A Week with Virginia Satir: The Gift By Vicki Marcum, LCSW on 11/9/23 - 7:56 AM

I don’t know about you, but what really tightens my jaw is all this necessity of “proving yourself” with an evidence-based approach. What ever happened to “genuine,” or “being yourself,” as practiced by Carl Rogers or my role model, Virginia Satir?

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As a lowly undergrad with an associate degree in human services, my best friend, a psychiatric nurse, and I had the opportunity to attend a weeklong training conference with Virginia Satir and Jane Loevinger as presenters. What a thrill to see them in action!   

A Retreat for Connecting and Growing

The setting was September at Starved Rock State Park near Oglesby, Illinois — a magnificent Indian summer. The trees were brilliant shades of orange, reds, and yellows. The sun was hot with temperatures in the 80s every day. The park followed the river, and waterfalls and hiking trails were explored when we were not in session. Home was The Lodge.

There were exactly 102 participants divided into 34 triads (Satir said everything happened in triads), 17 families during the day for breakout practice sessions, and a large group (33) for the evening session, which we kept for the entire week. During the day, we would break into our triads or families to practice what was taught in the lecture. In the evening, the three large groups were left to come up with their own agenda. Virginia and Jane disappeared, emotionally exhausted, I presumed.

I remember that first evening sitting in this large circle of fellow attendees with either their arms or legs crossed. I knew enough about nonverbal body language to understand defensiveness and vulnerability. We waited for someone to assume the role of leader and take control. Someone suggested we go around the circle introducing ourselves. Out came the titles; psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers. I am sure they were not particularly impressed when I identified myself by name since I had only an associate degree in human relations. I certainly was intimidated! I wondered why I was there!

There were many things to like about Virginia Satir. One was her simplicity. You can read and appreciate her books, Making Contact, People Making, and Conjoint Family Therapy, Satir: Step by Step without a college education. You can share and teach it to common, ordinary everyday people.

Other qualities I valued in Satir were her compassion, genuineness, and effective use of self. She did not shy away from physical contact. She used touch. Participants at all her seminars would approach her during break to shake her hand or receive a hug, trying to capture some of her healing energy.

We knew she was an only child and her parents met over a pickle barrel, that she shied away from the color lavender, and had a down to earth sense of humor. My friend and I took up a collection from the group and bought her a lavender shirt. I will never forget the IIIFFI club. (If It Isn’t Fun, F--- It club!)

Our lecture on this day was on being an effective therapist. Her basic message was that to be an effective therapist you must see, hear, and feel at the client’s level. When I returned from break, I discovered “my practice family” had volunteered or been chosen to be the demonstration family for a role play. We stayed in our designated area and the rest of the group gathered around us. Virginia asked for a volunteer to work with this family.

Something happened to me within the context of my family. Emotionally, I was overpowered by the pain I felt. It became more than a role play. I let whatever I thought or felt fly. The Family made short order of several different therapists, who could not penetrate the wall of anger and pain. At first, I felt the anger of the observers because I would not cooperate or allow the therapist to work nicely with my family. I then felt them drawing in closer and closer, hanging on to my words and emotions. I could feel them all and I didn’t care.

When we took a break at lunch time and the others left, I looked at Virginia and with tears running down my face, I said, “I don’t think I can take much more of this.”

She looked at me with a little smile at the corner of her mouth and a twinkle in her eye and said, “Feeling something, are you?” I went to my room, emotionally drained and physically exhausted. When we gathered again after lunch, we were outdoors in the warm sunshine. I had stabilized emotionally. The family was seated in a circle once again. Virginia asked the group what they would like to do with this family, and they said, “We would like to see you work with this family.” And so, she did. One by one she went around the circle. She took their hand and spoke to them in a soft and gentle manner, touching them with her words.

I was going to be the last one she would speak to. I had been really disruptive. I wondered what she would have to say to me. When she got to me, she paused, and taking my hand said, “In order to be an effective therapist, you must see, hear, and feel at the client’s level. When I meet someone as beautiful as you, I just want to give them a hug. May I?”

This great lady who everyone wanted to hug, was asking to hug me. I stood up not to take but to receive a priceless gift! She touched me. I never planned to enter, let alone complete my career as a child and family therapist, but I did!

I understand why I have such an intense dislike for the phrase “evidence based.” I do not fit in that box. I do not enter a therapy session with a brain-based approach in mind. I enter with my heart. Satir’s gifts, her use of self, of touch, and her message of simplicity, are part of me. I can hold a client’s anger. She validated me, a lowly undergrad in a sea of professionals. To this day, the words, “see, hear, and feel at the client’s level,” ring in my heart!  

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections