Day 94, FREE to be YOUng: Virginia Satir, My Mentor Modeled Respect, Empathy, Wisdom, and Strength

At the Family Therapy Workshop in Wisconsin mentioned yesterday, I heard and was entranced by Virginia Satir’s first lecture explaining her philosophy and intentions. I knew this was life changing and could not comprehend how much her work would heal me. On the break after the first hour of the workshop, I stood alone.  I was both stunned and electric knowing that I would follow Virginia anywhere I could to study with her. I vowed during that first break that I would learn everything that I could from her. In the second part of the evening she was demonstrating and explaining methods of unfortunate communication: placating, blaming, computing and irrelevancy. I became painfully aware of my communication weaknesses.

Virginia assured us that we would learn methods to correct this and more during the workshop. She also explained that every family group would receive a therapy session on Sunday.  How exciting! I was thrilled because she was stating a philosophy of living and life that I held and believed but I had never dared to state. My life’s purpose felt revealed that evening.

Regarding Life Purposes:

I believe that it is difficult to desire Super-Aging when we haven’t discovered or enjoyed our life’s purpose. Although I would agree, that a baby that dies of cancer most assuredly fulfilled his/her life’s purpose.  I once attended a workshop where 8 or the 9 participants had one parent who died between 50 and 54 years of age. Each story we shared seemed to suggest that the parent who passed away never felt fulfilled and languished away without purpose. I also often intuit that someone I know who dies younger than they wished has other “Places to go, People to see, and Things to do.”

That first night I grokked that studying with Virginia would help me fulfill my life’s mission. The word “mentor” was seldom used in the late 60’s. Virginia Satir would be my mentor and advisor for much of the next 12 years. She was not teaching at a University or a Therapy Center long term. There was no way to enroll in a long course. Therefore, I had to follow her.

So, I followed her to:

An introductory weeklong Workshop for Family Therapy Professionals in St. Louis

Her month long Intensive Workshop in Family Therapy at Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota in the autumn of 1970

A weeklong “Beautiful People Conference” in Sarasota, Florida. Attendees were her advanced students usually psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.

A two week Workshop in Advanced Family Therapy in Aruba which was attended by 5 psychiatrists, an interesting mixed bag of 24 licensed psychologists and social workers and me with two education degrees who was grandfathered in as a family therapist/psychotherapist in New York State.

Another weeklong “Beautiful People Conference” at a resort in Mexico.

This morning I realized in those 9 ½ weeks I spent in her presence witnessing her teaching and doing family therapy up to 9 + hours a day, I NEVER saw her do or say anything that wasn’t empowering. I never saw her make a mistake! And I’m critical! Virginia was a role model of empathy, love, compassion, wisdom, style, strength, and skill.

I experienced her putting me appropriately in my place one time by stopping my habitual “poor me” sappiness. 99.9 % of the time her groups were well mannered with no verbal attacks and certainly no physical violence. These are standard ground rules in every therapy group. However one time, she was compelled to use extraordinary mental force and drew on her towering height to stop what could have become a physical encounter. The power she used in just seconds felt like thunder from the Norse God Thor.  She stood between a normally quiet social worker in her early 60’s who stood up to harass and defend herself against a proud 40 year old barrel chested psychiatrist who was stalking toward her yelling crude insults. They took deep breaths, stepped back while Virginia looked like a stern parent. Within seconds the opponents backed up and sat down in the circle. In the next session the incident was processed.  We discovered that the often arrogant lecturing pompous psychiatrist (unusual in Virginia’s groups) reminded the social worker of her struggles in Germany in the 30’s. She had married a Nazi officer when she was just out of a fashionable New England college in 1932. She divorced him before WW II and moved back to the states. Classes with Virginia Satir were always interesting, invigorating and enlightening.

Indeed she was a mentor. In spring 1971 she wrote a letter of recommendation for me on a yellow legal pad at a Psychology Conference in DC. An hour later, I introduced my future boss to her idol who was thrilled with my written and verbal recommendation from Satir.

Virginia asked to meet me at Betty Friedan’s New York apartment in 1973 when she knew I was using her name in a workshop entitled “Communications ala Satir”.  After our discussion she and Betty were in fact at ease and delighted with my giving her credit for the curriculum.

I was teaching that class and Family Reconstruction at Group Related Ongoing Workshops on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I had “re-learned” Family Reconstruction in the month long intensive in Minnesota. The technique was a natural for me. Rather than feeling that I was learning it, I experienced being reunited with this psycho-therapeutic tool.  It was a skill that was deep in my bones. It is a skill of allowing people to re-experience important sections of their lives through role-playing. It quickly with Family Sculpture allows participants to resolve and integrate family challenges.

Paul Solomon later told me that I had developed the technique in the Healing Temples of ancient Egypt if you believe that sort of thing. Of course, I do!

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