What is Family Constellations Therapy?

About two months ago I went along to an all-day family constellations group therapy session. I went in curious and came out baffled. Therapeutic practices that speak of energy shifts and healing as if they were as mundane as tea and coffee raise my scepticism but as a therapist and believer in personal growth, I thought it would be worth my while to see how other therapists operate in their areas of expertise. The phrase ‘family constellations’ has crossed my path a couple of times over the course of the last couple of years – and I had confused it with the idea of family systems and dynamics generally – but now I have come to understand that at its core is the assumption that every person is part of a family and that every family has endured suffering or entanglement. The pain caused in previous generations can be accessed and alleviated by family constellations counselling which involves a group of unrelated people taking it in turns to ask a question about themselves and asking the other members of the group to represent key members of their family. Such was my confusion, that before I did the workshop I thought it would involve working with an actual family but it is more like this:

A group of seven (number variable) people sit on chars in a circle. Let’s call them Rob, Matthew, Simon, Jane, Barry, Sandy and the counsellor. After a brief relaxation exercise to get the group to centre themselves, the counsellor asks whether anyone has a question that needs answering. Simon says yes and is invited to sit next to the counsellor and explain his question.

“Well, I’ve never got on with my older brother. No matter what I said or did he just either blanked me or shouted at me. We’re both in our fifties now and I’d like to put an end to it. So my question is: Why doesn’t my brother like me?”

The counsellor asks questions to find out more about the family; number of kids, Simon’s position in family, relationship between mum and dad, the presence of grandparents, whether there were any events that deeply affected the family such as an illness, a murder, emigration to another country, separation etc. If necessary, the original question is reformulated.

From this information the counsellor is able to ascertain which family members have key roles in answering Simon’s question: his older brother, his mother, his father and his older sister. Simon asks Rob to represent his father and walks him to a certain spot in the room. He asks Sandy to represent his mother and places her in a standing position in relation to his father and then does the same with Jane and Mathew to represent his older siblings. Simon could choose to put himself in the configuration – or constellation – or ask Barry to represent him. He asks Barry.

The counsellor asks Simon to sit where he can see how he has positioned the representatives and to confirm whether it feels right or realistic.

What happens next is that the representatives take on the role of the real family members and the constellation comes to life. One representative could start feeling an aversion towards another and not want to look at them, one might move away from the group, another’s knees might buckle, somebody could cry uncontrollably or experience tingling or pain in a certain body part, a representative’s facial features / expression could visibly alter or someone could feel an extreme rise or drop in temperature. I can explain it in no other way than to say that the representatives are at the will of an energy that isn’t their own. There is no talk of being possessed, they remain themselves throughout and are simply vessels for whatever spiritual energy manifests.

The counsellor interprets the behaviour of the representatives to provide an answer to Simon’s question. Let’s imagine that the answer is that his father was pathologically violent to his older brother but in order to protect the family the brother never spoke out about it, instead he bore his cross silently, disliking and envying Simon’s carefree childhood. With this new ‘knowledge’, Simon has insight into the situation and his brother’s motives and can now understand or forgive him.

I was a representative in two constellation set-ups. Generally I’m not a weepy person but I cried three times throughout the day. I felt anger, fear and helplessness while representing one woman’s mother and another’s sister. My ankles weakened and my face stung as if I’d been slapped. What I felt didn’t come from inside the real me and yet it was a genuine response. To what? I don’t understand it myself. Quackery? Suggestion? Empathy?

If there’s an unresolved problem or puzzle in your family history then family constellations provides a way to access the essence of the problem and release the energy inside it. It’s not for everybody and I’m not sure I would do it again but it made me aware that, in a conducive environment, energy shifts and healing are as regular as tea and coffee.

For more information on the founder (Bert Hellinger) and theory behind Family Constellations go to:

http://www.goodtherapy.org/family-constellations.html