Family Constellation Work

C bullet 10 light ochre swirls aa-img023_crIndividual Systemic / Family Constellation Work

Please note: Unlike most constellation therapists,  I do not contract in advance to do a one-off constellation, or any type of one-off session. Also, I can’t make a definite promise before starting therapy that we will use constellation work at all. Yes, I do constellations a lot, but you can’t predict in advance what is needed clearly enough to make a promise.

Did your parents divorce? If so, that’s possibly to this day the most important event in your life. Did your mother, before you were born, have an abortion or a late-term miscarriage? If she did, that also may be one of the most important events in your life. Did your father’s father risk death or kill the enemy face to face in WWII? That also may be one of the most important events in your life.

We live in an individualistic culture and most often think that our problems are our own, or at most we attribute our problems to our “bad” parents. That’s a shallow view. Family / Systemic Constellation is a relatively new form of family therapy. It places our lives and our problems where they belong, in the context of the wider family, or “system”.

Problems echo across generations. For example, if you are someone whose mother’s mother died in childbirth, then your mother is likely to have grown up with a buried sense of deep sadness and loss. And as a tiny baby being nursed by your mother, you are quite likely to have felt that deep and buried sadness and drawn it into yourself along with the love of life which mothers give to their babies. And you too may grow up with a vague, inexplicable sense of loss and depression. Your life extends beyond you to the whole family, and your grandmother’s tragic death is a real and present event in your own life.

As a another example, let’s suppose that a young woman falls deeply in love for the first time, but before she can marry, war intervenes and the man she loves does not return. The grief is too terrible and she can’t grieve properly for her loss. Still, life goes on, and a few years later she finds a new man and marries him, and she has a son. And as she nurses the tiny baby and feels how much she loves him, she just can’t help also remembering the first great love who she lost.

And because babies are very, very sensitive, a strange thing happens: a confusion sets in, and the baby grows up thinking on some unconscious level that he is the lover who died. In the language of family constellation we say the baby is “entangled” with the dead soldier. And it can happen that as that boy grows up, he wants to die, and as a young man may become depressed or suicidal. That may sound unlikely, but in fact it is a not uncommon dynamic in suicidal feelings.

Family Constellation therapy is one of the most profound and innovative of the new generation of therapies. It works directly with the cross-generational nature of life. While it is best known as a family therapy, the techniques can be used to gain insight into an enormous range of issues.

Along with related trauma healing work, constellation therapy also extends to extremely painful and difficult areas such as when torture victims and torturers have the possibility to meet one another, or other kinds of severe victim / perpetrator wrongdoing. This is pioneering healing work of the greatest importance, and Hellinger deserves great honour for creating it.

Workshop and individual Systemic Constellation work

There are two forms of Family (aka Systemic) Constellation work, workshop and individual.

In the individual session, which is the kind of constellation therapy which I sometimes do, the person exploring their family places markers of felt or paper on the floor of the room in the position where family members would be standing. Then the clients stands on the markers in turn, feeling what it is like in each position, and feeling how the markers might speak to each other or might move. (Or smaller markers can be placed on a tabletop, and the person exploring touches each one in turn.) Gradually, in small steps, the situation unwinds and soon the feelings found in each location, the things the markers say, and the positions they move to, step out of the realm of what is already known, and begin to be fresh and unexpected.

As people place the markers initially, they feel they are placing them spontaneously, with no particular rhyme or reason. Yet it soon become apparent that they have placed them in a way which reveals hidden family forces. It is as if we carry in our bodies a subtle source of information which we’re not aware of, different and deeper from what we access when we speak. I do such constellations with many clients and most often they are rich and revealing about the client’s issues, not uncommonly very surprising, and always helpful to move life forward.

In a workshop family constellation, instead of placing felt markers, the person exploring their family positions other workshop participants to stand as “representatives” where it feels right to have their mother, father, etc stand in the room. Then for a while the explorer sits next to the therapist and does little but watch. And a quite strange thing happens: in slow steps, the representatives begin to re-enact the dynamics of the family.

They may intuit events such as abortions or deaths which the explorer is aware of but has not mentioned, and they may at times intuit things that even the explorer is unaware of. These new events can’t always be verified, but sometimes they can, giving a strange and striking example of a level of deep and hidden connection between people. In any case, the expression is always experienced as relevant and emotionally real – neither clients nor participants feel that things are made up – and the healing which results is real.

In my own experience, when I’ve been the client exploring my family in a workshop constellation, I’ve several times had representatives say things, or use gestures familiar in my family, which they couldn’t possibly have known. It is truly strange. It is as if we are all linked on a wider level of the mind than we realise. In the Family Constellation field this is referred to as the “knowing field”. If it sounds strange, it is, yet it is also perfectly grounded and commonsense and I don’t know of anyone who has been a representative who doubts that it is real.

There are many different variations on Constellations work. The work was largely developed by the German therapist Bert Hellinger. While he is a creative genius in the field of therapy, there is much in his approach that I don’t feel sympathetic to – he had earlier in life been a priest and  his approach can be priest-like. I’m instead inspired by the work of another German therapist, Franz Ruppert. Ruppert places more emphasis on emotions and on the way that severe trauma, such as abuse, rape, tragically early death or infanticide can be transmitted across generations. He uses the term “trauma constellations”.

Strengths as a stand-alone psychotherapy: One of the deepest therapies for family-related emotions and family issues. This includes many situations commonly regarded as individual problems. Recognises that problems often do not “belong” to an individual, but in fact reflect events which may have happened to grandparents or great-grandparents. Understands the essential necessity of acceptance better than some therapies, yet also action-oriented. Profound vision of human life. The techniques can be used to gain insight to an enormous range of issues. Family/systemic constellation therapy contains a very rich treasure-house of profound insights about families and about life.  The individual version of the work is an exceptionally flexible  process. It invites creativity in ways to explore and resolve issues of every type, not just family issues. This work is is already developing in such a rich way that it’s better referred to as a class of therapies than just a therapy.


—– Family / systemic constellation comes in many different flavours. I’m very inspired by Franz Ruppert’s school which combines constellations, trauma, and  bonding theory. I have some criticisms of specific elements developed by Hellinger which some facilitators use.

  • Hellinger’s “Orders of Love” has deep insights about family life. But some facilitators apply these as a kind of rule, disconnected from the actual inner emotional state of the client in the moment the insight is offered. Such disconnected imposition of insights risks being useless, disrespectful, or harmful.
  • Indeed, some facilitators ask clients to do things like bowing to [the representatives in the constellation of] their parents. If the parents are wounded and abusive, this can amount to therapeutic abuse or re-traumatisation.
  • The workshop version of the process often involves the client sitting passively and watching as the constellation unfolds. He or she becomes an active part of the work only at the very end. This unfoldment involves the “representatives” picking up the hidden dynamic of the family. It is indeed a thing of mystery and wonder to watch and to be a part of. But is it actually useful for healing? In my experience, not necessarily.
    Deep wounds are represented by deep emotions which people block out of consciousness. They do this because those emotions were agonising, terrifying, overwhelming or forbidden for a small child to experience. These need not be negative emotions, it’s possible for joy and happiness and feeling safe and loved to be forced into unconsciousness.
    Healing these will not happen by being an onlooker. The person needs to feel profound love and safety to begin to allow the blocked-out feelings back into the body. Hellinger’s original style of therapy does not rely nearly enough on physically living the healing. It also does not relate it enough the the client’s here-and-now everyday life.
  • For the same reason, the client as onlooker, the constellation process can be disconnected from the moment-to-moment inner life of the client during the therapy session. Then, the client can easily fail to make the loving inner connection to themselves which brings healing.

A note on language. The Franz Ruppert constellation school use the language of “healing splits in the soul.” My language is different. I speak of feeling safe to re-experience life in the body, and connecting to the inner self. But I am talking about the same thing, healing splits in the soul.

—– In general Family Constellation needs to be integrated with a more pragmatic therapy to provide a complete package of everything which a person needs for change or healing.

Please note: Unlike most constellation therapists,  I do not contract in advance to do a one-off constellation, nor indeed do I contract in advance to do any given specific one of any of the various methods that I use.  I use many methods, and the discovery of which one is right in a particular moment can only be a discovery in the unpredictable truth of that moment.  Where and how  constellation work (or anything else) may fit into the process of evolution and healing cannot be predicted in advance.

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