The highlight of any workshop family therapist Virginia Satir conducts is the "parts" party, a customized psychodrama of the absurd which demonstrates -- often comically -- the self-defeat in hiding traits of which one is not so proud. Nagging, for example, or wimp tendencies.

Teaching the art of the "change artist" (her phrase for therapist) to about 100 psychotherapists recently, Satir invited a male from the audience to list people he felt strongly about -- negatively or positively -- and to indicate which quality they represented.

"Over the years," explains Satir, "I've found that the only adjectives I give to people are adjectives I'd apply to myself."

After eliciting a list that included Jesus ("whole"), Thomas Jefferson ("versatile"), the fellow's wife ("loving"), Qaddafi ("vicious") and a do-gooder ("supportive"), Satir had the bemused participant select people from the audience who reminded him of those -- "his" -- parts. Happy to play a role, although often quizzical about why they were chosen, the subpersonalities gathered on stage for what can only be described as a cocktail party of the psyche.

Things didn't really fall into place until "Jesus" got more assertive and the do-gooder stopped being so aggressively helpful.

"If you can bring things to the level of absurdity," says Satir, "you bypass a lot of defenses."

Next the California-based grande dame of family therapy asked the "negative parts" to kneel in a circle, and the "positive parts" to sit on them. Instructions: The submerged negative parts were to pinch the positive parts, who were to act as though nothing were happening. Much squirming ensued.

"This," declares Satir, "is what anxiety is all about.

"We all want to be all positive, with no negatives. But we rob ourselves of a lot of energy when we do that. If you have to sit on any part of yourself, you're not free. You cannot kill any part of yourself. But you can transform it. And out of those negatives you can get so much gold."

In fact, it was the negativity of Qaddafi that energized the other parts. Without him the party would have been dull.

And dull is not a word you hear very often at a Satir workshop, this one sponsored by the Family Relations Institute of Falls Church. For every two invitations the noted therapist accepts, she turns down 200 more.

An energetic 68, Satir has traveled an estimated 2 million miles giving training workshops around the world, lecturing about her theories and demonstrating the dificult art of helping family systems grow healthier. She herself was divorced 20 years ago, and raised two adopted daughters. Immediate past president of the Association of Humanistic Psychology, cofounder of the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., and the first training director at Esalen, she is considered a pioneer in individual and family therapy.

A number of her colleagues credit her with singlehandedly popularizing the field of family therapy in the '50s and '60s, when the idea of working with two or more people at once struck both therapists and patients as a wild and fearsome prospect. While other professionals were trying to dignify their field with jargon -- "we did therapy a terrible disservice by making a mystery of it" -- Satir strode about the room, hugged people, told jokes, delivered clear, nontechnical explanations and clarified theories about self-esteem, communication and family systems with homely examples from everyday life.

The essence of her style and theory is captured in her most recent book, Satir Step by Step, written with Michele Baldwin (Science and Behavior Books, $14.95). She is also the author of a popular guide to family relations, Peoplemaking ($8.95), and the classic text Conjoint Family Therapy ($8.95), both published by Science and Behavior Books.

Satir remembers well when therapists sat behind their desks ("like potted plants") scribbling notes about individual patients and saying little. Satir was one of the first to throw away the desk and the note pad, to bring in other members of the family and to serve as a catalyst in helping members gain insight into where their family systems had become stuck.

With Satir, a therapy session is like a cross between dialogue and drama -- a combination of role playing, gentle probing and communications training, with a lot of touching, humor, gently offered observations about kinks in the family relationships and much moving about.

"In a stationary position, things usually go in one ear and out the other," she explains, as she moves people about, sculpting human tableaux that catch the essence of a family's communication styles and pecking order.

And she is always checking things out.

"How often do you hear, 'I'd like to, but my wife wouldn't like it'? And later, there's resentment and blaming: 'I hold you responsible for my choices.' Kids do this all the time with their parents. But 90 percent of the time when we put things in another person's head it isn't so -- we are just assuming. If we put words to it, we'll find that out. So check things out."

She especially helps families explore their attitudes toward touching and affection. "So many of us have had negative experiences about touch that many of us associate it only with sex or aggression. Have you ever noticed what a power play it is to get diapers changed? The elbow in the belly? Every diaper change is an interaction in skin and power -- and we all had our diapers changed 4,000 times.

"But in all my years of working with people, the thing that has made the single most difference has been the ability and freedom to touch, and the freedom to talk about touch." Children, she says, who do not experience touch as affection will often satisfy their need for physical contact through distorted forms, such as anger and fighting.

The common theme behind everything, says Satir: Stop wasting energy protecting a secret self (and a status quo that may not be worth hanging on to), and put that energy to positive use.

"Just as part of getting together as a couple is often wanting to avoid or improve upon how things were when we were growing up, so our wish as new parents is often that we will be better parents than our parents were. Everyone wants to transcend the negatives. The problem is, when we approach things from the point of view of what we don't want, when we come to the point of changing, the power of what we don't want continues.

"People usually tell me what they don't have, and I say, 'Yes, but what do you want out of this? What do you want for yourself -- not what do you want to change about someone else. What would you like to have happen?'

"That's a stunning question. I almost always get a silence. What I make of the silence is that we are used to answering the questions about what we should want, or what is the right thing. 'What do I want for me?' is the most difficult question in the world."

Therapists understand this all too well, she says with characteristic good humor. "We've almost all of us in the field tried to make our own families better. And when we can't succeed we try other people's families."