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The Family "Factory": Virginia Satir's Family Roles

Updated on September 23, 2012

An Introduction

Virginia Satir studied families and created an idea of family roles in the household. She believed a role that a person assumes in their family tends to be the founding of where the adult will grow. She recognized the importance an original family plays in shaping personality. She looked at the differences between a healthy functioning family and a dysfunctional family as she was especially interested in the roles that family members tend to adopt in order to compensate when healthy dynamics are lacking.

In speaking about a healthy family, the function involves open and reciprocated displays of affection and expressions of positive regard and love for one another. Satir also emphasized greatly the power that compassionate, nurturing relationships have in developing well-adjusted future adults.

The Roles

Sometimes family members lack the ability to openly express emotion and effection. When Satir viewed this, she suggested that personality roles tend to emerge in place of authentic identities. In her notes, she proposed there were five commonly played roles that family members are likely to adopt, especially in times of stress and/or extreme horror's. The roles include:

  • The Blamer - The family member who constantly finds fault and criticizes
  • The Computer - The non-affectionate intellectual
  • The Distractor - The person who stirs things up in order to shift the focus away from emotional issues
  • The Placator - The apologetic peaople-pleaser
  • The Leveler - The open, honest, and direct communicator

Only leveler's maintain a healthy, congruent position where their inner feelings match their communications with the rest of the family The other roles adopt their various roles because low self-esteem makes them afraid to show or share their true feelings. Placators are frightened and scared of disapproval. Blamers attack others to hide their feelings of unworthiness. Computers rely on their intellect to stop from acknowledging their feelings. Distracters, sometimes the youngest in the family, believe they will only be loved if they are viewed as cute and harmless.

These roles that are adopted may allow the family to function. However, they can overwhelm each individual's ability to be themselves. Satir believed that in order to cast aside these false identities picked up during trials, we must accept self-worth as a birthright. Once this realization is accepted, it will be possible to start moving toward a truly fulfilling existence. This new stage of who they are starts with a commitment to straightforward, open, and honest communication.

The need for basic, positive, emotional connections remains at the root of Satir's work. She believed that love and acceptance are the most potent healing forces for any dysfunctional family. By fostering close, compassionate relationships with her patients, she mimicked the dynamic she was encouraging them to adopt.

Virginia Satir (1916-1988)

Born on a farm in Wisconsin, Satir decided she wanted to be a "detective of people's parents" when she was six. For two years, she lost her hearing due to an illness. However, instead of harming her perceptiveness, she became even more acutely observant of nonverbal communication. Some believe this fact gave her a sensitive insight into human behavior. Her father was an alcoholic and she was well aware of the dynamics of caretaking, blaming, and pleasing that went on around her during her own childhood. In desiring to help children, she trained as a teacher, yet her interest in problems of self-esteem in children drew her to a master's degree in social work. She never stopped focusing on aiding children and proof of this consists of the first formal family therapsy training program that she created in the United States. The "Satir Model" is still influential in personal, organizational, and family psychology.


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    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 

      6 years ago from USA

      This is fascinating stuff, and when I first heard about this, I wanted to identify the people in my family into these roles. I think, though, that a lot of this has to do with her own family roles, and I hate to pigeonhole people into categories like this, especially the negative ones. Psychology is so fascinating - thanks for bringing this up so that more people can be aware of her great work.


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