An Overview of Satir's Transformational Systemic Therapy (STST)
Kevin William Grant
Published on
April 02, 2020
Categories

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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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

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.

Change

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.

These are:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Tools

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

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.

Context

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:

  • Blaming
  • Placating
  • Computing
  • Distracting
  • Leveling

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

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. 

Placator

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

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. 

Distractor

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. 

Leveler (Assertive)

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. 

Incongruent Behavior

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.

Key Take-Aways

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.

Recommended Readings

Banmen, J. & Gerber, J. (1985). Virginia Satir’s meditations & inspirations.Berkeley, CA: Science and Behavior Books.

McLendon, J. A. (1996). “The tao of communication and the constancy of change.” B. Brothers (Ed.), Couples and the tao of congruence (pp.35-49). Bingham, NY, The Haworth Press.

McLendon, J. A. (2000). “The Satir system: Brief therapy strategies.” J. Carlson & L.Sperry (Eds.), Brief therapy with individuals and couples (pp. 331-364). Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker, and Theisen, Inc.

McLendon, J.A. (2001). The Satir system in action. D.J. Wiener (Ed.). Beyond talk therapy (pp. 33-44). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Satir, V. (2001). Self esteem. Berkeley, Calif: Celestial Arts.

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.

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