Valeria Ugazio will give a keynote address at the 2017 PCP Congress in Montreal. Information below. Click here to register for the congress.

Valeria Ugazio

Being Diverse Within Different Family Semantics

Valeria Ugazio

European Institute of Systemic-relational Therapy Milan and University of Bergamo(Italy)

It is within our family and other groups we belong to, dominated by different configurations of meaning which approach diversity in different ways, where we discover being different and living our diversity.  The conversations construct and deconstruct a variety of forms of discrimination, as well as inclusion, both within the family and other social groups.  Meaning is a crucial variable in the processes of discrimination, a difference that makes a difference.  Even though the conversation within each family or social group is organized, according to social constructionist approaches to meaning (Procter, 1996,2016; Ugazio, 1998, 2013) by a unique plot of semantic polarities, some configuration of meanings fed by the same emotional polarities (family semantics) are frequent in western cultures. This is the case of the semantic of freedom, goodness, power and belonging (Ugazio, 1998, 2013). They dominate the conversation within families where phobic (freedom), obsessive-compulsive (goodness), eating (power) and mood disorders (belonging) develop. Discovered through my clinical practice, the existence of these semantics in many families and their link with some specific disorders is now confirmed by a substantial amount of research (Castiglioni et al. 2013, 2014; Faccio et al. 2012, 2014; Ugazio, et al.2015; Ugazio & Fellin, 2016). Fed by the emotional polarity fear and courage, the semantic of freedom creates a world where “freedom/dependency” and “exploration/ attachment” dominate the conversation and a moral order in which freedom and exploration are seen as values. In the semantic of goodness the main semantic polarities are “good/bad”, “alive/dead”. They create a moral order in which life is on the side of evil. The goodness that characterizes this semantic is in fact based on abstinence. Good people refrain here from doing evil, give up their desires, sacrifice themselves rather than be generous and welcoming to others. Bad people will instead selfishly indulge in their pleasures and assert themselves, even to the detriment of others, but at the same time they immerse themselves powerfully in life.   Boasting and   shame feed the semantic of power where someone wins while others loose. In addition to “winner-loser”, “strong-willed/ yielding” plays a central role here. In this semantic, you win because you are strong-willed, determined, able to pursue your goals, whereas you may lose because you give up, you are unable to assert yourself. The main polarities of the semantic of belonging are: “inclusion/exclusion”, “honour/disgrace”. This semantic creates a moral order in which the highest goal is to be included in the family, in the lineage, in the community, whereas being excluded is a disgrace and an irreparable harm to  your dignity. The hypothesis I will put forward is that each of these semantics present specific constraints and resources in dealing with diversity.  The first results of an ongoing study (Ugazio, Gargano, in  preparation)  on the coming out young gay men  supporting this hypothesis will be presented and illustrated with some clinical vignettes.


Valeria Ugazio, Ph.D, is director of the European Institute of Systemic-relational Therapies (EIST) ( in Milano and professor of clinical psychology at the University of Bergamo, Italy. Introduced to the family therapy field by Mara Selvini Palazzoli, her first mentor, she participated in what was to become the Milan Approach from the beginning and taught at the Centro Milanese di Terapia Familiare, directed by Luigi Boscolo and Gianfranco Cecchin, until she founded the European Institute of Systemic-relational Therapies in 1999. The inspiring idea which has guided her scientific pathway until now has been to develop a systemic interpretation of subjectivity based on the process of construction of meaning within the family. The semantic polarities theory set out completely in Semantic  Polarities in the Families. Permitted and Forbidden Stories (2013, New York: Routledge) realizes the first fundamental step towards this objective. She is currently interested in developing systemic therapeutic approaches coherent with the semantic polarities perspective and specific for individuals and families facing phobic, obsessive-compulsive, eating disorders and depression.