An Overview of Satir's Transformational Systemic Therapy (STST)
Satir Transformational Systemic Therapy (STST), also known as the Satir method, was designed to improve relationships and communication within the family structure by addressing a person's actions, emotions, and perceptions as they relate to that person's dynamic within the family unit.
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.
The Core Beliefs
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:
- Human beings are all unique manifestations of the same Universal Life Force. Through this universal Life Energy, we can connect in a positive, accepting, loving way.
- Human processes are universal; all human beings experience themselves through doing, thinking, feeling, expecting, yearning and spiritual connection. Therefore, these human processes can be accessed and changed regardless of different environments, cultures, and circumstances.
- People are basically good. At their core, essential level of Life Energy, people are naturally positive. They need to find this internal treasure to connect with and validate their own self-worth.
- People all have the internal resources they need in order to cope successfully with whatever situations life provides and to grow through them. All necessary internal resources reside within, even those that people may have learned to judge in a negative way or those that are as yet undiscovered.
- The “problem” is not the problem; how people cope with their problem is the problem. How seriously the person experiences the problem through the meanings they make, their worries and their copings, impacts on how great a problem it becomes for them.
- The symptom is the subconscious solution to the problem, even if it creates dysfunctional patterns. It is the result of the person’s attempt to survive the pain of their problem. Although the person’s perceived problem needs to be heard and validated, therapeutic change needs to work on wholesome solutions from the person’s Life Energy and yearnings.
- Therapy needs to focus on health and possibilities instead of problems and pathology. Life Energy is naturally positively directional, and therapy needs to tap into the natural process of human growth in a positive direction.
- Change is always possible. Even if external change is limited, internal change is still possible. We can learn to be consciously responsible for and decide how we will live on our insides, even when the outside cannot change.
- We cannot change past events; we can only change the impact that the past events have had on us. It is possible to resolve impacts from the past in order to live with more positive energy and be free of old hurts, angers, fears and negative messages in the present.
- People do the best they can at any moment in time. Even when they have done very negative or destructive things, it is the best coping that they were capable of at that moment in time and is a reflection of their level of self-worth. Therefore, there is no reason to blame them for their past failures. Helping them experience their positively directional Life Energy will help them make new choices for the present and future.
- Feelings belong to us. We all have them and can learn to be in charge of them. We can be responsible for them and make choices about them. We can listen to the positive life message from our feelings and give ourselves the validation we need. We can choose to let go of feelings that create negative energies and events and replace them with acceptance, appreciation, forgiveness, love and peace.
- Wholeness, growth and evolution are natural human processes and, therefore, need to be the focus of any therapeutic change. Transformational change comes from the level of Life Energy and is a part of natural human growth and evolution. It means that people are becoming more of their true, spiritual Selves rather than their reactive, survival systems.
- The therapist’s use of Self is the greatest therapeutic tool that the therapist has to create the conditions to facilitate positively directional, transformational change. Therapists who experience their own positively directional Life Energy are able to provide clients with therapeutic relationships based on care, acceptance and new possibilities. The therapist often experiences the positive nature of the client’s Life Energy even before the client does and connects with the client at that level.
- Hope is a significant component or ingredient for change to take place. When the therapist experiences the positive nature of the client’s true Self, hope becomes a tangible aspect of the therapeutic process and guides the way towards change.
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
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 Growth Model and the Four Universal Meta-Goals
The Satir Growth Model embraces four universal meta-goals as the focus of therapy.
- Raising self-esteem. Self-esteem is how the person experiences and judges him/herself in the present. It goes beyond how one feels about or perceives himself; it is at the level of one’s essence and, therefore, is at the level of Being and consciousness. When one has high self-esteem, he/she is experiencing him/herself through his/her spiritual Life Energy, or Self.
- Becoming a choice maker. When one is living from the level of Self, your choices are towards freedom. Your choices are in the direction of health, happiness, peace and love. You feel empowered to choose wisely.
- Becoming responsible. When one is living from the level of Self, one is conscious of his/her internal experiences and is responsible for all feelings, perceptions, expectations and yearnings as well as one’s behaviour. Satir reminded us that all of our internal experiences belong to us. The Self is greater than all feelings, greater than all thoughts, greater than all unmet expectations. When we become responsible for our internal world, we experience the vastness of our Being. We then become responsible for our own growth towards becoming more fully human, as well.
- Becoming congruent. Congruence is a deeply imbedded concept and goal of the Satir Growth Model. In her early communication model, Satir encouraged people to be “straight” – to say what they meant and do what they said. However, congruence as a meta-goal implies that people can grow to be in harmony with their own Life Energy and to experience the peace, joy, love and connection that exists there. When one is more congruent, one is free from negative experiences of the past as one is now living in the present at the level of Being. Other ways of describing congruence might include being integrated, real, genuine, or authentic. There is an expectation in the Satir Growth Model that therapists have attained a fairly high level of congruence in their lives and can be congruent while working with their clients.
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.
The Five Therapeutic Processes
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:
- The therapy must be experiential, which means that the client is experiencing the impact of a past event in the present. As well, and at the same time, the client is experiencing his/her own positive Life Energy in the present. Often, body memory is accessed as one of the ways to help clients experience their impacts. It is only when clients are experiencing both the negative energy of the impact and the positive energy of their Life Force in the now that an energetic shift can take place.
- Systemic. Therapy must work within the intrapsychic and interactive systems in which the client experiences his/her life. The intrapsychic system includes the emotions, perceptions, expectations, yearnings and spiritual energy of the individual, all of which interact with each other in a systemic manner. The interactive systems include the relationships, both past and present, that the person has experienced in his/her life. The two systems interact with each other. A change in one impacts the other. However, transformational change is an energetic shift in the intrapsychic system which then changes the interactive systems.
- Positively directional. In the Satir Growth Model, the therapist actively engages with the client to help reframe perceptions, generate possibilities, hear the positive message of universal yearnings, and connect the client to his/her positive Life Energy. The focus is on health and possibilities, appreciating resources and anticipating growth rather than on pathologizing or problem solving.
- Change focused. As the focus of Satir therapy is on transformational change, the process questions asked throughout the entire therapy session are change related. Questions such as “What would have to change for you to forgive yourself?” give the client an opportunity to explore uncharted waters inside of their own intrapsychic system.
- Self of the therapist. As previously mentioned, the congruence of the therapist is essential for clients to access their own spiritual Life Energy. When therapists are congruent, clients experience them as caring, accepting, hopeful, interested, genuine, authentic and actively engaged. Therapists’ use of their own creative Life Energy in the form of metaphor, humor, self-disclosure, sculpting, and many other creative interventions also comes from the connection that therapists have to their own spiritual Self when in a congruent state.
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.
The Self and Other
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.
The Role of Communication
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:
- look for solutions.
- have a conscious positive intention behind everything they do.
- hold strong positive beliefs about themselves and others.
- operate from strong personal values.
- store positive mind images.
- have flexibility of behavior when communicating with others.
- establish rapport before trying to influence.
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:
- Know the effect of Satir Categories. Knowing the effect of the categories on others is a powerful way to have a positive effect and ensure impact and influence.
- Change your behavior. You are not your behavior. You can adopt a different communication style, if your current behavior patterns aren’t working.
- Adopt the "assertive" style of a Leveler to resolve conflict. Levelers don’t mask their emotions. They are in tune with them. They focus on problem solving and they are aware of other’ perspectives.
Source: Instructor’s Manual for Satir Family Therapy, Jean McLendon, Ali Miller
Counsellor: Okay, you just made a comment that I’m very interested in hearing more about. You said, I think, something like, “Jonathan this is the professional you were wanting to see.”
Commentary: I am seeing them physically still and contained except for their eyes and mouths. I want to add energy to our context so I punctuate my words to Janice and Jonathan: (“I’m very interested in hearing”) with the use of my body and actively lean forward with an open stance, hands moving, with the intent to show readiness, presence and an invitation to engagement. As I take up more space I hope it models more freedom and comfort for them.
Counsellor: So, I’m very interested to know what you wanted to have happen for you - and what you wanted to have happen for your mother. You had some ideas I’ll bet?
Commentary: I begin with Jonathan. I want to insure his participation and though I rarely ask someone to say what they want for another person, in this case I wanted to empower him quickly. My question indicated a respect for his perceptions and care for his mom.
Jonathan: I just want – I just wanted, like, stop having so much anger inside and just stop being mean to other people.
Counsellor: Wow, so the anger is on the inside...
Commentary: I chose not to pursue the interpersonal behavioral comment “being mean to other people,” but rather his internal experience. It is early and I want him to feel my interest in him...not his interactions with others. That can come later.
Counsellor: And you can feel it in your body?
Counsellor: Where do you feel it in your body? How do you do anger inside? Do you feel it in your shoulders or your stomach or your thoughts?
Jonathan: When I look at somebody I just grit my teeth at them and I just want to go ahead and hit them for no reason.
Commentary: By bringing Jonathan into more awareness of his body’s experience of his anger gives him more information.
Counsellor: You grit your teeth, and you just want to hit them for no reason? That does sound like anger, doesn’t it? Well, you know how I show anger, is I, um, take – oops, that’s not red – I take a red pen and I kind of go like this. That doesn’t look too much like red either, but just to show that’s anger. That you’re trying to figure out, and you’re trying to cope with, and you’re trying to understand. That takes a lot of courage to say, “I’m angry and I would like for it to be different.” Don’t you think?
Commentary: I affirm Jonathan by enhancing his expressed hope. I elaborate: “you’re trying to figure out, trying to cope with and trying to understand.” I look to see if my thoughts are in alignment with him...he confirms with a visible nod. I validate him by agreeing with him “that does sound like anger.”
I have already begun a family map with the little information I have been given....basically Mother’s name, son’s name and two circles for Janice’s parents...not knowing if her Mom and Dad are biological, married, etc. I have now delved into Jonathan’s interior process and now I externalize it by showing his anger on the family map. This is another acknowledgement of the importance of his issue and hope.
Counsellor: Do you know anybody else that’s angry?
Commentary: I want to move into more understanding of Jonathan’s context. Is it a context of conflict, violence, anger or what? My particular interest is in his family.
Jonathan: Well, my brother. 26
Counsellor: Your brother. Well, I don’t have your brother on this map. Let’s see, you said you were 11, right?
Counsellor: Your brother is how old? Jonathan: Sixteen.
Counsellor: He’s 16. And what’s his name? Jonathan: Chris.
Counsellor: And how old is Chris? Jonathan: Sixteen.
Commentary: Again, because I am visual, I place the youngest child closest to the parents’ circle and the oldest farthest away...i.e. chronologically leaving the parental influence first.
Counsellor: That’s right, you just told me, didn’t you? And so he’s angry too. Are y’all angry about the same thing?
Commentary: I continue to empower and affirm Jonathan....indirectly acknowledging my mistake and showing my humanness. I had not attended well enough to hear or remember his brother’s age.
Counsellor: No, what’s he angry about?
Jonathan: He’s angry ‘cause, he’s force to come home – he’s force to come home while his co-buddy didn’t get to come home. And he’s just mad because he’s not getting to do what he wants to do.
Counsellor: Come home is what he wants to do? Jonathan: Uh-huh.
Counsellor: So, wants to come home, and that means come home and live with you and Janice?
Counsellor: Where is he now? Jonathan: He’s in California.
Counsellor: Okay, come home from California. So, what’s he doing in California?
Jonathan: He’s living in, like, this home where he has a parole officer and everything. And he has to just keep doing what he’s supposed to do and he’ll be able to come home. But he’s having problems doing that.
Counsellor: He’s having problems staying out of trouble? Jonathan: Uh-huh.
Counsellor: That’s too bad. Did he get in trouble in California or he get in trouble here and...?
Commentary: My response regarding Chris serves to share empathy with Jonathan about his brother.
Jonathan: Well, some here and some in California. Counsellor: Oh, okay. You and your brother pretty close? Jonathan: Uh-huh.
Counsellor: Do you miss him?
Commentary: I am sensing by Jonathan’s facial expressions and responsiveness to my questions that Chris’s absence and his anger problems have emotional significance for him. My question invites him to express his feeling.
Counsellor: How long has he been away?
Jonathan: I don’t know, I don’t remember.
Counsellor: That long? Since you were how high?
Jonathan: Probably since I was about 10.
Commentary: I am struck that it seemed so very long ago and in reality he thinks it was perhaps only a year. I could ask Janice, but at this point Jonathan’s perceptions are more important than knowing the fact.
Counsellor: So, about a year? You know why I do this, like California, uh, 1 year, uh, that you, uh, when I put it on a piece of paper it sticks in my head a little better. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you but it just kind of goes into the computer in a different kind of way if I, kind of, put it up there. And then you get to see what I’m doing, too, where I’m going in my head.
Commentary: Explaining my process helps them partner with me. I am not doing treatment on them but with them. We are in this together.
Counsellor: So, Chris is angry, he wants to come home, he’s gotten into trouble. And you’re angry; do you know what you’re angry about?
Commentary: With the question, “do you know what you are angry about?” I am leaning closer to Jonathan and looking with my voice and eyes with as much kindness as I can.
Jonathan: Not really.
Counsellor: So, that would help you if you could understand what you’re angry about.
Commentary: I have a resting place with Jonathan. I want Janice to participate both for herself and as Mom.
Counsellor: That makes sense to me. Thank you, I want to hear what your mother would like to have happen too.
Commentary: I thank him for his contribution to the work. He, his thoughts and feelings, are important.
Counsellor: For you, Janice, what would you like to have happen?
Janice: I would like for Jonathan to know what he’s angry about. I would like to know what it is.
Counsellor: So, there are these big question marks around anger, huh?
Commentary: Placing a question mark on the map conveys to Janice that she is important and is being heard.
Janice: Like the role, if any, that I play in it, and how to be a better parent. That’s what I came for.
Counsellor: So, how to help Jonathan with his feelings. How are you doing with yours?
Commentary: This is a pivotal question--the feelings of everyone in the therapy room are important. Moms are people too. Giving everyone the most invitation to speak of their experience, feelings or thoughts, whether current or past, establishes a context that is safe and unfolding
Janice: Um, much, it’s better.
Counsellor: Uh-huh. Were you angry too?
Janice: Well, sometime, years ago.
Counsellor: What was yours about?
Janice: Mine was about the divorce, the separation, the results of that.
Counsellor: So, let’s see, there’s...this is Jonathan’s father we’re talking about. Um, this is the way I make a divorce, okay. And his name?
Commentary: As I put more information on the map, I begin to understand the terrain of their lives.
Counsellor: And where does John live?
Counsellor: Oh, he’s in California. And how long have y’all been divorced?
Janice: For as long as Jonathan has been here; so, 11 years.
Counsellor: Okay, 11 years. So, do you know your father?
Commentary: I ask an emotionally laden question and one that I believe will have relevance to understanding Jonathan’s anger.
Jonathan: Not really.
Counsellor: Have you ever seen him?
Jonathan: Not that I could remember.
Counsellor: So, as far as you know you’ve never met him. Do you have any pictures of him?
Counsellor: What’s he look like?
Jonathan: I don’t remember.
Counsellor: So, you don’t have pictures that are in your back pocket or in your bedroom? Well, you have had two big losses; thinking about your brother not being with you and not having your father. That seems pretty big to me. So, this relationship that, Janice, you and John had was not an easy one?
Commentary: When I tell Jonathan that he has had two big losses, I speak from my mind to his heart.
Counsellor: And do you have any contact with John at this point?
Commentary: I note but do nothing with my observations that Jonathan looks away when Janice begins to talk about his father.
Counsellor: And what about with Chris? Janice: Frequent.
Counsellor: Okay. So, Chris would have been about 5 or 6 when y’all divorced?
Counsellor: So, we’ll show that – 5-6 years old. And did Chris live with you...?
Janice: And his dad.
Counsellor: And his dad, and then when you were divorced? Janice: He lived with me.
Counsellor: With you. And he visited with his father – his father moved to California?
Janice: We lived in another state, his father lived in the same t-town with us for approximately until Christmas 10, 5 or 6 years after the divorce. And then he moved to California for the last 5 years.
Counsellor: So, how did you deal with – let’s put your anger up here. You’re saying you’re not so angry anymore, so we’ll just put a little bit. How did you deal with yours?
Commentary: As I find out more about Janice, Jonathan is gaining useful information in understanding what happened in his early life. As I acknowledge Janice’s anger, I hope her words help Jonathan accept his humanness and that he does not have to stay stuck in his anger.
The map is now showing a connection among Mom and sons with their anger. Showing her anger as “ just a little bit” is done with humor. Janice and I get to share big smiles further warming our shared context.
Janice: I just grew out of it.
Janice: And, um, I just...time. Let it go.
Counsellor: So, you left this relationship – your time in this relationship left you with some wounds?
Commentary: Again, I want to connect at the most human level I can...and that is at the level of our vulnerability. That she left this relationship with emotional wear and tear can be assumed. We don’t get married to divorce, we get married hoping and thinking it will be forever. The breakup of a family, no matter its necessity, is a grief filled experience.
Counsellor: Who stood by you, who supported you?
Commentary: I continue to learn more about her life. When there is healing, I assume there has been support.
Janice: My mom.
Counsellor: And your mother’s name is what?
Janice: It was Lorrine.
Counsellor: Lorrine, how do you spell that?
Counsellor: When did Lorrine die?
Janice: June, 1996.
Counsellor: Not very long ago. Were you close to your grandmother?
Counsellor: You’re pretty special to her? Let’s see, if we were going to show a real special line, what do you think about Purple? And we’ll show a nice, big line between you and Lorrine. Okay, how does that look to you? Does that look like that makes sense?
Commentary: I want to add and punctuate the love I believed was present for Jonathan. Until now, the content has been one of loss. I hope that the love I believe he is feeling from his Mom and the love that he received from his grandmother will be positive anchors for his self-esteem.
Counsellor: So, you lost somebody very important to you; and to you too. Did y’all live close together? Did you get to see her?
Commentary: I emphasize the connection they have with each other in noting that they both lost someone very important. They are not alone.
Janice: Different state, the same state where we came from where Christopher and Jonathan grew up, basically, and were born and the marriage took place. So, far in distance geographically, but very close – we had daily contact. All the holidays we were there, mother’s day, any other excuse to be there we were there, or she was here.
Counsellor: What happened to her?
Janice: She had cancer. So, the last nine months of her life she lived with us.
Counsellor: Oh, really? You took care of her?
Commentary: I show I think this is not a little thing.... caring for one’s dying Mother and Grandmother.
Janice: I did, Jonathan too.
Counsellor: So, you were a young, doctor, huh? What kind of cancer
did she have?
Commentary: When I speak of Jonathan as a “young doctor,” I am suggesting to his right brain that his positive aspirations are possible.
Janice: She had – originally she had breast cancer that metastasized to her liver. That’s what she went out with, liver, bone, blood, it got pretty bad.
Counsellor: Was she at home when she died? Janice: Yes, she was in our home; in my bed.
Commentary: I pause, not to rush to words that might distract Janice from her emotions.
Counsellor: This is obviously a tremendous, hard, hurt for you. She stood by you when you were having a hard time. And you were there for her.
Commentary: I give words to underscore and appreciate both the loss and the mutuality of support. By doing so, I offer Janice to acknowledge two different and strong feelings: loss and love. I feel like I want to offer her something. At that moment all I could give was Kleenex. My gift said I see your sadness and I am sorry.
Janice: Thank you.
Counsellor: You’re welcome. What’s it like for you to see your mother crying because her heart is so full about her relationship with her mother?
Commentary: I turn now to Jonathan. How family members deal with each other’s pain can be a way to understanding their ways of coping.
Jonathan: It makes me want to cry but I know I’ve got to get over it.
Commentary: I begin to hypothesize that they have shared ways of coping: “ just get over it,” and time will help you let it go.
Counsellor: I don’t follow you, you have to get over it? I don’t get that. Jonathan: I can’t go my whole life thinking that my grandma is going to come back.
Counsellor: Right. Because she won’t come back, but you must have wonderful memories to bring her back with? And you have a big, kind of, hole in your heart not to have her.
Commentary: I pause momentarily to honor and affirm Jonathan’s factual thinking and then I speak to his right brain ,i.e. you can bring her back with your wonderful memories...I know that positive memories can be a basis for creating new positive memories. When one is filled with grief and anger it is easy to forget the power of the positives of ones past. It hadn’t been that long ago, really.
Counsellor: Again, I’m just thinking about the losses for you: your Granny, your brother, in different ways, and your father. That’s a lot, Jonathan! That’s a lot to have to handle for a little boy.
Commentary: I move close enough to Jonathan to feel his pain, to see it on his face and body. I validate his struggle and challenge. I am teaching him about the universality of emotions. Losing family members are not insignificant events for any of us.
Counsellor: Well, you know how I feel about your tears? They just seem so healthy and so wholesome and so real. And I’m glad that you can have your tears; and I hope it’s okay for you to have your tears too. Because, you know, sometimes underneath a lot of anger is a hurt. Like a hole in your heart. Does that make sense to you? It seems like it does.
Commentary: Though Jonathan, unlike Janice, does not tear, I teach them that tears are human, healthy, real and can bring us to wholeness.
Counsellor: It’s like there’s a little, little boy inside about, I don’t know, maybe about this little, and he’s gotten hurt. And he’s inside of you and what I hear is that you’re trying to get him to be big boy, tough. You know, get on with your life, you know. Um, get past those tears. But this little guy still sits inside of you, like the little girl that’s inside of you that lost her mother. That’s real. Is it okay with you if I talk about you as having a little girl inside of you?
Commentary: I externalize Jonathan’s pain by putting a little stuffed puppy in my lap and referencing the puppy as the little boy inside who knows his hurts. I normalize carrying pain inside and offer the idea that Janice also has a little girl inside who knows and feels her hurts.
Janice: Yeah, it’s okay.
Commentary: Asking permission continues to build our partnership.
Counsellor: How does that fit for you? Does that make any sense to you?
Janice: Uh, yes?
Counsellor: Who is with you now to help you with the pain of losing your mom? Maybe some other residual of not having things work out with John? Your worries about Jonathan and Chris?
Janice: There’s no one that is with me like my mom was. When she was alive, she was like the center of my life. You know, even though I had my kids and everything. So, I really never developed close ties with any other person. The only person I can think of now I am closest to is her older sister has been, I’ve been like her favorite niece since I was born. When I was born my mom...she asked my mom let me have her. So, we developed a relationship over the years and over the distance of the 2 states and now that I’m here, you know, we’re closer, i-in geographically, you know, we’ve developed a stronger relationship based on what was already there.
Commentary: I failed to add Janice’s aunt to the map.
Counsellor: Wonderful! So, you share the grief.
Janice: He’s in the other state. Counsellor: How’s he doing?
Janice: We don’t have much contact with Papa. He was a bit estranged from Granny at the time of the death.
Counsellor: Had that happened a good while? So, they weren’t divorced but they were kind of separated a bit?
Janice: They were living in the same house, but separate lives. So, that’s why mom had to, you know, I took care of her at the end of her life because he said, “I guess you’re going to go with Janice because you’re so ill.” And the doctor told him what she needed and he said, “I guess you’re going to go with Janice.” So...!
Counsellor: He didn’t do it? Wow. Well, this is quite a story. This is quite a story that is all around you. So, you really knew Granny, Jonathan, but I guess did you know Papa well?
Commentary: I express to Jonathan that the context of his life is filled with people who have left or are not available.
Jonathan: Sort of.
Counsellor: So, what color line would we put between you and Papa?
Counsellor: That one marker is just really going to be pale. You want to do it? You make it like you think...let me get this out of your way though. Okay, thank you. They’re very different, aren’t they? The connection you had with Papa. When will you see him again, you think?
Commentary: Jonathan is fully involved, engaged and participating in the visual narrative of his and his mother’s life. His look is pensive...suggesting he is working hard to understand the ramifications of the picture that is unfolding on the paper. As he draws the relationship with his Grandfather, he takes ownership at a different level of his story. He owns his relationship with his grand dad.
Jonathan: Probably Christmas. Counsellor: So, you all travel?
Janice: With Chris coming home he wants to see, you know, his relatives, his cousins.
Counsellor: So, Chris is going to be home for Christmas?
Janice: Uh-huh. Counsellor: Wonderful.
Janice: So, we’re going to go there so he can see, you know, the cousins that he grew up with. And, um, probably see Papa during that time.
Counsellor: Well, you must be pretty excited about that. How about you?
Janice: Yes, very much so.
Commentary: With both of them acknowledging looking forward to Christmas, I decide it is a fitting time to begin closure. In closing, I hope to synthesize the events of the session into an authentic and human representation of what Jonathan is dealing with so he can use these new tools to help him move forward.
Counsellor: Well, I want to give you a picture that I have about your challenge. Do you know the word challenge? Like if something’s a challenge it’s like, um, if you had to climb a-a big hill and you had a lot of weight on you? That would be like a challenge. And that’s kind of what I think you have. This is the picture I have; I’m needing my ... . Oh, here it is right here. This is like, little one inside of you, okay? And this is like his heart; and his heart is sad. But he’s not supposed to be sad. He’s supposed to be...tough? What were you going to say?
Counsellor: He’s supposed to be happy, yeah. So, he’s supposed to smile but he’s got a heart that’s hurting. But, what do you think that would be like for this little one?
Commentary: I am pleased that Jonathan is expressing compassion and empathy for himself via the puppy as his little one inside.
Counsellor: It would be very hard, it would be very hard.
Commentary: I validate his self understanding.
Counsellor: So, this is my idea is that you have to take the little one and you have to let this little one know that you’re going to be there with him and that it is okay to be sad; when you’re unhappy and when you feel lonely, when you miss your brother, when you wonder where your dad is, when you think about your Grandmother. I’ll bet you saw her suffer. And when you think about how special she was. Seems like, to me, that we need to find a way for this little one inside of you to not have to pretend; because I think when you have to pretend it probably makes you angry. Probably makes you real angry, to have to pretend something that’s not true for you. What do you think about that? What do you think would have to happen for you to have more freedom to just be with your heart? What do you think would help?
Commentary: I give Jonathan physical comfort when I kindly touch “puppy.” In this tender moment, as I was beginning to leave, to touch Jonathan directly would have been thoughtless and insensitive. When I ask Jonathan what would help him, I am both challenging and affirming him as the owner of his life
Jonathan: I don’t really know.
Counsellor: What do you know about Jonathan? What do you think
would help him?
Commentary: I pass the question to Janice, empowering her in her role as wise Mother.
Janice: Um, just be allowed to be and feel what he’s feeling, and express it, be able to express it. He didn’t know what it was and those things are there but I guess he’ll have a better understanding of what it is and feel freer to express what’s going on. And, I guess it’s my job to get him the help to get through it.
Commentary: Janice responds with understanding and continued commitment to get Jonathan the help he needs. Jonathan has been very involved in the exploration of the terrain of his life with the family mapping. Now, as he physically and protectively holds puppy and puppy’s wounded heart as representations of the little hurt boy inside of him, he is integrating the transformational idea that his anger is connected to his wounds and his wounds are understandable. He owns his feelings. They are human and acceptable. He is not bad to feel angry.
Counsellor: Are there any men? I mean, would Papa be able to help Jonathan?
Commentary: I begin to feel the weight of the challenge for both of them. Since I firmly believe that everything is easier with support, I am searching for more support, particularly male support.
Counsellor: Would Chris?
Janice: No. We have a family friend that Jonathan has confided in. Mr. J.
Counsellor: Okay, let’s put Mr. J here. Mister J. So, what kind of color or line would you put to Mr. J?
Counsellor: Red, okay. Want to do the line? I didn’t know the heart had a sound!
Commentary: Jonathan shows his positive heartfelt feelings for Mr. J on the map, the red line being much stronger than the anger lines I placed around Jonathan in the beginning of the session.
Counsellor: Okay, thank you. So, do you get to see Mr. J?
Counsellor: Would he understand how much loss you have suffered?
Janice: He was there, he knew Granny. He was there during that time for us, he knows Chris, he knows our situation. He knows Papa.
Janice: So, he is our – Jonathan’s – closest male friend that he trusts.
Commentary: I let my pleasure be known about Mr. J’s being in Jonathan’s life and in so doing share my positive feelings about Jonathan having the support he needs.
Janice: Just super busy.
Counsellor: Yeah, but you know, a little understanding from a man can go a long way for Jonathan; because, you know, you have a similar job here. This could be your little girl.
Janice: Mommy has a little girl inside of her.
Commentary: Again, I want to stress that it is human to have pain, challenges and difficult feelings. Jonathan is not crazy when he grits his teeth and wants to hit someone for no good reason. He is wounded and needs help with his healing.
Counsellor: So, you have this little girl and she has a heart that has to be taken care of. And, of course, um, me too. I have a little girl inside of me too, and, you know, she has hurts and disappointments and stuff that I have to deal with. I’m just thinking, when you, Janice, you seem to do such a wonderful job of being able to be where your heart is. And that’s, uh, so wonderful for you to see and I suspect at times it may feel a little overwhelming. M-may, as you said, make you feel like maybe you want to cry too; and maybe that would be okay. And if there is a man, like Mr. J, who’s in your life and who could say, “Yeah, you know, Janice has sadness, she lost her mother. And Jonathan has sadness because he doesn’t get to see his brother, he lost his Grandmother.” It sounds like not much is there for you and your father at all, is that right? So, that must be a tremendous loss for you.
Commentary: As I acknowledge Janice’s “little girl” and hand her a stuffed black doll, I return support and empathy for her as a woman and as Jonathan’s mother. I deepen my message about humanness and the wounding we all know about when I, too, hold a little stuffed doll. I do this to show that the feelings I have are more easily understood when I allow myself to think about having a part inside of me that is vulnerable like a little girl.
Counsellor: So, I suspect if you don’t figure out how to love that little one and just have – have a good, open heart to yourself – that you probably are going to clench your jaws, and find your muscles tight, and have to express it some way. I suspect that’s what’s happened with Chris. And he hasn’t been able to take care of that heart inside of him, and so with his hurts and his wounds, and his pain, and his disappointments; I suspect it’s just come out.
Janice: Chris was really affected by the divorce. He was, you know, the center of attention for five years before he came, you know, Jonathan. And then he just – he blamed me for it. And then he’s angry because his dad was not there for what he needed, you know, emotionally and even physically.
Janice: Yeah. Unsupportive so that’s a never-ending cycle.
Counsellor: Well, I’m sorry I don’t get to meet Chris. But I do kind of feel like he’s here a little bit – and Granny and Papa.
So, Jonathan, what do you think about the time we’ve spent here tonight? Do you think...?
Jonathan: It helped.
Commentary: It is obvious that Jonathan and I have made contact...he knows he has been seen, heard and literally touched via puppy. This always helps.
Counsellor: I’m so glad. I’m so glad to know that you and your mother knew how to communicate about this so that you could get help. How did that come about?
Commentary: I make my delight in hearing Jonathan say the session helped him get clear. I am so glad.
Janice: He told me about two weeks ago, he said, “Mom, I have some anger, I need to talk to a counselor.” I said, “Do they have counselors at your school?” He said, “No.” And I said, “Okay.” And then he mentioned it again a couple of days later, “Mom, what about the counselor?” And that’s when I, um, began to search out some resources and I heard about this opportunity.
Counsellor: You are a very wise young one. You know, when you have that ability to know what you’re feeling it gives you choice about what to do. If you didn’t know that you were feeling angry and you just went around punching, all you do is get into trouble. But, to be able to know it and to ask for help is just so impressive. You must be very proud of him.
Commentary: To know one needs help and to request it is an act of courage and maturity. I applaud Jonathan while emphasizing awareness opening the possibility for choice. He listens.
Janice: I am.
Counsellor: I would love for Chris to know about what you were able to do. I think that would be wonderful. I don’t know if he knows how to do that, do you know?
Jonathan: Not really.
Counsellor: Don’t know if he does or not...or you don’t think he does know how to know what he’s feeling and ask for help?
Jonathan: Well, he probably does a little bit, but probably not more than a little bit.
Counsellor: Just a little bit?
Janice: He’s in counseling.
Janice: It took him a little while to accept it, but part of the coming home had to do with he had to go to counseling.
Counsellor: Good I am glad. So, how has it been for you for us to spend this time together here?
Janice: Great. It helped a great deal to put things into perspective and to – I thought I had stopped crying about Granny already, but obviously I haven’t. But it’s important to know so that you can, you know, try to get some results; very helpful, very enlightening.
Counsellor: It has been a real, um, honor for me to step in to your – your life and your world for just this little bit of time. I won’t forget you, Jonathan, and I won’t forget you either, Janice.
Janice: I thank you for taking the time.
Counsellor: I thank you for listening to your son with such attentiveness. You are a very good mother.
Janice: I try to be.
Counsellor: And I’m imagining you learned a lot from Granny about how to be a mother?
Janice: Yeah, oh yeah.
Counsellor: And you’re going to have to figure out a very creative way to learn about how to be a daddy; because maybe you’ll learn from Mr. J? Because John’s not there for you so it’s going to be a little tougher for you than for you as parent, if you have children. But you are off to such an incredible start as a young boy. Really.
Commentary: I am having trouble saying goodbye. Suggesting that Jonathan will be a daddy and will have more difficulty than Janice has had being a mother is irrelevant. I salvage this mistake by coming back and saying “if you are going to have children” and telling Jonathan that no matter, he is off to an incredible start as a young boy.
Counsellor: So, I would like to say goodbye to you and goodnight to you and can I shake your hand and tell you you are very special.
Commentary: Asking to shake someone’s hand after sharing such an intimate meeting further deepens the mutuality and reciprocity that was experienced.
Jonathan: Thank you.
Counsellor: You are a very special woman. I hope your holidays are wonderful.
Janice: Thank you, same to you.
Commentary: I believed that indeed she did hope that my holidays are wonderful.
Counsellor: And I’ll take these little ones. They have become more special because they’ve been here with you two. Yours has a heart sound, did you notice? You know what? Maybe you should take this home with you? What do you think? What do you think, do you think it would help you to remember about your heart and about your losses and about how it’s okay to feel sad when you’re sad? You don’t have to cover it up with being tough and angry? What do you think?
Commentary: Though Jonathan did not get excited about my gift of the heart, some months later in a therapy session he was asked how it was that he was able to cope with so much. His answer was that he has a little squeaky heart at home. When asked how does that work, seeing a tape of the session, he shrugs his shoulders and says, “I don’t know, it just does.” We should be careful to not underestimate the power of the symbolic for conveying truth.
Jonathan: Yes. Thank you.
Counsellor: You’re very welcome.
Commentary: Though not seen on this video, the final minutes of our shared time on the small square therapy stage were atypical. I leaned back in my chair only to find myself falling off the stage. Janice was close enough that she quickly threw out her hand. I caught it and she pulled me back into balance. Somehow, for me, that moment spoke to the depth of our partnership in the therapy session. We helped each other by staying respectfully present to our shared process. We felt the power of a nurturing triad. And I felt Janice’s strength and support of me. It was all good. It was sad to say goodbye.
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