The family therapy of Virginia Satir, co-founder of the Palo Alto MRI and in charge of the training of students at this institution for many years, had a great influence on the systemic orientation interventions that appeared in the second half of the 20th century.

In this article we will analyze the main characteristics of the therapy proposed by Satir, we will describe his Growth Model and we will make a brief review of his biography and his work.

Biography of Virginia Satir

Virginia Satir was born in Neillsville, Wisconsin in 1916. During the Great Depression her family moved to Milwaukee leaving the farm where they lived so that Virginia, the eldest daughter, could study in high school. She later graduated from Milwaukee State Teachers College in Education and worked as a teacher for a few years.

Later on, Satir was trained as a social worker; in 1951 she began to dedicate herself to this work, which would be the core of her professional activity. Shortly thereafter, she began working at the Illinois Psychiatric Institute. During this period Satir’s preference for family intervention (as opposed to individual treatment) was already well established.

In the late 1950s Satir co-founded the Mental Research Institute, commonly abbreviated as “MRI” , in the city of Palo Alto, California. Other therapists who played a prominent role in the creation of this institution were Don Jackson, Paul Watzlawick, Chloe Madanes, Salvador Minuchin, R. D. Laing and Irvin Yalom.

For several decades, MRI was the core of American family therapy, especially when it came to systemic orientation. Satir directed the training of students, so the influence of his ideas on this therapeutic model was very significant.

Virginia Satir died in 1988. In addition to her contributions as a family therapist and as a social worker , which are summarized in the book “Conjoint Family Therapy” (1964), Satir left a series of inspiring publications with a poetic tone through which she tried to help other people to develop more as human beings.

Objectives of the Satir Growth Model

Satir’s work was derived from his personal values and beliefs, which had a spiritual and self-transcending character with remarkable similarities to the approaches of the humanist psychological current. This author defined five general objectives in her Growth Model , the name she gave to her theory on psychotherapy.

1. Increase self-esteem

For Satir the concept “self-esteem” refers to our deep perception of ourselves and includes awareness. According to his approach a high self-esteem is related to the identification of the self with the spiritual energy.

2. Empowering decision making

In this sense, one of the objectives of Satir’s family therapy is the empowerment of patients to make their own decisions in pursuit of a state of psychological and physical health . Personal transcendence would be related to the experience of freedom of action.

3. Adopting Personality Responsibility

Satir argued that experiencing our self completely allows us to take responsibility for it and to truly know ourselves. Such facts would contribute in a central way to the human development of individuals.

4. Achieving Self-Congruence

Personal congruence is defined as the harmony between an individual’s experience and his “life energy” , related to the transcendence of the self. In this sense, aspects such as authenticity and sincerity are important, both on the part of the client and the therapist, who should serve as a model.

Principles of your family therapy

Five fundamental therapeutic principles have been identified in Satir’s methods of intervention; we will focus on this last section. These keys must be present throughout the treatment, since they are necessary elements for therapeutic change.

1. Experiential methodology

This characteristic mainly involves two aspects: the full perception of personal experience and the re-experimentation of significant events from the past as part of the therapy. Satir stressed the importance of a hypothetical body memory as a useful tool for therapeutic change.

2. Systemic character

Although systemic therapies are usually understood as basically focused on the family relationship , in reality the concept “systemic” also refers to other interpersonal contexts, to the interaction between the past and the present and even to the organism itself as a whole.

3. Positive directionality

Satir said that the therapist must help clients perceive the world in a positive way, achieve physical and psychological health and develop their full human potential. This requires generating a new interpretative framework for the experiences and enhancing the use of personal resources instead of psychopathological aspects.

4. Focus on change

Satir’s family therapy focuses on personal and interpersonal transformation . With this aim, this author highlighted the usefulness of deep self-reflection questions at the individual level.

5. Therapist’s Self-Congruence

Consistency between the therapist’s behavior and self is a necessary condition for the therapist to help others achieve their own. The client perceives this congruence through tools such as humor, metaphors, self-revelation and creative behaviors in general.