What is a family constellation?

Systemic Family Constellations were developed in the form that I use them by Bert Hellinger in the 1990’s as a culmination of his life journey and work. Born in Germany his biography took him through experiences in his own family, as a prisoner of war, as a Catholic priest working as a missionary in South Africa for 16 years, group and psychotherapy training, and finally to his method of family constellations which has now being offered and growing rapidly all over the world. The work shows Hellinger’s deep integration of his spiritual philosophy and learning from Christianity, wisdom learn’t from African elders in Kwazulu Natal, and his group psychotherapy training in Germany.

Although Hellinger’s own and other constellator’s work has transformed considerably in recent years, the early work is known today as “Classical Constellations”, which deals with the trans-generational dynamics of family systems and works with bringing certain principles back into order so that there is more flow and movement in the system. It is this personal family foundation of the work that gives us a blue-print to all future interactions and explorations, and also resources and supports us in spreading into wider areas of understanding systems of institutions, organisations,communities, environmental issues, sustainability, war, crime, racism and politics.

In Family Constellations we look at the person in the context of their family of origin or their current family to get a broader picture and understanding of the dynamics at play – many of them unconscious – that keep the difficulties or the symptoms that are experienced in place. We understand that the symptom always makes sense, so if not in the person’s own biography, then perhaps in the lives of their parents or grand-parents. Children are often extremely loyal to the unwritten rules and conscience of their family system, and so may struggle to step out of a family trance that keeps them perpetuating old patterns no matter how much work they have done to free themselves. We see people not being able to become more successful than their fathers, not being able to make a relationships work like their mother couldn’t, inheritance battles, messy divorces. There are also the more subtle symptoms that are not so obviously from the family system like self-sabotage; over-functioning, addiction, depression; anxiety; victim/perpetrator dynamics in crime and abuse; difficulties with colleagues at work, “problem children”, illness, adoption, complicated grief, financial issues.

When the person is “entangled” in their system, they may experience a range of physical, emotional and mental difficulties and struggle to engage with life and their current context in their full strength. With the constellation, patterns that run over many generations can be revealed, and resources that strengthen the person become evident within the wider family system. During the family constellation, the body, mind and heart of the person can be engaged so that the healing is not merely an intellectual insight, but an experience that can draw on various sources for resources and solutions.

In a group constellation people representing family members or elements of any system are placed in relationship to each other, making a 3D image of the system available to the client and the facilitator. From this set up, the facilitator and client can acknowledge things are they really are, and possibly develop potential solutions to provide effective intervention in the system. Those who have experienced family constellations often find both the effect and the process difficult to explain, however report either huge shifts or more subtle changes over time. The intended outcome of the work is: a greater ability for love to flow between family members, regardless of the family “story”. Systemic and Family Constellations can also be done with equal effect in individual counseling and coaching settings using genograms, floor markers or figurines.

Please note:
Family and Systems Constellations are not always a gentle approach, and can instigate larger healing shifts that can make the symptom or client feel worse in some cases before getting better. It is not a substitute for long term therapy and I suggest you do not attend group workshops when suffering from a depressive episode, psychosis or post traumatic stress. Also, when there is a history of abuse, constellations are not appropriate to “find out” what really happened or “who did it”. Individual Constellations are a better choice if the client is already feeling vulnerable or overwhelmed.

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