Satir Transformational Systemic Therapy (STST), also known as the Satir method, was designed to improve relationships and communication within the family structure.
Virginia Satir taught her students to think systemically and non-linearly, and to practice holographically. The therapist’s point of entry might be from the inside or the outside of the client’s cognition, emotion, behavior, pain from the past, fears of the future or vulnerability of the present, but the therapist’s steadfast aim is to connect to the spiritual spaciousness of the client’s core self.
Virginia often spoke during her meditations of that place “...deep inside yourself where you keep the treasure that is called by your name.” Satir worked tirelessly to teach her approach and she had absolutely no doubt about its efficacy. To understand the Satir system, one needs to know its basic underpinnings, i.e. beliefs, premises, and postulates. To use the system, one needs resources and practice. Review the resource list for more information.
Satir’s STST is based on a series of core beliefs that human growth is natural and moves in a positive direction. Some of what she believed and practiced is:
Congruence offers one an experience of authenticity, a response that reflects a harmony between one’s internal and external world and the Self, Other and Context. These responses exude balance, flow, integrity, understanding and compassion. They tend to invite mature and engaging interactions that build trust and connection. Since neither the value of the Self, the Other or the Context is being squelched in the moment of the interaction, energy flows naturally, often creating synergy and intimacy. One has the experience of freedom to express one’s humanness and one’s true self; in other words, emotional honesty. The most powerful intervention into a system happens when the therapist brings congruence to the session and when the skills and value of congruence are taught.
The Satir Growth Model has, as its base, this deeply spiritual core, a belief that all people can access, experience and live from this spiritual Life Energy.
The pain people experience often comes from how they experience their behaviors, their emotions, their cognition and their expectations. When invited to learn about these aspects of their internal experience as well as their spirituality and the yearnings it produces that give positive possibilities, people can often change through their whole intrapsychic system to live more in the present through their positive life energy.
This intrapsychic system is often discussed in terms of the metaphor of an iceberg. Satir invited therapists to learn to be "deep sea divers" to journey with people into their depths and help them discover and own the internal experiences they had that were out of their awareness so that they could make new decisions about them.
Satir provided practitioners a map to help them traverse the sometimes tricky and tumultuous territory of change. Intentional change usually requires that a client feel the pain of the old status quo while holding onto hope and vision for a better way to live. Grief is a part of that process, as change requires a leaving or letting go of some aspect of an old way of operating. The old status quo and its familiarity are comforting, but costly. Invited or not, foreign elements come in the form of symptoms, major events of loss or gain, as well as therapy. The foreign element shakes one’s grounding.
Chaos follows with its array of feelings: confusion, fear, sadness, excitement, etc. When people feel this chaos, they can continue to work toward a better future, or they can return to the old status quo. This process requires that one hold onto an awareness of the pain of the past while having the necessary support to access one’s internal and external resources. With this level of awareness and support, the client can proceed with openness to seeking a transforming idea that brings forward a creative and innovative leap. This experience can be birthed by reading, journaling, dreams, art, prayer, meditation, nature, music, intimacy, therapy, etc.
The new vision of doing business and living differently often feels like an “aha” moment. It is as though the mind, body and spirit convey an affirming “yes!” This begins the process of integration and ownership where the new conception is tried on for size. From here the individual or system seeking change must practice the new behaviors. Over time the performance of the individual, whether internally or externally, is improved and one arrives at a new status quo. All along the journey of change, the therapist is not only assisting the client with a specific change, but actively teaching the client about the process. The client learns that change is an inevitable part of living.
The Satir Growth Model embraces four universal meta-goals as the focus of therapy.
As well, it is part of the therapeutic process in STST that the therapist helps the client to set intrapsychic and interactive goals for change. The therapist is in charge of the process, but the client is in charge of his or her therapeutic goals. The therapist brings painful patterns and positive possibilities into the client’s awareness experientially and allows their positive Life Energy to guide them into what they want to have different. The client’s goals become the focus for the change process.
From observing Satir’s therapeutic work and analyzing her words, five therapeutic process elements have been identified that are essential for the therapy to create transformational change, a significant energetic shift. These therapeutic elements are necessarily present throughout the entire therapy session from the initial contact and rapport building, through assessment and exploration, goal setting, the transformational change process, anchoring the changes, reviewing the session and assigning therapeutic homework for practicing and integrating the changes.
The five essential elements for transformational change are:
Virginia Satir often was told by those who did not understand her work that what she did in therapy and the success with which she helped people grow and change was so much a result of what she brought to therapy in her own, specific personality that nobody else could ever do her particular form of brief, effective, transformational interventions and therapeutic process.
She was always hoping and believing that others could, and would, be able to use and teach her model effectively. She also wanted the world to hear from others about how they were using her model in their personal and professional lives. We now have very competent and effective therapists around the world using and teaching her model who might never have met Virginia Satir, yet who use her model with great success. It is possible for people to learn to work from a paradigm in which the spiritual essence of the therapist and of the client join together to find new possibilities and where transformational change is a result of a positively directional, systemic, experiential process.
Some of the most commonly used tools and vehicles are presented in summary and overview form. Though they are categorized into three primary areas of application—The Self, The Self and Other, and Context-- each can be modified to assist an individual and individuals in relationship regardless of their context.
The Self-Esteem Maintenance Tool Kit is a symbolic set of tools, each one useful in building and maintaining self-esteem. The tools can be created and used in their concrete forms—e.g. using a wand called a wishing wand can stimulate one’s awareness of one’s hopes and wishes. Other tools in the kit can be used similarly. They are the golden key for new possibilities, the detective hat for analytical thinking, the yes-no medallion for knowing one’s true “yes” and true “no,” the courage stick for moving forward despite fear, and the wisdom box, which connects one to the quiet, soul-filled inner voice. I have added the heart, believing that Satir forgot that her students needed to be reminded of the power of love and compassion.
The mandala offers a way of referencing parts of the self; the parts are physical, nutritional, intellectual, sensual, contextual, interactional and spiritual. Similarly, Satir created a psychodramatic process called “parts parties.” Its objective is to help a person gain awareness of one’s parts, see them in action, and accept them. Working with the Iceberg, a metaphoric map, helps clients appreciate the layers of one’s self from behavior, to feelings, perceptions, expectations, yearnings and the deep spirit-filled place called the “I Am.” Family reconstruction is also a psychodramatic process that allows a client, referred to as the “star,” to accept the personhood of the parents, thus freeing the “star” for more congruent and empowered living.
Meditations nurture the right brain’s powerful ability to stimulate and support change. Using metaphor and imagery makes use of the brain’s plasticity with messages that affirm the belief that the client, like all people, has a basic orientation toward growth and wholeness. Satir’s meditations are filled with the model’s empowering beliefs, thereby creating in the individual a valuing of one’s own uniqueness and humanness.
Other tools are designed more specifically to deal with the interactions in relationships. Ingredients of an interaction is a conceptual methodology for surfacing the often unrecognized or unconscious steps that lead to incongruence. The exercise called “With whom am I having the pleasure” helps an individual become aware of memories that cloud one’s ability to clearly see the person with whom they are interacting in the present moment.
Temperature Reading gives the individual, couple or family a structure that tends to invite and prod individuals to share appreciations, new information, puzzles, and complaints with recommendations, hopes and wishes. This tool is used widely outside of the therapy room, in schools, management, project teams and other groups who need a high quality of connectivity to accomplish their desired goals. Sculpting, which can be utilized also with individuals, is particularly helpful in externalizing the communication patterns among couples or families.
Each of the four incongruent stress stances as well as congruent responses carries with them a physical posture that helps build awareness for what is happening, both at the “intra” and “inter” personal levels. Sculpting the “stress-dance” reveals the defensive dynamics within the system, supporting the development of awareness, which opens the possibility of choice.
The Satir model emphasizes the importance of language and its influence on one’s psyche and self-esteem. The technique of reframing is used to shift a potentially negatively loaded comment to one that connotes a deeper, more positive and congruent response that could not have been expressed due to limited ability, vulnerability or lack of awareness.
Family mapping and the family life chronology help explore the context of one’s life by surfacing and underscoring the influence of generational and cultural patterns. The wheel of influence brings into focus the historical and current significant sources of support.
Dysfunctional communication patterns emerge from low self-esteem and can be understood by a simple Satir premise: the universe of one’s reality can be divided into three parts: the Self, the Other and the Context. Accordingly, if one can attend concurrently to each of these three spheres with care and respectfulness, then congruent communication can happen. Satir observed that most people have great difficulty in doing this when they are under stress. Though congruence offers individuals more satisfying connections, better health and more effectiveness, the basic mode of operating when one is feeling threat and low self-esteem has been constructed long ago.
It is common to develop a preferred orientation, or coping stance, which can be experienced, observed, felt and heard via verbal and non-verbal information. Noting what is being discounted or over-emphasized among one or two of the three components of congruence suggests that the communication is placating, blaming, super-reasonable or irrelevant, according to Satir’s typology for defensive stress stances. For example, when one is oriented towards the Other, protection will likely be a diminished assertion of the Self and a placating response emerges.
When emphasis is on the Self and the feelings, needs and thoughts of the Other are discounted, the communication reflects a blaming stance. When conflict and chaos caused by the challenges of differing and opposing feelings and positions are threatening, and one focuses only on context, the quality of the interaction is much like a computer. This stance is called super-reasonable. This defense gives the individual a surface experience of control and order. The content deals in this kind of interaction with such things as facts, rules, regulations, time constraints, policy, precedent and purpose: all things of the head. The irrelevant stance ignores the grounding boundaries of the Context. Distracting and often humorous interactions emerge providing an immediate avoidance of the difficult situation.
Virginia Satir was a highly effective family therapist and she achieved rapid results by using five communication categories to identify behavior.
The five Satir Categories are:
Virginia Satir had four categories that were responsible for many family conflicts and one that can be used for resolving conflict and bringing people together.
Blamer behavior finds fault — never accepting responsibility themselves, always blaming someone or something else. The Blamer hides a feeling of alienation and loneliness behind a tough and complacent mask. Blamers are more likely to initiate conflict.
Placaters are out to please, non-assertive, never disagreeing, and always seeking approval. They avoid conflict. Their main concern is how other people perceive them.
Computer behavior is very correct and proper but displaying no emotion, masking a feeling of vulnerability. They often appear cold or unfeeling. A computer can be a firework of emotions inside while appearing very calm and super-rational on the outside. They often say things that are value judgments without indicating who could have made the judgment, which implies that everyone would agree.
Distractors seek attention to compensate for their feelings of loneliness or inadequacy. Rather than positive action, Distractors use a range of emotions from anger to guilt to either avoid an issue or manipulate how others feel. Distractors use a range of behavior from Blamer, Computer and Distractor.
Levelers have emotional balance and can relate to all kinds of people. They are assertive. The goal of leveling is mutual problem solving. Levelers have few threats to their self-esteem. Words, voice tone, body movements and facial expressions all give the same message.
The Leveler communication category of behavior can be used resolve conflict and bring people together. The distinction of the leveler is that the leveler has real-time, congruent responses. All the other responses are the result of negative internal feelings causing words and actions to be incongruent.
The Leveler response is the most effective behavior for solving problems creatively. Their body posture communicates the idea that they are being to true to what they think. They come across as ‘on the level’, centered and factual.
Molden and Hutchinson attribute levelers with the following:
Virginia Satir used the communication categories to help individual family members become aware of their incongruent behavior. Incongruent behavior is when your mind thinks one thing, but your body does another (e.g. such as faking a smile.) While you might try and mask your problems, your body gives signals to other people. People intuitively sense something is incongruent and this creates conflict.
Satir tools and vehicles for change are merely maps. The real territory of change is filled with mystery, magic and miracles, all waiting to be discovered. Learning and using these interventions will demonstrate to the practitioner the strategic, structural, experiential, systemic, solution-seeking, process-oriented and outcome-driven nature of the Satir system. Of course, more important than any intervention or one’s ability to know the theoretical basis of particular tools is the therapist’s use of Self. In one of many conversations with Virginia over the course of nearly 20 years, she acknowledged that the only times she ever felt she was not helpful to a client was when she was not congruent.
Here are my key take-aways:
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McLendon, J.A. (2001). The Satir system in action. D.J. Wiener (Ed.). Beyond talk therapy (pp. 33-44). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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Satir, V. (1988). The new peoplemaking. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.
Satir, V. (1983). Conjoint family therapy. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.
Satir, V. (1976). Making contact. Berkeley, Calif: Celestial Arts.
SatureSatir, V. (1978). Your many faces. Berkeley, Calif: Celestial Arts.
Satir, V. & Baldwin, M. (1983). Satir step by step: a guide to creating change in families. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.
Satir, V., Gomori, M., Banmen, J. & Gerber, J.S. (1991). The Satir model: Family therapy and beyond. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.