Sometimes it is obvious who the problem person is in a family or a congregation. Everything would be just fine if we could just fix the troubled child in the family, or make the disruptive member of a congregation change his or her ways, or pressure the clueless clergyperson to resign.
Most often a family seeks therapy, or a congregation calls for assistance from the district, diocese or parish due to that problem person. From a systems perspective this person has a name. He or she is the identified patient.
The identified patient, the one with the most obvious symptoms and maladaptive behaviors is ironically rarely the underlying cause of a crisis or unmanageable situation.
That person’s role does need to be addressed, but unless the true underlying issue is identified and addressed, nothing will change. The child may leave home, the clergyperson or disruptive member may resign, but someone or something will take that person’s place and continue the pattern unless the deeper issues are addressed.
Here’s how this works.
Edwin Friedman taught that “the stress and the anxiety in a family or a congregation can be contained and “managed” by focusing it all on one person, the identified patient. When attention is focused on that person no one else has to face their own issues.
In families, the focus of negative energy is often but not always a child. In congregations, it is often but not always, the clergyperson.
If the “identified patient” is treated in isolation and returns to a system that has not changed, or if he or she moves to another family or congregation, the problems will remain, Friedman wrote. That person will become the focus of negative energy again. Of if the person goes somewhere else, another person will become the new identified patient who will in turn become the focus of the anxiety in the system.
For example, the anxiety behind serious conflict between a married couple is often shifted onto a child. The child begins acting out, getting bad grades, taking drugs, skipping school, engaging in destructive behavior, or experiencing depression or another mental or physical illness.
To heal the system and alleviate the anxiety, the parents need to deal with their own issues, and resolve the problems between them in one way or another. It is amazing how quickly a child can recover when parents address their own issues, which are the root cause of anxiety in the family.
In a congregation, the anxiety behind a conflict over membership growth including a desire by some to stay small and not change, may be focused on a clergyperson or a key lay leader. That person might appear burned out, incompetent, detached, or he or she may become addicted to a substance, begin acting inappropriately or fail to follow through on responsibilities.
If the clergyperson or lay leader leaves and the underlying conflict is not resolved, the next person will become the focus of the anxiety in the system. On the other hand, if the conflict between those who want to grow and diversify and those who want to hold onto familiar ways and familiar people is addressed and resolved, the energy of anxiety can be channeled in creative and healing ways.
The best way to begin to shift the focus in a system with an identified patient is to turn the finger away from that person and point it towards yourself.
Ask yourself: What is my role? What do I need to address that I have been avoiding? How do I contribute to the situation? How do I direct my anxiety regarding this issue? Does the anxiety get resolved in a healthy or an unhealthy way? What might I do differently?