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Satir's Personal Iceberg Model
Personal Iceberg Model

Are you familiar with the iceberg model?

Did you know that it was coined by a woman, “ mother of psychotherapy” - Virginia Satir?

The PERSONAL ICEBERG METAPHOR by Virginia Satir (et al.) is used as a change and transformational tool to explore the self. It suggests that behavior is visible to others in the external world, but the internal world lies "below the water line" and is hidden from view.

Together with John Banmen, Jane Gerber and Maria Gomori, they used the PERSONAL ICEBERG MODEL for Satir’s systemic brief therapy to help facilitate awareness and understanding for therapists, in relationship to themselves and others.

The Personal Iceberg Metaphor recognizes 8 component of human experience:

1. Behavior

2. Coping Stances

3. Feelings

4. Feelings about Feelings

5. Perceptions

6. Expectations

7. Yearnings

8. The Self: I am

Behaviors are at the top of the iceberg. Satir believed that behaviors are results of internal processes within a person and are the manifestation of the changes or blocks within the person’s inner world. Satir also noted that how we behave is a reflection of our self-esteem. Therefore, once the internal world changes, the external behaviors will also change.

Behaviors are visible to the external world and include:

  • event

  • circumstance

  • story

Coping Stances- the four survival stances are placating, blaming, computing, and being irrelevant.

  • PLACATOR - They tend to disregard own feelings of worth, hands power to others, and say yes to everything. They are often depressed, see themselves as victims, and feel helpless and hopeless. They are concerned about how they will be perceived, oftentimes looking for approval from others, and their response to stress is to avoid it.

  • BLAMER - They criticize everybody else, harasses and accuse other people or circumstances. The blamer discounts others, and honours only self and the context. They are fault finders who feel powerless and uncared for and as a result, they try to be loud, tyrannical and cut everyone down.

  • THE COMPUTER OR SUPER REASONABLE - The person shows no emotion or affect. They are calm, cool, collected and oftentimes referred to as a 'computer". Keeping one's self as motionless as possible and think as hard as possible about being proper and correct. Functions with context only, and uses data and logic to rationalize everything. They may not know how to feel nor to express their feelings with words. Their responses tend to be intellectual, authoritative, and reasonable and come as a lecture to the other person.

  • IRRELEVANT- They do things or say things that are irrelevant to the context, and reality, or the other person. Distractors cannot focus on a subject, they change focus consistently, and attempt to distract others from the issue. When asked a question they often do not answer it directly and may respond with a joke, offer lightness, or entertain the groups to laugh. They might be labeled as the jester or clown that tends to be lopsided, constantly spinning, and hyperactive.

Satir thought that these stances "originated from a state of low self-worth and imbalance, in which people give their power to someone or something else. People adopt survival stances to protect their self-worth against verbal and nonverbal, perceived and presumed threats."

Satir believes that all people possess the necessary coping resources to face life’s challenges, though some may have yet to access these resources or may view any or all of them negatively. People always do the best they can at any given time. Even destructive or otherwise negative behaviors serve to indicate the best coping possible at that time.

According to Virginia Satir " Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible - the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.”

For us to better understand ourselves, we need to go below the waterline and check in with our feelings, feelings about feelings, perceptions and expectations.

Feelings are our body’s physiological response to events, pictures, expectations, and dreams. They are universal with every human being. Sometimes, they can be disproportionate to the interaction that may strain relationships and foster conflict and ongoing misunderstandings.

Satir suggested that feelings are a thermometer and can give us insight about the inner self. Our feelings are intrinsically tied to our family of origin. We learn how to manage our feelings, hide them, ignore them, deny them, or accept them based from experiences with our family of origin.

Feeling about the feeling is often referred to as the second level feeling. This feeling is more difficult to surface and may be hidden or non-existent with specific events or pictures. As the individual grows in self-understanding the person can more easily access this area.

The second level feeling may often be:

- guilt

- shame

- fear

- hurt

- rage

- or it may activate a survival message.

Perceptions are assumptions we have, biases we carry, and importantly, the ideas that we believe are fundamentally true, and our values. Unpacking perceptions and reframing them are important for us to learn and have greater awareness of our behavioural patterns and tendencies.

Expectations come from our past experiences, but also from family, friends, media, legends, stories, religion, myth, culture, race, gender, caste, etc.

Unmet expectations affect one's self-esteem, wellbeing, and ability to connect with others. It is important to surface expectations based from:

  • Mine of other

  • Mine of my Self

  • Other of me

  • Other thinks I have of them

Yearnings- Satir identifies “yearnings” as universal among human beings, and hence cannot be denied or disregarded. Being congruent at the level of yearnings means to acknowledge one’s humanity and what one longs for and strives to actualize it.

It is important to uncover the yearnings that underlie behaviors, coping stances and feelings as well as acknowldge both fulfilled and unfulfilled yearnings. Yearnings when fulfilled can fuel us to have hope and energy. When unfulfilled, it contributes to expectations of the self, of others, and from others.

Yearnings include the longing to love oneself, to love others, to be loved by others, to be accepted, validated, confirmed, and our search for purpose and meaning.

The Self: I am refers to the “life force, spirit, soul, core, essence”. This is who we are, have been, and always will be; the very core of who we are. All people are innately good and have positive Life Energy at their core. Self is always changing and entirely malleable. This is where spiritual connection exists coming from a wellspring of life energy, presence and deep soul essence.


Interested to know more about Satir's Personal Iceberg Model and how you can use it as a facilitator? Check out the full facilitator toolkit here
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