The Systemic Constellation process is a trans-generational, phenomenological, therapeutic intervention with roots in family systems therapy (psychodrama of Jacob Moreno, Virginia Satir, Iván Böszörményi-Nagy), existential-phenomenology (Brentano, Husserl, Heidegger), and the ancestor reverence of the South African Zulus. A Constellation can serve as an illuminating adjunct process within a conventional course of psychotherapy. While it is rooted in the psychotherapeutic tradition, the method is distinguished from conventional psychotherapy in that, 1) the client hardly speaks; 2) its primary aim is to identify and release deep patterns embedded within the system, not to explore or process narrative, cognitive or emotional content. The method has also been widely applied in other systemic contexts such as organisations, public bodies, and in resolving issues concerning nature.
Many people contributed to the development of the process; however, the German-born Bert Hellinger (b. 1925) is widely acknowledged as the founder of the process in its modern form. His first book, published in English as Love's Hidden Symmetry, became a best seller in Germany and brought Constellations to public awareness.
The Systemic Constellation process is sanctioned by family therapy associations in Europe and is being integrated by thousands of licensed practitioners worldwide. The work is also beginning to become known in the United States. The procedure described below represents a typical format.
Procedure of Systemic Constellations
Systemic Constellations have applications for family, organizational, community, and social systems. The procedure below describes the most widely used subset of Systemic Constellations called Family Constellations in a group setting.
A group of participants (10–30), led by a trained facilitator, sit in a circle. One participant (client or seeker) is selected to work on a personal issue. The others either serve as “representatives” or actively contribute by observing with concentration.
The facilitator asks, “What is your issue?” The issue may be extreme: “Two years ago my husband and child were killed in an accident. I’m trying to learn how to live with that.” It may appear to be more commonplace, such as a college student who reports, “I’m 21 years old and have been diagnosed with clinical depression.”
The facilitator asks for information about the family of origin, looking for traumatic events from the past that may have systemic resonance. Such events include premature deaths (including aborted children, murders, suicide, and casualties of war) and the denial of membership in the family system of those who have a right to belong (including a disabled child who was institutionalized, a baby given up for adoption, a disappeared father, or a homosexual or apostate who was banished from the family). The client does not present narrative or commentary.
Next, the facilitator asks the client to select group members to represent members of the family or symbolic elements of the issue itself. In the first case cited above, the facilitator began with the client and her deceased husband and child; in the second case, the client and a representative for depression.
The client places each representative in the Constellation space. Once the representatives are positioned, the client sits and observes. The representatives stand with their arms at their sides without moving or talking. They are not role-playing. Instead, they use their bodies and intuition to perceive how it feels to be the person or element they represent. For several minutes the scene is one of stillness and silence while the facilitator observes and waits.
Participants standing in this manner experience what is called “representative perception.” This refers to the phenomenon of perceiving emotions and body sensations that are meaningful in relation to the individuals they represent.
The facilitator may inquire of the representatives, “How are you feeling?” Sometimes they are placid and without emotion. Other times they report strong emotions or physical sensations. The reports are subjective and contain some aspect of personal projection. However, the intermixing of representative perception with subjective personal projections does not contaminate the process as a whole.
Often, what emerges is that a member of the current family is unconsciously expressing emotions and behaviors that descended from a previous generation. The living family member‘s problematic behavior or circumstance is a repetition of—or compensation for—a trauma that occurred in the past. This phenomenon was first identified by Iván Böszörményi-Nagy, who called them Invisible Loyalties.
The facilitator slowly works with this three-dimensional portrait of the family. First, the invisible loyalty comes into clear view. In the case of the young woman with depression, it was the client’s invisible loyalty to the grief of her deceased grandmother.
Next, the facilitator seeks a healing resolution. In the case above, the representatives for the client and grandmother faced a third representative who symbolized the object of the grandmother’s undying grief. When the client felt herself in the presence of her beloved grandmother, she felt a profound release. Generally, representatives feel such relief when the invisible loyalty is perceived, acknowledged, and respected.
The final step is for the facilitator to suggest one or two healing sentences to be spoken aloud or inwardly. In this case, the healing sentence was for the representative of the grandmother to say to the client, “Go live!”
Afterward, the insights are not processed in dialog with the facilitator. Clients who are in an ongoing course of psychotherapy can integrate these insights with their therapists.
There is a wealth of anecdotal and case study reports that, over time, the new image of the family system—with belonging, balance and order restored—gradually erodes the archaic image that underlies the impulse for emotional suffering and destructive behaviors (Cohen 2005; Cohen 2009; Franke 2003; Lynch & Tucker 2005; Payne 2005). Rigorous research is needed to test objectively the longitudinal outcomes of clients‘ experiences with this method.
- 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. (Available for educational purposes from the author at http://www.HiddenSolution.com)
- Cohen 2006
- Hellinger 1998
- Procedure description from Cohen 2006
- Mahr, A. (1999). Das wissende feld: Familienaufstellung als geistig energetisches heilen [The knowing field: Family constellations as mental and energetic healing]. In Geistiges heilen für eine neue zeit [Intellectual cures for a new time]. Heidelberg, Germany: Kösel Verlag.
- Schneider, J. R. (2007). Family constellations: Basic principles and procedures (C. Beaumont, Trans.). Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag.
- Ulsamer, B. (2005). The healing power of the past: The systemic therapy of Bert Hellinger. Nevada City, CA: Underwood.
- Boszormenyi-Nagy, I. & Spark, G. M. (1973). Invisible loyalties: Reciprocity in intergenerational family therapy. Hagerstown, MD: Harper & Row.
- Cohen, Dan Booth (2005), "Begin with the work: Constellations in large group sysyems.", in E.J. Lynch & S. Tucker, Messengers of healing: The family constellations of Bert Hellinger through the eyes of a new generation of practitioners., Phoenix: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen.
- Cohen, Dan Booth (2009), I Carry Your Heart in My Heart: Family Constellations in Prison, Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag .
- Franke, Ursula. (2003), The river never looks back: Historical and practical foundations of Bert Hellinger’s family constellations, Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag.
- Lynch, Ed; Tucker, Suzi (2005), Messengers of healing: The family constellations of Bert Hellinger through the eyes of a new generation of practitioners., Phoenix: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen.
- Payne, John L. (2005), The Healing of Individuals, Families, and Nations: Trans-generational healing & family constellations, Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Press.
- Payne, John L. (2006), The Language of the Soul: Trans-generational healing & family constellations, Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Press
- Beaumont, Hunter (1998), Love's hidden symmetry: what makes love work in relationships, Phoenix: Zeig