I believe that change in human behavior always involves both the internal and external conditions undergoing change. Like the area inside and outside the membrane of a bubble, they cannot be separated in reality, only conceptually.

Individual humans are whole systems inside other whole systems, like families and cultures. Intrapsychic elements—patterns of thought, emotions, beliefs—are a big part of the system that is an individual human. They direct our actions along the pathways they can distinguish. They color each bit of information coming in from the environment, interact with each other in complex ways, and are continuously modified by information coming in.

Intrapsychic elements seem to contain both a self-actualization drive–moving individuals toward greatness whenever developmental or environmental opportunities arise–and a conservative drive, organizing themselves and incoming information in a way that will keep the modification of their own pattern to a minimum. It’s easier and more efficient to rely on what we’ve already learned and the way we’ve learned it—our schemas, stereotypes, memories, patterns, and habits, as long as they keep us alive and comfortable. What Von Glasersfeld wrote in “An introduction to radical constructivism” (1981) about “knowledge” is true for our whole intrapsychic makeup—it is merely a key for getting what we need and want out of an unknowable reality. It’s not a matter of our knowledge being correct or incorrect; it’s a matter of how well the key we have fashioned fits the lock of reality.

The systems of intrapsychic elements that are people are like nodes in an interpersonal network, and also, though less concretely, nodes in a more complex and varied environmental network. Every bit of behavior by a person is a response to, and is responded to, by feedback from multiple other nodes in that person’s world. Feedback that fulfills the person’s needs or desires reinforces existing behavior. Feedback that causes the person discomfort, if possible, will be interpreted in a way that will also reinforce that behavior. If it cannot be interpreted that way, a modification or even a reorganization of the intrapsychic system occurs. At this point, behavior changes.

So this crucial point of change, when the reorganization occurs, can be approached from above or below, so to speak. A therapist in the insight tradition (psychoanalysis, humanistic, and even Bowen and Experiential family therapists to some degree) would help us observe our constituent parts, watching them operate until we see their patterns, until we can “go meta” on them, see them from a higher perspective and not be run by them as much. Then we are a changed node, changing all of our systems with our new behavior. A therapist in the systems tradition (strategic, structural, and other family therapists, Milton Erickson, etc), would instead prescribe or arrange for experiences that would trigger that reorganization. The system that you are a part of changes and ka-chunk: new behavior.

Insight therapists say that systems therapies are shallow; the person, the node, does not learn anything. How can the change last? Systems therapists say that insight therapies are inefficient and ineffective; the symptom will just pop up somewhere else in the system, for only the context really matters. Both kinds of therapists seem to think that all problems lie within their realm of expertise, and maybe they do. I imagine that both internal and external change are important, and that both insight and systems thinkers are right in some ways. I have not yet (as of November 10, 2009) figured out how that is.

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