Learning to Grow when Survival and Security Trumped Authenticity
Updated: Apr 16
By Dr Leonie White Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist
“People adopt survival stances to protect their self-worth against verbal and non-verbal, perceived and presumed threats” Satir, Banmen, Gerber and Gomori (1991).
Survival stances are learned in the family we grow up in, even before we learn to speak.
Parents have good intentions and are doing the best they can. Being a parent is an amazing and complicated job - in part because parents belong to a multigenerational history with learnings passed down, often unconsciously. Some aspects of family life that are passed down create environments in which children flourish, feel good about themselves and develop the capacity to manage stresses and weather challenges. Other learnings passed on can create styles of relating that are not conducive to emotional growth and developing self-worth.
Self-esteem and self-worth are words used interchangeably by Family Therapist Virginia Satir and she describes self-worth as representing the feelings and ideas a person has about themselves (Satir et al., 1991). Self-worth is essential to wellbeing and can be impacted when children do not grow up in an atmosphere of support for their feelings and creativity, and when parents can’t appreciate their children, accept their feelings, validate their experience, encourage children to experience life fully and express the full range of human emotions. Society can reinforce some of these unhelpful patterns e.g., discouraging emotional experiences, promoting continuously putting on a brave face. These types of experiences hinder self-actualization and result in low self-esteem and incongruence – as if people become alienated from their experiences.
Ideally, families are secure enough to support and encourage a wide range of experiencing and a freedom to be yourself as children grow and develop. Because parents are the architects of the family and responsible for providing structure and nurturing so that children’s individuality can be fostered, problems arise if parents are experiencing their own sense of low self-esteem, perhaps as a result of their family of origin experiences or life circumstances. This can invite them to interact with children and family members in ways that are rigid and punitive with rules, roles, and routines that force them to deny and distort their experience (Satir, 1972). Consider the family in which mistakes are not tolerated, everyone must join the family business, or in which anger is not an acceptable state to be in. Consider also parents whose growing up experiences have left them triggered and distressed when loved ones show their own distress, anxiety or anger.
Environments that limit what children are allowed to experience create conditions for the development of low self-worth. “Experiential family therapy is founded on the premise that the root cause of family problems is emotional suppression” (Nicols, 2017: 132). The problem is that in some families, to fit in family members have to “be good and avoid the calamity of rejection” (Carr, 2000: 171) meaning that they can’t think, feel or do certain things.
“I can’t feel what I feel” is a basic restriction that limits people, creates incongruence, and can lead to self-condemnation and actions in life that are reactive – like an ‘autopilot’ reaction that comes with being in survival mode. These feelings can lead to unhealth coping strategies like drugs, alcohol, gambling, escape fantasies, marital affairs, or over-focus on work to avoid connecting with loved ones.
People adopt survival stances to cope with low self-esteem/low self-worth. According to Virginia Satir these survival stances are placating, blaming, being super-reasonable, and being irrelevant. Most people don’t stay in the same survival stance all the time – instead using different coping styles in different situations.
Placating is a ‘pleasing’ stance in which a person sacrifices their own feelings of self-worth to privilege the other person and the context of their interactions and can look like saying yes no matter how you feel, rushing to rectify any kind of trouble, insisting on taking the blame or being overly giving of time or resources.
Blaming is the opposite of placating and involves accusing other people or circumstances. This effectively discounts others and represents a focus on self. This might look like hostility, nagging, continually finding fault, disagreeing at every opportunity or violent behaviour.
Being super reasonable is a pattern of being overly reasonable most often drawing on logic and data, almost “inhumanly objective” (Satir et al., 1991: 45). This approach involves a focus on context at the expense of self and other and does not allow a focus on feelings.
Being irrelevant is often confused with being funny or being a joker. It involves continually distracting people’s attention from the issues under discussion, can look like erratic and purposeless behaviour and discounts self, other and the context. Being irrelevant serves the purpose of distracting from stress as a survival strategy.
Experiential therapist Virginia Satir developed ways of working with people to help them make choices to “become more fully human”, to be more “congruent”. Congruence refers to a state of wholeness, and a way of communicating with ourselves and others. Congruence is characterized by:
- An appreciation of the uniqueness of self
- A free flow of personal and interpersonal energy
- The claiming of person hood
- A willingness to trust oneself and others
- A willingness to take risks and to be vulnerable
- The use of one’s inner and outer resources
- An openness to intimacy
- The freedom to be oneself and to accept others
- A love of oneself and others
- Flexibility and openness to change
Virginia Satir believed that “We can take charge of the meanings we make of ourselves, others, and our context. We can also take charge of our feelings and our feelings about those feelings” (Satir et al, 1991: 29). It is this ‘taking charge’ that helps people to shift from the position of being a ‘victim’ of the hand life has dealt, circumstances, or other people. Taking charge of meaning making and feelings enables people to be empowered, take personal, emotional responsibility and access internal and external resources to move forward with life – effectively operating from a position of high self-esteem.
Self-esteem, the ability to value yourself and treat yourself accordingly, can grow regardless of age, condition or circumstances. Working from an Experiential Family Therapy perspective involves supporting people to develop self-esteem and grow through acceptance and validation, conveying hope, establishing credibility as a therapist and credibility of the therapeutic intervention, instilling awareness of change as always happening, and following the ‘process’ to support the development of self-awareness, self-regulation and the capacity to choose rather than react.
Following the process means shifting the focus from the ‘content’ of a problem to how someone is reacting or responding to the problem. The content might be something like not getting a promotion at work, car crash, a relationship break-up or loss. A ‘process’ focus means considering how the person will deal with their feelings about the thing that happened. A focus on process allows for more realistic expectations and requires a person to define themselves positively, as someone who can respond to challenges in line with their values, regardless of what life has thrown their way. In Virginia Satir’s words “Life is not the way it's supposed to be, it's the way it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference”.
Working towards congruence enables people to be themselves and relate to and connect to others. In this way people heal, grow, and become more fully human.
Dr Leonie White
Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist
Carr, A. (2000). Family Therapy: Concepts, Process and Practice. Wiley: New York.
Nicols, M. & Davis, S. (2017). Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods (11th Ed). Pearson: Boston.
Satir, V. (1972). Peoplemaking. Science and Behaviour Books: Moutainview California.
Satir, V. (1988). The New Peoplemaking. Science and Behaviour Books: Moutainview California.
Satir, V., Banmen, J., Gerber, J. & Gomori, M. (1991). The Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond. Science and Behaviour Books: Palo Alto California.