Wednesday Geek Woman: Virginia Satir, ground-breaking family therapist

This is a guest post by Sheila Addison. Dr. Sheila Addison, LMFT, is a family therapist who currently teaches in an accredited Master’s program at Capella University and is passionate about GLBT clients, Fat Acceptance/Health at Every Size, family systems, and 21st century privacy/public life concerns for therapists.

In 1972, the journal Family Process held its quadrennial meeting of editors, which featured a “face-off” titled “Is Virginia Satir Dangerous for Family Therapy?” Satir and her “second,” another woman, were pitted against the legendary family therapist Salvadore Minuchin and his (male) “second” in a debate over the validity of her work. Such a spectacle had never been (and would never be) held in order to question the work of any of the men in the field of family therapy, and afterwards, Satir never attended another major family therapy conference, turning her attention to work outside the United States.

Family therapy, which broke away from psychology in the 1950s and 60s, was a movement descended from psychiatry and mostly made up of male psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. Satir, on the other hand, was originally trained as a teacher and social worker, professions which, then as now, were regarded as “women’s work.” Later in life, Satir described the prejudice she experienced in her graduate program at Northwestern due to being married – in the 1930s, married women were not meant to continue to pursue education, but were to stay home and care for their husband and family.

“Problems are not the problem; coping is the problem.”
Virginia Satir

Against the odds, she found her way to the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California to work with anthropologist Gregory Bateson, Bateson’s protégé Jay Haley, psychoanalyst Paul Watzlawick, psychiatrist John Weakland, and psychiatrist Don Jackson. Working with principles from cybernetics, the study of regulatory sytems (integral to information theory, engineering, neuroscience, and other “hard sciences”) the MRI team had previously developed the theory of the “double bind” as an explanation of schizophrenic symptoms, and was using concepts from the fields of constructivism and communication theory to understand the inner workings of families. In 1962, Satir was hired as the Director of Training of the first federally-funded family therapy training program, and wrote her first book, “Conjoint Family Therapy,” based off of the training manual she developed for students. This book, heavily based in communications theory, provided the foundation for her work that would eventually develop in a more experiential, emotional direction, but provided concrete guidance for students of this newly emerging discipline at a crucial time in its infancy.

Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible – the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.
Virginia Satir

From the cold, mechanistic language of cybernetics preferred by her male colleagues (who talked about “feedback loops” and “homeostasis,”), she developed a feeling vocabulary for family therapy, writing about “love” and “nurturance” and “self esteem,” concepts ignored or rejected by many family therapists who saw them as unscientific or touchy-feely. While the men of MRI sat behind one-way mirrors and gave deliberately confusing “paradoxical directives” to clients from a position of expertise as a part of their strategic therapy approach, Satir stood wives and children on chairs so they could be at eye level with their husbands or parents and talk to them as equals. She prescribed hugging and other forms of loving touch at a time when the prevailing wisdom in child rearing was still influenced by Cold War Era norms that counseled a hands-off approach, to avoid “coddling” children (ideas now thoroughly refuted by empirical research on infant and child attachment).

Satir dared to touch clients during their family sessions, holding their hand while they cried or offering them a hug at the end, breaking the rules about “neutrality” and “detachment” prescribed by psychoanalysis. She shared her own feelings with clients, telling them about feeling sad or caring or “soft” towards them, as a way of reducing the hierarchy between therapist and client and modeling for clients her genuine, congruent self. She celebrated differences of all kinds, and identified gender, racial, and sexual differences as opportunities for learning and celebration.

The Satir Growth Model identified communication patterns, coping strategies, family roles, and intergenerational patterns that led to problems in self-esteem, authentic communication, the nurturance of children, and responsible behavior in relationships inside and outside the family. “The New Peoplemaking,” originally published in 1972 as “Peoplemaking” and later revised and re-issued, sold over a million copies and has been translated into at least 12 languages. It has been adopted as a tool for assisting in the growth of communities, schools, and businesses, as well as families.

“The family is a microcosm. By knowing how to heal the family, I know how to heal the world”.
Virginia Satir

Eventually, Satir’s work moved out of the therapy room and into meeting rooms and lecture halls, as she worked to bring her ideas to a global audience. She founded training programs around the world to teach her methods. She helped to found the International Family Therapy Association, and founded several other international organizations including the International Human Learning Resources Network, and the Avanta Network, later renamed the Virginia Satir Network. Her goal was always to improve relationships within families, but she connected to the larger global peace movement as a way of spreading her message.

Today, Satir is dismissed in textbooks as having a “disinclination to theorize” or “an encounter group for relatives” despite the fact that she wrote or co-authored at least 10 books (both professional and popular) on family systems and family therapy, and founded an international network of training programs devoted to her techniques. The MRI website contains “In Memoriam” entries for Jackson, Watzlawick, and Haley, but none for Satir, who is also left almost completely out of each man’s biography (and Wikipedia article). By daring to talk about emotions, in words parents and children could understand, she challenged the idea that mental health was a discipline that only highly-trained experts could understand. She brought family therapy to the families themselves, and in doing so, was declared “dangerous” to the field, which continued to strive for equality with “hard” sciences in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, focusing on easily-tested behavioral models and insurance-friendly brief interventions, relegating experiential family therapy to the dusty bookshelves of family therapy history. Her work has only recently been “rediscovered” and given grudging recognition as contemporary experiential approaches, such as Johnson and Greenberg’s Emotionally Focused Therapy, have proven tremendously successful in traditional outcome research studies. Satir’s life-long belief, that authentic contact with one another is what people crave, seems to finally have been validated by science.

The social sciences may not be considered “suitably geeky”, as counseling/mental health has become a female-dominated profession (with the corresponding drop in wages that comes with pink collar-dom), although it is still male-dominated in its top echelons of academia and national leadership. But the divide between hard and soft sciences mimics other gendered divisions – between art and crafts, between cooking/cuisine (the domain of primarily-male chefs) and baking (done primarily by women, even in restaurants), between teaching in universities and teaching in public schools. If a geek is someone who is passionately devoted to an area of special interest or knowledge, who has extraordinary skill in their specialization, and who lives and breathes their passion despite the technical demands and social obstacles placed before them, then Virginia Satir was a true geek.

Satir died in 1998 of pancreatic cancer, at age 72. She had always said she would live to be 100.

I believe the greatest gift I can conceive of having from anyone is to be seen, heard, understood and touched by them. The greatest gift I can give is to see, hear, understand and touch another person. When this is done, I feel contact has been made.
Virginia Satir

The Virginia Satir Global Netwok and their biography of Satir.
Satir Institute of the Southeast: Biography of Satir
Wikipedia: Virginia Satir

Creative Commons License
This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Want to highlight a geek woman? Submissions are currently open for Wednesday Geek Woman posts.

5 thoughts on “Wednesday Geek Woman: Virginia Satir, ground-breaking family therapist

  1. Sheila A

    Thanks so much for publishing this! Is there any way to get the images of Satir included that I sent along in the Word version of this post?

    I really appreciate that GF was open to including a woman in the social sciences in the WGW series. The recent re-post you did about geeks not in the STEM disciplines is a great example of why I decided to submit her for consideration.

  2. Jessica

    Mod note: Comment was edited to remove repeated commercial links. Please don’t use the Geek Feminism blog to promote your business, especially when it has a name that suggests a cisnormative attitude.

    I am a mental health counseling student in my second year of a masters program. While it is true that text books often overlook Satir, I can say that the faculty in my program do not. Her work is a HUGE influence in my own personal counseling philosophy and that has only been nurtured by my faculty. It is about a 50 50 split between male and female faculty and its something I have seen across the gender lines. Satir is one of those women that, despite what those telling her story try to do to minimize her, she will always be known in her profession as a true visionary.

    Thanks so much for this post! It was so awesome to see something on my profession on GF. :D


  3. Jean McLendon

    Thank you Sheila for reminding us of the gift of Satir’s legacy. She was so far ahead of her time. We may catch up with her soon. Incidentally, Minuchin has since praised Virginia’s work and the huge contribution she made to the field. Geeks should check out Gerald Weinberg’s work, as he has been profoundly influenced by his connection with Virginia.

Comments are closed.