Family Constellations Introduction

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Family Constellations is a beautiful and powerful modality developed by the German psychotherapist, Bert Hellinger. Systemic Family Constellations has solid philosophical and psychological underpinnings. What Bert Hellinger has done is to meld together many different streams of therapeutic theory, practice and experience, and develop out of this a new way of working with difficult life issues.

The generational family system

The resonance of the past continues to affect our lives in the present: we go through life often doing things that we do not want to do. We may feel trapped in endlessly repeating patterns that we seem to have no control over. We also tend to see our problems as belonging to us alone. Yet the fact is that we are born into a family system that already has powerful forces and hidden dynamics with roots in past generations that will continue to influence and impact our lives in the present.

The traditional view of a family may include a mother and father, the children and both sets of grandparents. There is however a wider family system that stretches back generations. This generational view, this seeing an individual as part of a wider and therefore more complex family group, offers up many more possibilities of understanding inexplicable individual behaviours and family dynamics that manifest in the present generation.

Family memory and resonance

We are bound consciously or unconsciously by deep bonds of loyalty, not only to our family of origin, but also to the wider family system. We may feel caught in patterns of behavior that we do not understand or feel that we ‘own’.

It is as if we in the present are touching the edge of a family memory, of loss and abandonment, of longing, of the injustice of discrimination, of unquenchable anger at dying too young. We touch the edge of barely remembered stories – of a great-great aunt who died alone and abandoned in service as a child-servant in someone else’s house in 19th century England; or a grandfather who died in a prisoner of war camp in Malaysia; or a story of a grandmother who was born in a concentration camp for women in the Boer war. We, in the present become ‘entangled’ in the lives of our ancestors’ and the traumas of past events stuck in time.

These unresolved events or experiences of our ancestors’, these entanglements in events of overwhelm from the past, continue to impact the family system into the present generation. The consequences for us or other family members in the present generation are often manifested through symptoms such as depression, body pain, addictions, illness or simply the inability to live life fully.

The consequence for the wider system is one of imbalance. The wider family system will continually struggle to find equilibrium – a balance that will give fairness and justice to the system as a whole. When the family system is out of balance every member of that family system is impacted in some degree.  The system demands that the imbalance be addressed.

The bonds of loyalty, love and identification

There will often be someone in the system, who becomes in a sense, the voice of the system. These are the people who eventually find their way to a family constellations workshop or individual session.

Family constellations offers us a way of working with difficult, long-standing issues that we experience in our lives, in the present. This way of working allows these hidden bonds that exist within families and intimate groups to be revealed. These bonds of loyalty and love, or identification create these stuckness-es that Hellinger calls entanglements. Until the connections are uncovered, seen and acknowledged, the balance and flow of energy and love within the wider family system remains stuck in the past and continues to impact those in the present.

The Family Constellation Process

The constellation modality can be used to explore these hidden forces by first working from a systemic perspective which allows an immediate ‘seeing’ of the individual within a wider family context. This systemic view of the wider family of the client allows the facilitator to hold an openness to multiple possibilities from a wider, richer source of knowledge.

The facilitator holds the space of work throughout the constellation process, without assumptions or judgments, working with ‘what is’, with the information that emerges from the family field of knowledge. This phenomenological way of working with direct perception allows space for what has been hidden, to emerge.

What happens in a Family Constellations workshop

The facilitator and issue-holder begin with a brief discussion of the client’s issue, and some fact taking about the family. They will then decide together who in the family will be worked with. The issue-holder then asks participants in the workshop to represent or ‘stand in’ for each of the chosen family members, and usually someone for his/herself.

The issue-holder will then ‘set up’ (simply meaning physically place) each representative one at a time, in the central circle space. The spatial relationship that is revealed by this simple placing is that of the client’s inner image of their family.

This spatial representation of the family also gives the facilitator immediate information about the family group with a visual, live picture of the family’s relationships. The issue-holder begins to literally see how he/she is bound to the wider family system and to individuals within the system in this 3 dimensional, moving picture of the family.

The facilitator is then guided by feedback from the representatives.  Slowly the picture changes and the placings of the representatives’, through their movements and impulses that arise out of the energy of the constellation as new information emerges.

Further information and an explanation of the terms used will be found elsewhere on this site.