What is an LMFT?

Good question, glad you asked. Not many people know. LMFT stands for Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist.

Now, you might think this tells you all you need to know. But it doesn’t. An LMFT does not work solely with couples and families. In fact, we are just as likely, if not more so, to work with individuals.

But like all mental and behavioral health counselors, LMFTs have an approach to counseling and psychotherapy that is informed by their education and training. Much of this education and training overlaps with that of other professionals, but some doesn’t. What doesn’t is the LMFT’s focus on systems theory. On how each of us as an individual is actually not a wholly independent, self-sustaining, autonomous person, like many other types of therapy assume, but rather a person in contact with, influencing, and influenced by, our surroundings. Our family, our friends, our society. Our others.

In other words, we don’t live in this world alone, and therefore we cannot expect to change independently of it, or to independently change it. We are part, all of us, of a system. Actually many systems. And we cannot be extracted from them. They will always affect us, and we them.

So what does that mean?

That means your family system (parents, grandparents, siblings, children, grandchildren, etc.) affects how you think, feel, and behave. Your network of friends is another system that affects how you think, feel, and behave. Your work colleagues, your classmates, any group, or groups, of people you interact with affects you. And you it. Each part of the system affects other parts, and no part operates independently. What we do, think, and feel may sometimes depend less on who we are as individuals than on who we’ve become, and who we’ve become is influenced by the relationships that have shaped us.

Even your mind is a system. Your thoughts affect your feelings. Your feelings in turn drive your thoughts. Both of these affect your behavior. And your behavior in turn affects both of these. A change in behavior, believe it or not, can result in change in your thoughts and feelings.

Some practical examples…

  • A basketball player focused on individual success is upset that his stats are in the toilet. He’s on a losing team, he wants to be traded. A new coach is hired. The new coach shifts the focus to team success. The team begins to play with balance and harmony, and the player’s individual stats improve. The team is winning, and he no longer wants to be traded.
  • Mom dreads the thought of going to work in the morning. Her mood brings down the rest of the family. Everyone’s day gets off to a bad start, and mom complains that her family is making her miserable. After working with an LMFT, she changes her approach to her mornings. Her family notices, and the mood improves. This further boosts her mood. She goes to work feeling good, gets along better with her coworkers, gets more done, and soon she is no longer dreading going to work. Her family sees she is even happier, which in turn feeds into their mood, and so on.

A marriage and family therapist is thinking about these things, about systems, whether she is working with a family, a couple, or an individual. One thing we keep in mind at all times is how the system that any one of us is a part of cannot not change if another part of it changes. In other words, partnering with an individual who wants to change causes change in the behavior of friends, family members, and any other people that person might interact with. So really, even if we are sitting across from one person, we are still considering how change in that one person will result in change in that person’s spouse, friends, children, etc. We tend to think we are not sitting across from only one person, even when there is only one person sitting across from us.

So LMFTs are better than other kinds of therapists?

No, this doesn’t make us any better or more effective than other types of counselors, for you. But then again, it might. Or it might not. It’s something worth thinking about, at least.

And it doesn’t necessarily change the outcome of your therapy. There are many cooks in many different kitchens all over town, all making excellent dishes, many of which you will like. No one of them is “better” than another. It’s really just a matter of taste.

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