows more and sees what’s going on. Like, as kids, those of us who are really intuitive, we see ourselves, we see the world differently than our siblings. And we say “Oh, do I belong here?” And that kind of feeling of “I’m different”. But the need to be the same as the family. It’s for connection. So yeah, that kind of conflict.
Robert Maldonado 48:41
Well, we often see that as individuals start to change and really make progress in their personal development, they feel guilt about leaving their old family system behind, and the family members or even the partner perhaps might be threatened by that person’s change.
Debra Maldonado 49:04
Oh, I see this with personal development. People I’ve worked with, they’ve grown and then the person they’ve been with for 10 years, they’re like “I don’t think this is my person anymore. They’re not growing with me.” And even someone they’re dating for maybe a year and they start doing this work and then the person they’ve been dating, it’s “I really was attracted to him in the beginning but now I feel like I’m different. I’m growing out of that relationship.” And it’s just getting ready for the relationship that’s more you, that’s really more you. A lot of people we match up on the ego level and by our patterns and consciously, we have that chemistry. And then when we individuate, there’s something like a deeper connection we can have with someone romantically. I know for me that was the case. I always tell people that are single “The chemistry you feel right now for this man, this woman that have broken your heart is not going to be the same. It’s not gonna have the same quality as the chemistry you have with your true partner, it’s a different type of energy.” And I think the goal is to break away from that old system, and not physically but psychologically be more individuated than being psychologically tied to the rules of the family, really where you’re having a choice. That’s the thing. It’s not that they’re wrong. But if you want to choose to party all day and get drunk for the Superbowl because that’s what your family does, that’s great. But you could choose not to, and that’s okay, you could still do it. It doesn’t mean that you’re sucked into the role, but it’s to choose that. I miss hanging out with my family on the Superbowl Sunday. But, you know, you can choose not to do that too. Now, that’s the freedom.
Robert Maldonado 50:54
It’s definitely finding that balance, because again, we don’t want to reject our families, we love them, and they love us. But we also want to individuate beyond the roles that they see us as because when we go home for Thanksgiving, they’re going to see us as the five year old kid that they know. And there’s no getting around that, they’re going to want you to be that person. And often, if people resist that, or they fall into that old pattern, then it’s to the detriment of their personal development. You want to be able to choose who you are.
Debra Maldonado 51:40
Well, it’s like the youngest child always gets to have that label “Oh, you’re the baby of the family.” Or you’re the oldest, so you have to be in charge of everything, you can’t ask for help because you’re the oldest, now you’re taking on that role. You’re the mother, you need to be nurturing and loving and unselfish. So we take all these roles and assumptions about them. And not feel like we can break those rules. A lot of pressure on a person.
Robert Maldonado 52:08
Yeah. Where you see it primarily is also in the sibling rivalries. Because we’re so close to our brothers and sisters, that they trigger us and we trigger them, right? And then when we go out or set out to change, to make those big changes in our lives, if they’re not coming along, or they’re not doing their own personal work, they see it as a threat to that. Who do you think you are? You know, you’re just that kid I know when we were growing up, and now you’re saying you want to be successful?
Debra Maldonado 52:44
Oh, you want to be successful now?
Robert Maldonado 52:48
Yeah. So that dynamic is always playing out. And like I say, because we carry the family system in our minds, it doesn’t matter where you’re at, you’re gonna have to deal with it somehow.
Debra Maldonado 53:01
We live a five hours plane ride away, 300 or 3000 miles away from our family, and they’re still around. So this is a fascinating topic. I really liked that. One of the things, where do you use this qualia? Does a family have a qualia about it? it’s like an essence.
Robert Maldonado 53:24
Well, the word is primarily used in consciousness studies to mean the quality of our mental experience. Because if you think about it, everything we experience, including our families, we experience it through our mind. That’s why, again, it’s not really what’s going on with them, it’s how our mind interprets our relation with them. And then we carry that around for the rest of our lives. And that quality is really everything we experience, you know, so the unique experience that gives life its meaning, its flavor. That’s your quality. And we’re always working with that in a sense.
Debra Maldonado 54:18
We’re always trying to have our own story, our own myth that we play out, our personal myth that we play out in the world and I think a lot of times, we think family dictates to our decisions, especially early on, I think as we get older we start to be more independent naturally, but I think when we’re in our 20s and 30s, we start to want to pull away and that individuation starts to happen. But then we feel that tug of the family and what if I am abandoned. Even when I moved to Colorado, I was leaving New Jersey and everyone was there, you know, like a big Irish Catholic family, my cousins and, you know, it was like “Where are you going? Why are you leaving?”
Robert Maldonado 55:03
I know we’ve been talking about the challenges of the family systems. But really the benefits and the reason these systems have survived for so long is because we need them. We need that system.
Debra Maldonado 55:23
We don’t want to live alone, we need this social connection.
Robert Maldonado 55:25
It gives us that love, that connection with others in the world that’s so important to us, it gives us a way of making meaning of our life as well.
Debra Maldonado 55:36
I want to add one more thing, and it’s really interesting is that when you grow up, you’re in a family system. And this is for those of you who do personal development, you’re going to notice this. You are going to carry those assumptions and your identity into a new community. So let’s say you do a personal development course, or you’re a mastermind with a bunch of personalities. And you go into this community, a spiritual community or coaching community. And you’re going to take your perception or your projections from that life, a family system, and you’re going to see it in the way your family played out. And you’re going to play this role that fits within that system. So the group may not even be the way it is, but you’re going to see it through your own family system. So if you’re the victim, or the victim in the family all the time, or you’re the one that everyone judges all the time, you’re going to go into a system, and a group of people that think you’re great, but you’re going to hold like “This is the role I play”, and it’s going to play out again.
Robert Maldonado 56:47
It sounds like you have some personal experience.
Debra Maldonado 56:50
No! I just noticed that for people that even have done our programs over the years. Sometimes if they have this conflict with a parent, then they bring that same conflict in with different members or me, you know, like projecting the mother onto me. There’s that kind of dynamic that happens. Unconsciously, it’s almost like every group is like the group of your family, like the micro group, and then you carry it around. So then you go to work, and then your father is your boss, you know, if it’s a male boss, you’re projecting that, you’re playing that same role again.
Robert Maldonado 57:25
You’re describing transference and countertransference. That plays out in therapy and coaching all the time. And in the corporate cultures as well.
Debra Maldonado 57:38
An example would be someone who doesn’t feel like they belong in their family, and they feel like the outcast, they’re going to go into a group and kind of have that same feeling in that group, no matter how much the group accepts them. And to know that dynamic, it’s not changing the group because you’re not changing your own perception of where you fit in that group. So that’s just something I thought was interesting is that dynamic keeps playing out over and over. It’s like the systems are there. Work in spiritual communities and families, friendships, just playing out the same patterns. And we’re not conscious of it.
Robert Maldonado 58:22
Right. And just to leave on a positive note, when you do take that responsibility for your own individuation, you’re becoming yourself, you’re breaking an ancient chain of that intergenerational pattern. You’re doing a great service for the coming generations because now you’re not passing on that pattern. You’re able to kind of reset the system, where it’s more adaptive and more flexible. If you think about what is that quality that we call a well-adjusted individual is that they’re flexible, they are cognitively, emotionally, socially flexible instead of being rigid. And that’s what individuation gives to you personally, is that it allows you to work with different situations in a flexible way.
Debra Maldonado 59:33
So instead of looking at things with a very tight lens, you’re actually opening possibilities. You’re seeing people for their uniqueness versus that projection and assumptions that we typically unconsciously carry. And we’re really giving not only us freedom to be ourselves and individuals, but not putting labels on others, “Oh, that person is doing this, so they must be this kind of person.” You put that judgment on that person saying “Well, okay, maybe that person is more— ” More openness to who that is beyond just their surface behavior or their initial reaction, that first impression that you get from people.
Robert Maldonado 1:00:12
And because it is a system, when you change, the whole system changes, meaning you’re allowing now for the possibility of everyone transforming in that system.
Debra Maldonado 1:00:24
One of the beautiful things I saw is that, you know, I went from being just a worker to taking on energy healing and hypnotherapy and all those things before I became a coach. And when my dad was sick, I took the role of the healer, which no one would have attributed to me as my younger self. And then how the family accepted that and how my father was so thankful and appreciative. And so you can change, you can impact. You think your family won’t accept you. Like when I had my book signing in New Yorker, my parents were there. And I was like “Oh, they’re here, how I’m going to talk about personal growth.” And my parents loved it and they were so proud of me. And we think that they’re not going to accept us when we step into who we really are and express our gifts. But it’s really interesting. If you believe it’s who you are, you will see the shift. And the only resistance you see out there is your own resistance. And so that’s one of the lessons I learned. So don’t be afraid to be who you are and express who you are.
Robert Maldonado 1:01:34
Absolutely, because the best thing we can do for others is to be ourselves.
Debra Maldonado 1:01:43
Great talk, we went a little long today, this was such a juicy topic. So next week, we are going to go into Carl Jung’s work. And we’re going to talk about the new age of Carl Jung and the mystical parts of his work.
Robert Maldonado 1:02:03
Its pros and cons.
Debra Maldonado 1:02:04
Both the pros and cons. And so we obviously do Jungian life coach training, but that’s our favorite model. So we’re going to end with that. So we’ll see you next week on another Soul Sessions. Hope to see you soon.
Robert Maldonado 1:02:21
Debra Maldonado 1:02:21
Take care. Bye bye.