Virginia Satir


Virginia Satir lays out three sets of criteria for terminating treatment with a couple–criteria which, when met show that therapy has been successful. This is my favorite set, from p. 228 of Conjoint Family Therapy. The individuals in the couple can:

Be direct, using the first person “I” and following with statements or questions which:

Criticize

Evaluate

Acknowledge an observation

Find fault

Report annoyance

Identify being puzzled

Be delineated, by using language which clearly shows “I am me” and “You are you.” “I am separate and apart from you and I acknowledge my own attributes as belonging to me. You are you, separate and apart from me, and I acknowledge your attributes as belonging to you.”

Be clear, by using questions and statements which reflect directness and the capacity to get knowledge of someone else’s statements, direction, or intentions, in order to accomplish an outcome.

I find these criteria charming, but I don’t think I will be able to use them overtly, for a couple reasons. First, insurance companies want a DSM diagnosis and a clear resolution of the Mental Disorders indicated. Satir did not speak their language. She didn’t like to label people.

Second, supervisors tend to want behavioral definitions of specific problems, so our treatment plans can say things like “The couple reports arguments have decreased from 4 times a week to 2 times a week, and that the intensity of those arguments have decreased from 7 to 4 on a 10 point scale.” This can be more collaborative and transparent with clients. It can appear to make things measured and therefore authoritative and amenable to research. I will have to write my treatment plans like that during school and probably any time I’m working for someone else. I’ll get good at it. Maybe I’ll come to like it.

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Family therapy got started when the grandparents of the field, interested in cybernetics–the science of self-regulating systems–started studying communication in families. Some of the more interesting ideas they came up with were the three progressively more problematic kinds of contradiction. This is a summary of Virginia Satir’s version of those contradictions, from Conjoint Family Therapy:

Simple contradiction: This is when a person says two things that contradict each other straightforwardly, as when someone might say, “I love you but I don’t love you.” This kind of contradiction consists of assertions that are incompatible, but at least out in the open, in an easily decodable way. That means that the receiver of the message can easily comment on the contradiction, saying “I don’t understand what you mean. You didn’t make sense to me just then.”

Paradoxical (or incongruent) communication: A paradox is a special kind of contradiction, where the incompatible statements exist on different “logical levels.” That is, one of the statements is part of the context of the other statement. These are significantly more difficult to decode and comment on. The two logical levels in human communication are usually verbal and non-verbal behavior, where the non-verbal behavior is the context for the verbal. For example (from p.83) “A says, ‘I hate you,’ and smiles.” If A had said “I hate you” with an angry look on their face, that would be congruent, but what does “I hate you” mean in the context of a smile? This is more confusing than the simple contradiction, both because it is more difficult to track the two levels of communication simultaneously, and because we have unspoken social norms against commenting about how someone is speaking. Consequently, it takes more awareness and bravery to question the speaker’s intent when they present you with this kind of contradictory communication. (Satir calls paradoxical communication “incongruent communication.”) Being able to metacommunicate, or comment on the communication going on, is the major tool of the psychotherapist. We don’t usually know it, but this skill is the main thing we go to therapists for.

The double bind: The double bind is a special kind of paradoxical communication that was first laid out in Watzlawick and colleagues’ Pragmatics of Human Communication. A double bind is a paradox with two additional rules, giving four total requirements:

1) A verbal statement

2) A contradictory non-verbal context

3) A rule that you are not allowed to metacommunicate

4) A rule that you are not allowed to leave the field

This happens to people all the time. Children, especially, mercilessly, unconsciously, are put in this position a lot because they are not in a position to leave their parents “field.” They are completely subject to their parents on every level.

Here’s an example: A parent, obviously stressed out, tense, and in pain for whatever reason, says to their child, “I love you.” This puts the child into a double bind, because the statement is contradicted by the “I don’t love you” expressed by the parents’ body language and facial expression. That’s 1) and 2). Third is that the child can’t comment on the contradiction because they don’t have the tools, and even if they did, and said something like, “Mom, I hear you saying that you love me but it doesn’t really seem like you love me right now. It seems like you’re having other feelings,” the child would almost certainly be punished in some way for being insubordinate, for questioning the parent’s love, for questioning the parent’s word, for making the parent feel uncomfortable. Fourth is that the child is not allowed to leave the field. That is, even if they had the communication tools, the awareness, and the bravery, they have no where else to go if they are rejected by the parent. Their lives are dependent on the love and support of the parent. They are stuck in the field. To cope, they “learn” one or both of the following:

I am not lovable. My parent knows this, and I have figured it out, but at least they are pretending that they love me, which keeps me alive, so I’ll go along with the pretense that they love me.

I may be lovable, but love feels awful. Still, it’s the best thing available.

Then the child grows up and, having their own children, perpetuate the process, being a pretending-to-be-lovable parent with awful-feeling love to give to the next generation. Not only that, but they develop adaptations to this way of living that look like DSM-diagnosable Mental Disorder conditions.

Metacommunication and congruent communication: Notice that metacommunication is the key out of all of these situations. In the case of a true double bind, you might need the help of someone else’s (a therapist’s or friend’s) metacommunication, but metacommunication is still the key. Someone needs to stand up and say, “I’m confused! Can we slow down here and talk about what we’re talking about? What can you say to me right now that your body language and facial expression will agree with?”

I am going to start seeing clients in a few weeks in the clinic at the University of Oregon. Part of that process is beginning to “date a model.” That means I have to choose one of the many styles of family therapy and try it out to see if it’s really my thing. I’m a born generalist and integrator, so this is a difficult choice to make. Below, I typed up the “In a Nutshell: The Least You Need to Know” sections for each family therapy model in Diane Gehart’s excellent book, Mastering Competencies in Family Therapy. (Actually, I’ve left out one–collaborative therapy–because I know almost nothing about it, so it’s not one of my active choices.)

Those of you who know me (and I believe that’s pretty much all of you, readers) and have the stamina to read these eleven paragraphs, I would love to know which of these models you think sounds the most like me.

Systemic and Strategic Therapies: Using what most therapists consider the classic family therapy method, systemic family therapists conceptualize the symptoms of individuals within the larger network of their family and social systems while maintaining a nonblaming, nonpathologizing stance toward all members of the family. Systemic therapies are based on general systems and cybernetics systems theories,  which propose that families are living systems characterized by certain principles, including homeostasis, the tendency to maintain a particular range of behaviors and norms, and self-correction, the ability to identify when the system has gone too far from its homeostatic norm and then to self-correct to maintain balance. Systemic therapists rarely attempt linear, logical solutions to “educate” a family on better ways to communicate–this is almost never successful–but instead tap into the systemic dynamics to effect change. They introduce small, innocuous, yet highly meaningful alterations to the family’s interactions, allowing the family to naturally reorganize in response to the new information. Because this method effects change quickly, systemic therapies were the original brief therapies.

Structural Therapy: As the name implies, structural therapists map family structure–boundaries, hierarchies, and subsystems–to help clients resolve individual mental health symptoms and relational problems. After assessing family functioning, therapists aim to restructure the family, realigning boundaries and hierarchies to promote growth and resolve problems. They are active in sessions, staging enactments, realigning chairs, and questioning family assumptions. Structural family therapy focuses on strengths, never seeing families as dysfunctional but rather as people who need assistance in expanding their repertoire of interaction patterns to adjust to their ever-changing developmental and contextual demands.

The Satir Growth Model: One of the first prominent women in the field, Virginia Satir began her career in family therapy at the Mental Research Institute working alongside Jay Haley, Paul Watzlawick, Richard Fisch, and the other leading family therpists in Palo Alto. [These were the folks who came up with the “systemic and strategic therapies,” above.] She eventually left the MRI to develop her own ideas, which can broadly be described as infusing humanistic values into a system approach. She brought a warmth and enthusiasm for human potential that is unparalleled in the field of family therapy. Her therapy focused on fostering individual growth as well as improving family interactions. She used experiential exercises (e.g., family sculpting), metaphors, coaching, and the self of the therapist to facilitate change. Her work is practiced extensively internationally, with Satir practitioners connecting through the Satir Global Network.

Symbolic-Experiential Therapy: Symbolic-experiential therapy is an experiential therapy model developed by Carl Whitaker. Whitaker referred to his work as “therapy of the absurd,” highlighting the unconventional and playful wisdom he used to help transorm family. Relying almost entirely on emotinal logic rahter than cognitive logic, his work is often misunderstood as nonsense, but it is more accurate to say that he worked with “heart sense.” Rather than intervene on behavrioral sequences like strtegic-systemic therapists, Whitaker focused on teh emotional process and family structure. He intervened directly at the emotional level of the system, relying heavily on “symbolism” and real life experiences as well as humor, play, and affective controntation.

For the astute observer, Whitaker’s work embodied a deep and profound understanding of families’ emotional lives; to the casual observer, he often seemed rude or inappropriate. When he was “inappropriate,” it was always for the purpose of confronting or otherwise intervening on emotional dynamics that he wanted to expose, challenge, and transform. He was adamant about balancing strong emotional confrontation with warmth and support from the therapist. In many ways, he encouraged therapists to move beyond the rules of polite society and invite them selves and clients to be genuine and real enough to speak the whole truth.

Bowen Intergenerational Therapy: Bowen intergenerational theory is more about the nature of being human than it is about families or family therapy. The Bowen approach requires therapists to work from a broad perspective that considers the evolution of the human species and the characteristics of all living systems. Therapists use this broad perspective to conceptualize client problems and then rely primarily on the therapist’s use of self to effect change. As a part of this broad perspective, therapists routinely consider the three-generational emotional process to better understand the current presenting symptoms. The process of therapy involves increasing clients’ awareness of how their current behavior is connected to multigenerational processes and the resulting family dynamics. The therapist’s primary tool for promoting client change is the therapist’s personal level of differentiation, the ability to distinguish self from other and manage interpersonal anxiety.

Psychoanalytic Family Therapies: These therapies use traditional psychoanalytic and psychodynamic principles that describe inner conflicts and extend these  principles to external relationships. In contrast to individual psychoanalysts, psychoanalytic family therapists focus on the family as a nexus of relationships that either support or impede the development and functioning of it’s members. As in traditional psychoanalytic approaches, the process of therapy involves analyzing intrapsychic and interpersonal dynamics, promoting client insight, and working through these insights to develop new ways of relating to self and others. Some of the more influential approaches are contextual therapy, family -of-origin therapy, and object relations family therapy.

Behavioral and Cognitive-Behavioral Family Therapies: In the general mental health field, cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBTs) are some of the most commonly used therapeutic approaches. They have their roots in behaviorism–Pavlov’s research on stimulus-response pairings with dogs and Skinner’s research on rewards and punishments with cats–the premises of which are still widely used with phobias, anxiety, and parenting. Until the 1980s, most of the cognitive-behavioral family therapies were primarily behavioral: behavioral family therapy and behavioral couples therapy. In recent years, approaches that more directly incorporate cognitive components have developed: cognitive-behavioral family therapy and Gottman method couples therapy approach.

Cognitive-behavioral family therapies integrate systemic concepts into standard cognitive-behavioral techniques by examining how family members–or any two people in a relationship–reinforce one another’s behaviors to maintain symptoms and relational pattern. Therapists generally assume a directive, “teaching,” or “coaching” relationship with clients, which is quite different from other approaches of “joining” or “empathizing” with clients to form a relationship. Because this approach is rooted in experimental psychology, research is central to its practice and evolution, resulting in a substantial evidence base.

Solution-Based Therapies: Solution-based therapies are brief therapy approaches that grew out of the work of the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto (MRI) and Milton Erickson’s brief therapy and trance work. The first and leading “strength-based” therapies, solution-based therapies are increasingly popular with clients, insurance companies, and county mental health agencies because they are efficient and respectful of clients. AS the name suggests, solution-based therapists work with the client to envision potential solutions based on the client’s experience and values. Once the client has selected a desirable outcome, the therapist assists the client in identifying small, incremental steps toward realizing this goal. The therapist does not solve problems or offer solutions but instead collaborates with clients to develop aspirations and plans that they then translate into real-world action.

Narrative Therapy: Developed by Michael White and David Epston in Australia and New Zealand, narrative therapy is based on the premise that we “story” and create the meaning of life events using available dominant discourses–broad societal stories, sociocultural practices, assumptions, and expectations about how we should live. People experience “problems” when their personal life does not fit with these dominant societal discourses and expectations. The process of narrative therapy involves separating the person from the problem, critically examining the assumptions that inform how the person evaluates himself/herself and his/her life. Through this process, clients identify alternative ways to view, act, and interact in daily life. Narrative therapists assume that all people are resourceful and have strengths, and they do not see “people” as having problems but rather see problems as being imposed upon people by unhelpful or harmful societal cultural practices.

I’m reading Virginia Satir’s Conjoint Family Therapy. She was this amazing, giant, super-loving woman, one of the founders of the field of family therapy–kind of the Julia Child of family therapy. I’m learning her style of therapy, possibly in part because I was introduced to her work very young, maybe 11 or 12. My mom bought me Elgin’s The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. It was my first introduction to going meta on communication–thinking and talking about communication, a very useful skill, possibly the central skill of a therapist.

I’m really enjoying reading the original Satir. One of her (many) assertions is that pretty much any time you say anything you are making a request. It could be a request for any number of behaviors, but ultimately they are all requests for some kind of validation. The difference between functional and dysfunctional communication is how overt your requests are. Here’s one of her examples (p. 86):

Functional:

“Let’s see a movie,” or even better, “I would like to see a movie with you.”

Dysfunctional:

“You would like to see a movie, wouldn’t you.”

“It would do you good to see a movie.”

“If you want to see a movie, we’ll see one.”

“We might as well see a movie. It’s Saturday night.”

“There’s a new movie house down the street.”

“My voices are ordering me to see a movie.”

Dysfunctional requests require decoding. If both the sender and receiver of the communication are clear about the codes they use, this is fine, but in general, the more decoding required, the more trouble you get into.

The problem is, if you make a clear request, you can be clearly denied your request. You make yourself vulnerable by saying “Let’s see a movie,” or “Do you like me?” because the answer could be “No.” Unless your self-esteem is quite high, a “No” hurts.

If you send a code, say, “There’s a new movie house down the street,” you can pretend that you’re not putting yourself out there. If your receiver says, “I don’t want to see a movie,” you can say, “What do you mean? I was just commenting on the new building.” Or your receiver can say “No” in code, maybe, “Yeah, that place looks like a dump.” Then things are really fuzzy. You don’t know if they decoded your message accurately, and they don’t know if your message was coded in the first place. It might feel like protection–it might even be protection–but it’s confusing and it lacks intimacy.

Why do we code our requests? We learn to. Maybe we’ve learned not to trust our receiver with a vulnerable request–the way they responded to such requests in the past have been painful. Or maybe it’s just habit, left over from accumulated painful experiences from our younger years. It could be part of your family’s culture, and uncoded requests seem harsh or demanding.

Try watching your communication. How coded is it? How do you feel when you imagine speaking in less coded requests? And try being vulnerable. Try to do even better than Satir’s, “I would like to see a movie with you.” Unpack it more. If you can say with honesty, “Hey, I really like you and I’d like to spend time with you tonight, watching a movie. What do you say?” then do it!