Satir’s Self-Esteem Tool Kit, for Writers

Virginia Satir, the famous family therapist, was fond of metaphors and collected them from a profusion of sources, such as The Wizard of Oz, by Frank Baum. In that story, remember, the Wizard gave the Scarecrow a brain, the Tin Man a heart, the Cowardly Lion a badge of courage, and Dorothy the power to go home. According to Virginia, the Wizard’s great secret was that each of his supplicants already possessed the tools they thought they lacked. The Wizard’s job was merely to remind them. Well, writers need reminding, too–and, wrapped in our fictional worlds, maybe more than most.

From the idea that we possess the resources we need, but may have to be reminded, Virginia developed her idea of the “self-esteem tool kit”–a set of resources that each of us owns but often forgets to use when we’re feeling powerless. A few years back, I wrote a book about this kit for consultants, More Secrets of Consulting: The Consultant’s Tool Kit. It was well-received by my consultant colleagues, but also came to be discovered by my writer friends, when they asked me for help with so-called “writers’ block.”

As a writer, out there alone in a sometimes unappreciative world, I’ve frequently reminded myself of the metaphors in Virginia’s original kit, so I thought I’d share the highlights on the BVC blog:

The Wisdom Box represents the ability to know what’s right and what’s not right for me. Without a Wisdom Box, I would find myself forever trying to write things that violated my principles, or for which I had no energy. At least once a week, I receive a proposal to write some new book, develop an on-line course, speak at some conference, or teach some class. Without my  wisdom box to guide me, I would be swamped doing things I didn’t really want to do–and my writing would never happen.

The Golden Key stands for the ability to open new areas for learning and practicing, and to close them if they don’t fit for me at a particular time. Without this Golden Key, my writing would become narrowly focused, or focused on areas in which I was no longer interested. Without the key, I would never have begun writing fiction instead of my assuredly-successful non-fiction. And, having begun with science fiction, the key encouraged me to branch out into mysteries.

The Courage Stick symbolizes my courage to try new things and to risk failure. The Golden Key makes me aware of new doors to open, but I also need the courage to enter those doors once opened. Without my Courage Stick, my writing turns to safe grape jelly, smooth and sweet, but not terribly exciting.

The Wishing Wand personifies my ability to ask for what I want and to live with not getting it. Without the ability to ask for what I want, I would fall prey to publishers’ boiler-plate contracts. I cannot be an effective negotiator for my various writing contracts–not just publishing, but editorial work, cover designs, and various office services.

The Detective Hat is sometimes teamed with The Magnifying Glass, creating the ability to examine data and to reason about those data. Without analytical abilities, I would become a vendor of off-the-shelf, portion-controlled writings–rather than an original writer responding to my readers’ real needs.

The Yes/No Medallion illustrates my ability to say yes, the ability to say no (thank you), and the ability to mean what I say. Without a yes that means yes and a no that means no, I would pander to my editors’ prejudices and allow my writing to become someone else’s. I actually have a silver-and-gold yes/no medallion that I wear around my neck when I’m entering negotiations.

These six tools formed Virginia’s self-esteem tool kit, as I learned it. Over the years, however, various colleagues have helped me add other tools to my personal version of the kit, tools that are also helpful to me as a writer:

The Heart stands for my ability and willingness to put my heart into my work. My colleague Jean McLendon suggested that I include The Heart in my kit. She explained that Virginia left it out of her kit because she assumed people always have access to their heart. Writing fiction or working in technical environments, though, I’ve learned that I often need to be reminded of the hopes , wishes, fears, and sensitivities of others. The Heart gives me that nudge when I need it.

The Mirror symbolizes my ability to see myself, my writing, and to seek and use feedback. I’d always known that feedback was important for personal growth, but I learned the most about feedback from Edie and Charlie Seashore as I worked with them on our book about feedback, What Did You Say? Feedback is the mirror by which I can see myself and my work and monitor how my work affects those around me–but it only works if I remember to look in that mirror.

The Telescope stands for my ability to see others and to bring them closer to my understanding than my naked eye and brain can manage. In many ways, the mirror is the hardest tool for writers to use. Whom among us can accurate critique our own work? My Telescope complements the function of my Mirror, allowing me to see my work brought up for close examination.

The Fish-Eye Lens symbolizes my ability to see the big picture, the context that surrounds me and others and influences , us as we work together. It reminds me to use the many observational and analytical tools I already have, many of which I’ve written about in my books yet fail to recall when I most need them. Together, The Mirror, The Telescope, and The Fish-Eye Lens equip me with the Self, Other, and Context from Virginia’s model of congruence–the ingredients that must be balanced if I am to write congruently.

The Gyroscope is my ability to be balanced, to use all of my tools, and to be congruent or centered. My father gave me my first gyroscope, and to this day, I remain fascinated by its ability to restore its balance when disturbed. Sometimes, I think that the Gyroscope is too complex a tool for my kit, but then I remember that restoring balance to my life is complex and that it is something that I must always try to do. Watching other writers, I see how easily they are knocked off balance, causing their writing to suffer–or to cease altogether. Any writer who knows how to use the gyroscope will never be caught up by the myth of “writers’ block.” See my interview: The Myth of Writers’ Block.

The Egg stands for my ability to grow, develop, and learn, using all the parts of myself that I need to become a complete writer. I like to collect eggs, mostly beautiful stone ones, but I’m allergic to the chicken kind. Perhaps this allergy explains why I took so long to associate The Egg with Virginia Satir’s Seed Model–the concept that each of us comes into the world with all the tools we need to be complete human beings. When I’m stuck, in my writing or elsewhere, my Egg reminds me of the many tools I don’t realize I have–and of my ability to choose or create my own tools.

The Carabiner represents my ability to ensure my safety and to avert unnecessary risks–so I can take risks when necessary. For those of you not familiar with mountain climbing, the carabiner is a metal loop used to attach climbing ropes to pitons–hooks embedded in a cliff face. They are meant to prevent climbers from falling. Linda Swirczek, an experienced climber, suggested The Carabiner for my self-esteem tool kit. It gives me a moment to double-check my actions, so I can write with confidence.

The Feather–the ability to tickle myself and others, and not to take things, or myself, too seriously. I learned about tickling from my father, Harry Weinberg, though it was a long time before I learned much about the right timing for tickles. The Feather reminds me that, as Oscar Wilde said, “Life is too important to be taken seriously,” and the same is true of writing: “Writing is too important to be done without at least occasional humor.”

The Hourglass–the ability to make time for what’s good and to make good use of time. For me, the Hourglass is one of my most important tools because it’s one that I tend to forget. When I’m writing, I can forget to eat, or sleep, or simply take care of my body. I have used an actual hourglass next to my computer to remind me to stop occasionally and take care of life. Nowadays, I use a timer on my computer–and not just to stop writing. Sometimes, I need to start writing when I’ve been preoccupied with life’s other matters.

The Oxygen Mask–the ability to revive my capacity to help others. I like to help other writers–critiquing their work, leading them to useful resources, supporting them when they’re feeling stuck.  Eileen Strider added the Oxygen Mask to my kit, reminding me of the safety instructions given on planes: “Before helping others with their oxygen mask, be sure your own mask is securely in place and operating properly.” My Oxygen Mask reminds me to operate from a healthy place, the place from which I’m most able to help others. There, I’m less likely to inflict “help” that may prove harmful should I crash and burn and fail to follow through. The Oxygen Mask reminds me to use all of my other tools and to keep myself healthy and sane.

Altogether, these are some of the major tools I use in helping writers start their work, complete their work, ensure the quality of their work, and put their work up for sale. I hope some of them can help you in your writing—and in your life.


Gerald M. Weinberg is a member of Book View Café and hopes to blog here regularly. His science fiction “First Stringers: Eyes That Do Not See” by Gerald M. Weinberg is serialized on the front page rotation.?For more about him and his fiction please visit his bookshelf here on BVC:? his personal web page,


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