October 4, 2021
It’s a model that’s sometimes used in the discussion of change, but it was born out of family systems therapy and the awareness of how disruptive events impact family systems. The Satir Model brings a very human and personal element to how changes occur.
Alcohol is the Solution
One of the challenges counselors frequently encounter is that the dysfunctional behavior they’re called in to fix is a symptom of a larger family system problem. Virginia Satir’s insight into this problem began in 1951, when she started seeing more than one member of the family at a time. This allowed her to begin to see how the interaction patterns started to create the problems that therapy was being sought to solve.
The most vivid example of this for me was in Intimacy Anorexia, where Douglas Weiss made it clear that sometimes things are not as they seem. He explains that if you’re trying to make a dog mean by starving it, you don’t do it by withholding all food – you withhold just enough that he’s always hungry and always feeling as if he must fight to get enough food. In the book’s context, the withholding is intimacy, and the result is sometimes sexual addiction or adultery. If you’re presented with these circumstances, you might easily find fault in the adulterer without asking the question about the systems that created those results. (I’m not suggesting the transfer of responsibility, only the full evaluation of the situation.)
A more mundane but powerful response was when my friend shared that drugs or alcohol wasn’t the problem to the addict – it was the solution. It may be a poor solution. It may have negative side effects and consequences, but it’s solving another problem that the addict has. Frequently, it’s a need to numb the pain that they’re feeling in their life due to their family, professional, or social circumstances. Certainly, there’s an aspect of treatment to get folks to stop the coping skill that transformed into an addiction, but there’s a greater need to help the addict find better coping skills that bring life instead of more pain.
Sometimes, changing the coping skills means changing the reactions to the systems that people find themselves in either by getting others within the system to help break the cycle or by developing the specific skills necessary for the person to break the cycle themselves.
Faith in People
Virginia Satir as well as others like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers had faith that people had value and had the solutions to their own problems. (See A Way of Being for Carl Roger’s perspective.) Other works, like Motivational Interviewing, follow a similar pattern where the patient is treated as the expert on their situation, their environment, and their perspectives. Like a good anthropologist practicing Ethnographic Interviewing, they suspend judgement about what the other person is saying to focus on understanding both what is being said and the hidden meanings that are lurking just beneath the surface.
Satir recognized that a person’s self-esteem had a huge impact on their ability to function and thrive in the world. Martin Seligman in The Hope Circuit describes it slightly differently. Here, he frames it as learned control, the lack of learned helplessness, or a belief that what you’re doing can make a difference. (You may also find Seligman’s book Flourish useful in exposing the power of self-esteem.)
Whole in Parts
The natural tendency is to accept the positive aspects and dismiss the negative aspects. The tendency to be a “go getter” is great professionally but has the negative of making it more difficult to turn off, shut down, and relax. Having the people pleasing personality makes you great at customer service but makes it difficult to tell your family no when they make an unreasonable ask of you. You’re good at creative projects, but sometimes forget to take out the trash.
In every case, we want to accept the positive aspects of our personalities and our identities and minimize the parts of our identities that we don’t believe serve us well. What we fail to realize is that there is no having one without the other. That is not to say that we shouldn’t work to minimize the negative consequences or work towards a better result. It is, however, to say that we can not deny the consequences without cutting off a part of ourselves – a part of ourselves that we need.
The Confidence to Stand Alone
Much has been made about Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachment styles and the need for children to feel safe to be able to explore. (See The Secret Lives of Adults for more.) There has been research on how mother rats licking and grooming their pups leads to more effective attachment styles in rats. (See How Children Succeed for more.) Satir speaks of it as the intrinsic value and confidence necessary to pursue new things and reveal ourselves.
It’s one thing to speak of attachment styles and courage but quite another to stand alone. As we learned with Asch’s line experiments, if enough people believe something, you’re likely to believe it, too. (See The Lucifer Effect for more.) Find Your Courage seeks to help people, especially those whose attachment styles aren’t initially the best, find ways of expressing themselves more wholly despite these limitations.
One of the challenges with any change is the amount of effort required. We sometimes expect that the degree of change that we’ll be forced to undertake is more than we’re able to accomplish on our own. While, at times, this may be necessary, Satir’s perspective was that most situations required only relatively minor adjustments that anyone is capable of making. This perspective of a relatively small amount of change on a relatively large amount of experiences helps to give everyone hope that they can change and be successful. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about generating hope, its components, and its power.)
Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery exposes the best – and worst – of each personality type. Rather than looking at the most positive and the most negative expressions of a personality as radically different, the enneagram looks at them as degrees of functionality that can be adjusted. In most cases, the gap between where we are at and the success we want is very small.
The Four Stances
Satir believes that there are four stances that we can take in any situation. They are:
- Placating – We disregard our own feelings to accommodate someone else.
- Blaming – We fail to accept any personal blame and instead look to others outside of ourselves as the cause of our woes.
- Super-Reasonable – The tendency to discount one party or another in favor of the context of the situation.
- Irrelevant – Attempts to be amusing our clownish instead of directly addressing the situation at hand.
If one were to put this on a 2×2 grid, one axis would be rationality – the degree of reason that corresponds to the current situation. The other axis is assertiveness, the degree to which a person asserts their will and needs in the situation. In the middle of the grid is a zone of coherent or congruent operation, in which we are the most effective.
When operating in any human system, you should expect five basic freedoms, though many of us have learned from our experiences that these aren’t freedoms that we can expect from our families – or in our teams. The five freedoms are:
- Freedom to see and hear what is real – not what was, should be, or will be.
- Freedom to say what we think and feel – not what others believe we should.
- Freedom to feel for real – not what others expect you to feel.
- Freedom to ask for what you want – instead of waiting for permission.
- Freedom to take risks and fail – not be frozen in fear.
Understanding Is the Path
Humans have a fundamental need to be understood. When we developed our mind-reading, we developed the expectation that we’d be understood. (See The Righteous Mind and Mindreading for the development of our mind-reading capabilities.) Since then, our humanity has taken a beating. We long to be understood, and too often, we fail to get any validation that we’re being heard. It’s this first little step of feeling heard that allows us to take additional steps forward in working together and healing the broken systems of interaction.
One of the hidden challenges in relationships are those unspoken expectations which lead to judgements. As humans we are, by our very nature, prediction machines. (See Think Again and Changing Minds for more.) We are constantly trying to predict what will happen next. We want to know what lottery numbers will come up, how the stock market will perform, and how people will behave. The core of trusting other people is predicting how they will behave and accepting the possibility that they may betray our predictions. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited and Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more on trust.)
When we expect someone to behave a certain way and they don’t, we feel betrayed. If we were to tear apart that feeling of betrayal, we’ll find expectations and judgement. The judgement is simply that our expectation was reasonable and right. We feel justified that we should have expected the behavior from the other person and judge them as bad – instead of looking to how our expectations may have been wrong or how extenuating circumstances may have led to their behavior deviating from our expectations.
It’s one-part fundamental attribution error – associating negatives with the character of a person instead of the environment or situation. (Kurt Lewin’s equation uses both “environment” and “situation” in different places, depending on which source you cite.)
No matter how our bone may have become broken, it’s our responsibility to heal. Sure, we can reach out to others to set the bone in the correct place to heal, and we can get a cast or other reinforcement to prevent further damage during the healing process; but, ultimately, it’s our responsibility to heal ourselves. No amount of fault-finding or blaming the process that caused our bone to become broken will heal it. Yet, often times in relationships, we become overly focused on whose fault it is or who is to blame. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) for more.)
In healing our hurts, we can look to people to set the bones right. We seek out the people who can put the pieces back together in the right place and in the right way so that they’re capable of healing appropriately. In the context of Satir’s work, this is a counselor or therapist who can help identify the broken pieces and how they fit together. In an organizational sense, it may be a coach, advisor, or consultant who helps to restructure broken systems in ways that can be effective.
Once we’re set in place, we will need some protection for this broken area. That’s what Dr. Townsend was talking about when he was discussing temporary boundaries in his book, Beyond Boundaries. Temporary boundaries provide protection while the healing process to taking place.
Finally, we’ve got to do the hard work of healing. Our bodies may automatically take care of part of the process, sometimes creating scar tissue and sometimes not. However, with most broken bones, there is some degree of work to be done consciously in the form of physical therapy to regain all – or at least most – of the capacity that existed before the bone was broken.
It seems odd that one would desire to create chaos in any situation unless they’re being malevolent – but chaos is a necessary part of the process of change. If you avoid the chaos, you can’t change people or the systems that they operate in. William Bridges in Managing Transitions describes this as the neutral zone. The old patterns of behavior aren’t in place, but neither are the new desired behaviors. There’s a place where things are being discovered – and are therefore chaotic.
While I’ve never met someone who truly enjoys chaos, I’ve met plenty who can tolerate it and its ambiguities. However, most people can’t even tolerate high degrees of chaos. They want predictability and certainty so that they can feel comfortable that they know what’s coming.
In How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett shares her experiences with trying to understand her emotions and how sometimes what she felt in her body weren’t emotions at all but were, in fact, illness. Richard Lazarus in Emotion and Adaptation takes a more decomposing approach and begins to untangle how we experience stimulus that we interpret, and how those interpretations form our feelings. Too many people have never been taught how to process their feelings, and as a result they insist that “My feelings are just my feelings.” In other words, they came randomly, and they’ll leave randomly.
The problem with this perspective is that you become the victim of your emotions. You can’t control them – or, more accurately, influence them. As a result, you’re beholden to the whims of your emotions, and you can do nothing about it. Taken to the logical extreme, this gives other the power to manipulate you like Pinocchio’s strings. If you have no choice but to react to certain stimuli in a certain way, then all others need to do to control you is create the right stimulus to get the actions they desire.
Most people find the idea that others control them repulsive, even if they’re willing to say, “They made me mad.” The problem with this statement is that it’s giving power to others in ways that they should not and need not. The more we can discover the time between the stimulus and our response, the more capacity we have, to be in control of – or at least influence – our emotions.
Caustic Coping Skills
Addiction is, as one friend said, a coping skill that progressively takes more and more control of the person using it. A glass of wine isn’t a problem, but when the coping skill is now driving the behavior of the person, it’s crossed over into addiction. Satir often said, “The problem isn’t the problem. Coping is.”
Coping can be a problem not just in that you’re overusing a coping skill to the point of it becoming an addiction but also when there are no coping skills available to work with a situation. Maybe the skills that are available are totally insufficient or inappropriate to the situation, and as a result, it’s the approach to coping that is the problem.
It’s structurally impossible to find darkness and remove it. You can’t remove darkness. You can’t undo the bad, the dysfunctional, and the painful directly. All you can do to remove darkness is to add light. Instead of focusing on eliminating the negative, we have to focus on how we can add the positive.
Satir used the idea that a seed has tremendous latent energy. After all, how could a seed become a plant without latent energy? I prefer David Bohm’s thinking. He said that seeds are the apertures through which the plant emerges. (See On Dialogue.) Whether you choose to see latent power in the family system or you see the family system as the aperture through which healthy humans emerge, her work is powerful. (See The New Peoplemaking for more on how we’re supposed to help complete, healthy, well-adjusted people emerge from childhood at every age.)
If you’re interested in untangling a family system that’s a mess or a team at work that just doesn’t seem to work, perhaps you should read The Satir Model.