A family constellation is a form of psychotherapy invented by Bert Hellinger in the 1980s. This method belongs to the category of “systemic therapy”. It thus focuses on the entire family system, instead of just on the individual.
In a family constellation, the client arranges people within a room. These are the representatives: they represent the members of the client’s family system. These representatives can take the role of both living and deceased relatives. It is also possible that someone represents an aspect of life important to the client, such as the future, a new job, death or a strong desire. When representing, people are not acting or roleplaying. The representatives are only asked to start with a blank mind and be open to what comes next.
How a family constellation begins
The group are in a space together with the supervisor(s), and one person (the client) is asking a question. The supervisor and client discussed this question beforehand. This talk usually reveals something they wish to get from the session. This wish will be the central theme during the constellation therapy.
The preceding interview
In the interview, a genogram is often used to identify the family members on a flipchart. The rest of the people sit and listen closely. When the supervisor has enough information to begin a constellation, the client is asked to arrange certain family members in a logical order.
Arranging the constellation
The client then asks people in the group if they are willing to be representatives. Then he/she places each representative somewhere in that space (not with their head, but with their heart). This way these people represent the members of the client’s family system. Once everybody is in place, the supervisor signals the constellation to begin.
Rest – excitement – peace
Soon things start moving. Everybody in the constellation reacts to one another, especially when there is eye contact. The client and representatives go through a dynamic that starts in an energetically relaxed state, becomes increasingly excited, until the interaction calms down again. When the peace has returned, the supervisor stops the constellation. But it is up to the client to release the representatives from their roles, by calling them by their real names again.
The supervisor keeps a close eye on changes (big or small) and asks the various representatives how they are doing. This concerns their thoughts, emotions, but also bodily sensations such as rocking, shaking, sweating, hot or cold feet, and so on. The experience of the client is always key. And it is the goal of the supervisor to find and support the healing motion within the system. The supervisor asks questions that help the client discover what makes him/her feel more free, relaxed and strong. To find the position in the system that feels healthier and more secure. By the end of the constellation, key answers and insights have been uncovered. When successful, the client has found what he/she was seeking.
A family constellation is a very special experience, because it portrays the dynamics of a social group in a natural way. Because everybody in the room plays a part in the process, a larger consciousness emerges. One that is “drifting” with the perspective of the client. Experiences are given a place on a higher level of consciousness, or the level of the soul. Often these experiences are about a disrupted child-parent relation while growing up, or about family dynamics that happened around the client. When someone is trapped in such a dynamic, this is called “entanglement”.
Some issues can be passed on from one generation to the next, for generations on end. Without realising it, children carry the burdens of their parents, out of loyalty and love for them. Such burdens to bear can include:
- Bereavement, mourning for lost parents or ancestors;
- Trauma from the (distant) past, as much as six generations ago;
- Taboos and family secrets, like adultery, murder or incest/abuse.
In short, it is about unresolved emotions which have remained unspoken for longer periods of time. From a positive point of view: this so-called “transgenerational transmission” allows people to heal entanglement after the event, while earlier generations could not.
The dynamics are mostly the same for each family constellation therapy. But the exact method can be different in shape and intensity. Constellations can be made with human representatives, but also in individual sessions with pillows, sheets of paper on the floor, toy figurines or clay figures. Some variants even use horses as representatives.
Smaller and larger systems
A family, with its relations between father-mother-child(ren), is the smallest type of human social system. Yet society consists of many different groups. People have all kinds of different relationships with each other. However, these are all modelled after the relations within a family.
Being your true self
Four main themes are always discussed in family constellations:
- Being part of something;
- Balance between giving and taking;
These themes matter to everybody. Within family constellations, these themes are represented as fields of energy. People move through these fields with the desire to be themselves and find space for both yourself and others.
Prof. dr. Jim van Os, Chair Division Neuroscience, Utrecht University Medical Centre. He is also Visiting Professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. Jim works at the interface of ‘hard’ brain science, health services research, art and subjective experiences of people with ‘lived experience’ in mental healthcare.
Jim has been appearing on the Thomson-Reuter Web of Science list of ‘most influential scientific minds of our time’ since 2014. In 2014 he published his book ‘Beyond DSM-5‘, and in 2016 the book ‘Good Mental Health Care’.
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