Applications of the Satir Growth Model
by Dr. John Banmen, RPsych, RMFT & Kathlyne Maki-Banmen, MA, RCC
What happens when a human being appears on the professional radar and, without directly challenging the prevailing system, provides new possibilities and opportunities for growth and human wholeness? Virginia Satir (1916 – 1988) was one such person when she became one of the founders of the family therapy movement. She saw her first family in 1951 which was, at that time, against the therapeutic "rules" of the day. She taught her first family therapy courses at the Mental Research Institute in California, U.S.A., in 1959. By 1964, her ground breaking book, Conjoint Family Therapy, was published, establishing her as a pioneer in new ways of helping people in need.
I, John Banmen, spent my first five days with her in January, 1970. From then until her death in 1988, I studied with her, taught with her, edited two books of her meditations and wrote a book with her. We spent hundreds of hours discussing human potential and growth and the process of therapeutic change.
Satir was an ardent learner. As she learned, she continuously added to her approach, trying new things, discarding old things and developing her system of becoming more fully human. Yet, her basic underlying philosophy and the essence of her change process remained intact. Some of her basic beliefs that are the pre-supposition to her therapeutic model are listed here in point form. Many of these beliefs will be expanded throughout this book. These beliefs provided her with an unshakable confidence that human growth is natural and is moving in a positive direction. Some of what she believed and practiced are:
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.
These beliefs, and others, are the foundation of the Satir Growth Model, called Satir Transformational Systemic Therapy (STST) in the world of professional therapy. As you read the various chapters of this book, they will become more meaningful and applicable.
Sometimes, as we examine Satir's contributions to the therapeutic world, we can see the stages of her own development. In the early development of her model, she focused on communication through the survival, coping stances. She had an intuitive sense that, when placed under stress in relationships, people needed to find a way to protect the positive nature of their inner Self. She seemed fascinated and curious about how people learned to survive under stress and how their coping played out in their intrapsychic and interactive patterns. She found that there are common patterns of how people cope. She labeled them placating (pleasing), blaming (projecting), super-reasonable (analyzing) and irrelevant (distracting). These survival coping stances indicate the behaviors, feelings, thoughts and expectations of the people using them and became the basis for her early work. She developed physical sculpting poses to externalize the internal experience in a non-verbal way and to allow the body memory and wisdom to access the experience and impact of using these stances in relationships. As people came to a new awareness of the cost of using their survival coping stance, it became an opportunity for them to choose to become more "straight" in their relationships and more congruent with their own positive Life Energy. Externalizing internal processes and symptoms has become a popular practice in present counseling training approaches. Using the stances is also an excellent way for therapists to assess clients' means of coping under stress in different contexts. Because the stances are learned and unconsciously used to cope in stressful situations, people may make use of more than one way of coping depending on what stressors they are experiencing. They may placate in one situation and blame in another. They are useful to understand the experience one has in relationship to oneself, to other people and to the context in which one finds oneself. As Satir continued to develop her therapeutic change model, she continued to use sculpting and the stances as ways to bring into people's awareness the experiences of which they were not aware.
Satir experienced deeply how the unresolved negative experiences of the past could impact people in the present. By providing an experiential method of resolving negative impacts and experiences, she developed her well known family reconstruction process. She said she was greatly influenced in this work by studying Greek tragedy plays. She developed a number of creative vehicles and interventions to help people access their own internal wisdom for growth. Several chapters address ways to transform impacts from the past and rediscover and reclaim internal resources through the use of these creative interventions.
Virginia Satir continued to grow, both personally and professionally, throughout her career. By the end of her life, she was more open about including her spiritual beliefs about people in her teaching and therapy, often presented as her meditations and visualizations. The deep therapeutic work she did with people and families was viewed with awe as the clients she worked with discovered their own internal resources and empowerment and made choices to heal. As her spiritual connection to herself and others grew, she focused more and more on this area of human experience as the rich source from which human change and evolution take place. She was a visionary far ahead of her time. Her last years were spent focused on peace as a world movement and love as the healing energy to make it happen. In her book, New Peoplemaking (1988), she said:
"My personal ideas and understanding of spirituality began with my own experience as a child, growing up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin (USA). Everywhere I saw growing things. Very early, I understood that growth was life force revealing itself, a manifestation of spirit . . . it is the realization that we are spiritual beings in human form. This is the essence of spirituality. The challenge of becoming more fully human is to be open to and to contact that power we call by many names, God being one frequently used. I believe that successful living depends on our making and accepting a relationship to our life force." (p. 334 – 336)
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, often discussed in terms of the metaphor of an iceberg, is discussed in many chapters of this book. 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.
As the Satir Model (STST) is focused on facilitating growth and change from the person's Life Energy and yearnings and the universality of human experience, the model becomes easily applicable to working with people in various types of systems. There are chapters in this book discussing the application of the model to working in cross-cultural settings, in public schools and with gay and lesbian relationships. The model is also applicable to various dysfunctional patterns and symptoms, including working with suicidal and addicted clients, two more chapters in this book.
The Satir Growth Model embraces four universal meta-goals as the focus of therapy. These are:
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, one's choices are towards freedom. One's choices are in the direction of health, happiness, peace and love. One feels 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 help 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.
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. Experiential. 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.
This book has a long history behind it. 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.
This book came about as a result of her wish. Some chapters have been in the making for a long time. Others are very recent creations. 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.
We wish you, the reader, much enjoyment in reading and studying this book. For some of you, this will be a comprehensive review of the application of the Satir Growth Model with some new ideas dispersed throughout. For some of you, this book might be your introduction to the legacy of Virginia Satir. Regardless, we hope this book will make your therapeutic work more exciting and more effective at the transformational change level of your client's Life Force.
John Banmen and Kathlyne Maki-Banmen