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Family Constellation Work
By Julie Roberts, Ph.D.
Family Constellations are the most amazing things. They are powerful therapeutic tools because you get to see and feel the family history at work—how the family, sometimes going back generations—impacts our actions, behaviors, and thoughts. Family constellations give us a sense of how we inherited the behaviors and patterns that govern our lives. When you see a constellation, you watch the past unfold as “representatives” allow a person that they are representing to flow through them and illuminate the dynamics of a family’s entanglements. The constellation helps to peel away the layers to understand the truth beneath. The truth releases, relieves, shows the whys and affirms our sense of the way the world was and how it should have been.

Bert Hellinger pioneered Family Constellation work in Germany, and it is currently one of the fastest growing therapies in the world. The goal of constellation work is to see and understand the impact of historic dynamics of a family. Once we see the dynamics, it is easy to understand the connection to personal issues we have. It is very affirming to see that there really were dynamics that cause certain issues in our lives. The work can help to heal old patterns and it shows us ways to approach current relationships in a healthy manner. In some cases, healing occurs regarding long-standing issues.

How it works: Participants come to a workshop to address a particular issue or they come to witness others work. Issues addressed are often long-standing problems (physical or emotional) that plague a person's life, regardless of repeated attempts at change. The issue would be one of a serious nature, and not just because one is interested or curious about their family. It could be an issue one might take to a therapist. A few examples of such issues: a problem such as fighting or distancing with a spouse or child; an ongoing problem with one’s child such as sadness, anxiety, acting out; emotional or physical illness that impairs ones ability to function; addictions; emotions that feel "over the top" in particular situations; behavior that feels stuck or unchangeable regardless what you do; anxiety; inability to commit in relationships.

At the beginning of the workshop, an overview of constellations and how they work is provided. A volunteer (the client) is chosen and gives a very brief overview of her issue and any outstanding historical family traumas such as untimely deaths, miscarriages, suicides, loss of inheritance, crimes committed, etc. Little or no information is given about the character or behaviors of the family members so that representatives are not influenced by that knowledge. The facilitator asks the client to pick individuals from the group to represent particular family members and someone to represent herself. Representatives do not have to resemble the family member in any way. The client places representatives within the circle without talking, based on how it "felt" to be in the family. Then the client sits down.

The representatives begin to notice feelings and thoughts which reflect those of the actual family members so they become a living model of the client’s family. The best explanation for this phenomenon (often called the “knowing field”) can be found in the work of biologist, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake ( Sheldrake refers to a field of energy, which connects us, as the morphic field, which has memory and influence. So when the family constellation is set up, we tap into this field, which is how the representatives pick up on the family member’s thoughts and feelings. I have heard many a client say with amazement, “That is exactly what my mother (or whoever is being represented) would say!”

Once we understand the family dynamic and its impact on the client’s problem, representatives move to a new position, or the facilitator moves them to a new position, to find a place of healing that brings some resolution to the issue. The goal is to see the family system as it actually is and then what movement for healing is possible within that structure. You know you have reached a resolution when most of the representatives in the constellation say they feel better or calmer. At this point the “client,” who has just watched up until this point, takes the place of her representative in the constellation and her representative sits down. The client then feels what it is like to stand in the healed place. Often this is a very powerful time for the client, as they integrate the new feelings into their body and mind.

After each constellation is finished, there is time for group discussion regarding the constellation. This is not a time to analyze what happened so much as a time to check in with the client, the representatives, and the group members to see how they are doing.

Usually in a day, four to six constellations are completed, and a number of the participants (which can range from around twenty people to two hundred in some situations) get to be representatives. Just observing and being a representative often provides powerful insights and participants learn quite a bit about themselves even if they do not get to do a constellation or be a representative.

Family constellations are a compelling way to understand and heal the wounds that influence our lives. Until you witness one, it is difficult to comprehend how they work and the healing power they contain. It is common for those who experience them to develop more compassion for the self and others because we see how much impact the family and its history has upon one’s behaviors. If you ever have the chance to do a family constellation workshop, I highly recommend it!

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