You are what you say

wat je zegt ben je zelf

What does it mean if someone ‘is in your allergy’, and what does that reveal about you?
Mutual understanding and personal responsibility are key to dealing with this.

Every person who is confronted with a situation that he or she feels incapable of coping with, can switch into a mode to survive the situation: one’s own stress role.

Virginia Satir is one of the very earliest NLP role models. As one of the founders, she started working with (family) systems instead of with individual family members. Through working with families, she discovered that group or family members can take one of five fixed roles when faced by a stressful situation.

The stress role

To be trapped in dysfunctional communication causes stress.
From a deep need to be in harmony with our inner feelings, we sometimes take on a role that doesn’t suit us or that provokes a strong subconscious reaction in others.
It is a defence mechanism through which we preserve ourselves within our environment. Satir observed that people in such situations immediately take on a stereotypical form of behaviour, termed the ‘stress role’.

Each of these roles comes with a distinctive bodily posture, pattern of movement, physical sensations and language.

The five stress roles


Chooses for ‘self’; this is the caricature of power.

Clearly present within the team, thinks in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and especially emphasises the things that don’t go well.

Puts himself above it, points an accusing finger and takes a contrary position: ‘You can never do anything right’.

Inside he feels lonely.


Chooses for ‘the other’; this is the caricature of serving others.

Supports others unconditionally and concentrates on preventing conflicts and tensions.

Has a humble attitude, raises his hand as a placating gesture and takes a reassuring position: ‘You always want to do what’s right’.

Inside he feels worthless.

•Computer - Superreasonable

Chooses for the substantive context; this is the caricature of the intellect.

Has a rational explanation for everything, views everything from a distance but leaves himself out of the picture.

The body is calm and controlled and barely moves.

 Speaks in an aloof and abstract manner: ‘This is beyond what can be tolerated.’

Inside he feels dead.


Chooses for nothing in particular; this is the caricature of spontaneity.

Reacts spontaneously to everything that occurs, but this casual attitude may serve to evade reality.

The body is restless and moves in an angular manner.

 Speaks in a lilting manner, with peak tones.

 The words are irrelevant.

 Inside he feels: no sense of purpose or of being wanted.


Combines features of all styles, without any single style being clearly dominant.

The role as leveller is a positive combination of the four roles, in which these roles have been toned down to a ‘normal’ level.

 Is authentically himself.

How do you cope?

The 5 roles are survival strategies when facing an external authority, which have emerged in a position of dependency towards the environment. The child draws the meaning of the interaction from the environment and acts out in an exaggerated manner how he believes that the environment (authorities) will accept his presence.  

Can they be changed?

Certainly, but then they first need to be dislodged from the subconscious and brought to the surface, and thereby recognised as reflexes. Only then can they be replaced by better and more suitable reactions that are based on reality here-and-now. This is a process of personal growth.

Virginia Satir referred to the form of equivalent communication as the role of the ‘leveller’, although it may be more appropriate to refer to adopting the ‘levelling response’.

In the levelling response, the information flows in the same direction via all communication channels, making it congruent.  
The voice expresses the words with an appropriate tone and with a congruent bodily posture and facial expression.

This is only possible if you are honest; in this case, when you seek to express what you are experiencing inside.
In short, these are all ways of interacting with the environment without the defence mechanisms, and without losing touch with yourself.

Levelling in a nutshell

  • apologising when you realise you did something that you shouldn’t have. You apologise for the deed, not for your own existence.
  • when evaluating or expressing criticism, you focus on the behaviour and not on the person. You also offer a suggestion on how to do things differently.
  • when you need to talk about abstract facts and a precise formulation is important, then you don’t need to do so mechanically; it is still alright to show feeling and to express yourself in a lively way.
  • when you want to change the subject or get rid of some tension, then you can be clear in what you want.

It is surprising and revealing to discover how you act when stressed, and how this influences others.

Curious to know how this works with you, in your family, relationships, at work or general environment?
What do you need in order to be yourself?

If you would like to know more, or if you have any questions, then please don’t hesitate to contact me!

Source: Virginia Satir


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