Virginia Satir - Psychotherapy - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Virginia Satir
The Canon


BORN 1916, Neillsville, Wisconsin


DIED 1988, Menlo Park, California


Educated at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Chicago



A social worker, Virginia Satir was a pioneer of family therapy. She fundamentally changed the way we think about the family unit and its role both in creating mental health problems and in healing them.

Many of Satir’s treatment techniques were researched and developed at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, an organization she was involved with since its founding in 1959. Earlier in her career, when she was in private practice, she had noticed how helpful it is to bring family members into an individual’s treatment process. In 1962, she became the institute’s training director for the first-ever family therapy training program. Satir believed that it’s rare for a person’s suffering to exist in a vacuum, and that it is commonly related to issues within the family environment. Unlike previous therapists, who might simply have blamed a parent’s past behavior for a client’s current problems, she believed that troubled relationships from the past can be worked on in the present. In some cases, she felt, perhaps there isn’t even an individual problem at all but rather a problem in the way that individuals fit together.

Satir’s family therapy took many forms, from providing family members with basic communication techniques to creating a safe space for family members to face and explore deep pain and trauma. All her interventions focused on accepting and understanding the present and on working toward growth and change. Satir, like practitioners of humanistic therapy, believed that people are capable of this throughout the life span. She pioneered therapeutic techniques like role-playing and even established family camps, where families’ treatment took place over a weekend or longer in nature. Over time, Satir began to see the family as a microcosm, and she believed that techniques and philosophies from family treatment can be applied to the world at large.

Satir was also particularly interested in the importance of self-esteem. She was an early explorer of in-the-moment techniques like affirmations and visualization, and she was also a proponent of meditation. Her short 1975 book Self-Esteem reads almost like poetry, beginning with “I am me. In all the world, there is no one else like me.” It’s been embraced for decades by those seeking to accept themselves with all their flaws and find the motivation to continue growing.

Satir’s therapy techniques also emphasize, in practical terms, the difference between the presenting problem (insomnia, irritability, dating problems, clashes with a boss) and underlying challenges that may actually be more important (depression, trauma, dysfunctional relationship patterns). It is up to the therapist, Satir said, to help people discover and understand the connections between the problems they bring to therapy and the more fundamental issues that may be at the root of their suffering.

Satir also recognized that science can develop all the treatment techniques under the sun, but if people aren’t able to access them, those techniques will do no good. She pushed for the creation of therapy networks to help train providers and spread treatment into places where it hadn’t been accessible before. Indeed, Satir’s techniques spread globally, and by the end of her life, she was training practitioners around the world. She was a teacher through and through, and family therapy—its importance, how to do it, and what could be gained from it—was the area of her greatest lessons.


Many different styles of family therapy have grown from Satir’s work, and the fact that it’s since become a specialty in its own right, with certain therapists doing nothing else, speaks to the demand for it and to its importance within treatment. The Satir Change Process Model has extended the constructs of growth and change into management and is used in business.


Imagine that one of your best friends comes to you with complaints about her marriage. She feels frustrated and taken for granted, and she says that her husband has expressed annoyance that she is on his back about household tasks. She says she’s beginning to get depressed about it, and that her husband seems more and more irritable. You know your friend and her husband well, and you like them both on an individual basis very much. You also know that they have a strong love for each other, carry a meaningful history together, and share parenting roles for their two young children. You participated in their wedding and have always seen them as a couple who can go the distance; you look up to them and admire the characteristics they each bring to their marriage.

What is their diagnosable problem? Is either of them, individually, doing anything wrong? Individually or together, are they necessarily suffering from some sort of psychological dysfunction or behaving in ways that are self-sabotaging or unhealthy? In short, can two psychologically healthy people be in a psychologically unhealthy relationship? And can this happen within families?

The answer is yes, absolutely. In the preceding scenario, you would probably urge your friends to work their problems out, encouraging them to consider seeing a counselor together. You would try not to take sides and would abstain from pathologizing their behavior. You’d probably try to help them understand that they could use some help with their communication patterns and with working on their daily expectations of one another. The notion that neither of them is necessarily wrong, but that instead it is their dynamic that may need some work, is one that we take for granted now. But the wide acceptance of this idea grew directly from Virginia Satir’s early work.

We could take this example even further, to reflect an additional area of Satir’s interest. Let’s say it turns out that your friend’s mother died last year, and that your friend’s mother sacrificed a lot to raise her family because she belonged to a generation that dictated motherhood as the limit of a woman’s ambitions. Your friend is not only grieving but also reevaluating her own life—worrying and overanalyzing her own choices and sacrifices, wondering if she’ll someday have the same regrets her mother had, ruminating over having long ago made the decision not to go to law school, resenting her husband every time he so much as forgets to put a plate in the dishwasher. Of course, she won’t mention any of this when she and her husband first see a counselor, because she won’t yet have faced these underlying issues herself. Instead, she will report on the more superficial issue of being taken for granted by her husband. But a skilled therapist, one like Virginia Satir, will get to the underlying problem sooner rather than later.