Selvini Palazzoli
First name:
20th century
Field of expertise:
Child and adolescent psychiatry
Place of birth:
Mailand (ITA)
* 15.08.1916
† 21.06.1999
Biography print

Italian psychoanalyst and systemic family therapist.


Mara Selvini Palazzoli (1916-1999) was born in Milan, Italy, as the fourth of the five children to a merchant family. Her mother, a devout Catholic, made sure that the children had a strict Catholic upbringing and education. Palazzoli attended medical school in Milan and completed her specialist training in internal medicine at Milan University Hospital. In 1947, she married Aldo Selvini, also an internist. The couple had three children. Motivated by her work with anorectic patients at the hospital, she developed a growing interest in psychotherapy and consequently changed her field of medical specialty. She first completed specialist training in psychiatry and then, in 1950, began her training analysis with Gaetano Benedetti in order to become a psychoanalyst. She was influenced by interpersonal psychoanalysis (F. Fromm-Reichmann, H. S. Sullivan) and existential analysis (V. Frankl) and specialised in treating patients with anorexia nervosa (L’ anoressia mentale, 1963). Most unexpectedly, and despite her international reputation as a therapist and researcher, she closed her private practice in 1965 and turned towards systemic approaches.


The Milan model of systemic psychotherapy

In 1967, Selvini Palazzoli went on a study trip to Philadelphia to observe family sessions led by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, James Framo and Salvador Minuchin. After her return to Milan, she established the private institute “Centro per lo Studio della Famiglia e delle Tecniche di Gruppo” (Centre for the Study of the Family and of Group Techniques) together with seven other colleagues. The institute initially followed a psychoanalytical approach but soon became Italy’s first centre for systemic family therapy. Selvini Palazzoli left the institute in 1971 and founded the influential “Milan Group” together with Luigi Boscolo, Gianfranco Cecchin and Giuliana Prata. The group’s focus was on the social and communicative relationships within families with disturbed members (referred to as the “symptom carriers”). This approach entailed a higher level of therapist involvement, sometimes in a provocative manner, which, in turn, enhanced the clients’ motivation for therapy. The therapists analysed the “strategic moves” of the family members and developed circular questioning techniques. The setting typically included a team of three therapists per family, observations through a unidirectional mirror (“two-room system”) and, quite often, no more than ten sessions. This concept also raised some criticism, especially with regard to the powerful position it gives the therapists. In her classic Paradosso e Contraparadosso (Paradox and Counterparadox, 1978), Selvini Palazzoli presented a model for the therapeutic treatment of psychosis according to which the therapist should explicitly appreciate a family’s attempts at self-stabilisation – but also try to work with “paradoxical interventions”, such as advising the family members to carry on as before despite all their problems.


The late work

The Milan Group dissolved in 1980. Selvini Palazzoli founded another institute together with her colleague Giuliana Prata and expanded her field of research to include larger systems, such as schools, hospitals and companies. In 1982, she formed a new team at the “Nuovo Centro per lo Studio della Famiglia” (New Centre for the Study of the Family), one member of which was her son Matteo. In her controversial 1988 book I giochi psicotici nella famiglia (Family Games, 1989), she partly returned to individual therapy and psychoanalytic approaches. Upon experiencing severe health problems since 1997 (Stierlin 2011: 11), Mara Selvini Palazzoli died on 21 June 1999 in her native city of Milan, at age 83.



Binter, G. (2005): Selvini-Palazzoli, Mara. In: G. Stumm: Personenlexikon der Psychotherapie. Vienna: Springer, pp. 436-438.

Pisarsky, B. (2000): Die Mailänder Schule. Systemische Therapie von der paradoxen Intervention zum epigenetischen Ansatz. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Selvini, M. (ed.) (2008): Mara Selvinis Revolutionen. Die Entstehung des Mailänder Modells. Heidelberg: Auer.

Selvini Palazzoli, M. (1999): Anorexie und Bulimie. Neue familientherapeutische Perspektiven. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Selvini Palazzoli, M., L. Boscolo, G. Cecchin, G. Prata (1975): Paradox and Counterparadox. A new model in the therapy of the family in schizophrenic transaction. Lanham: Jason Aronson 1978.

Selvini Palazzoli (1980): Family Games. General models of psychotic processes in the family. New York: W. W. Norton 1989.

Selvini Palazzoli, M., L. Boscolo, G. Cecchin, G. Prata (1981): Hypothetisieren – Zirkularität – Neutralität. In: Familiendynamik 6, pp. 123-139.

Selvini Palazzoli, M. (1974): Self-starvation. From the intrapsychic to the transpersonal approach to anorexia nervosa. London: Human context books.

Selvini Palazzoli, M. (1967). Disordini del pensiero e relazioni familiari degli schizofrenici. In: Archivio di Psicologia Neurologia e Psichiatria 4, pp. 306-319.

Selvini Palazzoli, M. (1963): L’anoressia mentale. Milan: Feltrinelli.

Speed, B. (2000): In appreciation of Mara Selvini Palazzoli. In: Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy 21, (3), 2000, pp. 175-176.

Stierlin, S. (2011): Ich brannte vor Neugier! Familiengeschichten bedeutender Familientherapeutinnen und Familientherapeuten. Heidelberg: Auer.


Ansgar Fabri, Burkhart Brückner


Referencing format
Ansgar Fabri, Burkhart Brückner (2016): Selvini Palazzoli, Mara.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
(retrieved on:23.06.2024)