September 9, 2021

Virginia Satir – The Mother of Family Therapy

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“Life is not the way it's supposed to be, it's the way it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference”
― Virginia Satir

Who is Virginia Satir?

She’s globally recognized as the “Mother of Family Therapy”. She was also a prolific author and one of the 3 original models of Neuro-linguistic Programming, along with Milton Erickson and Fritz Perls

She is also known for creating the Virginia Satir Change Model, which is a psychological model she developed through her clinical studies. This model became especially popular with the change management and organization gurus of the 1990s and 2000s to define how change impacts organizations. (Reference: Wikipedia)

Early Life

Virginia Satir was born on June 26, 1916 in Neillsville, Wisconsin. She was the oldest of five children born to Oscar Alfred Reinnard Pagenkopf and Minnie Happe Pagenkopf. From a young age, she was exceptionally bright. She taught herself how to read at age 3. By age 9, she had read all of the books in the library of her one-room school. 

When she was 5 years old, she suffered from appendicitis. Her mother, being a devout Christian Scientist, refused to take her to a doctor. When her father was finally able to overrule her mother, her appendix had already ruptured. As a result, she had to stay in the hospital for several months. 

She lived through the Great Depression while she was in her teens. During that time, she worked a part-time job to help ease the financial burden of her family. She also attended as many courses as possible so she could graduate early. 

In 1932, she graduated from high school and immediately enrolled into Milwaukee State Teachers College, now called the University of Wisconsin. She paid for her education by working part-time at the Works Projects Administration, Gimbels Department store, and a bit of babysitting. 

She graduated with her bachelor’s in 1936 and went on to become a teacher for a few years.

Later Life

During her time as a schoolteacher, she noticed that the involved and supportive parents not only helped students in the classroom but could also heal family dynamics. She started meeting and cooperating with the parents of her students and began to see the family system as a reflection of the world at large. 

She even stated “If we can heal the family, we can heal the world.”

In 1948, she received her master’s degree from the University of Chicago School of Social Services Administration. Soon after, she started her own private practice. She met with her first family in her private practice in 1951.

A few years after she started her private practice, she was offered a position at the Illinois Psychiatric Institute. While she was there, she taught other therapists the importance of addressing the whole family during treatment, not just the individual. She realized that individual problems extend to the family and often stem from the family. 

In 1959, she moved to California and helped to establish the Mental Research Institute. 3 years later, the MRI received a grant from NIMH, which is short for the National Institute of Mental Health. The grant allowed them to create the very first family therapy training program. Shortly after receiving the grant, Virginia was hired as the Training Director. 

In 1964, Virginia published her first book titled “Conjoint Family Therapy.” The book was based on the training manual she wrote while she was at the Mental Research Institute. After she published the book, her fame and recognition grew. 

In the mid-1970s, she was discovered by the co-founders of NLP, Richard Bandler and John Grinder. It was through her work, along with Fritz Perls, that they were able to create the Meta Model. They even co-authored a book with Virginia called “Changing with Families”, which bore the subtitle: “A Book About Further Education for Being Human.”

Around the 1990s, Steve Andreas, one of Bandler and Grinder’s students, wrote “Virginia Satir: The Patterns of Her Magic” where he summarized the major patterns of Satir’s works. 

Virginia had a strong passion for networking and connecting people. She wanted to help individuals connect with mental health workers or other people who suffered from diseases similar to their own. This led her to founding “Beautiful People” in 1970, which later became the International Human Learning Resources Network. In 1977, she founded the Avanta Network, which was renamed to the Virginia Satir Global Network in 2010. The organization exists today to carry on her work and promote her approach to therapy.

She died in 1988 of pancreatic cancer.

Satir Therapeutic Beliefs

Virginia Satir had a set of beliefs that enabled her to get amazing results for her clients. Here they are listed below:

  • CHANGE is possible. Even if external change is limited, internal change is possible
  • PARENTS do the best they can at any given time.
  • WE all have the internal resources we need to cope successfully and to grow.
  • WE have choices, especially in terms of responding to stress instead of reacting to situations.
  • THERAPY needs to focus on health and possibilities instead of pathology.
  • HOPE is a significant component or ingredient for change.
  • PEOPLE connect on the basis of being similar and grow on the basis of being different.
  • A major goal of therapy is to become our own choice makers.
  • WE are all manifestations of the same life force.
  • MOST people choose familiarity over comfort, especially during times of stress.
  • THE problem is not the problem; coping is the problem.
  • FEELINGS belong to us. We all have them.
  • PEOPLE are basically good. To connect with and validate their own self-worth, they need to find their own inner treasure.
  • PARENTS often repeat the familiar patterns from their growing up times, even if the patterns are dysfunctional.
  • WE cannot change past events, only the effects they have on us.
  • APPRECIATING and accepting the past increases our ability to manage our present.
  • ONE goal in moving toward wholeness is to accept our parental figures as people and meet them at their level of personhood rather than only in their roles.
  • COPING is the manifestation of our level of self-worth. The higher our self-worth, the more wholesome our coping.
  • HUMAN processes are universal and therefore occur in different settings, cultures, and circumstances.
  • PROCESS is the avenue of change. Content forms the context in which change can take place.
  • CONGRUENCE and high self-esteem are major goals in the Satir model.
  • HEALTHY human relationships are built on equality of value.

- Virginia Satir

Satir Categories

During her clinical studies, she came up with 5 different styles of communication known as the Satir Categories. 4 out of 5 were responsible for creating many conflicts while only one of them can be used for resolving conflict and bringing families together.

Blamer

Blamers are people who always find fault with someone or something. They almost never take responsibility for their actions. They put on a tough mask to hide their feelings of alienation and loneliness. They are the most likely to initiate conflict.

Placater (Non-assertive)

Placaters are what you would call a “people pleaser”. They almost never disagree, are very non-assertive, and always seek approval. They’re very concerned about how people view them.

Computer

People who exhibit Computer behavior often appear cold and unfeeling. Even if  they don’t display any emotion on the outside, there may be a firework of emotions on the inside. They often make value judgments without saying who made the judgment, which implies that everyone should agree.

Distractor

Distractors are attention-seekers. They do this to compensate for their feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. They will often change the subject and not answer a question directly. They will also cycle through the other categories as well.

Leveler

Levelers say what they mean and mean what they say. Their thoughts, words and actions are all in alignment. They relate well with others and know how to be assertive. It is the only communication category that can be used to resolve conflict and bring people together.

Satir Change Model

The Satir Change Model was created to help people analyze their situation and choices. A strong emphasis is placed on engaging the inner self. The model illustrates how people go through change and how they can cope with such change to improve their relationship with each other. 

There are 5 stages in total:

First Stage: Late Status Quo

In this stage, the individual is in a familiar and predictable environment. Everyone is playing their part and knows what to expect, how to react, and how to behave. Things aren’t necessarily great, but it isn’t bad either.

Second Stage: Resistance

When we encounter something that challenges the status quo, we enter the Resistance Phase. This new element is called a foreign element. It’s called foreign to represent the fact that it’s outside the way of how things are normally done. A foreign element always requires a response.

Third Stage: Chaos

Once the foreign element reaches critical mass, we enter into the Chaos stage. The old way of doing things is no longer viable. It’s normal to feel stressed, confused, or anxious during this time. Chaos is important because it helps to inspire creativity in individuals to find solutions.

Fourth Stage: Practice and Integration

New ideas are being implemented at this stage as the individuals determine what’s the best way forward. Members may feel exhilarated as things start to click. More support may be needed at this stage compared to the previous one, especially if things don’t work out the first time.

Final Stage: New Status Quo

The changes that were adopted in the previous stage have begun to take hold. What was once a new skill now becomes second nature. Everyone is much more centered and alert. It’s important to celebrate success during this phase while remaining open to new ideas.

It should be noted that this process is not always linear. If individuals find a temporary coping skill or solution that does not bring the desired result, they may regress back to chaos.

Here are some our favorite Virginia Satir Quotes.


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Prakash Singh
Prakash Singh
2 years ago

Thanks for sharing so informative blog !

Jacob Laguerre
Reply to  Prakash Singh
2 years ago

My pleasure!

Mahmud Endre
Mahmud Endre
2 years ago

Wonderful post
Many thanks for your friendly attitude .

Jacob Laguerre
Reply to  Mahmud Endre
2 years ago

Glad you enjoyed it!

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