Virginia Satir and Family Therapy

June 26, 2019
Virginia Satir was an exceptional American therapist who received many awards due to her contributions in the field. Read more about her here!

Virginia Satir was an American therapist that reinvented family therapy. In fact, nowadays she’s considered one of the most important figures in the history of systemic therapy. She created the Satir Change Model that experts still use to this day, both in family therapy and work environments.

This great American therapist co-founded the famous Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, which became the main family therapy specialized center.

It’s quite obvious that Virginia Satir’s greatest influence was humanistic psychology. That’s why her work tackled self-esteem, values, and self-transcendence. However, she managed to use these concepts in a unique type of therapy.

“I believe the greatest gift I can conceive of having from anyone is to be seen by them, heard by them, to be understood and touched by them.” 

-Virginia Satir-

The Early Years of Virginia Satir

Satir was born in Neillsville, a small Wisconsin town in the United States. She was the oldest of four siblings. She learned to read when she was only three years old. By the age of nine, she had already read all the books from her school’s small library.

In her childhood, she experienced something that would change her forever. When she was only five years old, she suffered from appendicitis. Her mother refused to take her to the hospital due to her religious beliefs, so Virginia almost died. However, her father insisted and took her to the emergency room, where she received medical care for three months.

Since then, she became a keen observer of family life, perhaps due to that disagreement between her parents that put her life at risk. Later on, she and her family moved to Milwaukee, where Virginia went to high school.

Then, the Great Depression came and she had to work as a babysitter to help her family and to be able to graduate from the Wisconsin State College of Milwaukee, where she started her studies right after high school.

A boy's hand on the window pane.

The Satir Change Model

Virginia Satir got a bachelor’s degree in education and excelled as a teacher. Later on, she enrolled at the University of Chicago School of Social Services Administration. In 1950, she started doing private therapy. In 1951, she began doing family therapy. By 1955, she was working at the Illinois Psychiatric Institute.

Her education and practice allowed her to shape a four-goal change model. The four goals were:

  • Raising self-esteem.
  • Boosting decision-making skills.
  • Becoming responsible.
  • Achieving congruence.

Satir believed that if each member of the family achieved those goals, the family bond would strengthen and they would be able to get past any conflict.

Family Systemic Therapy

Satir shaped systemic therapy applied to families and she also became a relevant figure in the field with the many books she published. She summed up her approach in one sentence that she used frequently: “Becoming more fully human”.

A family tree.

Virginia Satir’s family therapy followed five main therapeutic elements for transformational change, which are:

  • Experiential, by seeking a full perception of one’s own life and reliving meaningful moments from the past.
  • Systemic, because transformation involves the interaction between family members, among other interpersonal contexts, between past and present, and organism and environment.
  • Positively directional, because the therapist must help patients develop a positive approach. The goal is to generate a new interpretation of experiences and to strengthen personal resources.
  • Change focused. In fact, transformation must be personal and interpersonal. Deep self-reflection questions help you get to know yourself.
  • Based on the self-congruence of the therapist. The therapist must be consistent with themselves and their job. The patient can always detect if their therapist is coherent or not.

Several Virginia Satir books have become true classics. Among them, there’s Satir Step by Step: A Guide to Creating Change in Families and Making Contact.

Also, it’s worth noting that organizational psychology has adopted many of her guidelines over time. The psychology world will never forget this prolific therapist, who passed away on September 10th, 1988, in California.