The Mother Of Family Therapy: Virginia Satir

By Julia Thomas|Updated August 24, 2022

Have Questions About Virginia Satir and Family Therapy?

A notable American author and psychotherapist, Virginia Satir is considered the mother of family therapy for her pioneering work in how to treat individuals seeking help. Her work included a new approach to transpersonal therapy that involved treating not only one individual, but all individuals involved in the family. Her tools were myriad, and her results were incredibly successful, making her a widely known psychotherapist the world over.

The Life Of Virginia Satir

Born on June 26, 1916, in Neillsville, Wisconsin, Satir grew up as a curious, bright child with a passion for learning. She taught herself how to read early on and quickly became curious about uncovering truths, even stating that she had desired to become a detective in her younger years. A dedicated and passionate woman, she would go on to attend high school during the Great Depression and held a part-time job to help her family, all while attending extra school courses.

After high school, she attended Milwaukee State Teachers College, where she graduated with a bachelor’s in education. After graduating from Milwaukee State Teachers College, she worked as a teacher for a few years and began working in a private practice after further education at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago School of Social Services Administration, from which she earned a master’s degree.

In the ‘50s, Satir started work at the Illinois Psychiatric Institute and then helped create the Mental Research Institute in California. At the Mental Research Institute, Satir became the training director of the first ever family therapy training program. She also helped establish organizations—such as the Avanta Network, which eventually became the Virginia Satir Global network—that aid in the education and training of mental health professionals. In 2007, Psychotherapy Networker magazine named Satir the fifth most influential therapist of the past 25 year (based on a survey).

The Satir Method

Known more commonly as Satir Transformational Systemic Therapy, Satir founded this method—which is the result of clinical studies— that was designed to improve the connections between family members to treat individuals. The family unit is seen as a whole instead of just as a sum of its parts, and is treated based on the problems lying underneath the behaviors of each family member and how they impact all other members. When family members seek professional advice together and address issues that have been buried for years, they can find a sense of peace and balance. A smoother and closer relationship can then develop, proving that these relationships are worth enriching as time goes on.

The issues experienced by one person can affect the whole family, and this is why Satir so deeply stressed that entire families should seek treatment, including the parents. Think of a family unit as a machine. When one of its gears breaks, the entire machine shuts down. Treating the gear as well as maintaining the other gears can help the machine run smoothly and facilitate the healing process.

Much like the more holistic approaches to talk therapy, the Satir method believes that all people are connected through similar life energy. This is especially true with families who are frequently near each other. That shared energy can easily influence emotions, behavior, and mental conditions when it is out of balance. This explanation is also what prompts individuals to take responsibility for their inner emotions and actions. These ideas about families led Satir to develop different techniques, such as role plays, for treatment of systemic and individual concerns.

The Theory Behind The Satir Method

Since everyone shares energy, there are a few truths that Satir believed to be evident in people. She believed that everyone was equally good at their core and their coping skills were ultimately what lead to surface issues. Also, she believed all humans experience the world in much the same fashion through physical sensations, emotions, thinking, experiencing, etc. It's a point of connection that is worth acknowledging during treatment. Satir believed that every person is capable of change and that focusing on this skill and possibility is what will help people in the healing process.

The reason the Satir change process model works so well is due to its focus on the potential for change and growth, personal skills, and hope. Focusing only on the disorder or the surface issue doesn't solve the issue. Instead, encouraging individuals to take charge of how they see situations and how they can help themselves overcome previous events. This then equips them to handle new events, however stressful, in healthy ways. When past events are dealt with properly, their current behavior and attitude will change as a result, which can positively affect the relationships they have.

As stated previously, it is believed that every person has the ability to change. They are in control of their emotions and whether those emotions hold them back. They are also in control of their acceptance of past events. By coming to terms with previous experiences and understanding that emotions are their responsibility, they can enact change in their own life. This creates responsibility for the individual in cultivating their own emotional growth.

Personal Growth And Self-Worth

One piece of Satir’s approach to therapy included recognizing that individuals have their own sense of worth and that they are responsible for their self-esteem. This forms as a result of their environment in the given moment, typically starting within the family unit, but then is held at will by the individual as time goes on and they develop into adulthood. When a part of the family unit is experiencing an illness, whether mental or physical, it's important to assess the entire family unit for influences.

Additionally, Satir's work would encourage treatment of the entire unit as part of this model, which has come to be known as the Satir growth model. Families who reciprocate feelings, affection, and love go on to thrive as units, as they should. Her pioneering work changed the way family therapy, couples therapy, and marriage counseling was administered and has improved the lives of many.

It's Not About The Illness

Another important factor of her work focused on the individual instead of the illness. Satir believed that the issues appearing on the surface were masking deeper issues, likely rooted in childhood. While addressing the surface issue might help, it would be more beneficial to the individual to discuss what is underneath. Using various techniques, she would help her clients uncover the root of their surface issues and help eliminate those problems by coming to terms with them, forming healthy coping mechanisms, and creating meaningful relationships with others.

Acceptance Promotes Change

While therapy can give individuals the coping skills necessary to move forward in their lives, one of the markers of this therapy was understanding and accepting past events. The memories of the past should not prevent the client from moving forward. By accepting the events as unchangeable, each can take a step towards a happier existence. Hanging on to old beliefs, poor experiences, and shameful feelings only hinder the person from experiencing the here and now. Acceptance is key to promoting those first steps toward change.

Have Questions About Virginia Satir and Family Therapy?

How It Works

There are four main goals in the Satir method: raise confidence, become an active decision-maker, become responsible, and become congruent. These goals, it is believed, will ultimately lead to change in the individual. As the therapy progresses, the therapist and client will set new goals as well. Achieving transformational change can only occur when the attitude and perspective of the individual have changed. When they are only focused on past events or current issues, they can't take the steps necessary to improve their lifestyle.

Ideally, the Satir method works as such: raising confidence helps the individual take charge of their decisions. From there, they see that they have a level of responsibility for their emotional health and active functioning. Then, the client commits to becoming consistent in their decisions, goals, and statements. They become an active agent in their lifestyle.

Who It's For

Primarily, the Satir method helps individuals recover from past events in childhood, improve relationships, and become more fully human. By using self-actualization, the individual can form stronger interpersonal connections with those around them, including family, romantic partners, and friends alike. This type of therapy is also used for groups and couples for its beneficial structure in providing a safe environment to discuss issues and create healthy goals.

The theory and methods behind this particular therapy are not always consistent with an improved quality of life. Those living with severe and chronic mental illness might not find perpetual peace in these methods without additional therapy. Also, those with cognitive impairments may not always be capable of doing the work. They might need other interventions to help them progress through life instead of, or sometimes in addition to, the Satir method.

Books By Virginia Satir

As an author, Satir has written some books based around helping families and individuals. Her books include Peoplemaking (1972), Science and Behavior Books; Your Many Faces (1978), Celetial Arts; Conjoint Family Therapy (1983), Science and Behavior Books; Satir Step by Step: A Guide to Creating Change in Families (1983), Science and Behavior Books; and The New Peoplemaking (1988), Science and Behavior Books; to name a few. Her work has influenced other schools of thought in psychology, including family therapy, and continues to influence many psychotherapists today. During her time alive, she became increasingly popular among psychologists and would travel the world to speak about her methods. One of her unique ways of writing was incorporating meditations and poetic writing.

Satir’s Influence And Legacy

An interest in families led Virginia Satir to have a huge impact on modern psychotherapy. In fact, in two national surveys of social workers, marriage and family therapists, and other therapists, she was voted the most influential therapist. Aside from those two national surveys, she was also named the fifth most influential therapist by Psychotherapy Networker magazine.

The psychological model developed by Satir, along with other ideas and methods—such as family constellations, conjoint family therapy, the human validation process model, and family reconstruction—provided a new perspective on the treatment of individuals and families. And these concepts are still used by therapists and organizational gurus today.

Additionally, Satir helped establish organizations that facilitated mental health treatment and training. In 1977, she founded the Avanta Network, which became the Virginia Satir Global Network. The goal of the Virginia Satir Global Network is to help provide further education to family therapists and other mental health workers based on the family therapy techniques—such as role plays and guided contemplation—Satir developed. Because of her contribution, she was given the Distinguished Service Award by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. She was also given the title of Diplomat by the Academy of Certified Social Workers.

Where To Find Therapy Based On The Satir Model

Many therapists incorporate much of Satir's work into their techniques. Though many therapists have their own way of each individual client, their work may be influenced by Satir's belief in life energy, in creating responsibility, and using acceptance as part of therapy. Much of modern therapy believes that acceptance and self-worth help promote the individual to change. By transforming their perspective to a more positive outlook, the individual can thrive as a human with self-esteem.

BetterHelp is an online therapy program with thousands of board-certified therapists who can provide professional advice. Many of these professionals are licensed marriage and family therapists who utilize Satir’s methods in family and group therapies. Studies have found online therapy to be overall just as effective as in-person therapy. In particular, internet-based family therapy was found by the Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review to eliminate many of the barriers of in-person family therapy, such as cost, scheduling issues, ability to get to appointments, staff shortages, and increased privacy. Participation among youths in particular was higher, perhaps due to stigmas associated with face-to-face therapy.

Internet-based therapy is incredibly convenient and accessible, able to be utilized anytime, anywhere - you’ll just need an internet connection to get started. From there, you can be matched with a therapist well-suited to yours and your family’s needs and circumstances. Sessions can be conducted via phone call, video chat, instant messaging/texting, or live voice recordings sent back and forth. Continue reading below to find reviews of some of our therapists from people who have sought out online family therapy.

“Susan was fabulous! I highly recommend her counselling services. She put me and my family back on track and I feel there is promise hope and love going forward.”

“Amy has been a blessing to my family and I. Beginning our work together about six months ago, I was dealing with extreme anxiety and emotional disorder. Through weekly assignments, meaningful conversations, and occasional mid-week chat check-ins, I am much more capable of managing stress, rebuilding my marriage, and caring for my business.”

Calling your health provider can be a first step in locating an office that specifically caters to this method. As well, doing an internet search can show you areas where the Satir method is used. If you would rather explore options from the privacy and comfort of your own home, you can start by clicking here:

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