Virginia Satir

Virginia Satir Quotes

I would like all of us to live as fully as we can. The only time I really feel awful is when people have not lived a life that expressed themselves. They lived with all their "shoulds" and "oughts" and their blaming and placating and all the rest of it, and I think, "How sad".
Virginia Satir (1989)

I once was with somebody I liked very much -- an older person, when I was considerably younger than I am now. That person said, "Spend at least fifteen minutes a day weaving dreams. And if you weave a hundred, at least two of them will have a life."
So, continue with a dream and don't worry whether it can happen or not; weave it first. Many people have killed their dreams by figuring out whether they could do them or not before they dream them. So, if you're a first-rate dreamer, dream it out -- several of them--and then see what realities can come to make them happen, instead of saying, "Oh, my God. With this reality, what can I dream?"
Virginia Satir (1984)

Whatever another person says cannot turn us into what he sees us as long as we ourselves do not allow this.
Virginia Satir

And I suppose that before I leave this world, one thing that I would wish for all the world to know, is that human contact is made by the connection of skin, eyes, and voice tone. These are the things that taught us before we had words. How our parents touched us, how they looked at us, what their voices sounded like, were all recorded in us.
Virginia Satir (1989)

Virginia Satir: Basic Concepts

Core beliefs:

Virginia Satir was convinced that there is a life force or spirit that is effective in many dimensions and that also influences our behavior.

She considered everyone a valuable part of creation.

She was equally convinced that every person is unique and beautiful. This understanding of the world and of man shaped her psychotherapeutic relationships.

Nevertheless, she was realistic and knew that the inner wealth in many people could be buried very deep.

So she did not assume that all people do only good or are only guided by positive motives. But at the bottom of their soul, all people are good.

Virginia Satir acknowledged interpersonal relationships and respect for oneself and for others as top priorities. Every human being is dependent on relationships and cannot exist alone. She also emphasized interdependence and the fact that everything we do reacts back to ourselves.

Like other humanist psychologists, Virginia Satir assumed that if we grow up and live in growth-promoting positive conditions, we're basically good, creative, productive, and loving.

Growth, development and change were the essential characteristics of life itself.

Every human being is born with a very specific potential that distinguishes him from all other people and makes him unique.


  • Moskau, Gaby & Müller, Gerd F. (eds.):
    Virginia Satir - Wege zum Wachstum, Paderborn 1992 (Jungfermann Verlag)
  • Andreas Steve:
    Virginia Satir: the Patterns of her Magic, USA 1999 (Real People Press)
  • Bandler, Richard; Grindler John & Satir, Virginia:
    Changing with Families, USA 1976 (Science & Behavior Books)
  • Satir, Virginia; Banmen, John; Gerber, Jane; Gomori, Maria:
    Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond, USA 1994 (Science and Behavior Books)
  • Walker, Wolfgang:
    Abenteuer Kommunikation, 1996 (Klett-Cotta)

The Four Satir Types (Survival Behaviors)

Virginia Satir discovered four categories of communication or attitudes that people assume when they are under tension. Each of these Satir categories is characterized by a particular posture, a special gesture, accompanying body feelings and a specific syntax.

Overview of the four Satir - Types

Communication form (Role)DescriptionVoice / Posture
The Placater"I am happy that I am even allowed to be here."
Use of restrictions: if, only, even, at all.
Use of many subjunctives: could, would, might, etc.
Listener disturbed by apparent mind reading
slumped, swaying, head turned upwards, hand held forward pleadingly

whining, squeaky, pressed
The Blamer"If you were not here, everything would be fine! Universal quantifiers: all, everyone, never. Assumed causal relationships (if, then: because ...)
Use of negative questions: Why not do it?
Disturbs listener by asserting causal relationships.
tense, distorted, flat, compressed breath

loud, shrill, hard
The Distractor"I can’t think of anything, or - wait, wait - yesterday I met an actor who didn’t know ..."
Arbitrary use of all three language patterns, missing references and links, rapid change of the other patterns.
uncoordinated movements of head, torso, extremities

erratic, fast, animated
The Computer"After calm and factual consideration one can state that ..."
Deletion of reference indices. Use of nominalizations. Use of nouns without reference indices: it, one, people etc. Deletion of the subject / subject reference
unanimated, stiff, non-reactive

monotonous, dry

1. Placating

Placating is one of the four most important ways we react when we feel our survival is threatened.
When we placate, we disregard our own feelings about our value, surrender our power to someone else, and say yes to everything. A person who tends towards placating takes others and the context into account but disregards his own true feelings.

Placating plays at being pleasing, which is highly appreciated in most cultures and families.
But placating is different from the congruent effort to make someone happy. We placate at the expense of our own value. When we placate, we violate our own self-esteem and convey the message to the other that we are not important.

Placating reactions

  • Words: agreeing ("Whatever you want is alright, I exist only to make you happy.")
  • Body: conciliating ("I'm helpless.")
  • Thoughts and feelings: ("I feel like nothing, I'm dead without him. I'm worth nothing.")

The Placater always speaks in an ingratiating manner; he tries to please; he apologizes and never votes against anything, no matter what. He is a yes-man.

He speaks as if he could do nothing for himself. He must always find someone who gives him recognition. You'll realize later that if you play this role for only five minutes, you'll feel nauseous and want to vomit. To appear really placating, it helps a lot to adopt the idea that one is worth nothing.

You can feel happy that you are even allowed to eat. You owe everyone thanks and you are really responsible for everything that goes wrong. You know that you could have prevented the rain if you had only used your brain, but you do not have one. Of course, you will agree with any criticism of you. Of course, you are grateful for the fact that someone even speaks to you, no matter what one says or how one speaks. You would not think of asking for anything for yourself. After all, who are you to make demands?

Besides, if you were only good enough, want you want would come by on its own. Be the slimiest, most suffering, foot kissing person you can be. Imagine your body kneeling on one knee, shaking a bit, holding out a hand pleadingly, and be careful that your head is not raised high, and you'll get a headache in no time. When you speak in that position, your voice will be whining and squeaking, because you keep your body so bent that you cannot get enough air to form a rich, full voice. You will say yes to everything, no matter what you feel or think. This placating figure is the posture that corresponds to the conciliatory response form.

2. Blaming

Blaming is the exact opposite of Placating.
This accusatory attitude is an incongruent reflection of the social rule that we should stand up for ourselves and accept no apology, inconvenience or abuse from anyone - in short, that we must not be "weak".

In order to protect ourselves, we attack other people or circumstances and blame them.
When we accuse, other people do not count for us; only ourselves and the context are important. When we have adopted the blamer's attitude, we are often referred to as hostile, tyrannical, grumbling, or violent.

Blaming reactions

  • Words: disapproving ("you never do anything right, what's wrong with you?")
  • Body: accusatory, demanding ("I am the boss here.")
  • Thoughts and feelings: "I am lonely and unsuccessful."

The blamer is a "mistake seeker", a dictator, a boss. He acts arrogantly, and he seems to say, "If you were not here, everything would be fine." Internally, the muscles and organs feel tense. The blood pressure rises. The voice is hard, firm, often shrill and loud. Convincing "blaming" requires you to be as loud and tyrannical as you can. Humiliate everything and everyone ready.

I order to appear really accusatory, it helps to imagine that you have a blaming outstretched finger, and begin with the sentences, "You never do that," or "You always do that," or "Why do you always…," "Why don’t you ever…?" And so on. Do not worry about the answers. They are unimportant.

The blamer, on the contrary, tries to emphasize his importance, instead of actually finding out anything. Whether you know it or not, when you express blame, you breathe in small, tight breaths or hold your breath completely because your neck muscles are so tense. Have you ever seen a truly first-rate prosecutor whose eyes, throat muscles and nostrils bulged, whose face turned red and whose voice sounded like someone shoveling coal?

Imagine yourself with one hand on your hip, the other arm outstretched with a straight forefinger. Your face is distorted, your lips curled, your nostrils vibrate, when you swear and criticize everything and everyone under the sun. In reality, however, you also do not believe that you are really valuable. When you find someone who obeys you, it makes you feel that you at least mean something.

3. Distracting (irrelevant reaction)

The fourth survival behavior is the irrelevant reaction that is often confused with being amusing or playing the clown. The irrelevant pattern is the counterpart to the over-rational. When people are irrelevant, they are always on the move.

It is an attempt to distract the attention of others from the issues under discussion.

The irrelevant reactant constantly produces new ideas and wants to do myriads of things at the same time.

Self, others and the context of interaction are irrelevant to such people, if they are in the position of irrelevance.

People often describe those who act irrelevantly as spontaneous and happy. Often, in the course of one’s life, a general instability develops from irrelevant behavior, and they seem to have no goals. As long as they manage to divert attention from issues that could be cause them even the least amount of stress, they believe they will survive. They are unable to focus on a particular topic.

Distracting reactions

  • Words: unrelated, inconsequential, the words make no sense
  • Body: angular and pointing in different directions.
  • Thoughts and feelings: ("Nobody understands me, I do not belong anywhere.")

Whatever the distractor says or does, it has no relation to what anyone else says or does. He never answers a question directly. Inwardly, he feels dizzy or blurry. The voice can be a chant and often does not fit the words; he can move back and forth for no reason because he is not focused on anything.

If you want to play this distracting role, it will help you to imagine that your head sits crookedly and keeps turning so you do not know where you are going and will not notice when you arrive. You are too busy moving your mouth, eyes, arms and legs. Make sure that you never use specific words. Ignore everyone's questions, respond perhaps with a separate question on a very different topic. Remove an imaginary speck from someone's clothing, tie shoelaces on us and so on.

Imagine your body as if it pointed in different directions at the same time. Form exaggerated X-Legs by pressing your knees together. This will push your buttocks back and help bow your back and cause your arms and legs to move in different directions. At first, that seems to make this role easier, but after a few minutes of playing it, the terrible feelings of loneliness and futility become apparent. If you move fast enough, however, you will not notice it that much.

4. Computing

The pattern of over-rationalizing disregards both the self and other people.
To be overly rational means to act according to the context, mostly on the level of information and logic. In order to become aware of an overly rational attitude, we stand stiffly erect and immobile, with both arms at the sides of the body or symmetrically in front of the body. We soon get severe back pain because we are too rigid.

Our feet are close together. Since we do not grimace, our face is completely expressionless. When someone speaks to us, we give long and broad instructions, seemingly iron-stiff and dignified.
The striking feature of this posture is an almost inhuman objectivity. We do not allow ourselves or others to focus on emotions. This reflects the social convention that maturity means not moving, not looking, touching and feeling nothing.

Computing reactions

  • Words: very reasonable ("If one observes carefully, one could notice the calloused hands of one person present here.")
  • Body: unmoved, tense ("I am calm, cool and collected.")
  • Thoughts and feelings: ("I feel easily at people’s mercy.")

The computer is very correct and very reasonable, without the appearance of any feeling. He is calm, cool and collected. He could be compared to a computer or a reference book. The body feels dry, often cool and unrelated. The voice is dry and monotone; the words sound slightly abstract.

If you want to play the computer, use the longest words that are possible, even if you are not sure about their meaning. At least that's how you'll sound smart. After one paragraph nobody will listen anyway.

To get yourself into the mood for this role, imagine your spine would be a long, heavy rod reaching from your buttocks to your neck, and that you would have a 30 cm wide iron collar around your neck. Keep everything as motionless as possible, including your mouth. It will be difficult for you to keep your hands still, but try. When you rationalize, your voice will die down gradually because you have no feeling you’re your skull downwards. Your brain is constantly struggling to ensure that no part of your body is moving, and you're busy choosing the right words. After all, you must never make a mistake.

The sad thing about this role is that it seems to be ideal for many people. "Say the right words: show no feeling, do not react."

Take on the four physical postures as an exercise. Stay that way for 60 seconds and notice what happens to you.

Exercises for the Satir categories

  1. Exercise in groups of four: simulates a contentious situation: e.g., for and against the controllability of nuclear power, "gay marriage", Catholic priestesses, getting unemployment under control, etc. Each participant assumes one of the four Satir types.

  2. Each participant takes on a role as Placater, Blamer, Computer, Distractor and hold a discussion for about five minutes; then everyone changes roles until everyone has taken each position once.

  3. After a complete round, the participants exchange ideas: What role was most unpleasant? Which role was (relatively) easy to take? What was the effect on the others? How effective were the others in their roles?

  4. In the next phase counterstrategies will be tried out. One participant in the group slips into the role that he wants to explore even more for five minutes. His task is to present the group with an everyday problem. The other participants try to carefully question the chosen role and to expand on deleted, distorted or generalized points of view. Each role should be taken on once.

  5. Final feedback and exchange of views.

Self and self-esteem

All people strive for the wholeness of their self. Virginia Satir considered the term self systemically. She understood this as a continuous, dynamic interaction of different levels. She was equally concerned with physical, intrapsychic, spiritual, interpersonal, contextual and social factors.

By self-esteem she understood those ideas and feelings that we have developed into ourselves in the course of our lives.

She found that most human problems are due to low self-esteem. At the same time, she also found that most people have very low self-esteem.

Someone with low self-esteem does not respect and appreciate himself, and as a result, expects the same regard from others. He literally to be cheated and betrayed. And as a result of this expectation, he conjures his own worst fears (self-fulfilling prophecy). To protect himself, he crawls behind a wall of mistrust and sinks into isolation and loneliness. He finds it difficult to see himself clearly, as he moves further and further away from himself and others.

Our self-esteem seems to depend on how we were treated in our family during the first five to six years of life.

The feedback that we have received about ourselves and our behavior during these years determines our present-day feelings about ourselves, and thus how we handle challenges and our ability to communicate.

Thus, through their communication, parents can influence their child's self-esteem in a decisive way. The big problem is that most people are unaware of the peculiarities of their communication behavior, and so the good intentions of parents are nullified by their inadequate nonverbal behavior.

Such destructive patterns of interaction are then often handed on from generation to generation. But Virginia Satir felt that these patterns of interaction, which have been learned, can certainly be unlearned again. She was convinced that everyone could increase their self-esteem and recognize and work through their destructive patterns of interaction.

Congruence: the fifth behavior type

Virginia Satir felt that much of the miscommunication is due to inconsistencies in communication. Congruence is not really another way to survive, but a way of becoming human in a broader sense. moreover, it is a state of wholeness.

Congruence is one of the most important components of the Satir model. It is a state of being and a way of communicating with oneself and with others. Strong self-esteem and congruence are two of the most important signs of whether people have attained some degree of wholeness in their development. Congruence is characterized by:

  • the appreciation of the uniqueness of the self
  • the free flow of personal and interpersonal energy
  • the insistence on being a person
  • the willingness to trust yourself and others
  • the willingness to take risks and become vulnerable
  • the use of your own internal and external resources
  • openness to intimacy
  • the freedom to be yourself and to accept others
  • loving yourself and others
  • flexibility and openness to change.

For Virginia Satir, congruence consists of three levels:

Level 1:

Level 2:

Level 3:
Experience (Being)

Working towards congruence

To help people communicate in a congruent way, Virginia Satir has compiled a list of important indicators:

  1. Be aware of oneself, others and context.

  2. Pay close attention to others when dealing with them.

  3. Be aware of the messages your own body sends.

  4. Be aware of your own defense mechanisms and family rules.

Congruence denotes both a state of being and a quality of communication. On the first of the three levels, congruence implies that we acknowledge and accept our inner experiences (sensations, interpretations and resulting feelings about those feelings). At the second level, congruence involves listening to our perceptions and expectations and translating them into patterns that responsibly meet our needs by responding to our longings. At the third level, we develop in harmony with our spiritual essence or with what Virginia Satir has called the universal life force.

Model of the communication process

Any verbal or nonverbal communication can be understood as taking a position on three areas of experience:

  • to the communicator, to the Self (S)
  • to the person, to whom the communication is directed, to the Other (O) and
  • to the Context (C).

If someone is not able to express or consciously experience one or more of these areas in his or her communication, this leads to restrictions in their life. The goal is to recover the deleted content.

The communication process

In communication, different components play a role:

The body that moves in a certain way, has a certain posture, etc. This is the requirement for non-verbal communication.

The sensory organs that enable the reception of information from one’s environment.

The brain in which the new experiences are compared with previous experiences and the information is stored. Personal expectations and values also flow into the comparison processes of the brain. Of course, the ability to speak plays a central role in communication.

The exchange of information, and thus communication, is a complex and far from objective process. Each message sent by another person is subject to an interpretation process based on expectations, values and experiences.

According to Virginia Satir, lack of awareness of the complexity of communication processes is one of the main reasons for misunderstandings. Therefore, in her therapy, she always tried to disclose and improve communication patterns through real-life examples (such as sibling disputes).

Especially in families, misunderstandings and misinterpretations in communication have a big impact, because it contributes to a certain degree to forming habits and because, once a person has formed an opinion, he is usually no longer assured as to whether the opinion is correct and simply presupposes it as given.

Virginia Satir did not directly address the concrete problems, but tried to create a progressive, generative change based on concrete problems, so that there could be a lasting improvement in communication.

The Five Freedoms

  1. The freedom to see and hear what is, instead of seeing and hearing what should or should become.

  2. The freedom to say what you feel and think instead of saying what you should say about it.

  3. The freedom to feel what you feel instead of feeling what you should feel.

  4. The freedom to ask what you want instead of always waiting for permission.

  5. The freedom to take risks in one's own interests instead of choosing to "play it safe" and "not capsizing the boat."

One’s own goals and the basic principles of their therapeutic work

Virginia Satir wanted to create conditions under which the client can realize his own self unhindered.

She emphasized above all the balance between individual interests and the preservation of the family system. Another important point was to empower her clients to solve their own problems.

To achieve these goals, she introduced some presuppositions into the therapeutic process:

1. Solution-oriented focus on the present and the future

(instead of a problem-oriented focus on the past)

Virginia Satir always drew clients' attention to the present and the future. She dealt with the past only in order to build rapport, to clearly demonstrate interaction patterns or to be able to represent earlier events in a new way and thus give them a more positive meaning in the present.

The following, goal-oriented questions guided Virginia Satir's work:

  • "What do you want?"
  • "How will you realize that you have achieved it?"
  • "What is stopping you now?"
  • "What do they need to get it?"

She also attached great importance to the fact that these questions were not to be answered in a general or abstract way, but in a way that was specific to the meaning. In a positively formulated goal, the client has opportunities to change something himself, it is in his power to improve his situation. Only then is a goal useful and makes a person powerful. Once a client named a positive goal, Virginia Satir focused fully on achieving that goal. If a particular kind of intervention did not work, she tried out other options and interventions in order to reach the goal.

2. Positive Intentions

Virginia Satir believed everyone had good intentions, no matter how negative the behavior. Through this approach, instead of arguing or blaming each other, it becomes possible to constructively deal with negative behaviors and to look for alternative actions together.

3. Action

Another reason for Virginia Satir's powerful effectiveness lay in her insistence on action. She was not satisfied with clients describing their actions or verbally formulating new courses of action.

We change only when we fully experience events and perceptions. And because we prefer to show familiar behaviors, we need to actively practice new behaviors in order to become familiar with them. Also, we apply new behaviors only when we have concrete, positive experiences with them that were previously outside our imagination.

She too acted and moved a great deal within the therapy. So, she made individual contact with individual family members. When interactions were unproductive, she often interrupted them by intervening between the two parties, breaking contact between the two in order to continue working alone with each person. Afterwards she would leave her position and the clients could interact again.

4. Equal rights

The equality of all parties involved, both in the relationship therapist - client and between the individual family members, offers some advantages. On the one hand, that all participants are made aware of how struggles for dominance negatively influence and complicate communication. On the other hand, the therapist is not involved in the family hierarchy. Equality also emphasizes the similarities between the family members more than the differences. Quarrels and disputes are usually based on inadequate information and the perception of differences.

In contrast, understanding and compassion are based on complete information and the perception of similarities. Thus, it is very important to emphasize the similarities and to keep the differences as small as possible.

Virginia Satir, for example, created equality by placing children in a chair so that they were at eye level with the adults. Also, she often involved herself in the problems of her clients by using the pronoun "we".

Another aspect of her teaching work was her role flexibility. She assumed that "anyone can become the teacher or student of another". This can be seen, for example, in the fact that she kept making sure of herself towards all parties involved and asked if she had understood a certain issue correctly, as well as asking for improvements.

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