History And Methods Of Family Constellation Therapy
By: Jon Jaehnig
Updated November 06, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn
Sometimes, difficult psychological problems can be resolved easily with common therapeutic methods. Even if the work takes time, it can often be resolved with the first method your therapist tries. Sometimes, method after method fails, and you are left wondering if your mental health issues will ever be resolved.
Family constellation therapy offers a different approach that can help when it seems like nothing else will. Read on to learn about this unique method of psychotherapy and its history.
Family constellation is a type of therapy based on the idea that problems sift down through generations to cause stress in the here and now. When we examine our feelings and perceptions in a "field of knowing," we can break out of familial patterns that cause suffering. Working through our family constellation helps us to find the cause of our problems and resolve them.
This may sound surprising, but in reality, all of our families cause us stress. That doesn't mean that your family is bad; it just means that family is a major part of your life. It's just like having a good job or going to a good school. These are great parts of your life, but they can still cause you stress.
Family Constellation Therapy isn't for everyone, but it can be particularly helpful for people who have stress or problems because of their family lives.
History of Family Constellation Therapy
Alfred Adler was the first to use the term "family constellation" to refer to the bonds and sense of belonging that exist within a family, but Family Constellation Theory was developed by a German therapist named Bert Hellinger. He developed this form of therapy by combining his earlier work in related therapies with his own life experiences.
Today, many other therapists use the family constellation method, either as their sole practice or as an alternative therapy, to deal with both family and individual problems.
While Bert Hellinger doesn't claim to have created the concept of family constellations, his work is the cornerstone of family constellation therapy as it is known today. Hellinger came from a German family that lived through World War II without sacrificing their moral values. As an adolescent, he was supposed to go to Hitler Youth meetings, but instead he often spent time with a Catholic organization that the Nazis considered disloyal to their cause. The Gestapo listed him as an enemy of the people, and he only escaped their harassment when he was drafted.
Soon after, Hellinger became a Catholic priest. Working as a missionary with the Zulu people of South Africa, he observed how this different culture resolved problems originating with the family. He also noticed that the Zulu spiritual ceremonies were very similar to the rituals of the Catholic Mass. These influences figured into his later development of family constellation therapy.
After returning to Europe, Hellinger left the priesthood to become a psychotherapist. He studied with notable psychotherapists from several different schools of therapy. During this time, his influences included various family systems thought leaders in specific therapies such as:
- Psychoanalytic methods
- Transactional analysis
- Primal therapy
- Family sculpting
- Transgenerational psychology
- Neurolinguistics programming
- Provocative therapy
- Holding therapy
- Life scripts
- Brief therapy
In the 1990s, after 50 years of working with families around the world, Bert Hellinger put all of these diverse ideas together to create a new type of therapy and healing. His body of work includes an impressive 83 books, and he has also conducted countless seminars.
The content -- books and videos mostly -- that came directly from Hellinger was produced in his native German language. What may not be obvious to people who don't speak German is that Hellinger had many controversial views. He tends to take a very patriarchal view, valuing antiquated gender roles and stereotypes, and he seems to consider homosexuality a disease that needs to be cured. Some people see his views as anti-Semitic as well.
However, family constellation therapy doesn't need to involve any of these views. The core truths of family constellations are considered valid by many therapists with more modern, inclusive approaches.
Concepts in Family Constellations Therapy
The following concepts can help you understand family constellation therapy.
Multigenerational Impact of Trauma
Family constellations assume anything that happened in your family line can affect the way you think, feel, and behave now. One person's grief, fear, or anger influences the entire family. Because family members are connected in the morphogenic field, which we'll talk about next, they all feel effects of things that happened to each of the family members before them.
The morphogenic field is an energy field that contains the memories and specific energies of a group. That group can be a family, a community, a country, or even the entire population of the world. Because this energy field contains all of the knowledge from the group, it can help us understand the sources of our issues, even if no one has told us the facts.
Orders of Love
Hellinger identified several orders of love from which love follows. The two most important and basic orders of love are that (1) everyone in the group has the same right to belong and always does belong, and (2) everyone who belongs must be given their specific rightful place.
Excluded Family Members
You might think that your family would never exclude a family member, but unfortunately it happens all of the time. In family constellations, excluded family members are thought to affect the entire family, even after the family no longer has contact with them. Some examples of excluded family members are:
- Babies who were miscarried or aborted
- Babies or children who were given away for adoption
- Family members who died, especially if they died young
- Ex-spouses and partners from prior relationships
- Family members who no longer have contact with the rest of the family for various reasons
These excluded family members continue to affect the entire family. If another family member takes their place, this new family member may take on their emotional struggles, addictions, or even physical illnesses.
Drive to Belong
Family constellation therapy identifies the drive to belong as the greatest influencer in the family. If someone feels like they don't belong, they'll do anything to get that feeling of belonging.
Within the family, we all have loyalties. Sometimes, according to family constellations theory, we have loyalties to family members who died before us or family members we've never met. These hidden loyalties can lead us to follow patterns, develop habits, and make unhealthy choices we can't understand based on the factual information we have. Family constellation therapy can help us understand how these loyalties are driving us, so we can make different decisions.
Uses for Family Constellations Therapy
Family constellation therapy can be used for a wide variety of problems, including physical, mental, social, or spiritual issues. This therapeutic method can help us overcome problems like:
- Bad habits
- Failure at work
- Negative relationship patterns
- Family dysfunction
- Obsessive thoughts
- Physical illnesses
- Financial problems
- Excessive guilt
Family Constellation Therapy Methods
In a typical family constellation therapy session, there is a seeker, a facilitator, and possibly other participants. The seeker is the person who comes to resolve an issue. The facilitator is the therapist, who directs the constellation. The other participants are unrelated people who might also be seekers in their sessions.
The Seeker's Issue
The seeker has an issue they need to resolve or overcome. The issue can be anything from nail-biting or smoking to relationship issues or depression. They very briefly tell the facilitator what their issue is, but they don't explain it in detail or suggest any reasons for the issue. Then, they sit down and observe.
Embodying the Family Constellation in a Group
If other people are involved in the session, the facilitator chooses different people to represent specific family members. The facilitator may also choose people to represent a group the seeker belongs to or an ideal they follow.
The facilitator then arranges the participants in a way that might be meaningful for the seeker. Everyone stays still for a time, giving the seeker time to connect with the morphogenic field and determine if the arrangement rings true for them.
The facilitator adjusts the arrangement until the seeker feels it's "right." It may take some time to feel the truth or untruth of each arrangement. When the seeker accepts an arrangement, he or she will connect with it on the level of feelings and then think. This helps the seeker identify the source of their current issue.
At that point, the facilitator suggests a sentence for each of the participants to say. The seeker takes their place in the family constellation, and each person says their sentence. Again, if the suggestion doesn't ring true for them, the facilitator can try again.
Resolving Emotional Distresses
After the family constellation exercise is over, the seeker, having learned the source of their current issue, goes back to their life to learn more about the person (or part of their past) related to the issue in question. If that person is still alive, they can connect with that person directly on an emotional level to bring healing to the relationship. If the person is deceased or otherwise unavailable, the seeker looks for other ways to learn about what happened in the past, so they can resolve those lingering ancestral issues.
Family Constellation Therapy Settings
Family constellation therapy typically takes place in either a workshop or individual counseling sessions. Both have been proven effective, although different methods are needed for each.
In family constellation workshops, people take turns being the seeker and the participants. The procedure is much like the one explained above.
In individual counseling, family constellation therapy often requires imagination because there are no other participants to play the roles of various family members. The therapist may invite you to envision a situation where you connect with an excluded family member or where you connect with members of the family if you're the excluded family member.
Research shows that internet-based therapy platforms have been successful in helping people manage an array of symptoms that can be related to problems with family. In a study on the efficacy of internet-delivered cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) on childhood anxiety, researchers found that symptoms were significantly decreased or eliminated in 75% of participants. Internet-based CBT helps people to reframe intrusive or unhelpful thoughts so that they are better able to understand and shift their behavior, which can create more healthy bonds between family members. The report also notes that online therapy eliminates barriers to care, such as cost, time, and availability.
As discussed above, online therapy can provide the tools to deal with mental health concerns arising out of, or linked to, one’s family. With BetterHelp, you can message your counselor outside of sessions, any time of day, and they will get back to you as soon as possible. And if you are uncomfortable sharing private family details, unlike with face-to-face therapy, you will have the opportunity to participate anonymously. The licensed therapists at BetterHelp have helped thousands of people work through complicated emotions related to family. Below, read reviews from BetterHelp users experiencing similar issues.
"Kris has been helping me for over a year and a half now. Whether it's dealing with the day-to-day stresses of work or deep-seated issues from my childhood, she brings sensitivity, insight, and gentle humor. She's also made some great book recommendations, both for the issues we're talking about and for other interests of mine in terms of social issues. She's pretty awesome and I'm happy to be able to connect with her via this platform."
"Alisha has let me view situations in another perspective. Like the stressful times I've gone (still going) through with my family and my work. I'm really grateful for her time to listen to what's on my mind and really making me comfortable to share so much with her. Thank you, Alisha!"
If you've struggled to find the root of persistent mental health issues, family constellation therapy may be the perfect solution for you. You can identify the source of your problems and work through them with a trusted therapist. Enjoying a fulfilling life with lasting relationships and healthy family dynamics is possible - all you need are the right tools and understanding.
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