The Mother Of Family Therapy: Virginia Satir

By: Julia Thomas

Updated May 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Dawn Brown

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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 therapy that involved treating not only one individual, but all individuals involved in the family. This is why her work stressed treating the entire family unit as opposed to a single individual. Her tools were myriad, and her results were incredibly successful, making her a widely known psychotherapist the world over.

The Early Life Of Virginia Satir

Born on June 26, 1916, in Neillsville, Wisconsin, Satir grew up as a curious 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 courses. She worked as a teacher for a few years after graduating and began working in a private practice shortly after graduate school.

The Satir Method

Known more commonly as Satir Transformational Systemic Therapy, this method 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 behavior. When family members 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 issue of one person can affect the family as a whole which is why Satir so deeply stressed that the entire family should seek treatment. 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.

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.

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 good at their core and their coping skills were ultimate 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 is what will lead people in the right direction.

The reason the Satir Method works so well is that of its focus on potential, 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 them 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 affects 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 her approach to therapy included recognizing that individuals have their sense of worth and that they are responsible for their worth. This forms as a result of their environment, typically starting within the family unit but are only held at will by the individual as time goes on. When a part of the family unit is suffering from an illness, it's important to assess the entire family unit for influences. As well, she would encourage treatment of the entire unit as part of this model. Families that 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 improved the lives of many.

It's Not About The Illness

Another important factor about 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?
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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 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.

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 as well as helps improve relationships. By using self-actualization, the individual can form stronger interpersonal connections with those around them, 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 method behind this particular therapy are not always consistent with the improved quality of life. Those suffering from 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 the Satir Method.

Books By Virginia Satir

As an author, Satir has written some books about families and individuals. Her books include Peoplemaking (1972), Your Many Faces(1978), Conjoint Family Therapy (1983), and The New Peoplemaking (1988) 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.


Where To Find Satir Method Therapy

Many therapy offices incorporate much of Satir's work into their techniques. Though most therapists have their way of treating individuals, their work can be influenced by Satir's belief in the life energy, in creating responsibility, and using acceptance as part of therapy. Much of modern therapy believe that acceptance and self-worth promote the individual to change. By transforming their perspective to a more positive outlook, the individual can thrive as a human.

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:

For more information on Virginia Satir, her therapy methods, and her influence check out the following links:

Good Therapy.




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