Family Constellations therapy is a therapeutic technique that can help people suffering due to unresolved family trauma. It combines family systems therapy and “lived experience” with Zulu family attitudes and beliefs.
Family systems therapy is a type of psychotherapy that helps people resolve problems in the context of their family units. Lived experience is someone’s personal knowledge about the world gained through direct involvement in everyday events.
Family Constellations therapy was developed by German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger (1925-2019). In the 1950s and 1960s, he lived in South Africa for 16 years and this is how the Zulu element came to be.
At the time he was a Catholic missionary who spent a lot of time with Zulu communities. He realized that knowledge of the presence of and connection with their ancestors was much more in the Zulu culture than in European society.
Hellinger saw that both positive and negative influences could be seen in our familial connections. Family Constellations therapy was first introduced in the 1990s.
How does Family Constellations therapy work?
Family Constellations as a term was first used by psychotherapist Alfred Adler (1870-1937) to describe how everyone is bonded to their family system. All family members play roles because every family is like a small society with its own rules and how these are enforced. Adler spoke about how we can inherit trauma through the generations.
Family Constellations therapy seeks to reveal the unseen dynamic that runs through generations. A Family Constellations therapist can discover from it vital aspects of family dynamics, history, traumas and unhealthy patterns.
Also sometimes called Systemic Family Constellations and Systemic Constellations, the aim is to help someone who is struggling in some way to gain better insight into their family dysfunction. A Family Constellations therapist usually does this in a group setting – with people unrelated to their client acting as the client’s family members to reveal specific family dynamics.
This is because it’s believed that present problems are often due to unresolved traumas suffered by previous generations of the family – sometimes known as “invisible loyalties”. It could be due to such as a mother dying in childbirth, abuse, early death of a child or parent, murder, war, suicide, natural disaster or moving countries.
Family Constellations therapy is thought to be effective due to the client gaining empathy when they observe their family dynamics acted out. Others claim there is something to do with quantum mysticism: that there is a “universal consciousness” and the belief that our emotions and thoughts give out particular energetic vibrations.
Others say it is at least in part due to “morphic resonance”. According to a theory developed by biologist Rupert Sheldrake, this is that there’s a paranormal influence by which a pattern of behavior or events makes possible future similar patterns.
What happens in a Family Constellations therapy session?
As at least some part of a family group is usually recreated, a typical Family Constellations therapy session involves people – often strangers – standing in as the client’s family members. In this group setting, the therapist will usually use drama therapy to recreate some recognizable family patterns.
This therapy can be extremely intense and emotional. Strong feelings or memories of traumatic events can be relived.
Playing a role like a stage director, the therapist will choose who from the group will represent which family member. They direct the group’s positions among the group as well as their postures, what they say and their interactions. Much of this is based on the therapist’s “perceptive intuition”.
For instance, the people representing the mother and the child will be told to stand facing each other. Then left there, to do whatever feels like the right thing to do.
So, they may walk away from each other and turn their backs. Or they might hug.
There are frequently strong emotions witnessed during these sessions. Sometimes there can be several minutes of silent observation.
Those people who are role-playing usually have little or no knowledge about the family members they’re representing. However, they often say they have certain feelings that are believed to give it an essential quality.
Observing past traumas
The client will observe everything or sometimes they will take part in some role-playing interactions with others in the group. The therapist will encourage the client to look for patterns that can give them an awareness of connections between themselves and various family members.
This can help them look again at a confrontation from the past. It can also make them aware of intergenerational trauma as well as patterns through the generations that are related to mental health issues.
After the therapist repositions everyone – and if appropriate introduces key members of the family who might have been written out or forgotten in the family system – healing is often said to be felt by the client.
In some sessions, the main client will be changed to another group. This is so that a few people can have the opportunity.
Family Constellations therapy is also sometimes carried out with just one person and the therapist. In these instances, statuettes could be used to represent family members or the family members can be drawn on paper or a board.
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