Who is Virginia Satir?
“The family is the microcosm of the world. By knowing how to heal the family, I know how to heal the world….Peace within, peace between, peace among.” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 175).
Virginia Satir, (1916-1988) is the founder of the Satir system of family therapy. Her humanistic perspective intermingled with a respect for empirical research is what makes her approach interesting (Haber, 2002). It incorporates a few central insights that appear in opposition to one another at first glance. On one hand, her approach is centered toward increasing self-esteem of individuals (McClendon, 1999, p31). This occurs through attempts to achieve greater congruence between the mind, body and spirit as well as from a greater level of self awareness overall (McClendon, 1999, p31). On the other hand, against this self-honoring perspective, is one that attempts to understand people in relation to others (Metcalf, 2011). Her utilizes the concept that the whole is greater than its parts (McClendon, 1999). It’s when you take into consideration her own difficult family background that the underlying reasoning for this dichotomous perspective is seen. Virginnia Satir hopes to help others understand that we are more than our past histories (Mishlove, 2010a). Her work her work is geared toward helping clients achieve this underlying end goal.
Satir’s Human Validation Process
Satir’s Human Validation Process utilizes the concept of emotional validation, a notion closely associated with Linehan’s DBT approach. It is important, therefore to differentiate this concept from the laymen’s definition of “valid” which pertains to the factual nature of a “thing”. As Satir uses the term, validation can be thought of as similar to the compassion & empathy – except that goes much deeper. To understand what I’m talking about, it might help to first discuss the concept of invalidation:
What is Invalidation?
Marsha Linehan (1997), defines invalidation as “trivializing, punishing, judging, or ignoring a persons thoughts and feelings”. In a book I own titled “Compassion” the following example shows what might happen if a child never receives any validation:
“Let us imaging the following: A child grows up and never experienced any validation of thoughts or feelings. He is an emotionally feral child, but lives within a community of other people who ignore validation. His parents have a radical behaviorist approach…adhering to the strictly behavioral position that emotions…are meaningless constructs.” (Gilbert, 2005, 199).
What is Validation?
While invalidation means denying an individual’s experience, validation means finding the grain of truth in the reality of their experiences, even if slightly distorted (Gilbert, 2005). SHVP, developed by Virginia Satir, reflects this concept of validation. It focuses on how family patterns influence the growth and well being of its members (Metcalf, 2011). For example, this SHVP describes a variety dysfunctional communication styles and open vs. closed family systems (Metcalf, 2011). This present and experientially -oriented perspecrtive sees individuals as having innate self-actualizing tendencies (Metcalf, 2011). Change, according to Satir, occurs in six stages that are similar to dialectical behavioral therapy (McKay, 2007). Changes to the status quo of a family can only happen when foreign concepts are introduced into the family dynamic (Linehan, 1997; McKay, et al, 2007; Metcalf 2011). It is only after a period of chaos and integration, a new status quo emerges (Linehan, 1997; McKay, et al, 2007); Metcalf, 2011).
“All humans have the ability to change
humans have internal resources to allow growth throughout life.
Humans are innately good.
Coping is related to a person’s level of self-worth…
Change occurs from experiences and leads to insight….
Healthy relationships are based on equality” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 175-176).
A View of the Family
Metcalf (2011) states that Satir’s approach encourages the therapist to find new ways to view the family by encouraging us to confront our views of it. For example, multicultural sensitivity is important in this approach. Additionally, this approach recognizes family structures considered by some as “unconventional”. Human validation is essential with Satir since this allows us to function as a whole person in our relationhips. Family systems are described here as either closed or open systems.
- “Closed Systems represent a troubled family dynamic” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 177).
- “Open Systems – represent a nurturing family dynamic” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 177).
Eight Universal Internal Resources
Satir, describes eight internal resources within an individual that can be thought of as lays of experience, much like an onion. Each layer is built from the previous one and are listed as follows: (1) physical, (2) intellectual, (3) emotional, (4) sensual, (5) interactional, (6) nutritional, (7) contextual, & (8) spiritual.
In her conversation with Jeffrey Mishlove on “Communication and Congruence”, Satir brings up the issue of dual dialogues (Mishlove, 2010a). Essentially, she states that we are continually engaging in two simultaneous dialogues (Mishlove, 2010a). While one dialogue is comprised of our words, the other is regarding our suppressed beliefs and feelings. As a result, what you have is a left-brained narration against a subconscious right-schema, that can be seen throughout our nonverbal communication. What makes this notion particularly intriguing, is how it can be taken into context with her idea of promoting congruence throughout our lives. This happens by coming to owning all elements of our experiences into the present, and relating them to a greater familial dynamic. (Bahmen, 1986).
Four Dysfunctional Communication Styles
Satir states that our experiences and self-perception create motivational forces within us that have a huge impact on our relationships and the sort of communication patterns we utilize. Satir states that by examiniing the communication patterns within a family we can learn much about the dynamics amongst its’ members. For example, Satir described the following dysfunctional roles that a therapist can uncover within familal communication styles.
Placatar – avoid and cover up uncomfortable truths
Blamer Feels isolated and then attributes others for feeling this way.
Super-Reasonable – Uses logic to deny or discount stressful emotions
Irrelevant distracter – attempts to deflect stress and may flounder between the first three types
Coping As Cause.
Virginia Satir conceives our preferred coping methods, as developing within a larger familial dynamic that are passed along in a transgenerational manner (Bahmen, 1986). As she has famously noted, “The problem is not the problem; it is the coping that is the problem.” (MCclendon, 1999, p31). What is meant by this exactly?
As Satir explains, our understanding of the problem is based on our coping style. This coping style is a reflection of our self-esteem. In Satir’s conception, self esteem is a matter of congruence between our mental, physical and emotional components (McClendon, 1999, p31). Acceptance and appreciation of our individuality at all these levels is essential for self-esteem (Haber, 2002). So how does this lack of self-esteem result in altered coping?
To explain this, it helps to understand Satir’s reference to systems theory to understand family dynamics. In particular, it is often deficient homeostatic mechanisms within a family that can result in the perpetuation of unhealthy coping styles (McClendon, 1999). In a manner similar to the development of attachment styles, coping styles can also form over time. The underlying goal is to maintain an interactional familiar equilibrium style (McClendon, 1999). Examples of common coping styles in Satir’s coping styles, include placation, blaming, and irreverence, and super-reasonableness (Bageman, 1986).
In the video “Becoming More Fully Human”, (Mishlove, 2010b), Satir mentions the notion of unowned emotions It appears to be a critical component in her assertion that a congruent self-esteem is essential. Without this, you have an experiential reality that excludes subconsciously certain components. For example, for those who are super-reasonable in their coping style, you see a wealth of emotions, which they prefer to disown (Bageman, 1986). So what are disowned emotions?
As per Satir, disowned emotions are those parts of ourselves that we fail to acknowledge. They are the result of an unhealthy relationship with feelings, in which we think with them rather than through them. Seeing through the eyes of disowned feelings, means our energy between different components of ourselves (McClendon, 1999). It is for this reason, that bringing our emotional, psychic, and spiritual selves into convergence is so critical to Satir’s theory (Bageman, 1986). They allow for a fuller attendant understanding of present issues.
How Change Counts
Satir describes a six-stage process that begins with an awareness of the nature of the status quo. In stage two foreign elements are introduced into the family so that change is required if they are to adapt successfully. As might be expected, stage three begins when the status quo is disrupted and chaos reigns. People make new choices and forego routine. Integration involves adapting to new experiences this leads to stage five in which everyone practices new skills. Finally you have a new status quo…
STATUS QUO >>> FOREIGN ELEMENT >>> CHAOS >>> INTEGRATION >>> PRACTICE >>> NEW STATUS QUO…
People as Icebergs
Virginia Satir believes that people are like icebergs, in that a great majority of their inner experience lies beneath a surface (Metcalf, 2011). For this reason, therapists must uncover the inner aspects of our experience and explore them further. As I understand it, this iceberg concept, is an effective way of describing our emotional baggage. This emotional baggage is a byproduct of our interpretations of various emotional experiences in life. Satir describes these reactions to life experiences as “feelings about feelings” (Metcalf, 2011). Interestingly, Satir’s description reflects another concept from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy involving primary and secondary emotions (McKay, 2007). Essentially these concepts indicate that it is our interpretations of various life experiences that cause us problems. These interpretations are byproducts of family expectations. For example, if you were raised in a culture that encourages stoicism, displays of emotion are often met with discomfort and shame. This might be difficult for an individual with clinical depression. “We also show only those parts we want others to know” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 179)
Strengths & Weaknesses
One key strength of this theory is that it works very well in a diverse set of family situations (Metcalf, 2011). Additionally, Satir’s assertion that the family is a microcosm of the world, provides an interesting perspective. It also reflects my belief, that while the field of psychology can help us understand society, the field of sociology can help us understand us as individuals. The biggest weakness of this theory, is that it is based on the idea that all individuals are innately self-actualizing. The reality, in my experience, is that this is not the case for all individuals living in our diverse world
A Point of Disagreement
In the video on “Communication and Congruence”, Satir makes the following statement “I can see and hear better inside you than you can see and hear in yourself because I’m outside you.” (Mishlove, 2010a). When I heard this statement I was troubled. On the one hand, I do seem to understand what she means by it. In making this statement, she appears to be referencing to the idea that our realities aren’t as we perceive them. We have to make an allowance for the fact that we might not ever entirely see things as they are.
Still, even if this is what Satir intended by this statement, the author does still have concerns. Specifically, one can’t help but wonder if there is ever a time that a counselor can be entirely 100% confident they understand their clients inner reality. Is it ever possible that we could possibly know their experiences better than they experience them?
Issues Related To Family Therapy
The first issue that immediately comes to mind upon discussion of any family counseling are the related ethical concerns. For instance, as a new counselor, how is one to conceive of the notion of family as the client. When you consider the ethical ramifications underlying this idea, it is clear supervision and proper education are vital. Issues to iron out ethically, when entering into therapy, are any “ground rules” which may govern the underlying process. For example, if information is shared with one family member, how is the counselor to know when to break that confidence? Mandatory reporting laws aside, what about the issue of veracity versus nonmaleficience? How is one to know which ethical principle takes precedence? Knowing the rules of law, with an understanding of the relevant guiding principles underlying these situations is crucial (Corey, et al, 2011).
Family Needs vs. Individual Needs
The other issue, which does appear as vital as well, is how one balances needs of the family against the needs of individuals. An array of specific scenarios in mind could come to mind, in which the well-being of an individual may contradict that of the family (Corey, et al, 2011) How do you weigh the desire to improve family dynamics, against the need to address individual self-esteem? The answers to this question aren’t obviously clear cut, and therefore require proper supervision, and experience to traverse adeptly.
Satir Human Validation Process
- PHASE ONE – JOINING/BUILDING RAPPORT …reaching out…attending…mirroring…observing.
- PHASE TWO – UNDERSTANDING THE PRESENTING ISSUE: The problems result from how we choose to cope with them.
- PHASE THREE – ASSESSMENT OF FAMILY DYNAMICS: the therapist focuses perceptions, feelings, expectations, & yearnings.
- PHASE FOUR – Therapist is educator teaches client’s new ways of responding and perceiving, responding and communicating in relationships.
- PHASE FIVE – AMPLIFYING CHANGE: as clients experience higher self-esteem, homework assigned to reinforce.
- TERMINATION – In this model, change is ongoing and the work is never completed or finished.
Linehan, M. (1997). Validation and psychotherapy. (pp. 353-392). American Psychological Association. doi: 10.1037/10226-016
Gilbert, P. (Ed.). (2005). Compassion: Conceptualizations, research and use in psychotherapy. Routledge
McKay, M., Wood, J. C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland: New Harbinger
Metcalf, L, (2011). Marriage and family therapy: A practice oriented approach. New York: Springer Publishing Company
Bahmen, J. (1986). Virginia Satir’s family therapy model. Individual Psychology: The Journal of Alderian Theory, Research, & Practice, 42(4), 480-
Corsini, R. J. & Wedding, W. (2011). Current Psychotherapies. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole
Haber, R. (2002). Virginia Satir: An integrated, humanistic approach. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 24(1), 23-
Corey, C., Corey, M.S., & Callanan, P. (2011). Issues and Ethics in the Helping Professions (8th Ed.) Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
McClendon, J.A. (1999). The Satir system in action. In Daniel, J. Weiner, (Ed.). Beyond Talk Therapy: Using Movement and Expressive Techniques in Clinical Practice. (pp.29-54). Washington, D.C., U.S.: American Psychological Association.
Mishlove, J. (2010a). Virginia Satir: Communication and Congruence (excerpt). Retrieved From: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfkWnQNWCRE.
Mishlove, J. (2010b). Virginia Satir: Becoming More Fully Human (excerpt). Retrieved From: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gW3KShRdKMo