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Virginia Satir

“Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible — the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.”

A notable American author and psychotherapist, Virginia Satir is considered the mother of family therapy for her pioneering work in how to treat individuals seeking help. Her work included a new approach to therapy that involved treating not only one individual, but all individuals involved in the family. This is why her work stressed treating the entire family unit as opposed to a single individual. Her tools were myriad, and her results were incredibly successful, making her a widely known psychotherapist the world over (Deborah Luepnitz 2002).

Humanistic and concerned with the existential qualities of human relationships, Virginia Satir was considered a founder and leading catalyst in the evolution of experimental family therapies Virginia was one of the pioneers of family therapy. She also created many concepts that have been used to build healthy families, teams and organizations. She enabled many people to grow. She believed in encouraging them to express their essence. People who met her felt at ease, affirmed and stronger. Virginia was a marvelous educator. Generating enormous warmth, she employed her intuition, yet underpinned it with a formidable intellect. For example, she pioneered a systems approach to family therapy (Luepnitz, 2002)..


Looking back, Virginia felt she learned positive things from both her parents. Despite the hospital episode, Minnie was ambitious for her eldest daughter, who showed great ability to learn. For example, Virginia taught herself to read by the age of three. Minnie later insisted the family move from their farm to Milwaukee so that her daughter could attend High School. Virginia said that Minnie taught her how to fix things, while Oscar taught her the value of honesty. Both embodied strong ethics. They also taught her to focus on possibilities– and solutions – rather than get dragged down by problems (Satir, 1983).

She would later say: “Problems are not the problem, coping is the problem.”


Virginia studied hard at High School. Money was scarce – America was going through the Depression – so she took jobs to fund her studies. She then went on to the Milwaukee State Teachers College. Whilst studying to be a teacher, she worked in a department store and with children at weekends. She also worked at an African-American Community Centre called Abraham Lincoln House. This opened her eyes to racism – people being discriminated against because they were different. Managing and rejoicing in differences became a key theme in her later work with families and organisations. Whilst extremely practical, she also encouraged people to explore their possibilities (Hoffman 1981).


Satir’s method revolved around two core elements—family life chronology, in which she sought to understand the developmental patterns of relationships in the family as a basis for change; and family reconstruction, in which she attempted to guide families through a process of engaging positive change using experiential interventions from guided, guided contemfantasy plation, hypnosis, psychodrama, family sculpting, parts parties, and role-playing (Gross, 1994; Satir, 1988; Winter and Parker, 1991).


One of Satir’s chief concerns was communication within families. Satir (1988) wrote, “Once a human being has arrived on this earth, communication is the largest single factor determining what kinds of relationships she or he makes with others and what happens to each in the world.”


Satir developed within her model five conceptual styles of communication: placating, blaming, computing, distracting, and congruent communication. In Satir’s conception, placaters act as pleasers and are often self-effacing, blamers act self-righteously and often accuse, computers are emotionally detached and often rigidly intellectual, distracters are unfocused and seemingly unable to relate to what is actually being communicated about or going on in the family, and congruent communicators are expressive, responsible, seem genuine, and articulate themselves clearly and in the appropriate context. Satir utilized experiential techniques that allowed families to explore, acknowledge, and modify their own communication patterns in-session. Role plays, family sculpting, and guided contemplation were three prevalent forms of experiential communication therapy used by Satir in her work with families (Luepnitz, 2002)..

In observing a family, Satir centered her focus on family interconnectedness, especially triad units, the relationship emotional system between three members of a family. The mother-father-child triad frequently held the center of her attention, as she believed that it is most powerfully in the crucible of this triadic relationship that children begin to learn about and practice intimacy (Baldwin, 1991). Satir held four assumptions:

(1) All people await the potential of growth and are capable of transformation;

(2) People carry all the resources they need for positive growth and development;

(3) Families are systems wherein everyone and everything impacts and is impacted by everyone and everything else; and

(4) The beliefs of counselors are more important than their techniques (Satir and Baldwin, 1983).


The Theory behind the Satir Method

Since everyone shares energy, there are a few truths that Satir believed to be evident in people. She believed that everyone was good at their core and their coping skills were ultimate what lead to surface issues. Also, she believed all humans experience the world in much the same fashion through physical sensations, emotions, thinking, experiencing, etc. It's a point of connection that is worth acknowledging during treatment. Satir believed that every person is capable of change and that focusing on this skill is what will lead people in the right direction.


The reason the Satir Method works so well is that of its focus on potential, personal skills, and hope. Focusing only on the disorder or the surface issue doesn't solve the issue. Instead, encouraging individuals to take charge of how they see situations and how they can help them overcome previous events. This then equips them to handle new events, however stressful, in healthy ways. When past events are dealt with properly, their current behavior and attitude will change as a result which affects the relationships they have. As stated previously, it is believed that every person has the ability to change. They are in control of their emotions and whether those emotions hold them back. They are also in control of their acceptance of past events. By coming to terms with previous experiences and understanding that emotions are their responsibility, they can enact change in their own life. This creates responsibility for the individual in cultivating their own emotional growth ( Baldwin, 1991).

Personal Growth and Self-Worth

One piece of her approach to therapy included recognizing that individuals have their sense of worth and that they are responsible for their worth. This forms as a result of their environment, typically starting within the family unit but are only held at will by the individual as time goes on. When a part of the family unit is suffering from an illness, it's important to assess the entire family unit for influences. As well, she would encourage treatment of the entire unit as part of this model. Families that reciprocate feelings, affection, and love go on to thrive as units, as they should. Her pioneering work changed the way family therapy, couples therapy, and marriage counseling was administered and improved the lives of many ( Baldwin, 1991).


It's Not About the Illness

Another important factor about her work focused on the individual instead of the illness. Satir believed that the issues appearing on the surface were masking deeper issues, likely rooted in childhood. While addressing the surface issue might help, it would be more beneficial to the individual to discuss what is underneath. Using various techniques, she would help her clients uncover the root of their surface issues and help eliminate those problems by coming to terms with them, forming healthy coping mechanisms, and creating meaningful relationships with others (Satir and Baldwin, 1983)..

Acceptance Promotes Change

While therapy can give individuals the coping skills necessary to move forward in their lives, one of the markers of this therapy was understanding and accepting past events. The memories of the past should not prevent the client from moving forward. By accepting the events as unchangeable, each can take a step towards a happier existence. Hanging on to old beliefs, poor experiences, and shameful feelings only hinder the person from experiencing the here and now. Acceptance is the key to promoting those first steps toward change.


How It Works

There are four main goals in the Satir Method: raise confidence, become an active decision-maker, become responsible, and become congruent. These goals will ultimately lead to change in the individual. As the therapy progresses, the therapist and client will set new goals as well. Achieving transformational change can only occur when the attitude and perspective of the individual have changed. When they are only focused on past events or current issues, they can't take the steps necessary to improve their lifestyle (Hoffman 1981).


Raising confidence helps the individual take charge of their decisions. From there, they see that they have a level of responsibility for their emotional health and active functioning. Then, the client commits to becoming consistent in their decisions, goals, and statements. They become an active agent in their lifestyle (Hoffman 1981).


Who It's For

Primarily, the Satir Method helps individuals recover from past events in childhood as well as helps improve relationships. By using self-actualization, the individual can form stronger interpersonal connections with those around them, family, romantic partners, and friends alike. This type of therapy is also used for groups and couples for its beneficial structure in providing a safe environment to discuss issues and create healthy goals (Luepnitz, 2002).


Satir’s fallacy is the fallacy of believing that one can change the world by appealing to principles of therapeutic changes alone, ignoring the global political changes that must be understood and grappled with. Satir, unlike her contemporary Carl Whitaker, was concerned with directly identifying and addressing symptoms. Satir held that symptoms of individuals in families express family pain and that children’s symptoms are related to marital difficulties in which they become triangulated (Luepnitz, 2002).

Satir traveled the world teaching her Human Validation Process model on a quest for world peace, and she was quite compelling. Yet, her lack of theoretical clarity and precision cost her equal respect alongside other major family therapy pioneers. Alan Gurman and David Kniskern (1981) chose not to represent Satir’s work in their Handbook of Family Therapy because “no discernible school or therapeutic method has evolved from her contribution.”

Nonetheless, many important family therapists have extolled Satir’s inspirational genius, whose impact on the field was distinctive. Another distinguished family therapy authority, Lynn Hoffman (1981), attested to “the power of her presence with families” and her “extraordinary and unique contribution” to the field. Virginia said she wanted to be a detective that helped to solve the puzzles within families. She was much more. She rightly earned her accolade as a pioneer of family therapy. Virginia helped thousands of people to discover new and enriching worlds.


What I learnt from Virginia Satir

As a psychology student this is one of the great ways of sharing the wisdom I gained from Virginia Satir, who was a world famous family therapist and social worker. Many refer to Virginia as the “Columbus of Family Therapy” because she discovered the effectiveness of conducting psychotherapy with entire families, as opposed to the traditional method of working with one individual at a time. Virginia was one of the pioneers of family therapy. She also created many concepts that have been used to build healthy families, teams and organizations. She enabled many people to grow. She believed in encouraging them to express their essence. People who met her felt at ease, affirmed and stronger. Virginia was a marvelous educator. Generating enormous warmth, she employed her intuition, yet underpinned it with a formidable intellect.


I have organized my learning under five major headings: families, self-worth, communication, feelings and change.

“Families are systems, and all living systems go toward balance”

Families

Virginia first discovered that our families work as systems when she was working as social worker in a mental hospital in Chicago. She was treating a young woman and she noticed that just as the young woman starting getting better, her mother got deeply depressed and her father had a heart attack. She also noted that when these events occurred in the family, the young woman got sick again. Virginia concluded that these changes were not coincidental and that she needed to treat the family as a system—as a whole. When we change our behavior, we may experience strong pulls from our family to go back to our old ways of being. We have upset the balance of the system and the system will try to right itself by pressuring us to return to our former behavior. When we understand the nature of systems, we can resist the pressure to return to our previous ways of being. We can become the person we want to be.

“Children are like seedlings—they grow best when they are in a nurturing environment.”

Virginia believed that often we create unnurturing environments for our children by assuming: · that in marital and parental relationships, someone must dominate and someone must submit, · that to be different from others in the family is bad, · that when there is a problem, one person has to be at fault, and · that it’s best to avoid change and preserve the status quo. She also believed we are very capable of change, and that we can change our families to nurturing environments by: · seeing the members of our families as equal in personhood, regardless of age or gender, · celebrating our personality differences, our uniqueness, · understanding that our problems are multicausal and not needing to find fault, and · accepting and celebrating change as the way of nature

“Conflict is unavoidable because it is a manifestation of our differentness.”

Virginia assumed we would have conflicts in our families, because each of us is a different person with a different perspective. When we pretend that we don’t have conflicts, we often develop psychosomatic illnesses. The pain of the conflict is felt and held in our bodies, making us sick. When we accept conflict as a normal part of life, we can deal with it openly. We can even look forward to it, knowing that we can learn and grow from it.

“You can’t teach something you don’t know.”

Virginia believed that if we weren’t taught how to be emotionally healthy, it is hard for us to model this for our children. When we · fight over who is right, · stuff our feelings or explode, · get down on ourselves when we fail, · work all of the time, · have difficulty disciplining ourselves, or · use substances to help us cope, our children will tend to do the same. When we can · learn to negotiate and accommodate, · learn to release our feelings appropriately, · accept our failures, · discipline ourselves, · and allow time for play, our children will do the same.


Virginia traveled around the world demonstrating family therapy. As she did, she began to see similarities between the problems of families and the problems of nations. These are: the concentration of power in one person or role · the pressure for conformity and obedience, the use of blame, and · the use of threat, force and violence. With this realization Virginia felt hopeful, because she believed we can create greater peace between our family of nations just as we do with families, by learning to communicate honestly and clearly, cooperate rather than compete, empower rather than subjugate, enhance individual uniqueness rather than categorize, use authority to guide and accomplish, rather than for gaining compliance, love, value, and respect each other, be responsible to each other, and use our problems as challenges and opportunities for creative solutions.

“The world is a family of nations.”

Self-worth

“Self-worth is the crucial factor in terms of what happens inside and between people.”

Virginia believed that the level of our self-worth is the key to how we feel and how we behave. She was trained in psychoanalytic theory, which works on the premise that the key determinants of our behavior are our sexual and aggressive drives. However, after years of experience in treating people with emotional and behavioral problems, Virginia concluded that self-worth is even more of a determinant. She noted that when we are experiencing low self-worth, we are more likely to behave in destructive ways—either toward ourselves or toward others. We may hold on to negative beliefs about ourselves, creating the possibility of depression, anxiety, or defensiveness. We often get involved in hurtful relationships. We are more likely to be addicted to harmful substances or harmful activities. On the other hand, Virginia noted that when we are experiencing high self-worth we behave in more mature, productive and loving ways. We can see ourselves as worthwhile even when we make mistakes. We can take risks. We are able to choose and maintain supportive relationships. We have creative energy and a desire to contribute to society.

“Rejection is an issue of self-worth.”

For Virginia, it is a matter of low self-worth when we perceive ourselves as being rejected. She believed that when we are not feeling good about ourselves, we are more likely to see exclusion as a matter of rejection. If we are not invited or included, we tend to think there is something wrong with us. When we are feeling worthwhile, we are comfortable with the fact that sometimes we fit in with a particular group or situation and sometimes we don’t. We understand that it is a matter of fit, not worth.

“People are unique, and therefore impossible to compare.”

Many of us have been given the message that “to be different is bad,” that it is not okay to be different from others. We have believed it. Virginia saw this message as being very destructive to our self-worth. To her, the miracle of life is that no two of us on earth are exactly alike, that we are each unique. It is impossible, therefore, for us to compare ourselves. We can, however, celebrate our unique contributions to the world.


Communication

“Communication is to relationships what breath is to life.”

For Virginia, effective communication is vital to a healthy relationship. When we are not communicating with each other effectively, we often make incorrect assumptions about what the other is thinking and feeling. We may withhold our true thoughts and feelings or be unclear about them. We often don’t feel heard or understood and conclude that we are not loved. We may become depressed and look to others outside the relationship to meet our needs. When we are communicating more effectively, we are able to share our thoughts and feelings and to examine our understanding of the other person. We are open to learning

“Communication is with yourself as well as with others.”

Virginia believed that the way we talk to ourselves is just as important as the way we talk with others. We often talk to ourselves in very unkind ways. We label ourselves negatively, calling ourselves names like “stupid” or “idiot.” We compare ourselves to others and tell ourselves that we are not as good as someone else. We are critical of ourselves, telling ourselves we “should” be different than we are. Virginia believed that we can change this, and that it is extremely important for our self-worth that we do change it. We can talk to ourselves regularly, telling ourselves that we are valuable, worthwhile, and unique. We can accept our feelings as not right or wrong, but simply our feelings. And we can forgive ourselves regarding our mistakes.

“Touching is a universal language.”

Virginia believed that, no matter what their verbal language, all people can understand the language of touch. She also believed that we all need touch. In fact, it was her contention that touches is one of the great unmet needs of most people. Because of this, Virginia touched people a great deal. And she did it in a very caring, loving manner. She used to say that we can touch with our eyes, our voice, and our bodies. If we have grown up in families where there wasn’t much touching, we may feel uncomfortable with it. But our uncomfortableness does not mean that we don’t have a yearning for touch. Unfortunately, there is often a negative correlation between our age and the amount of touch we receive. If we choose, we can practice getting comfortable with touch.

Feelings

“Feelings give us our juice!”

Virginia believed that having access to our feelings is what gives us our energy and our aliveness. When we are cut off from our feelings, we may feel numb, lethargic, and uninspired. Depression and anxiety may set in. We can even develop illnesses because our feelings are stuck in our bodies. We find our relationships unsatisfying when we can’t relate to the feelings of others. Virginia helped people get in touch with their feelings simply by asking them frequently how they were feeling. Her belief was that we can learn to be in touch with our feelings by increasing our awareness of them. When we can develop our capacity to feel, we gain a sense of relief, freedom, and energy. We also increase our ability to empathize with others, which is a very important aspect of being an emotionally healthy individual.

“Feelings we have in the present are often generated by thoughts from the past.”

As Virginia saw it, we often have feelings based on previous experiences while attributing them to present ones. When we are upset with someone in the present sometimes we are really reacting to a reminder from our past. We may see our spouse as controlling because we had a controlling parent. We may be intimidated by our boss because as children we learned to be frightened of authority figures. We may be impatient with our child because they reminds us of ourself as a child. When we can develop more awareness about ourselves, we are more able to keep clear about what belongs to whom. We are more able to relate to people for who they are, rather than who we think they are.


Change

“People are capable of change.”

Virginia saw growth and change as the natural order of the universe. She believed that we can learn new ways of being no matter what our age. When we resist change, it’s often because we don’t have hope that things can be better for us. Virginia always had hope and promoted hope because she knew people are capable of positive changes. She also knew that we need the energy from hope in order to change. Over the years of observing change in people she saw that we go through universal stages. First—we have an awareness that we need to change but we don’t change. Second—something interrupts our usual way of being such as a divorce, our child gets into trouble, or we lose our job. Third—we feel in chaos, distressed and anxious. We are often in a great deal of pain and feel out of control. We can go one of two ways. We can choose to stay as we are and blame someone else for our pain, or we can choose to look at ourselves and make some changes. Fourth—if we do choose to change, we come to a new level of understanding and integration. Fifth—we must practice the new changes to make them. Once we understand these stages, we are more likely to be able to recognize when our pain is really “the stage of chaos.” With this recognition we can feel more in control, and know that we are at a choice point in the process of change.

“The only real certainty in life is change.”

To Virginia, the acceptance and use of change for growth was the emotionally healthy approach. She viewed it as unhealthy to try to get security and certainty by resisting natural changes. When she worked with parents, she looked to see if they were “up to date” and adjusting their expectations for the ages of their children. We can choose to resist change or acknowledge it and even look forward to it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to feel the losses that go along with changes. But it means we can see change as the way of nature, and the opportunity for greater wisdom and actualization on our part.

“Risk is a part of life. It rejuvenates us.”

Virginia identified the attitude we were taught toward risk taking as one of the most critical in terms of our self-worth. She believed that when we can take risks, we feel better about ourselves. Similarly, when we don’t take risks, we lose respect for ourselves. Virginia modeled risk-taking. When she began doing family therapy, it was not an accepted method of treatment. She not only took the risk to do family therapy, but she also took the risk to practice it on stage while skeptical professionals watched and critiqued her. When we can tell ourselves that our success or failure at something new is not related to our basic worth as a human being, we are more able to take risks. The more risks we are able to take, the easier it is to feel good about ourselves.


Nonetheless, many important family therapists have extolled Satir’s inspirational genius, whose impact on the field was distinctive. Another distinguished family therapy authority, Lynn Hoffman (1981), attested to “the power of her presence with families” and her “extraordinary and unique contribution” to the field.

"We must not allow other people's limited perceptions to define us."
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