Bert Hellinger (born 16 December 1925, in Leimen, Baden, Germany as Anton Hellinger) is a German psychotherapist associated with a therapeutic method best known as Family Constellations and Systemic Constellations. In recent years, his work has evolved beyond these formats into what he now calls Movements of the Spirit-Mind. Several thousand professional practitioners worldwide, influenced by Hellinger, but not necessarily following him, continue to apply and adapt his original insights to a broad range of personal, organizational and political applications.
Anton Hellinger was born into a Catholic family in Germany in 1925. Hellinger states that his parents' "particular form of [Catholic] faith provided the entire family with immunity against believing the distortions of National Socialism." At age 10, he left his family to attend a Catholic monastery school run by the Order in which he was later ordained and that sent him to South Africa as a missionary.
The local Hitler Youth Organization tried without success to recruit the teenage Bert Hellinger. This resulted in his being classified as 'Suspected of Being an Enemy of the People' In 1942, Hellinger was conscripted into the regular German army. He saw combat on the Western front. In 1945, he was captured and imprisoned in an Allied P.O.W. camp in Belgium. After escaping from the P.O.W. camp, Hellinger made his way back to Germany. Hellinger entered a Catholic religious order, taking the religious name Suitbert, which is the source of his first name "Bert". He studied philosophy and theology at the University of Würzburg en route to his ordination as a priest. In the early 1950s, he was dispatched to South Africa where he was assigned to be a missionary to the Zulus. There he continued his studies at the University of Pietermaritzburg and the University of South Africa where he received a B.A. and a University Education Diploma, which entitled him to teach at public high schools.
Hellinger lived in South Africa for 16 years. During these years he served as a parish priest, teacher and, finally, as headmaster of a large school for African students. He also had administrative responsibility for the entire diocesan district containing 150 schools. He became fluent in the Zulu language, participated in their rituals, and gained an appreciation for their distinct worldview.
His participation in a series of interracial, ecumenical trainings in group dynamics led by Anglican clergy in South Africa in the early 1960s laid the groundwork for his leaving the Catholic priesthood. The trainers worked from a phenomenological orientation. They were concerned with recognizing what is essential out of all the diversity present, without intention, without fear, without preconceptions, relying purely on what appears. He was deeply impressed by the way their methods showed it was possible for opposites to become reconciled through mutual respect.
The beginning of his interest in phenomenology coincided with the unfolding dissolution of his vows to the priesthood. Hellinger tells how one of the trainers asked the group, "What is more important to you, your ideals or people? Which would you sacrifice for the other?" This was not merely a philosophical riddle to him. He was acutely sensitive to how the Nazi regime sacrificed human beings in service of ideals. He says, "In a sense, the question changed my life. A fundamental orientation toward people has shaped all my work since."
After leaving the priesthood, he met his first wife, Herta, and was married, shortly after returning to Germany. He spent several years in the early 1970s in Vienna training in a classical course in psychoanalysis at the Wiener Arbeitskreis für Tiefenpsychologie (Viennese Association for Depth Psychology). He completed his training at the Münchner Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Psychoanalyse (Munich Psychoanalytic Training Institute) and was accepted as a practicing member of their professional association.
In 1973, he left Germany for a second time and traveled to the USA to be trained for 9 months by Arthur Janov. There were many important influences that shaped his approach. One of the most significant was Eric Berne and Transactional Analysis.
Nearing age 70, he had neither documented his insights and approach nor trained students to carry on his methods. He agreed for German psychiatrist Gunthard Weber to record and edit a series of workshop transcripts. Weber published the book himself in 1993 under the title Zweierlei Glück [Capricious Good Fortune; aka Second Chance]. During the next 15 years, he authored or co-authored 30 books.
Hellinger travelled widely, delivering lectures, workshops and training courses throughout Europe, the USA, Central and South America, Russia, China, and Japan. Hellinger alienated some potential colleagues and supporters by his idiosyncratic behaviour, such as making sweeping statements that reduced complex issues to single root causes or his manner of sometimes addressing clients in a caustic, authoritarian tone. Many practitioners distance themselves from the method's founding figure. Many others continued their association, integrating the further developments into their own practices.
Hellinger and his second wife Maria Sophie Hellinger operate the Hellinger School.
Hellinger created controversy in writing a poem dedicated to Adolf Hitler which asks the reader to identify something of themselves in Hitler and to respect that part of themselves. Several articles related to this appeared in the Dutch antifascist magazine "Alert!".
Hellinger's position on Incest that the perpetrator should not be punished is regarded as questionable in the therapeutic community and is summarized by this quote taken from one of his recent books:
Now about incest. If you are confronted with cases of incest, a very common dynamic is that the wife withdraws from her husband, she refuses a sexual relationship. Then, as a kind of compensation, a daughter takes her place. This is an unconscious movement, not a conscious one. But you see, with incest there are two perpetrators, one in the background and one in the open. You cannot resolve that unless this hidden perpetrator is brought in. There are very strange sentences that come to light. The daughter can tell her mother, "I do it for you." And she can tell her father, "I do it for mother." What is the effect of these sentences? Incest cannot go on anymore. If you want to stop it, this is the best way without any accusations.
If you bring a perpetrator to justice, then the victim will atone for what is done to the perpetrator."
Hellinger goes on to tell a story of an incest/abuse victim who became suicidal, because the perpetrator was prosecuted.
Other controversial positions taken by Hellinger
- A breast cancer victim may secretly want to die due to a woman's unconscious "war with her mother."
- Homosexuality may result because a boy unconsciously assumes the feelings of a deceased aunt or great aunt when there are no female descendants in the lineal family system.
- Rape and incest create a bond; the perpetrator must receive "due respect" before the victim can bond with another.
Literature critical of Hellinger
- Elisabeth Reuter: Gehirn-Wäsche. Macht und Willkür in der "systemischen Psychotherapie" nach Bert Hellinger. Nachwort von Klaus Weber. Berlin / Eugene / Shrewsbury: Antipsychiatrieverlag 2005. ISBN 978-3-925931-40-6.
Hellinger has published more than 30 books with combined sales of one million copies in at least ten languages. Some of his books translated into English include:
- Hellinger, B. (2001). Love's own truths: Bonding and balancing in close relationships (M. Oberli-Turner & H. Beaumont, Trans.). Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen.
- Hellinger, B. (2002). Insights: Lectures and stories. (J. ten Herkel, Trans.). Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag.
- Hellinger, B. (2002). On life & other paradoxes: Aphorisms and little stories from Bert Hellinger (R. Metzner, Trans.). Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen.
- Hellinger, B. (2003). Farewell family constellations with descendants of victims and perpetrators (C. Beaumont, Trans.). Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag.
- Hellinger, B. (2003). Rachel Weeping for Her Children: Family Constellations in Israel Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer-International.
- Hellinger, B. (2003). Peace begins in the soul: Family constellations in the service of reconciliation (C. Beaumont, Trans.). Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag.
- Hellinger, B. (2006). No waves without the ocean: Experiences and thoughts (J. ten Herkel & S. Tombleson, Trans.). Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag.
- Hellinger, B. (2007). With God in mind. Berchtesgaden, Germany: Hellinger Publications.
- Hellinger, B. & ten Hövel, G. (1999). Acknowledging what is: Conversations with Bert Hellinger. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen.
- Hellinger, B., Weber, G., & Beaumont, H. (1998). Love's hidden symmetry: What makes love work in relationships. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen.
- Zweierlei Glück. Konzept und Praxis der systemischen Psychotherapie (1993)
- Ordnungen der Liebe (1994)
- Die Mitte fühlt sich leicht an (1996)
- Wo Schicksal wirkt und Demut heilt - ein Kurs für Kranke
- Wie Liebe gelingt (1999)
- mit Gabriele ten Hövel - Anerkennen, was ist. Gespräche über Verstrickung und Heilung
- Mit der Seele gehen
- Ordnungen des Helfens - Über die Ordnungen und Unordnungen sinnvollen professionellen Helfens
- Gedanken unterwegs
- Gottesgedanken - Über die Gottesvorstellungen der Menschen und ihre Wirkungen und Funktionen in Systemen.
- Wahrheit in Bewegung
- Der große Konflikt
- Ein langer Weg - Biographie (2005)
- Rachel weint um ihre Kinder - Familien-Stellen mit Überlebenden des Holocaust. Vorwort v. Haim Dasberg (Herder Verlag 3/2004, ISBN 3-451-05443-4)
- Hellinger, B., Weber, G., & Beaumont, H. (1998). Love's hidden symmetry: What makes love work in relationships. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen. p. 327
- Cohen, D. B. (2006). "Family Constellations": An innovative systemic phenomenological group process from Germany. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families. 14(3), 226-233.
- Hellinger, B. (2001a). Love's own truths: Bonding and balancing in close relationships (M. Oberli-Turner & H. Beaumont, Trans.). Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen.
- Hellinger, B. (2003). Farewell: Family constellations with descendants of victims and perpetrators (C. Beaumont, Trans.). Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag.
- Hellinger et al., 1998, op.cit. p. 328
- Love's Own Truths: Bonding and Balancing in Close Relationships, Bert Hellinger
- Family Constellations: A Practical Guide to Uncovering the Origins of Family
- Gottesgedanken Bert Hellinger page 247
- How love works in couple relationships Bert Hellinger page 224
- Bonding and Balancing in Close Relationships By Bert Hellinger pages 406 - 417
- Acknowledging what is: conversations with Bert Hellinger By Bert Hellinger, Gabriele Ten Hövel, Colleen Beaumont pages 123-125