Systematic Constellations

Constellations often make participants aware of their personal set-up for the first time. A re-alignment within a healthy order then, can be fundamental for the effectiveness of many interventions and lasting bio-psycho-social health.

See your projections
Seeing Projections in Constellation Work

Are constellations therapies?

Constellations – like family constellations are ‚systemic therapy‘ interventions. Beside many other methods, (and besides the fact that the synonym word constellation therapy is in use) constellation work is not a therapy on its own (I will come to that below). It is an instrument to uncover hidden orders, which can be extremely important for long-term mental and live healing!

What defines systematic therapy is its focus on the individual – as a part of the whole. Here: thinking, acting and behaving are always related and interdependent. The individual is always involved in something bigger and this will remain so in the future. Systemic therapy does not strive for liberation therefore. Rather, it is about recognizing relationships in their dominance in order to be able to consciously shape them.

The person who is coming for the systematic therapy treatment is called the index patient. Not he (or she), but his social reference system is considered to be disturbed. It needs him as the problem carrier to be able to remain in homeostasis.

The family ‚system‘

The family is the first and most dominant human frame of reference. Sure, it is the starting point into life and socialization for almost all of us. Even for children from violent parental homes, initially nothing but the family exist. They survive in their morality and attachment or with the help of strategies to delimit them. However, children do develop or adopt unhealthy attachment patterns and strategies also, when their story is less obviously problematic. The families way of dealing with displacement, poverty, illness, death and other fates – in particular dealing with them in a closed manner – just as often leads to long term problems in accessing emotions for family members or in differentiating emotions from others. The whole way of life can be the result of an unconscious chain of strategies, implemented to avoid the stresses of the sensitive years. These strategies might prevent retraumatizations, but the problem is, that they are blocking and deeply unhealthy in itself.

The problem is: these patterns do not simply disappear. Without working them out, they remain, just like the invisible but tightening relationship patterns do, up into the old age.

Establishment of the constellation work in practice

A tool to make them visible became known to the wider public at the turn of the millennium, first in Germany and then all over Europe through Bert Hellinger (Love‘s Hidden Symetry) under the name ‘Familienstellen‘ (Family constellations). Participants of his public group events got suddenly aware of their entanglements. Dependencies were made visible, even when they began with people, who have been dead for a long time or have never been born.

For participants today it can still be surprising to perceive the direct causes of everyday blockages as results of traumatic evictions or post war depressions in their family history. Not less surprising is, that this happens in a single group intervention, in which the participant is able to redefine the relations oneself.

The elements Hellinger used for the constellations were not new themselves. The former german priest combined findings from traditional african rituals, constellation work and psychodrama (Jakob Levy Moreno), group therapy (Kurt Lewin, Raoul Schindler), primary therapy (Arthur Janov) and psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud).1 But the effectiveness that the elements had, combined and practically applied by Hellinger was new. The intervention is to be explained in more detail using the example of the family constellation.

Sequence of a family constellation

A family constellation is typically carried out in a one-off meeting or over several days, in which 15 till 25 unrelated people take part. Each workshop begins with an interview between the facilitator and the individual client, whereby the current situation and goals are discussed. Important for the start is, what family members the client thinks, play an important role and how they are related. Representatives (including a representative for the client himself) will then be placed, so their position in relation to one another and their posture corresponds to the client’s inner image (problem constellation). This initial constellation or ‘problem constellation’ already reveals an initial dynamic, that is important for an objective discussion about the situation of the person confronted.

In the further course, the representing people are beeing asked about feelings and thoughts that have shown up with the arrangements (e.g. How does it feel to be standing here? What do you feel about him or her?). Based on their answers and in dialogue with the client, the therapist/ facilitator repositions the representatives. This goes hand in hand with ritualized discussions. The reorganization of the people in the system always brings new knowledge. If the answers given by the representing people are not sufficient to answer open questions, further representatives might be positioned. Reorganization continues until a ‚solution constellation‘ has been found. An operator must know the principles of the healthily functioning order, including the hierarchies, their interactions and their language. The final constellation offers the client new space to think, feel and behave.

Constellations are explicitly not therapies on its own (even sometimes you will see the term constellation therapy). The short event lacks debriefings, in which the experiences and new information could be classified. Also therapists are not necessarily present during the constellation. 

Science and Systemic Constellations

The German Society for Systemic Therapy criticized Hellinger`s crowd-pleasing mass constellations and the confrontational way, in which he dictated a healthy order to participants.2 But constellation work today – that is no longer Hellinger… The approaches have changed too much. In practice today, a whole range of different concepts of constellation work are represented by private schools and institutions.

Existing approaches do not limit the outview to intrapersonal systems (such as families), because intrapersonal systems such as ego or personality components can be constellated using the same technique. Examples for other forms are constellations of one`s life path (life-integration process),3 organizational constellations, supervision constellations or structural constellations. In fact, any identities can be constellated that are related to each other within a system. Instead of the term family constellation, the term “systemic constellation” or “systemic constellation therapy” therefore used more and more frequently.

No matter how the method and areas of application develop, they will remain associated with  Hellinger`s name. By using the elements in a practical and effective way – far from any scientific or folcloristic context – he opened a new field to form a basis of natural and long-term effective healing.

We don’t have to understand how something works. It is sufficient to empirically confirm the effectiveness of a method, as more and more studies are now doing with regard to family constellation and its contribution to mental therapy.4 Hellinger has helped to bridge this need of scientists and people in our western world.

  1. For further information on the elements within the conception see the enlightning articles: The Psychodramatic Family Constellation []
  2. []
  3. Taught e.g. in the Nellesinstitut (actually a private school []
  4. The Effectiveness of Family Constillation Therapy improving Mental Health []