Dr. John Banmen, R. Psych., RMFT
Director of Training
Satir Institute of the Pacific
* Reprinted with permission from Family Therapy News, September/October 1988, pp 5, 6, 23.
Virginia Satir has deservedly become one of the more common names in the annals of family therapy. During her early professional years, she was part of a small group, including other such luminaries as Ackerman and Bowen, who made family therapy a major alternative to the existing therapeutic systems of the day. She was a master teacher who carried her message around the world. This title is an expression of appreciation for the remarkable person and career of Virginia Satir.
Care taking and Communication
Remarkable people often have both commonplace and noteworthy backgrounds. Virginia Satir is no exception. She was born in 1916, becoming the oldest of five children, and reared in a farm community in Wisconsin. Showing early signs of being an achiever, the young Virginia was reading at age three and felt, at times, that she grew up in the local library. Her mother gave her a lot of freedom to explore and investigate the environment in which they lived. At age five Virginia decided to become a detective on
her parents. When sharing that decision much later in her life, she explained that there had been too many contradictions in her life that she did not understand. For example, her mother would be crying but tell her that nothing was wrong. Father would look and act frustrated and anxious but say he was happy. Were these the seeds of her therapeutic contributions?
Virginia became a caretaker rather early in life because her mother suffered from a long term illness while the other children were still small. At age five Virginia also had appendicitis and at approximately the same time mastoiditis which brought on severe deafness for nearly two years. Nevertheless, school was easy for her, and she entered the University of Wisconsin early to take up teacher training. Before she was 20, Virginia Satir had become a teacher and principal in one of the local communities.
Marriage, More Education, and Therapy
Much later, in 1941, Virginia met a handsome young soldier at a bus station. Within three weeks they were married. Soon thereafter he left for Europe and did not return until the end of World War II. During 1942, while her husband was away in Europe, Virginia adopted two children. Her revised book, New Peoplemaking, is dedicated to them. During that time she also attended the University of Chicago to complete her master of arts degree in social work. At Chicago, she was considered a maverick, a nonconformist who used unorthodox treatments during her fieldwork.
The marriage did not blossom following her husband’s return, no matter how hard she tried. The relationship ended in divorce in 1949.
The year 1951 was noteworthy for Virginia professionally and personally. That year she returned to Chicago from Dallas and launched her independent therapy career. Finding herself seeing many severely dysfunctional individuals for whom her training and experience had not prepared her, she started to develop new approaches based on the needs of the individuals and her own intuitive creativity. That was also the year she married Norman Satir, a psychiatrist, and acquired the name she has made famous in family therapy around the globe.
The Satirs moved to California in 1958, and in 1959 Virginia joined Don Jackson in founding the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto. Her next big move was to Esalen, where she became the director of residential training in 1963. It was less than two years later before she went on her own again, where she remained.
Some of Satir’s Beliefs
Satir’s family therapy model developed from many hours of observation, hypothesis testing, and intervention developments based on the belief that people have internal resources that can be harnessed for making life more functional, healthier, and successful. Because she saw herself as more of an innovator, and independent thinker instead of a follower of the predominant therapeutic approach of the day, she reached outside the existing therapeutic community and helped develop two important new concepts related to helping people grow and be healthy.
The first concept was based on a paradigm shift away from the old Aristotelian linear, single cause and effect thinking to the systems thinking advocated by Korzybski. The second was based on the positive existentialist approach of Kirkegaard, Buber, and Heidegger that human beings by nature manifest a positive life energy and that this energy can be tapped therapeutically to help transform people’s dysfunctional existence to a high level of self care within the context of high self-esteem.
She believed that human beings can fulfill what they were meant to fulfill, that they can use themselves differently, more effectively, and with more choices. With the parallel thinking of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, Satir developed a belief system or world perception that advocated a faith in human beings and their ability to manage their lives from a sense of strength, inner motivation, and personal responsibility.
After Satir had seen thousands of people, more and more in terms of families, she found that she had discovered some universal patterns of coping that manifested themselves in survival stances. She called these placating, blaming super-reasonable, and irrelevant coping or survival stances. Through learning how to communicate and relate congruently, she helped family members increase their level of self-esteem, and thus validated her clients and empowered them to manage their lives more successfully.
She believed that most of our coping patterns come from our primary triad experience, from the Ma, Pa, and the Kid triad. Even though our parents did the best they could, many times their modeling and our experiences with them pushed us to cope incongruently and dysfunctionally. Behaviour is only the external manifestation of striving to survive or cope as best we can, even if the behaviour is dysfunctional or even violent.
Satir had a strong belief that change is possible, especially internal change at the levels of a) yearnings and longings, b) expectations, c) perceptions and attitudes, and d) feelings and feelings about feelings.
Virginia Satir’s major contributions to family therapy could be listed as follows:
- Introduced and promoted conjoint family therapy into the main stream of therapy practices.
- Brought a process approach to therapy that gave a major alternative to content and problem solving approaches.
- Provided a health focus to therapy by promoting a view of the world and of people that builds on possibilities, internal resources, personal choice, and self worth.
- Developed a three generational approach to family therapy that has major transformational results.
- Used experiential learning as a dependable and viable model for change.
- Promoted and developed the use of “right hemisphere” interventions such as humour, meditation, trance, touch, voice tone, sculpting and affect.
- Put focus on the therapist, the use of Self, instead of any specific techniques as the major change agent.
- Developed a way of changing dysfunctional communication patterns to healthy patterns.
- Expounded a whole approach of transformational therapy while working at various levels of people’s internal process, such as yearning, expectations, perceptions, feelings, and coping reactions all based on one’s spiritual essence.
- Provided hope for thousands of clients and therapists that change is possible.
One major omission in Virginia Satir’s work was her limited writings of the theoretical foundation of her Model. Her greatest impact was through her many workshop, demonstrations, month long training institutes, and her modeling of congruency and belief in human beings. Her last two books will establish her not only as a master family therapist, and innovator but also as the founder and developer of a major, comprehensive family therapy system that can be practiced and taught throughout the world.
Techniques, Honours, Continuing Contributions
As I noted, Satir placed more emphasis on the therapist as the change agent than on her techniques. Her major vehicle for change was her family reconstruction technique. This is a three generational, experiential change technique that basically works on various levels of change at the same time. This technique is classically achieved through a dramatic play of re-enacting parts of the three generational family experience with the client (the Star) having the opportunity to see the various connections of experiences from new perspectives and deeper levels and make peace with the past in such a way as to be free in the present. It is a major transformational experience.
Her major technique also included the dramatic parts party: the integration of one’s parts and then the transforming of the parts into workable resources. These major techniques have recently been developed to the point that they are used in the office work of a family therapist as well as in therapy sessions with individual clients. Sculpting was a very powerful tool in her therapy, especially in terms of the four stances: placating, blaming, super reasonableness, and irrelevance. Reframing, now used by many other systems, has developed into six different levels of change. Her concept of change needing to go through a stage of chaos has challenged many “talking only” therapies to become more experiential and change focused.
In 1970 the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry published a survey that placed Satir on top of the list among leading family therapists. Other studies and surveys have supported these results. Among the honours awarded to Virginia Satir, have been an honorary doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, recognition by the University of Chicago as the outstanding graduate of its Social Services Administration Faculty, and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy’s Distinguished Service to Families Award.
At her death, Satir was working in several areas:
- Her main area of development was her change process, a transformation approach to therapy, family therapy, and organizational well-being.
She was broadening her view of humanity by adding more vocally a spiritual component, evidenced in two books on her meditations.
Satir’s interest in world peace with peace within, peace between, and peace among goes beyond her original field of family therapy, but is very much in line with what she had developed earlier in her career.
Virginia Satir was an original.
The formation of Satir Institutes around the world is providing many opportunities for training possibilities in her system. Last year the Psychotherapy Networker published an extensive research report on the most influential therapist as seen by present day practitioners. Virginia Satir was rated 5th among the top ten.