By Celia Coates
Virginia Satir was a leading light in the early days of family therapy. In 1972 she published PEOPLEMAKING, a book that was assigned reading when I was studying the dynamics of human relationships some years later. Recently I remembered the quartet of defensive personality types Satir described – four styles of communication that people develop as ways of dealing with difficult family relationships.
“It is my belief that any family communication not leading to realness or … meaning cannot possibly lead to the trust and love that, of course, nourish members of the family,”
If we grow up in a troubled family where it’s hard to develop trust, to feel loved, and to establish a healthy sense of who we are and what we are worth, we are likely to develop one (or more) of the four defensive personality styles. Not wanting to be rejected or to reveal weakness that might create even more trouble, people develop ways of concealing what they feel, often from themselves as well as from others.
The four main defensive responses are:
- To please or placate others so they don’t get mad
- To blame others so you will seem to be the strong one
- To intellectualize so that it seems as though painful feelings aren’t involved
- To distract so that you can overlook or ignore what’s being communicated.
The fourth style, The Distracter, is the one that interested me because in recent months we’ve been able to observe it in operation every day. The Distracter is someone who is seriously off balance, responds to threats to their sense of self with irrelevance and a lack of focus. Satir wrote,
“When you play the distracting role, it will help you to think of yourself as a kind of lopsided top, constantly spinning but never knowing where you are going, and not realizing it when you get there. You are too busy moving your mouth, your body, your arms and legs. Make sure you are never on the point with your words. Ignore everyone’s questions; maybe come back with one of your own on a different subject. Take a piece of imaginary lint off someone’s garment, untie shoelaces, and so on. … At first this role seems like a relief, but after a few minutes of play, the terrible loneliness and purposelessness arise. If you can keep yourself moving fast enough, you won’t notice it so much.”
She added that,
“As the child tries to make his way through the complicated and often threatening world in which he finds himself, he uses one or another of these means of communicating. After enough use he can no longer distinguish his response from his feeling of worth or his personality.”
The Distracter deflects and disrupts communication throwing other people off balance as well as themselves. It’s a serious problem when “the family” is a nation.
Satir recommended a corrective that each one of us can use: we must realize what is going on and find our own feet. Of course most of us think first of changing the other person. Me too. But what is needed is to understand The Distracter, to feel some compassion no matter how destructive they have been, and to differentiate ourselves from what is going on with them. We can refuse to be thrown off balance by their unexpected, irrelevant, nonsensical, dramatic, or entertaining behavior. We can re-focus on what really matters to us.
Satir gave some advice that works both for The Distracter and for all of us,
“I found that what healed people was getting them to find their hearts, their feelings, their bodies, their brains, which once more brought them to their own souls and to their humanity.”
I just want to add that there’s another major current source of distraction, one that’s often used by Distracters – social media. It can be dealt with in the same way that we deal with unbalancing personalities. When all those in-coming communications take over our time, when our attention is being consumed for the benefit of commercial forces, we can re-focus and find our own center. We can take command of what is truly in our own interest if we face distraction directly, feel what’s true for us, and make choices that are based in our own individual humanity.
Satir went on to say,
“I feel very strongly as I write this. For me, the feelings of isolation, helplessness, incompetence, or feeling unloved, comprise the real human evils of this world. Certain kinds of communication will continue this and certain kinds of communication can change it. … I would like to see each human being value and appreciate himself, feel whole, creative, competent, healthy, rugged, beautiful, and loving.”
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PEOPLEMAKING, by Viriginia Satir, Science and Behavior Books, Palo Alto, California, 1972.