09/17/2012 12:06 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

Women Using the Butterfly Effect to Make a Difference

Earlier this week, hundreds of women therapists, and a fair share of male therapists, converged upon Charlotte, North Carolina's Conventiontion Center. This swarm of couples, family and sex therapists is here in Charlotte for a much lower-key event than the excitement that took place in the same town, in the same place, just last week. I am referring to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy's Annual Conference. The conference theme: Women: Evolving Roles in Society and Family.

To understand the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, you need to understand systems theory, which is the major psychological theory practiced by the many committed, hard-working professionals who travel from around the globe to participate in several days of training, networking and research presentations. To understand systems theory (assuming that you are not a therapist), just think about what they tell you on an airplane, only in reverse: "In case of an emergency, don't help the child next to you until you have put on your own oxygen mask." Systems theory understands that you cannot help a child unless you help their family. You cannot help an individual if you do not consider the important relationships in their lives. If therapy leads a married person to change, systems theory acknowledges that this will inevitably impact the marriage. These changes must be a part of the therapeutic equation. In other words, we are all a part of the relationship systems in which we operate; if we insist upon individual change, we may not achieve every aspect of the change we hope for immediately, but the relationships around us are bound to be affected. The power of our relationships and how we operate in them is key.

The takeaway: If each of us does our part as therapists, as women, and as individuals, we may not change the world overnight, but we create a powerful butterfly effect that matters.

Thursday, former Surgeon General Dr. Jocelyn Elders talked to enthusiastic conference participants about the need to help women receive the preventative health care they need. She boldly asserted that arguments for abstinence "break much more easily than a latex condoms!" Yesterday, Mary Gergen, Ph.D. spoke eloquently about the significance of dramatically shifting gender rules and roles. This morning, Gina Ogden, Ph.D, author of many books including Women Who Love Sex completely inspired with her message that sex is not just physical, but is spiritual, emotional, multi-dimensional and can continue to improve over the course of a woman's life span. Finally, legendary cartoonist Liza Donnelly left everyone in hysterics using her images and words to demonstrate that humor is power women can (and should) use to generate change.

Serendipitously, the most striking example of a woman using her powerful butterfly effect approach to change the system and break new ground is on display just a short walk from Charlotte's Convention Center at the Mint museum. Beautifully exhibited are Madeleine Albright's magnificent pins which she wore, strategically and deliberately, throughout her tenure to Ambassador to the United Nations and then as Secretary of State. The pins were a symbolic gesture, but they shook the system in powerful ways. When she wanted to convey hope, she wore a dove. When she wanted to express the need for change, she wore a butterfly. To express her patriotism, she wore one of her many bejeweled American flags. To show respect during negotiations with China, she wore a panda. When she wanted to convey awareness of the multiple tentacles resisting change, she wore an octopus. When visiting victims of Hurricane Katrina, a young man handed her an elegant jeweled pin and explained that his mother revered her -- she had lost her life through the hurricane, and her son knew that she would have wanted Secretary Albright to have her favorite pin, a cherished anniversary gift. Secretary Albright wears this woman's cherished jewels to convey that it is not the jewels themselves, but the emotional meaning behind them that matters.

Robert F. Kennedy famously said:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Whether you are a therapist caring enough to help a single mother learn to take better care of herself so that she can take better care of her child, an advocate willing to say courageous things that others will not, a gifted cartoonist challenging norms through humor and art, or the Secretary of State going into adverse situations willing to use everything in your arsenal, even pins, to make an impact, change happens slowly. And small gestures can make all of the difference.