Monday, May 8, 2023

Systems Theory: Dysfunctional Cultures, Groups, and Families VS Wokeness ...

 (*Editing in process)

Not a lot of laughs in this one - but I've been reflecting on these concepts over the past week, so I decided to write out my thoughts for self-clarity  - perhaps it will help others with the same :)

So we have all heard the term "wokeness," over the past few years, but very few know the original theory from where this term was derived.

Though philosophized about earlier on, biologist  Ludwig von Bertalanffy coined the phrase "systems theory"  when observing ecosystems - including patterns of behavior - in many living species.

Since that time,  many other fields such as mathematics, physics, economics, sociology, and psychology have incorporated systems theory into their fields, whether talking about the actual behavior of living organisms within a particular environment or the "behavior" patterns of non-living organisms within a particular environment - in other words, how things with energy will typically "behave" in certain conditions within a system.

So what is Systems Theory?

You can find the definition and history anywhere, but this one from is the most comprehensive-yet-concise for an informal blog post, IMO :)

Systems theory is an interdisciplinary theory about the nature of complex systems in nature, society, and science, and is a framework by which one can investigate and/or describe any group of objects that work together to produce some result. 
This could be a single organism, any organization or society, or any electro-mechanical or informational artifact. As a technical and general academic area of study it predominantly refers to the science of systems that resulted from Bertalanffy's General System Theory (GST), among others, in initiating what became a project of systems research and practice.
Systems theoretical approaches were later appropriated in other fields, such as in the structural functionalist sociology of Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann.

In other words, regardless of discipline, it's a way of looking at the behavior patterns of components within a broader system - not on an individual basis, as if through a vacuum, but how each component "behaves" and contributes to the environment as a whole and vice versa, in interdependence - for better or worse function.

For example, in physics, how does energy "behave" in certain environments - grounded versus ungrounded, Faraday-caged or not?

In medicine, how the body returns to a homeostatic functional state, for better or worse, after a new event.

Now - when I say "worse" function, I mean that although there is actually a spectrum of functional to dysfunctional - with no group  system being fully functional in every aspect - we are most interested in finding out why things go wrong, why the system is NOT functioning properly (at least for every component within the environment).

When things are out of balance, there is too much tension or chaos -  causing some components to fail, while others overgrow, thrive, and become invasive, which can potentially result in system demise -  we call this process "dysfunctional."

And when we say "dysfunctional," we do not necessarily mean it doesn't work at all - we mean some "components" keep on working, even thriving, but for other components, it doesn't work and is even toxic. 

For example, using a medical example again - cancer.   As we know now, cancer can genetically mimic the body's normal system responses and function - and thus, cancer goes undetected and unchecked by the immune system, sometimes until too late.

For all practical purposes, the body is outwardly functioning normally - until over time, it doesn't anymore, sometimes too late to save not just the organ system, but the entire body as a whole.

For the majority of this post, however, I be will be focused on human behavior in extremely dysfunctional groups, observed time and time again by social scientists - patterns of behavior that for all practical purposes may even outwardly look normal and functional, but the patterns of certain components, if left unchecked, can gain benefit for themselves at the expense of the other components, creating  not just increased stress on the system, but might ultimately lead to the demise of the body as a whole  ... just like cancer.

But first, let's look at the most visible and easiest example of system dysfunction - ecology/biology. 


In ecological or biological terms, though "homeostasis" or surface stability appears to have been achieved, and the largest components within an ecosystem may still appear function on the surface, the system is out of balance because certain components have over-flourished/over-grown -  and and as a result, the smaller components within an ecosystem essentially starve, wither off, and die.

If left unchecked, the imbalance will ultimately affect the larger surviving and thriving components, too, because they were dependent upon those smaller components for their nourishment and survival.



Introduced to the Southern United States in the late 1870s, the plant had been a good source of feeding material for livestock, could be used as headache medicine, and was even eaten by humans in times of poverty in order to sustain them.

However, in the Southern U.S. climate especially, it was overly encouraged to grow as cheap feed for livestock and humans, and thus began to overgrow unchecked  - so much that it "bullied" all of the other plants around it, covering and smothering everything in sight - plants, houses, parked cars. 

Despite this, it was still encouraged to grow as a method of controlling interstate overgrowth in the 1950s until even the 1990s, in some states. 

So now, it's come to this  - out of control! 

At first glance, it looks healthy green and functional, the trees and plants are still there in their basic form - but upon closer inspection, you see the kudzu has grown over everything in sight - using it, being fed by it - at the expense of all the other vegetation.

In other words, though kept in check in other environments, it was enabled to over-thrive in the Southern United States to the degree that no other vegetation could propagate and survive, kept barely alive, just in order to feed the kudzu in a parasitic relationship, rather than symbiotic relationship.

Now, Kudzu is not overtly dangerous - it's not toxic to eat, and in a crisis, you could actually eat it - but it does choke the life out of every other living thing in the ecosystem for its own survival.

And it's very difficult to kill or stop the spread of, at this point.  Though many herbicides have been created to stop it, they are usually toxic to everything else too, and they are barely effective at curbing kudzu.

The only real way to stop the spread of Kudzu is for the underlying vegetation to eventually die, stopping the kudzu's food source (which rarely happens because it's already spread to new vegetation anyway) - in other words, everything has to die in order for Kudzu to die.


Over time, we began to apply these same principles for observed patterns of behavior into the study of human groups in the field of sociology, beginning with the concept of "structural functionalism" as mentioned above. 

In short (and via Wiki for the definition in its simplest terms): 

"Structural functionalism a framework for building theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability".[1]

Then sociologist Emile Durkheim began to study suicidality as the result of system/environmental dysfunction, rather than always  just individual flaw or mental illness (which is still a problem today), and then the fields of sociology and psychology began to overlap.

Then Dr. Murray Bowen used the principle in the 1950s to get even more granular and observe family patterns of behavior. 

Durkheim, like others, was mostly interested not in how one individual or minority behaved - but how all those within the group behaved, particularly towards the minority.

Then Bowen took Durkheim's group system theories and boiled them down to an even more granular level - family of origin, often the originator of patterns of individual and group behavior.

Since Bowen, others have extended small-group observations to other "family-like" groups such as work environments or politics with similar results.

Now - that is a really oversimplified history of the evolution of systems theory, but I sense this post will already be long enough :)

One of the reasons I chose an education in clinical social work, rather than sociology or psychology, was because I believed theorists like Durkheim and Bowen were onto something - that it wasn't only individual behavior in a vacuum OR only bad environments to blame - it was both.

Thus, the social worker focuses on the individual within the environment and the feedback response loop with each other, whereas the psychologist or psychiatrist typically focuses on individual behavior (although these days, a good psychologist and/or psychiatrist will be well versed in Bowen's family systems theory as well).  

Is the group in denial about the person's mental illness, abuse, or substance use and so they enable it?  

Or do they blame the person for the whole system dysfunction including their own responses?

Or do they accept the reality of the person, loving and caring for them, but with boundaries - not enabling their unhealthy behaviors/mental illness to affect themselves or the entire system adversely?

(Hint:  The last one is the healthiest group view.)

That's where Bowen comes in - and why I chose a "systems approach" of combining all of these theorists in my previous education :)

Studying these theories had a profound impact on me and my life, it explained SO much in my family, other than I was just effed up in a vacuum, as I'd been told.

I did not complete that degree, however, because I realized that I needed more therapy, to understand my own unhealthy family environment and get my own unhealth out of the way, before I could help anyone else  - which I did - and I stayed in therapy, when no one else in my family will (and in some cases, even take a look at themselves.)  

(In fact, I realized through therapy that my need to want to be a counselor as an actual career at all may have been largely motivated by my role in my extremely dysfunctional family.)

Back to the structure of all group systems within society, large or small, healthy or not, there are roles and division of labor.

In the healthiest group systems, this division of labor/roles are given according to interest and system-agreed-upon skill.  The leaders themselves are chosen by all the members of the group or by other leaders within the group.  They are responsible for the needs of the system as a whole, the needs of parts, as well as their own needs, and good leaders can balance all three well.

Though all groups contain some level of dysfunction along a spectrum, the most dysfunctional/unhealthy groups are led by leader(s) that talks a good game, but actually have little to no interest in the needs of the group as a whole, nor the individual needs of the group, unless the issue addresses their needs, it benefits their own needs in some way. 

No mutual feedback loops here, they're the expert on everything and their needs are central, even at the expense of everyone else in the system, and even the system itself.

In other words, the unhealthy leaders have gone unchecked and been enabled without consequence for so long, they have over-flourished at the expense of at least one other family member - they have  now become the human equivalent of ... Kudzu.

However, it's not as simple as just 2 levels within the system, i.e. the powerful and the powerless - a dysfunctional, unhealthy system would never survive if it were just the 2 levels - there must be at least be a third group(s) in the middle as the majority, enabling the leadership (see more on "Triangles" with Bowen's theory).

1) The small oligarchy of leaders/power abusers at the top:  Rarely voted upon by everyone within the group, they take for themselves and give little.  They are often  automatically presumed "smart" or "good" or "the expert" by Group #2, and that they attained this level of power due to such positive qualities rather than negative ones (their own conquest/need for control or power, inheritance, and/or better opportunities.)
The leaders themselves, in turn, wrongfully believe their own hype - that they are the expert on everything without need for feedback, that they are more deserving/more valuable/more worthy of power, money, appreciation, and accolade than the other two groups, and most importantly, they carry the false false belief that the entire system is dependent solely upon them and that it would go down without them. 
No feedback loop, only one way - what they say is gospel truth without question - and anyone that does question them is automatically thrown in Group #3. 


2)  The middle majority - the  enablers/self-proposed "peacekeepers":  Either in complete denial or semi-denial, they nevertheless go along with the current system because it's easier,  and because they still receive at least some benefit from the broken system. 
Some may only be in semi-denial, they may even recognize the system and its leadership is dysfunctional and chaotic, but because they still receive some benefit, they say/do nothing, and may even go along with the oligarchy when push comes to shove.   They range from ass-kissers to people just afraid of conflict to those simply feeling too defeated and too small to make change. 


3)  The minority at the bottom, with the least power or money, but are nevertheless often solely blamed/scapegoated for all system problems - This group typically does most of the hard labor, but receives the least amount of benefits from the system.  
Because they are on the bottom rung socioeconomically, they are presumed to be there because they are "stupid" or "lazy" or "weak" or "replaceable," without consideration being given to their opportunities versus the others or the system politics involved.
If they ever do speak up for themselves, or speak truth versus the system majority delusion (the first two groups combined), they will be scapegoated/blamed for the entire group's problems, they will be gaslighted and every behavior pathologized, they will be group-bullied, and they will become group outcasts if they do not leave the group willingly.
If they protest and ever appear angry about their devaluation or lack of benefits, it will be flipped back on them as further proof of them being "the problem," and sometimes misconstrued as "jealousy" of those at the top.


Now despite the majority (which again is Group 1 and Group 2 combined) believing the system would not survive without their leader, the opposite is usually true. 

Case in point? 

The WGA Writer's strike going on right now. 

Group 1,  executive leadership at the top - the Producers, CEOs, and other executives at the media companies that run our favorite TV shows and movie - paid in the 9-figures annually, plus share profits

They make all the decisions, control the hires and fires, decide what everyone makes, and control the flow of money.   
Despite their false belief that the show can't go on without them, executives come and go like clockwork, and yet the shows still goes on.   


Group 2 in the middle - our onscreen movie/TV stars, who receive at least some benefit from a broken system - paid  in the range of 7 to 8-figure annual salaries.    
Though the most recognizable and beloved by the population -  sometimes believing themselves that they're not replaceable - though we have seen them bow out of projects or get fired, but the show still goes on, just with somebody else.


Group 3 - Screenplay writers of all our movies and TV shows,  paid mostly in the 5-figure range per project - the average salary for screenwriters, for even our favorite TV shows is only $62,500 a year!. 


Among the lowest paid, they are told they are a dime and dozen and replaceable, and they are the first blamed if a show fails, despite not even having full creative control over their own writing/creative content
And yet when they stop, NOW the show stops! LOL 
That is because although they are the most devalued and on the lowest rung, Groups 1 and 2 actually are dependent on them, or there is no show - not the other way around!

And if you watch, you'll notice that the more stars from Group 2 join the writers in Group 3 in protest, the greater the pressure is now on Group 1 to listen to Group 3 and change :)

This essentially means, the stars have finally become aware of how bad it is for the writers on the bottom and are willing to give up benefits to make things more equitable - the are becoming "woke" - get it?


So despite political press labeling this as a bad thing, it's actually just educating people on reality versus denial about what life is like for the people on the bottom in Group 3. 

And the only reason politicians are turning "wokeness" into a "virus"iis to try to convince Group 2 that it's a bad thing, because they want the current dysfunction system as it is because they not only thrive, they survive and overgrow, at the expense of the people on the bottom. 

Thus, they (irrationally) fear that if they give up even a portion of their benefits, Group 3 will take advantage of it, take it all (in projection, because that's what they would do and did). 


And as mentioned previously, sometimes there are more than 3 groups within a system, and this is the case here. 


Group 4, We the Viewers/Consumers - paid nothing, actually having to pay. Thus, we don't care, stop paying, and find other forms or entertainment - OR - we join Group 3 in their protest - placing an added layer of pressure on Group 1  (and Group 2) to change. 


Now - when we say racism and bigotry are "systemic," this is what we mean, it's the same dynamic.

And if not enough people in the majority that is Group 2 will join in support of Group 3  - out of either direct support for Group 1, complacency, or fear of losing their own benefits if they support Group 3 - there will be no social justice or change.

So when we say "woke," we mean those of us in that middle- majority group who have snapped out of denial and have realized the increasing kudzu power abuse by Group 1, no longer "asleep" and complicit and complacent in it anymore,  and will thus push for social justice and more equity balance, so that we can be a more functional, less conflicted/chaotic, more balanced society.

In other words, unless the majority of Group 2 begins to support the voices and efforts of Group 3 with regards to Group 1, there will not social change and more balance - the group dysfunction will continue.

Now to get even even more granular group system behavior ... the family of origin.


In families, the same dysfunctional dynamic has been observed by Bowen, only in severe dysfunctional families, the leader(s) are almost always someone(s) with severe, unchecked/untreated mental illness, violent or not, and/or who may abuse substances.

They are almost never voted in control, they are either naturally presumed leaders as parents, or in their absence, someone who just takes the role on for themselves out of their own need for control or conquest.

Now, in healthier families, though uncommon, the mentally ill or substance-dependent parents are still treated with dignity and respect - but they aren't enabled in these behaviors, for their own good or the good of the family as a whole.

However, in severely dysfunctional families,  what IS similar to the cultural dynamic is that all 3 groups are still there, they all contribute to the system dysfunction -  always enabling and benefitting the leaders most, the middle group receives what's left, and the third, the scapegoat(s) not benefitting at all.

Essentially, once again - the leaders are enabled in their power abuse and benefit-taking at the expense of the others in the group - human kudzu.

According to Bowen's research, the dysfunctionality of the group will have 8 factors present to varying degrees, which include such things as inability to balance the above needs equally and consistently, how open their feedback communication loops are, and projecting the leader's behavior, for better or worse, onto their children.

The roles of the other members of the family will thus be defined from the unhealthy perspective of the ill leader, as mentioned, ften based on projection of by the sick parent(s) or other leader's behavior onto the child or children. (See "Family Projection Process" of Bowen's theory.)

Though ALL families may have some degree of labeling like "the athlete, the brainiac, the the talented one, the funny one, the serious one" - in extremely dysfunctional families, the roles are much more dramatic with unrealistic expectations, and can sometimes be cruel  - i.e.  "the hero," "the peacemaker (not as noble as it sounds),"the overachiever" "the black sheep," "the smart one/the dumb one, "the selfish one/the unselfish one," "the dishonest one/the honest one," "the crazy one/the sane one." 

You will note that Bowen specifically mentions the presence of a personality-disordered parent in relation to the mental illness mention. 

That is because mentally ill people - especially with personality disorders - tend to "split" into black-and-white, all good or all bad thinking and tend to project onto their children their own qualities, for better or worse.   

They have an inability to balance good and bad traits within others or themselves, and thus they tend to throw all people into either "good" or "bad" boxes.

As a result, everyone in the group is placed into either a "good" box or a "bad" box very early on, according to the leader's subjective and unstable whim, with no gray areas or in-betweens, despite objective evidence otherwise, with no way to get off either list - and unfortunately, the rest of the family will view and treat you the same as the parent does :/  

The group is unlikely to ever change without intervention - and must be the majority of family members who change, one or two components changing won't do it, particularly if the leader is still the same. 

So what to do if you find yourself in a severely dysfunctional group? 

GET THERAPY and STAY IN THERAPY so you can recognize what role you play in the group, how you perpetuate the unhealthy dynamic yourself, and how to change your behavior, because that's all you really can control.

Also, as a member of each group: : 

1)  If you're the leader - it's unlikely that you are healthy enough to ever "wake up" enough to be aware of/admit any of this, but if you ever do, then the best course for the entire family would be to willingly step down and become a member rather than a leader, letting the family make decisions equally.  

Recognize that you are not as qualified or healthy as you've convinced yourself/others that you are and that as a result, you have caused more harm than good for everyone but yourself, though it isn't truly good for you, either - and you are ready to follow rather than lead.  

Also, do not designate a leader after, you, because you don't "see so good" lol - let the system decide for itself.  It may be a different leader for every task, in fact, not just one.


2)  If you're in the middle majority -   Wake up? lol Rather than following along blindly with what the leaders and supposed experts say, think for yourselves - and if you DO see it but say/do nothing, then frankly, you are no less selfish than the leaders -  you just aren't as sick or toxic. 

So the way you can make change is to stop enabling the leaders and others in denial by helping allow the feedback loop for ALL members, to include the scapegoat, and support them where they make a good point.  Join them in their protest as much as you can.  


3)  If you're the minority/scapegoat ...  


Try first to set some clear boundaries.  

This is a foreign concept to most dysfunctional families, or at least only those at the top are allowed to set boundaries, nobody else is.  

Be realistic about what to expect.  

If you feel you're respecting their boundaries, but yours are  still repeatedly disrespected, next try limited contact for short periods, keeping the conversation about light topics. 


Old patterns die hard and are ingrained, so if you are expecting change from them - or imagine things things will go better just because you are healthier/better, think again - you are not powerful enough to control what other people do, only how you respond to them. 

And again, remember, the whole dynamic would need to gain self-awareness and change, which is unlikely, especially if the leader remains the leader - not just one or two people underneath.  

If  all else fails -  or the situation is not just difficult, but truly toxic and/or abusive - and you feel it's affecting your health adversely/you feel yourself going backwards - then it's probably time to leave - if you can financially.


If you can't leave, due to financial reasons, etc. then keep contact and conversation to a civil minimum - and above all, don't let either a work group or your family to define you - there may be strength in numbers, but mob rule doesn't make the mob right OR sane.  

Try not to let what they say about you and to you to affect you too adversely, stay detached, like you're watching it on a movie screen than experiencing it. 

Also remember that the healthier you get, the worse the conflict will get with your dysfunctional family - not because you ARE the problem, as they claim - but because you're awake now in reality - and they aren't and don't want to be - dysfunction family delusion is more familiar and comfortable.

Above all, do NOT believe the gaslighting and start to believe them about yourself, just because there's more of them than you, particularly if said in a cruel, bullying way - mob rule doesn't make the mob right - particularly in dysfunctional groups.

That does NOT mean not to take responsibility at all - still take responsibility for any mistakes you've made and how you contribute to the dynamic, yes - but no more.

They likely won't take any responsibility at all, but never fear - after you're gone, they'll find a new scapegoat to blame, pathologize, and gaslight ;)

Remember, they need you to take on all the blame because otherwise, they'd have to look at themselves and the actual qualities, as opposed to the predefined ones created by unwell people who don't see themselves or others clearly - and they will say anything to keep from taking responsibility for themselves and the family dynamic, including projecting their own behavior onto you.

Fight for yourself, but try not to get locked in argument - remember, they're in denial - it will only make them angrier and get flipped back on you as more "proof" that you're "the problem."

Most importantly, no matter how broken you feel by it, remember that you were sane enough, strong enough, and brave enough to wake up, face reality, and seek health, realizing you wouldn't be popular for doing so - and you are brave enough to get out and take the even worse backlash for doing so, and it may be lonely for a while - but in the end, there is light and love with healthier others - I promise, I'm living proof :)


For more information on system theory, including the 8 signs of extremely dysfunctional family, read here, The Bowen Center for Study of the Family - or ask a counseling center that offers materials on the subject from reputable sources and seems well-versed in this dynamic :)

For more information on common family roles within dysfunctional families, this article gives a good synopsis on what you may be doing to perpetuate it.

WAKE UP - and good environmental, group, and individual health to all! LOL

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