In celebration of mental health, today’s post honors family psychotherapist and social worker extraordinaire Virginia Satir.
Recognized by many as “the pioneer of family therapy,” she developed her own approach, conjoint family therapy, in the 1960s, later known as the human validation process model or the Satir Change Model as applied to business organizations.
She had a great impact on the practice of therapy in general (and was a huge influence on yours truly!).
Virginia Satir introduced many transformational concepts, among others: an emphasis in the role that love plays in therapeutic processes; the human need for personal space and validation; the difference between what people intend to say and what they actually say; and the importance of healthy relationships and self-esteem in mental and emotional health and well being.
Satir viewed each person as unique and empowered them to connect with their own inner source of wisdom.
Satir believed the cause of mental imbalance were the limiting identities or rigid belief systems people formed as a result of feeling forced to live up to rigid expectations, comparisons, external standards and judgments – that existed at personal, familial and cultural levels. Known for demonstrations of her work with families, in which she seemingly performed miracles before large audiences, Satir had a knack for helping family members quickly access their strengths and authentic voices.
Four Survival Stances
Satir observed that people developed one of four distinct “survival stances,” or some combination of these, in attempt to cope with their problems: (1) Placating; (2) Blaming; (3) Super-reasonable; and (4) Irrelevant.
A fifth “stance” that she identified was not really a stance, but rather her definition for what mental health looked like for a person, increasingly so, once they made the transforming choice of becoming more fully human.
Congruent and Fully Human
A healthy person was first and foremost authentic in the how they related to self and others, in that they: appreciated uniqueness; flowed with interpersonal energy; were willing to take risks; were willing to be vulnerable; were open to intimacy; felt free to accept self and others; loved self and others; and were also flexible and self-aware.
A healthy person also:
- Communicates congruently with their words, emotions and bodies.
- Makes conscious choices based on awareness, acknowledgment, and acceptance of self, other, and context.
- Replies to questions directly, evaluates before passing judgement, and listens to own “wisdom box.”
- Expresses sexual vitality, and names desires openly.
- Makes requests of others without having to explain themselves.
- Makes honest choices, and takes risks on own behalf.
The Five Freedoms – Using Our Senses
Noting the significant role our senses play in our survival, she devised the following “Five Freedoms” tool, essentially affirmations, to help people connect to their body and self in the moment, and focus their attention on their inner resources and creative choices in the present. (Here we see how ahead of her time Satir was; these are mindfulness concepts proven today by neuroscience research.)
The Five Freedoms are:
- The freedom to see and hear what is here, instead of what “should” be, was, or will be.
- The freedom to say what you feel and think, instead of what you “should” feel and think.
- The freedom to feel what you feel, instead of what you “ought” to feel.
- The freedom to ask for what you want, instead of always waiting for permission.
- The freedom to take risks on you own behalf, instead of choosing to be only “secure”.
Satir’s Therapeutic Beliefs and Assumptions
Satir believed people have an internal drive that propels them to become more fully human. She viewed this positive energy, as a life force that exerts wholesome pulls and pushes on us–physically, emotionally, and spiritually–throughout life.
Her therapeutic model rested on the following assumptions, that:
- Change is possible. Believe it.
- The most challenging tasks in life are relational. Simultaneously, relational tasks are the only avenue for growth. All challenges in life are relational.
- No task in life is more difficult as the role of parent. Parents do the best they can do given time the resources they “see” available to them at any given time.
- Next to our role as parents, no task in life is more challenging. We all have the internal resources we need to access successfully and to grow.
- We have choices, disempowering and empowering ones, especially in terms of responding to stress.
- All efforts to produce change need to focus on health and possibilities (not pathology).
- Hope is a significant component or ingredient for change.
- People connect on similarities and grow on resolving differences.
- The major goal in life is to become own choice makers, agents and architects of our life and relationships.
- We are all manifestations of the same life energy and intelligence.
- Most people choose familiarity over comfort, especially in times of stress.
- The problem is not the problem, coping is the problem.
- Emotions belong to us. They are an essential aspect of experiencing self, life, others.
- All human beings at heart are beings of love and intelligence who seek to grow, express their creativity, intelligence, and basic goodness; need to be validated, connect, and find own inner treasure.
- Parents often repeat own familiar patterns, even if dysfunctional.
- We cannot change past events, only the effects they have on us today.
- Appreciating and accepting the past increases our ability to manage present.
- Goal toward wholeness: accept parents as people and meet them at their level of personhood rather than only in their roles.
- Coping is the manifestation of our level of self-worth.
- The higher our self-worth, the more wholesome our coping.
- Human processes are universal and therefore occur in different settings, cultures, and circumstances.
A poem that Virginia Satir wrote following a session with a young client who questioned the meaning of her life. The poem seems to resonate with psychotherapists and clients alike.
I am me.
In all the world, there is no one exactly like me.
There are persons who have some parts like me,
but no one adds up exactly like me.
Therefore, everything that comes out of me
is authentically mine because I alone choose it.
I own everything about me
My body including everything it does;
My mind including all its thoughts and ideas;
My eyes including the images of all they behold;
My feelings whatever they may be…
anger, joy, frustration, love, disappointment, excitement
My Mouth and all the words that come out of it
polite, sweet or rough, correct or incorrect;
My Voice loud or soft.
And all my actions, whether they be to others or to myself.
I own my fantasies, my dreams, my hopes, my fears.
I own all my triumphs and successes, all my failures and mistakes.
Because I own all of me I can become intimately acquainted with me.
By doing so I can love me and be friendly with me in all parts.
I can then make it possible for all of me to work in my best interests.
I know there are aspects about myself that puzzle me,
and other aspects that I do not know.
But as long as I am friendly and loving to myself,
I can courageously and hopefully, look for solutions to the puzzles
and for ways to find out more about me.
However I look and sound, whatever I say and do,
And whatever I think and feel at a given moment in time is me.
This is authentic and represents where I am in that moment in time.
When I review later how I looked and sounded, what I said and did,
And how I thought and felt, some parts may turn out to be unfitting.
I can discard that which is unfitting,
And keep that which proved fitting,
And invent something new for that which I discarded.
I can see, hear, feel, think, say and do.
I have the tools to survive, to be close to others, to be productive,
and to make sense and order out of the world of people
and things outside of me.
I own me, and therefore I can engineer me.
I am me and I am okay.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and, if you’ve been inspired in any way, or have thoughts to share, I’d love to hear from you!
Virginia Satir (26 June 1916 – 10 September 1988) was an American author and psychotherapist, known especially for her approach to family therapy and her work with Systemic Constellations. Her most well-known books are Conjoint Family Therapy, 1964, Peoplemaking, 1972, and The New Peoplemaking, 1988.
She is also known for creating the Virginia Satir Change Process Model, a psychological model which was developed through clinical studies, and later applied to organizations. Change management and organizational gurus of the 1990s and 2000s embrace this model to define how change impacts organizations.