Knowing Virginia Satir

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated February 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

A notable American author and psychotherapist, Virginia Satir is considered the mother of family therapy for her pioneering work in developing a new approach to transpersonal therapy that involved treating all individuals in a family. Satir's approach influenced the development of structural family therapy, which focuses on the interactions and structure of a family system. Her results were incredibly successful, making her a widely known psychotherapist around the world.

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Life of Virginia Satir

Born on June 26, 1916, in Neillsville, Wisconsin, long before she became the mother of family therapy and went on to author countless books such as “Conjoint Family Therapy”, Virginia Satir grew up 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 youth, she went on to attend high school during the Great Depression and hold a part-time job to help her family, all while attending extra courses.

After high school, she attended Milwaukee State Teachers College, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education. She worked as a teacher for a few years before attending Northwestern University and the University of Chicago School of Social Services Administration, where she earned a master’s degree and began working in discreet one-on-one practice. 

In the 1950s, Virginia Satir started working at the Illinois Psychiatric Institute and then moved on to help create the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California. While part of the Mental Research Institute, she began to stray from the status quo and fully develop her own new ideas, methods, and types of therapy. At the new facility, Virginia Satir founded the first-ever family therapy training program. In addition to the program, she also helped establish organizations that aid in the education and training of mental health professionals. Virginia had five children and was married for a brief period to Norman Satir. Over time, Satir became one of the most influential therapists in history from whom many still learn today.

Virginia Satir method

Virginia Satir is the founder of Satir Transformational Systemic Therapy, a method designed to improve the connections between families. In this approach, the family unit is seen instead of just as a sum of its parts and is treated based on the problems underneath each family's behaviors and how they impact all others. This method has been endorsed by leading organizations such as the International Family Therapy Association (IFTA) and others.

When families seek professional advice from certified social workers or other mental health professionals, they may find a sense of peace and balance. A smoother and closer relationship may then develop, which proves that this relationship education is worth the time and effort as time goes on.

The issues experienced by one person can affect the whole family, which is why Virginia Satir stressed that entire families, including the parents, should seek treatment.

Much like the more holistic approaches to talk therapy, the Satir method posits that all people are connected through similar life energy. This is especially true with families who are frequently near each other. That joined energy can easily influence emotions, behaviors, and mental conditions. These ideas about families led Virginia Satir to develop different techniques, such as role-plays, to treat systemic and individual concerns.


The theory

Since this method assumes that everyone passes energy to one another, there are a few truths Satir believed to be evident in people. She believed that everyone was equally good at their core and that all humans experience the world in much the same fashion through physical sensations, emotions, thinking, experiencing, etc. Satir believed that every person can change and that focusing on this can help people in the healing process. She believed that children born into a healthy family system have a much better chance of maintaining positive menta; health outcomes.

The Satir model can work well because it focuses on the potential for change and growth, personal skills, and hope. Virginia wrote that focusing only on a disorder or a surface concern doesn't solve the problem. Instead, encouraging individuals to take charge of how they see situations can help them overcome previous events, however stressful. When they overcome past events, their current behaviors and attitudes may change, which can positively affect their relationships.

Personal growth and self-worth

Satir’s approach to therapy included recognizing that individuals have their own sense of worth and are responsible for their self-esteem. This forms as a result of their environment in the given moment. It typically starts within the family unit but is then held onto by the individual into adulthood. 

Additionally, Satir's work encouraged the treatment of the entire unit as part of this model. Families, including parents, who reciprocate feelings, affection, and love often go on to thrive as units. Her pioneering work changed how marriage and family therapists administered care 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. Virginia Satir believed that the problems appearing on the surface were masking deeper concerns, likely rooted in childhood. Addressing the surface concern might help, but it would be more beneficial to the individual to discuss what is underneath. Using various techniques, she helped her clients uncover the root of their surface concerns and address 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 therapeutic approach is understanding and accepting past events. Virginia Satir believed that the past should not prevent the client from moving forward. By accepting events as unchangeable, the individual may achieve greater well-being. Hanging on to old beliefs, poor experiences, and shameful feelings can hinder the person from experiencing the here and now. Acceptance is key to promoting those first steps toward the change process.

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How it works

The Satir method, which therapists and social workers have found useful over the years, has four main goals: raise confidence, become an active decision-maker, become responsible, and become congruent. These goals, it is believed, will ultimately lead to a change in the individual and overall family dynamics. 

Ideally, the Satir method works like this: Raising confidence helps individuals take charge of their decisions; from there, they see that they have a level of responsibility for their emotional health and active functioning. Next, they commit to becoming consistent in their decisions, goals, and statements. They become an active agent in their lifestyle.

Who it's for

The Satir method is aimed at helping children, students, parents, and young adults recover from past events in childhood and improve relationships within the family system. With self-actualization, individuals may form stronger interpersonal connections with those around them, including family, friends, and romantic partners. This type of therapy is also used for groups and couples, with its beneficial structure in providing a safe environment to discuss concerns and create healthy goals.

However, individuals living with severe and chronic mental illness may need additional therapy or other treatments. Also, those with cognitive impairments may not always be capable of doing the work involved in the Satir method. They might need other therapists' interventions and professional advice in addition to the Satir method.

Satir’s influence and legacy

The psychological model developed by Virginia Satir, along with other ideas and methods—such as family constellation therapy, her book “Conjoint Family Therapy”, the human validation process model, and family reconstruction therapy—provided a new perspective on the treatment of individuals and families for all the world to benefit from. These concepts are still used by therapists and mental health professionals today and can be found in a wide array of science and behavior books.

Additionally, Virginia 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—that Satir developed. Because of her contributions to therapy, she was given the Distinguished Service Award by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. 

Where to find therapy based on the Satir model

Many therapists incorporate much of Satir's work into their techniques. Although many have their own way of working with each client, their work may be influenced by Satir’s belief in celebrating life energy, creating responsibility, and using acceptance as part of therapy. Much of modern therapy approaches assume that acceptance and self-worth help promote change in individuals.

If you’re interested in family therapy, you can search for a local treatment center or therapists experienced in the Satir model, or you can try online therapy, which research has shown to be just as effective as in-person therapy. Online therapy may be an especially good option for people with busy family lives. With online therapy, you don’t have to worry about commuting to an office for in-person therapy, and everyone can participate from the comfort of home. Also, with online therapy at BetterHelp, you can contact your therapist via phone, videoconference, or in-app messaging.

Studies have shown that online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy. Researchers recently compared the results of online family therapy to in-person therapy in 20 different studies and discovered similar outcomes between the two methods, writing that family therapy delivered online “improves relational and mental health outcomes for family, parent, and child measures.

Below are a couple of reviews of individuals who have worked with BetterHelp counselors.

Reviews of BetterHelp counselors

“Susan was fabulous! I highly recommend her counseling 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.”


If you’re interested in learning more about the Satir model, you can talk to an online therapist at BetterHelp.  No matter what concerns your family is going through, you don’t have to face them alone. You can take the first step by getting matched with a BetterHelp therapist with training and experience in the Satir model of therapy.

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