Jean McLendon on the Legacy of Virginia Satir

Jean McLendon on the Legacy of Virginia Satir

by Jay Lappin

A longtime trainee and friend of Virginia Satir, Jean McLendon shares stories of her early years in training, the tremendous influence Satir has had on the field psychotherapy, and her ongoing influence in the 21st century.
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Clock Watchers

Jay Lappin: So, Jean, the first thing I want to ask you is, what can Virginia Satir’s family therapy offer to new therapists? What could young therapists entering the field learn from the model?
Jean McLendon: Well, I find myself wondering, what can the more experienced therapists learn from the model? New therapists who have not been in the room with a client or a patient, or have done very little work, don’t have much of a context or framework for how to even be in the therapeutic interaction.

Just recently I heard that a young therapist asked if it was okay to have a clock in her room, and if so, should the clock be visible just to her or to her and the client? I was floored that someone who was finishing their graduate degree was concerned at all about that. I responded in a way that I didn’t particularly like because I was so astounded by the question. Theoretically I believe that all questions are good questions, but this one led me to think, what is this person learning about the importance of authenticity, of connection, of working with the client, not on or for the client.

I think the worry behind that question is, “I don’t want my client to think that I’m only watching the clock and that I’m not interested in what they have to say,” or something like that. But the clock is not going to give people a message one way or the other, or if they make a meaning of it you have no control over that. My sessions are 45, 50 minutes and I definitely want my clients to have access to the same clock I’m using. Why would I not? So being able to say, “Since we only have 45 minutes, I’ve got a clock here. We can both keep our eyes on it,” or, “I have a clock. I’ll let you know before the 45 minutes is up,” is thoughtful, it's considerate, it is sharing useful information.

Virginia was very astute about engaging clients in the here-and-now, in the room, sharing her thoughts and participating with them.
Virginia was very astute about engaging clients in the here-and-now, in the room, sharing her thoughts and participating with them. So she might say, “I don't want the clock to bother you. We can turn it towards me.” Or, “Would you like to have the clock so that you can see it too?” But to ask the question, “is it okay to have a clock in the office, is it okay if the client knows you have a clock?” I fear there's a whole basis of skill and belief about humans and communication that just isn’t reaching these students.
... Continue Reading Interview >>
JL: For many of the young people that I supervise, it's very much a business model for them, and with the advent of evidence-based therapies, people are leaning more in that direction. So some of those human elements that Virginia brought to the field are now right alongside “beat the clock” and cramming as many people in as possible in a day, and really more of a manualized approach. And if you want to secure funding for research, you pretty much have to promise something “evidence-based.”

But one of the things I know from reading Virginia’s work and watching her work over the years is that she just has this way of connecting with people that seems entirely un-manualized. So human and so connected. How do you teach that in today’s context of evidence-based therapies?
JM: I would love for you to ask me in about four or five years, because right now I don't know how to integrate the two. I am teaching Satir family therapy with the University of North Carolina substance abuse and addictions outpatient program and they are finding it marvelously effective and have been able to secure funding for me to continue teaching because the results are so positive. But we’re not doing research on it yet.

I had a supervision group years ago, and I was doing family mapping, which for me is basic to Satir work. Because the family of origin experience is, as I like to think of it, the first PhD we get in life.
The family of origin experience is, as I like to think of it, the first PhD we get in life.
My family maps don’t look particularly like genograms, or at least not traditional ones—they are colorful, a little too messy, more pictorial. It’s a visual aid for the client and for me to appreciate the real narrative of where they have come from and what they are hoping for, and what they are dealing with in their life now.

I don’t have them color-coded, but I might have very strong red zigzag lines between people to show conflict, or very distanced dots to show a weak relationship, or lines that show cutoffs. If it’s a couple, I’ll have her comments in one color and her partner’s in another color. It’s just very colorful.

So I do the family maps as part of supervision because I also believe the places we tend to hit a wall as therapists also have their roots in our family-of-origin experience. You know, what are the basic defensive structures and ways we have of protecting ourselves? We keep those for life and even though we can work on them, it's like gravity—they are kind of always there. They are insidious, unless we are aware of them.

Anyway, this PhD clinical psychologist comes back two weeks later, and I’m hoping that they've all done a family map with a client, and she says, “I did one but I couldn’t remember which color you used for what.” I thought, "Well, this is reflective on you, Jean. You are not a very good teacher."
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Wet Cocker Spaniel Therapy

JL: It reminds me of that old Frank Pittman article called “Wet Cocker Spaniel Therapy.” He wrote it when he was doing the Denver research about home-based services for emergencies, for families to keep the patient out of the hospital. The story is very much like what you said. This woman is having problems. They go to her house and she’s lying on the floor, refusing to get up. She won’t talk, and they are trying to think of all these clever strategic moves to get her up and moving, and keep her out of the hospital.

The family dog is outside and it’s raining, so the husband lets the dog in. The dog is soaked. It comes in and just kind of shakes himself, so all this water and mud and stuff goes flying and gets on the woman. And she sits up and says, “Oh, the heck with it, fine, I won’t go to the hospital. I’ll talk to you.” Frank’s point was, does that mean that we need to have wet cocker spaniels for all of our work, to keep people out of the hospital?
JM: I think that's the challenge. People watch those of us who are experienced—and particularly in the Satir model, where we work fast in the here-and-now, whether it’s through sculpting or finding ways to externalize an internal challenge in ways that are helpful for particular clients. How we do these things looks like the methodology, but it's really just executing and implementing something out of a very potent belief system about people.
JL: What do you think Virginia would say to today’s therapists about how to use oneself in therapy? Because really what you're talking about is the use of self and that kind of inner knowledge of one’s defense mechanisms that might get in the way of helping other people connect with their family members in more vital ways.
JM: I think she would be conveying her belief in the power of positive connections and promoting a kind of synergy that enhances a creative resourcefulness between and among people. She models and guides that kind of interaction in the office that helps set it in motion and helps people first experience it and then begin to learn the skills of doing it.

One of the addiction therapists I worked with asked, “How do you know in Satir work when the work is done and you can terminate?” I hate that word, but I said, “Well, there's nothing wrong, if you can afford it, with doing Satir work for the rest of your life, because it's all about growth and healing.” It’s rather luxurious, and most of us are not going to choose to use our resources in that way, but I believe there's always room for more growth.
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Becoming More Fully Human

JL: What are some of the other nuts and bolts of the model?
JM: In a sense it's a kind of psychosocial educational model that aims to help people create the kinds of relationships that support them in terms of emotional, physical, psychic, and spiritual health. It’s also about helping people take ownership for themselves and take responsibility for the choices they make.
It's a kind of psychosocial educational model that aims to help people create the kinds of relationships that support them in terms of emotional, physical, psychic, and spiritual health.


I see it played out so often in my couples work, where she thinks that “If only he would do X, then I could do Y.“ Getting people to release their spouses, their parents, from being responsible for what they feel and for choices they make is so critical to helping people figure out what changes they need to make. So I put an increase in self-esteem, congruence, responsibility, and ownership for self up there at the top. All of that helps people, as Virginia said, become more fully human.
JL: One of the things that I remember her saying was, ”The family is a microcosm of the world.” That if you know how to heal the family, you know how to heal the world. And Sal Minuchin, back in the early days of family therapy, said that we could change the world one family at a time.

But he recently told me, “We were wrong.” And what he meant was that you really need to think in terms of larger systems as well, as that is a huge context, particularly when from a structural perspective we work with a lot of families that are poor. The context that they live in, and how agencies work with them, has a huge impact on the structure of the family and how all of these goals are realized.

Could you say a little bit more about taking Virginia’s work into a larger context? I know that you’ve been very involved in helping larger systems adopt some of these principles.
JM: It’s one of the reasons I was so initially attracted to the Satir model. There are two reasons, actually. One is that Virginia was talking about being and what it meant to be human in ways that made absolutely perfect sense to me in terms of my own internal experience, but I never heard anybody talking about it.

And secondly, it seemed obvious to me that she was talking about humans in contact with other humans, but she didn’t differentiate between the family therapy session or the boardroom, the church or Congress, because she basically split the universe into three pieces—she could take things that were very complicated and make them very simple. She said this is what you have to deal with: Yourself at a given moment in time, the “other," whoever that might be, and the context in which the relationship resides.
She didn’t differentiate between the family therapy session or the boardroom, the church or Congress.


So how do we create the most supportive context for the self and the other? Well, ask anybody, any group on the planet, “What kind of behaviors make it easier for you to learn, and to enjoy, and to feel that you can be productive and can contribute? What kinds of behaviors interfere with that?” And you'll find out, of course, that people don’t like to be put down. People don’t like to be interrupted. People like to have their opinions valued, even if not agreed with. It’s very basic. And yet, go into any of these contexts and you’ll see people being put down, ignored, excluded, humiliated, shamed, embarrassed. Not being welcomed.

About the third week into my first month-long with Virginia, I came in early one morning before breakfast and I knocked on the door. I was so excited. And I said, “Virginia, I’ve got it. I think I’ve figured it out.” And she said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Well, what you were talking about, it's all about the universality of emotionality.” And she said, “Yes,” and went on brushing her hair or something. But it felt so big to me, because everything made sense within that context of being fully human. What our basic needs are at a moment in time, in order for us to feel in contact with our real value, our uniqueness, and the resources that we have inside of us to bring into expression with another person.

It’s not enough for me to know that I’m a valuable human being. At some level, I have to give expression to that. I have to share myself in the world and I do that by way of my relationships. So, how we share that in various contexts across cultures is so important. Virginia talked about the importance of peace within and then peace between people, and then peace among. Moving out into the world and doing the work in a larger context across cultures is peace among.

I worked with a man who has done a tremendous amount of work, including Virginia’s work, with people in the IT world. He and I did 7-day leadership workshops for a number of years, and 95% of the people were IT people.
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Satir for Techies

JL: Were 95% also men?
JM: Well, I’d say 85% at least. Which was very different for me, because most of my teaching was with therapists and human service folks, who are 85% to 90% women.
JL: That must have been something, to have that change in gender context.
JM: It was fabulous. They have different learning styles. About 5 years into that, I began bringing them into a year-long performance development program that was Satir-based.
Human is human. We might use different words, we might dress differently, we might be a different color, but our basic innards are the same.
A therapist from Florida came in and she stood up and kind of stammered shyly that if she had known that she was going to be doing this training with non-therapists, IT people, she would not have signed up.

And I thought, “Jean, you were pretty naive.” But she signed up to do it the next year because it was so enriching, and that validated for me that people can be so very different, but ultimately we’re so alike. Human is human. We might use different words, we might dress differently, we might be a different color, but our basic innards are the same.
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Positrons and Negatrons

JL: And now she can probably reboot her iPhone.
JM: No doubt, yes. It was helpful on many levels.

Satir, like me, felt that you could change the world one family at a time, but what Jerry Weinberg, the computer scientist who writes and teaches about the psychology of computer programming, said to me in relation to changing organizations, is that it's one individual at a time.

And I think that is also true. There are things that can be done formally at policy levels and through interventions from leaders to change context and to make them more human, but it really is true that in a sense, it's one individual at a time. In a family, it's one individual at a time. And I can only communicate and be in contact with one person at a time. My eyes go to your eyes and if there were others in the room my eyes could only meet them one at a time. Virginia did that beautifully.

Pure contact for humans is at a moment in time, with one other person. And it is the energy that comes out of the congruence between two people that helps people shift and change context. Congruence puts what I call “positrons” into the environment; incongruence puts “negatrons” into it.
JL: Can you say more about that?
JM: Well, I made those words up, but everybody knows what they mean. Positrons are connected to what I think of as the positive family-of-origin trance state, and that's a state of being where I belong, I feel secure, I feel valued.
In the negative family-of-origin trance state I don’t feel valued, I don’t feel seen, heard, known or understood and I emit negatrons, defensive incongruence.
In the negative family-of-origin trance state I don’t feel valued, I don’t feel seen, heard, known or understood and I emit negatrons, defensive incongruence.

When we are in the positive trance state, we feel energetically different. When I say to an audience, “What I’d like for you to do is just for a moment, close your eyes and position yourself in a way that would reflect to the outside world what it's like for you when you feel less than, or when you feel unseen or unappreciated,” their bodies get very contorted. Heads are down. Shoulders are sloped. Sometimes people ball up their fists. The body responds. That's why I think of it as a trance state. It’s not only about the kinds of thoughts you have or the feelings you have, but what's going on in your body, too.
JL: When people come out of that powerful body experience, what do they usually say?
JM: Well, it's very familiar to them. It’s not strange. In a sense, it's just kind of second nature. I give them permission to exaggerate it just so that they can bring it into their awareness. But if you can stay tuned to your body, your body can also tell you, “I’m not feeling very valued right now. What do I need to do, in the relationship with myself or with others, to bring myself into a kind of attunement?”
JL: As you're saying this, I think about how Virginia was very much ahead of her time with what are now called mindfulness practices. Back in the day it was considered kind of a tree-huggy, mossy non-scientific encounter, but these days it’s everywhere and there are scientific studies coming out all the time about its effectiveness. Can you say a little bit about the ways in which Virginia’s approach was similar or different to what we now know as mindfulness practices?
JM: Well, we knew back then it was not about fluff. Those of us who were getting trained as therapists back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s were learning experientially, so we knew what worked and what didn’t. We knew that experiential work and right-brain symbolic work could take us to places that we couldn’t get to in linear, didactic learning methods. It was also about therapists learning to use themselves. How do I put myself in a space where I am open, I am fully present, I am fully attentive, and available to the family or the client that I’m sitting with?

So we knew its value, and when we used it with our clients, they knew it its value. Maybe the scientific world or the academicians who weren’t using experiential models didn’t know it, but thankfully it has been affirmed and validated by research. Today’s mindfulness work is nothing new, but I think mindfulness training is an excellent way for therapists to be able to move themselves into an open, centered, and at-peace place inside of themselves in preparation to meet someone who’s going to come into their office who is not in a state of peace, but in a state of agitation and possibly feeling threatened. I remember
Virginia said that to feel that you need help, and to ask for it, and to seek it, may be one of the highest forms of congruence.
Virginia said that to feel that you need help, and to ask for it, and to seek it, may be one of the highest forms of congruence.

So people are coming in with that. They may not be able to say, “It really scares me to come in and talk with you. I don't know you. I’m accustomed to doing things on my own,” but I just know that they're likely coming in a state of some level of agitation and that I don't want to add more agitation to that. I don't want to add my anxiety to theirs. I don't want theirs to become mine. So, getting into a positive and solid relationship with myself and staying there is going to make me a much more empowered resource for my clients.
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Mission Impossible

JL: Along those lines, could you say a bit more about self-care as a therapist? Because we know that there is a real thing called vicarious traumatization. Sitting with people in that spot with that kind of energy has its own drain on the therapist. What are some ways that people using the Satir model renew and reenergize themselves and continue to be helpful to their clients?
JM: I think the most important thing within this model is for me to believe that everyone who comes into my office has the internal resources to catalyze and to move towards growth and humanity. That takes me off the hook. I don't have to give it to them. I don’t have to give them courage. I don't have to give them a sense of curiosity. I don't have to give them a sense of, or an ability to care deeply about themselves or someone else.

I find new therapists wanting to give these resources to the client, as though the client doesn’t have them.
If I don't believe that my client is fully resourced, I have to take on a huge level of responsibility and burden, and that is mission impossible.
If I don't believe that my client is fully resourced, I have to take on a huge level of responsibility and burden, and that is mission impossible. I think it wears young therapists out. People who don’t learn how to deal with this don’t stay in the profession long. They go into policy or administration or whatever.

Interestingly, some people—I don't know whether they are born this way or how it happens, I’d love to—just have more resilience in their boundary systems. But again, my belief is that to the extent that you see, and know, and believe in the resources of your clients, it makes a huge difference in the burden and the drain that can come from being a therapist over time.

In terms of the vicarious nature of dealing with trauma, other people’s trauma, all day, I think supervision is a tremendous resource for therapists to get support. And of course therapists have their own traumas, so they have to be careful that they are not being triggered and ignoring that in their own process.

Another key is having a life outside of yourself as therapist. I think it's easy as therapists to be flattered or seduced by the way in which some clients express their gratitude for the help you give them, so it's really important that we are in the world relating to people who are not therapists and who are not our clients. It keeps us grounded and fresh.

The other thing I would say is, I think it's really important that therapists be involved in some kind of regular physical exercise, because I think the body needs to discharge those energies also. You sit all day and listen, and you need at some point during the day to exercise that body vigorously, to sweat.
JL: So, things like a good brisk walk on the beach, chasing down your dog?

JM: Absolutely. I can recommend also putting a dog in your office.
JL: As a co-therapist!
JM: Absolutely. He’s only growled at three people.
JL: Today?
JM: To date, he’s only growled at three. And thankfully, he makes up very quickly.

I’ve been working as a therapist for over 45 years, and people say, “Aren’t you ready to get out of it? Aren’t you tired of it?” And I can tell you, because of the model that I work from, I do not feel innervated. I do not feel drained. I do not feel burned out. The problem for me is that I continue to find people very interesting. And though I like being on the beach and I like gardening,
I am content to do this work for as long as it makes sense. I feel it is a privilege. I feel it is interesting work. I’m paid plenty well enough. And it's just a joy.
I am content to do this work for as long as it makes sense. I feel it is a privilege. I feel it is interesting work. I’m paid plenty well enough. And it's just a joy.

And I absolutely believe that it is not because of who I am, but rather the belief system and the model that taps in and activates my humanness in a very positive kind of way. So that, as I put myself in a position to enter somebody else’s world, and they join me and I join them on this journey, we are both enriched. I just don’t think that there's anything any better.
JL: I agree. We’re lucky to be in the profession we are. And I think you should continue to do what you're doing, because just listening to you today is energizing and hopeful, and gives me the sense that we can figure this stuff out if we all work together. Thank you so much, Jean, for your time. It’s been great.
JM: You're welcome, Jay.

© 2013, Psychotherapy.net, LLC
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Jean McLendonJean McLendon, LCSW, LMFT, is the past president of The Virginia Satir Global Network and is currently the Director of Training Programs at Satir Systems, a professional therapy and coaching center in North Carolina. She trained with the late Virginia Satir for nearly twenty years and has been published in several journals and books. She has been on the faculties of the University of North Carolina School of Social Work, and The NIMH Staff College and served as faculty specialist with the Whole Systems Design Graduate Program at Seattle University. Jean travels widely applying the Satir Growth Model to a variety of contexts, situations, countries and cultures.
Jay Lappin is a Structural Family Therapist, who worked at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic under the direction of Dr. Salvador Minuchin. He is a Contributing Editor for the Psychotherapy Networker, a board member for the Minuchin Center for the Family and is in private practice. He is Family Therapy Director for CENTRA, Comprehensive Psychotherapy & Psychiatric Associates, Marlton, NJ & Philadelphia, PA. Jay can be reached at jaylappin@usa.net.


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CE credits: 1
Learning objectives:

  • Describe the nuts and bolts of the Satir Model.
  • Understand Satir's role within the family therapy movement.
  • Critique current business models of therapy.
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