Need To Better Understand Yourself? Try The Personal Iceberg

Iceberg LJN

The Personal Iceberg is a Satir technique used as a transformational tool to explore the self. The tool utilizes the metaphor of an iceberg to represent human experiencing; the small tip represents visible behaviors, which is often what we focus on as we move through life because it is so easily accessible to us. But as the Iceberg metaphor illustrates, the observable is only the tip of human experiencing. Each layer under the water represents a part of personal experiencing that is unique to each individual, and if explored, gets us closer to who we each are in the world.

Behavior is objective occurrence  which means it is observable and measurable. Behavior is also normative: this is the domain of right and wrong, of justice, of morality. What we say, do, what happens, or does not happen, can be just or unjust, but below the water’s surface, there is no need for judgement, there is not a right or wrong thought, feeling, etc. As we journey down the Iceberg, release the need to judge what you find.

Example: I am having an argument (behavior) with my wife about money I spent on video games.

counselling-and-mediation-fighting-couple1Thoughts are  intellectual activity involving an individual’s subjective consciousness. This can include reasoning, ruminating, remembering, problem solving, deciding, evaluating, etc.  The key to understanding how your thoughts relate to an observable phenomenon using the Iceberg is to examine what present thoughts you are having about what has been observed in the self or others, or the environment, via introspection (a quiet kind of internal listening). Some find it helpful to write these thoughts down. Thoughts can serve as the gateway to deeper levels of experiencing so they are important to notice and not discount as right or wrong.

Example: She is such a controlling idiot!


Feelings, for some, are more challenging to discern. In part, this is because we can feel multiple feelings simultaneously. Also,  feelings occur in a region of the brain thought to have difficulty accessing temporal information, which is why sometimes a feeling that occurred long ago can be re-experienced as if it is happening right now.  And to top it all off, we may not have been taught how to identify and talk about how experiences feel. Sometimes this is evidenced by confusing a thought with a feeling; you don’t feel like someone is an idiot, you think that. What you feel is…

Example: I feel angry and I feel unhappy with the way I am being talked to about money, like a child. Oh! I feel belittled. 


Expectations often are built from our collection of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that have already occurred in our environment   Some sources of expectations are personal experience, family, friends, media, legends, stories, religion, myth, culture, race, gender, caste, etc. Interestingly, violated expectations are rarely voiced in conflict although they are playing a large role in how the experience unfolds (notice how the base of the iceberg widens as we go down the layers). Sometimes our expectations even predict our behaviors directly! Check this out…

Example: I expect to be yelled at -because she always does- for buying a new video game so I will just not tell her about it for a few weeks. 

Values are the ideas we have that make life worth living, the ideas that we believe are fundamentally true. It is from our values that we judge our self and others. The interesting thing about values is that we can have behaviors, thoughts,  feelings, and expectations that do not match up with what we hold to be true about life. When reflecting on how your values are activated by a particular behavior, allow for any noted contradictions as they emerge.

Example: I value keeping it real (being authentic). 

Yearnings are our needs, wants, hopes, dreams, and desires. This aspect of experiencing is closest to our true self and often leaves us feeling feeling vulnerable when exposed. Perhaps this is why we know so little about the role they are playing in how we go through the world unless life gets really bad –when we must function for long periods of time with high levels of unmet need, or always put our own hopes and dreams aside  living can become intolerable.

Example: I need to relax after work, playing games helps me have fun and when I was younger, I used to imagine being a game designer. I wish she would learn how to play so we could play together!


The Self is who we are, who we have always been, and who we will always be. This is not to say the Self is static, or unchanging, it is more like the entirety of your existence from birth to death. It is, existentially speaking, being you. This is your core, it is the base from which all the other layers are born. The self has a concept that is formed through all the other layers over time. This concept colors how we form current thoughts, feelings, etc. Poor self concept can be a result of low self esteem. To exact true and lasting change, the self concept must be accessed and explored.

Example: No one that I love appreciates me.

What good is the method? When you can know your self, you can better communicate who you are to others and become more congruent. Being congruent allows you to choose behaviors that reflect more of your authentic internal experiencing.

Example: Honey, when you criticize me for buying video games, I feel small and unappreciated. What I need you to know  is that what may seem like a waste of money to you is important to me. It is a way that I relax after work, and a way that I get in touch with myself. You know, when I was a kid, I used to fantasize that I would design games. What did you fantasize about when you were a kid?

touching icebergs

Etc. … Now the Icebergs at least have a chance of connecting -notice that where the Icebergs touch is at the level of self. When people are in conflict, it is often over a difference in values, yearnings, and self concept. Yet, we often only talk about behavior (then the lists come out). But when the partners have truly heard each other, they can problem solve more effectively. But more on problem solving later…

For Therapy Services: The Key Counseling of SA

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