History of family constellation therapy
At times, complex psychological problems may be resolved with standard therapeutic methods. Even if it takes time to find a method that works, counseling can be a process, and learning what works for you may be beneficial. Family constellation therapy offers a different approach to dynamic family therapy for families and individuals struggling with family traumas or concerns.
What is family constellation therapy?
The history of family constellation therapy
Family constellations and patriarchal views
Concepts in family constellations therapy
The following concepts may help you understand this approach to family constellations therapy.
Multigenerational impact of trauma: The long-term impact
Orders of love
Hellinger identified several orders of love from which love follows. The two fundamental orders of love were:
- Everyone in the group has the same right to belong and always belongs
- Everyone who belongs must be given their specific rightful place
At times, families may exclude certain family members by choice or through circumstance. In family constellations, those excluded are thought to affect the entire family, even after the family no longer has contact with them. Some examples of excluded families discussed in the constellation process are:
- Babies who were lost
- Babies or children who were adopted
- Death in the family
- Ex-spouses and past partners from prior relationships
- Family who no longer have contact with the rest of the family for various reasons, including trauma
According to family constellation theory, these exclusions may cause conflicts. If another individual in the household takes their place, Hellinger believed this new individual would take on the other person's emotional struggles, addictions, or even physical illnesses.
Drive to belong
Family constellations therapy identifies the drive to belong as one of the most significant influencers in family relationships. If someone feels they don't belong, they may act out, start conflict, or cause dysfunction to gain belonging.
Within the family, people may experience hidden loyalties, according to the family constellations theory. The theory states that all individuals have loyalties to family ancestors who died before or family we've never met from previous generations. These hidden loyalties and relationships may lead us to follow patterns, develop habits, and make unhealthy choices we can't understand based on our limited information. Constellation-focused family therapy may help some individuals understand how these loyalties drive them to make better decisions and avoid harmful experiences. For example, a parent may find that they’ve been giving preferential treatment to one child. By addressing this imbalance, they can give the other child rights reserved for the favored child.
Uses for family constellation therapy
This type of therapy can address various physical, mental, social, and spiritual concerns. This therapeutic method may help people overcome the following concerns:
- Substance use disorder
- Unhealthy habits
- Failures at work
- Negative relationship patterns
- Household dysfunction, including between a parent and child
- Past trauma
- Obsessive thoughts
- Physical illnesses
- Financial problems
- Excessive guilt
If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.
Family constellation therapy methods
In a typical family constellations therapy session, the therapist may help a client identify a seeker, a facilitator, and possibly other participants in a family. The seeker is known as the individual who comes to resolve an issue. The facilitator is the therapist, who directs the constellation. The other participants may be actual family, other metaphorical people, or another role.
The seeker's issue
The seeker is a therapy client who comes to a therapist with an issue they want to resolve or overcome. The issue can be anything from nail-biting or smoking to relationship issues or depression. They briefly tell the facilitator what their issue is, but they don't explain it in detail or suggest any causes for the issue. Then, they observe.
Embodying the family constellation in a group
If other people are involved in the session, the facilitator may choose different people to represent specific family groups, possibly from multiple generations, in a roleplay. 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 as part of their family constellations approach. Everyone may stay still during the role play, giving the seeker time to connect with the morphogenic field and determine if the arrangement feels true for them.
The facilitator may adjust 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, they might connect with it by feeling and thinking about the causes of their emotions to identify the source of their concerns.
The facilitator may then suggest a sentence for each of the participants in the group to say. The seeker takes their place in the family constellation, and each person says their sentence. If the suggestion doesn't ring true for them, the facilitator can try again.
Resolving emotional distresses
After the family constellation exercise, the seeker, having learned the potential source of their issue, may be prompted by their counselor to learn more about the person (or part of their past) related to the issue in question. If an individual is still alive, they might choose to connect with that person directly on an emotional level to bring healing to the relationship.
Suppose the individual is deceased or otherwise unavailable. In that case, the seeker may find other methods to learn about what occurred in the past or what that person may represent to resolve those lingering concerns.
Family constellation therapy settings
This type of therapy may occur in a group workshop or individual counseling session. Both have been proven effective, although each may require different methods.
In family constellation workshops, group take turns being the seeker and the participants. The procedure involves roleplay, giving each person a turn to discuss their issues and have them played out in front of them.
In individual counseling, family constellation sessions often require imagination because there are no other participants to play the roles of various groups. The therapist might take on the role of one family.
There are many counseling options for dealing with past traumas, family dynamics, and other stressors. If you don't feel that family constellations would work best for you, you might benefit from other types of therapy, such as CBT, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), exposure therapy, or another method altogether.
Additionally, online therapy has become a popular method for those who face barriers to in-person treatment. Research shows that internet-based therapy platforms have been successful in helping people manage an array of symptoms 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 may help people reframe unhelpful thoughts or beliefs so that they are better able to understand and shift their behavior.
Through a platform like BetterHelp, you can message your counselor outside of sessions, any time of day, and they may get back to you as soon as possible. You can also choose between phone, video, and live chat sessions with your licensed therapist.
“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 with her. Thank you, Alisha!”
What is an example of a family constellation in therapy?
Here’s a hypothetical example illustrating how a family constellation might be used in therapy:
The client (known as a “seeker” in the terminology of Family Constellation Therapy) is a man who has reported persistent feelings of apathy and depression. In interviews with the therapist, he reports that he has a difficult relationship with his father, marked by a feeling that nothing he did was ever good enough to earn approval.
Further discussion of the family dynamic reveals that the seeker’s father lost his own parents at an early age, and had very few memories of them. He regarded them as distant, minor presences in his own life.
A family constellation might be brought together to represent the members of the family, with volunteers taking the places of the seeker, his father, and his grandparents. At first, all members present would likely remain silent, trying to get an intuitive sense of the emotional tensions between them.
After a while, the “father” might feel an urge to start roaming around the room, as though searching for something. Eventually, the “grandparents” might get the sense that they should reach out to him because he couldn’t find them on his own. After exchanging words of love with the “father”, the grandparents might turn him to face his “son”. The seeker and volunteer might then feel able to address the difficult feelings between father and son with some specific affirming phrases.
[These specific actions are not necessarily universal — it’s just one example of how a family constellation might play out in practice.]
Based on the theory of Family Constellation Therapy, this emotional psychodrama might result in an emotional catharsis that could help the seeker let go of the feelings of inadequacy that were driving his depression. Alternatively, it might give him important insights into the roots of his behavior and symptoms.
What do you learn about family systems in Family Constellation Therapy?
Family Constellation Therapy aims to help clients learn and understand how their psychological difficulties are intertwined with larger patterns of emotional needs, wounds, and conflicts within their family. In many cases, these patterns are understood to stretch back across multiple generations. Often, the difficulties are conceived of as related to issues in which family members feel rejected or out of place.
How effective is Family Constellation Therapy?
Because of the limited empirical research on Family Constellation Therapy, it’s difficult to give precise estimates of its effectiveness. There is still debate within the psychological community about whether it can work at all. The studies that have reported positive results of Family Constellation Therapy generally estimate its effect size as moderate.
Though that might not sound particularly encouraging, it’s similar to the reported effect sizes for many widely prescribed SSRI antidepressants. This is not to suggest that these treatments are equivalent — there is a much more robust body of evidence backing SSRIs than there is for Family Constellation Therapy. However, a treatment method with a moderate measured effect size may still provide substantial relief for some people.
What is the purpose of family therapy?
There are many types of family therapies, and individual clients may have very different reasons for seeking treatment. In general, though, the goal of these treatments is to help clients achieve better mental health, healthier patterns of behavior, and mutually fulfilling relationships with their loved ones.
Family therapies are generally based on the assumption that mental and behavioral health conditions are affected by interpersonal dynamics rather than being purely individual difficulties. They usually aim to assess how relationships between family members contribute to dysfunctional behavior patterns, assisting the clients to achieve healing together.
What does constellation mean in therapy?
Within the framework of Family Constellation Therapy, a “constellation” refers to a representation of a family group intended to analyze, confront, and explore the tangled relationships between them.
This often takes the form of emotionally intense group reenactments in which volunteers stand in for members of a client’s family. The process typically begins when the participants are arranged to stand or sit in meaningful patterns that represent their family dynamics. This may be done with input from the client.
Next, participants will usually stand in silence, attempting to intuit the feelings between the people they’re representing. Then, they generally attempt to act out scenes based on what they feel.
Family constellations can also be created in the context of individual therapy. A client might be asked to create a drawing or painting representing their feelings about the dynamics within their family. They might also arrange objects in symbolically meaningful patterns to explore their complicated relationships.
What are the healing sentences of the family constellation?
“Healing sentences” are meaningful phrases spoken by participants within a family constellation that may provide a sense of closure or transformation. The exact sentences will generally be different for every group. They’re usually crafted to represent the specific emotional needs of the seeker. Often, healing sentences are supposed to bring about a mental reconciliation between the client and their family members.
Possible examples of healing sentences could include:
- “I forgive you.”
- “Please help me.”
- “I’m sorry for what happened to you.”
- “I accept you as my mother.”
- “Your strength inspires me.”
How is family constellation therapy different from internal family systems?
While Family Constellation Therapy seeks to address breakdowns in relationships between family members, Internal Family Systems is generally used to analyze an individual’s psychology. Different aspects of a patient’s personality are conceptualized as members of an “internal family”. The therapist and client work to find ways that these different facets of the individual can “work together”, enabling a balanced and grounded approach to life.
Internal Family Systems therapy generally takes the form of one-on-one conversations between therapist and client rather than the spontaneous group dramas enacted in Family Constellation Therapy. In many ways, it’s more like other forms of talk therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, involving techniques such as journaling, meditation, and behavioral self-assessment.
Can you do a family constellation by yourself?
Some techniques of Family Constellation Therapy can be practiced on your own. For example, you could try creating a “family map” to assist you in thinking through the complex web of relationships within your family of origin.
A family map can be very simple, consisting of shapes or names representing specific individuals, with lines between them to represent their relationships. Two people with a strong bond might be linked with a thick, bold line. You could represent a turbulent, hot-and-cold relationship with a zigzagging line and a weak or distant one with a dashed line. Getting creative as you construct your map may help you express and face your difficult feelings about your loved ones.
This map can be used in a variety of ways. You might look over it and use it as a springboard for journaling about your relationships with siblings and parents. Or you could recreate it using figurines or other objects that you can move around on a table, exploring your emotions through creative play. Alternatively, you could simply look at your map and reflect on the thoughts that arise.
What are the benefits of Family Constellation Therapy?
Though it may not be effective for everyone, many people who participate in Family Constellation Therapy report beneficial outcomes including:
- Reduced symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression
- Improved interpersonal relationships
- Increased psychological well-being
- Greater confidence and self-efficacy
- Feelings of happiness
- Improved coping skills
- A more optimistic outlook
- Better quality of life
Why is family therapy better than individual therapy?
Family therapy is not necessarily superior to individual therapy for everyone. However, there may be some circumstances in which it’s the better option.
In many cases, an individual’s mental health difficulties may be caused or reinforced by unhealthy patterns in their close relationships. There could also be factors about their home environment that would make it difficult to make meaningful gains in individual therapy. For instance, if someone was trying to work through anxiety resulting from trauma but their relatives repeatedly triggered them, their difficulties might be more effectively addressed in the context of their family.
Other scenarios in which family therapy may work better than individual therapy include:
- Substance use disorders
- Mental health troubles involving children or adolescents
- Relationship challenges such as infidelity or marital discord
- Eating disorders
Even in cases like those described above, family therapy may not always be the best choice. It’s often best to discuss the possibility of family therapy with a mental health specialist to see whether it should be a part of your treatment plan.
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