“Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It!”
(The UN’s 2015 international theme for March – Women’s History Month)

As I was preparing this blog post, I noticed earlier essays reflected commemorative themes for the given month. When I learned March is Women’s History Month, I immediately thought of Virginia Satir, one of our very own, as well as an international leader in Family Therapy. The UN’s March 2015 theme, noted above, evokes the empowering dynamics of Virginia Satir and resonates with her affirmation: “Peace Within, Peace Between, Peace Among.”

Virginia SatirI had the privilege of participating in half-a-dozen training conferences with Virginia Satir held between 1977 and 1981 during the launch of her Avanta Network Conferences. It was thrilling to experience her innovative principles of human-validation-through-personal-empowerment demonstrated with individuals, couples, and families. Her authentic connections engendered our trust and cooperation as she engaged with conference attendees in large and small groups. She invited us to bring our whole-selves into the here-and-now of our connection with her. It was as if each of us became a canvas upon which she imprinted the patterns of her magic so we could retrieve our personal understandings of her later in our own lives and work.

My early-encounters with Dr. Satir powerfully shaped my ways of knowing as a clinician. Her family sculpting seminars conveyed her belief that people are basically good, although at times misguided, and captured the essence of healing by showing us that change was an achievable goal. As she co-created a family system with audience volunteers by positioning them physically into emotionally-laden portrayals, she trusted they would become fully alive in the psychodrama to reveal the real issues underlying the identified problem. The principles embedded in her family sculpting trainings metabolized within me over time and became the foundation of what I refer to as the 4 R’s (rupture, regression, repair and resolution) – a helpful and easy-to-remember model I developed for clients to effectively approach, identify and manage internal and interpersonal upsets. In the example of Virginia Satir’s family sculpting demonstration that follows, I will identify how the 4 R’s are reflected in her process.

Imagine a large conference room filled with people focused on Virginia Satir’s commanding energy dominating the stage. She initiates a sculpting demonstration by requesting that a conference attendee volunteer to portray a difficult family dynamic and for him/her to be the “in-house family member” in the case presentation. Together they determine the “cast of characters” in the family representation. Dr. Satir then draws volunteers from the audience as “stand-ins” to represent the other family members. With great care and attention to detail, Dr. Satir physically positions the family “stand ins” to match the “in-house family member’s” perceptions of each family member’s particular role, attributes and interaction patterns, until the family difficulty is accurately portrayed (Rupture). Dr. Satir instructs the participants to freeze and hold these role-defined postures for what seems a very long time. She asks them to continue to hold these positions of collective distress, while she individually checks in with each of them. Dr. Satir gently approaches each family member, one after another, with physical proximity and remarkable rapport as she sensitively inquires about his/her feelings. Throughout this gripping and prolonged sequence, poignant and congruent emotions spill forth from each of them as they share their experiences with her (Regression). As Dr. Satir instructs them to shake off the sculpted postures and the associated emotions, she affirms and acknowledges their willingness to be open and vulnerable (Repair). The sculpting experience for the “in-house family member” is a profound learning experience. In addition, each of the “stand-in” family members also learns something personally significant about themselves (Resolution).

We all face interpersonal challenges in our relationships and struggle to make sense of what is going on and to regain emotional balance. Dr. Satir’s family sculpting exercise encourages us to look beyond the superficial details of an identified problem/rupture (as it is rarely the real issue); and instead asks us to go deeper to explore how regressive coping strategies, that once worked to protect us, can now be an underlying source of our problem.

Virginia Satir continually demonstrated the universal need for congruent connections and deeper understandings in our emotional relationships. Her amazing confidence in people was communicated every time she invited total strangers up to a stage to bond together in the common goal of healing. It seemed likely to me that if she could engage others in the process of healing and change, then perhaps I could too. So over the years, I integrated many aspects of Virginia Satir’s model both consciously and unconsciously and now notice how much they are rooted in my clinical work with individuals, couples, families and groups. Dr. Satir’s most significant influence is reflected in the trust that my clients are working toward their personal benefit and for the well-being of others.

My experiences as a marriage and family therapist and as a group psychotherapist have provided me a multi-faceted framework. This kaleidoscopic perspective provides insight into the intricacies of a client’s internal and interpersonal world. When such insight is elusive, I find that a client’s participation in group therapy can be particularly helpful. When a new member joins one of my groups, either from my private practice or as a referral from a colleague, s/he steps into a family sculpture of sorts. Within the secure and confidential space of group, members’ attachment and relationship patterns come into focus in the interplay of group activity.

In the world of group psychotherapy, good-fit enactments often occur and powerfully reflect secure connections that influence positive self-esteem for group members.  More often, however, bad-fit enactments occur and highlight family distortions, disruptive behaviors and incongruent communications. As group members project their own family patterns onto each other and unconsciously assume varied roles from their families of origin, bad-fit dynamics in the group play out as internal and interpersonal ruptures with corresponding regressive feelings. While these interaction patterns in the group are similar to one’s family-of-origin dynamics, the good news is that they are not the same. The difference is that the group-as-a-whole contains, witnesses, and reflects on the ruptures and regressive feelings between and among its members.

The beauty of group therapy as a holding container for exploring family issues is that it is a powerful medium for healing, growth and change as members take risks to experience vulnerabilities they might not otherwise dare to express with a spouse, family member or co-worker. As group members observe, consider and mentalize their own and others’ behaviors and beliefs, they see how these dynamics can play out differently than they did in their families of origin. As repair and resolution become the new experiences that allow for deeper levels of self-awareness, group members discover how sincere communication patterns can powerfully reshape the quality of their relationships both in and out of the group.

I am thankful for Virginia Satir’s powerfully healing gifts. Her influence allowed me to develop an integrated sensitivity to family and group therapy dynamics.

Credit:Trish Cleary

Trish Cleary, MS, LCMFT, LCPC, LCADC, CCMHC
Certified Group Psychotherapist (CGP)
Fellow, American Group Psychotherapy Association

Satir Photo Credit: William Meyer – Public Domain

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