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Systemic Constellations

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The Systemic Constellation process is a trans-generational, phenomenological, therapeutic intervention with roots in family systems therapy (Psychodrama of Jacob Moreno, Virginia Satir, Iván Böszörményi-Nagy), existential-phenomenology (Brentano, Husserl, Heidegger), and the ancestor reverence of the South African Zulus. The Systemic Constellation process is sanctioned by family therapy associations in Europe and is being integrated by thousands of licensed practitioners worldwide. The work is also beginning to become known in the United States.

A Constellation can serve as an illuminating adjunct process within a conventional course of psychotherapy. While it is rooted in the psychotherapeutic tradition, the method is distinguished from conventional psychotherapy in that, 1) the client hardly speaks; 2) its primary aim is to identify and release deep patterns embedded within the family system, not to explore or process narrative, cognitive or emotional content.

The Constellation process was refined by the German-born Bert Hellinger (b. 1925).

The procedure described below represents a typical format.

Procedure of Systemic Constellations

A group of participants (10-30), led by a trained facilitator, sit in a circle. One participant (client or seeker) is selected to work on a personal issue. The others either serve as “representatives” or actively contribute by observing with concentration.

The facilitator asks, “What is your issue?” The issue may be extreme: “Two years ago my husband and child were killed in an accident. I’m trying to learn how to live with that.” It may appear to be more commonplace, such as a college student who reports, “I’m 21 years old and have been diagnosed with clinical depression.”

The facilitator asks for information about the family of origin looking for traumatic events from the past that may have systemic resonance. Such events include premature deaths, including aborted children, murders, suicide, and casualties of war, members of the family system who were denied their right to belong, such as a disabled child who was institutionalized, a baby given up for adoption, a disappeared father, or a homosexual or apostate who was banished from the family. The client does not present narrative or commentary.

Next, the facilitator asks the client to select group members to represent members of the family system. Typically, these will be the client’s immediate family or the issue itself. In the first case cited above, the facilitator began with the client and her deceased husband and child; in the second case, the client and a representative for depression.

The client stands behind each representative, placing her hands on the representative’s shoulders and moves them into place. Once the representatives are in position, the client sits and observes. The representatives stand with their arms at their sides without moving or talking. They are not role playing. For several minutes the scene is one of stillness and silence. The facilitator observes and waits.

The representatives tune into the resonance of the family field. The facilitator may inquire of each representative, “How are you feeling?” Sometimes the representatives are placid and without emotion. Other times they report strong emotions or physical effects. The reports are subjective and contain some aspect of personal projection. However, the intermixing of subjective personal projections with field resonance does not contaminate the process as a whole.

Often, what emerges is that someone in the current family is unconsciously identified with a deceased family member from a previous generation. If this connection is to an excluded person, or one who had a difficult fate, the living family member can be drawn to repeat this fate or compensate for what occurred in the past.

The facilitator slowly works with this three-dimensional portrait of the family. First, the hidden systemic dynamic comes into clear view. In the case of the young woman with depression, the hidden dynamic was the client’s invisible loyalty to the grief of her deceased grandmother.

Next, the facilitator seeks a healing resolution. In the case above, the representatives for the client and grandmother faced a third representative who symbolized the object of the grandmother’s undying grief. When the client perceived the effect her loyalty to grief had on her beloved grandmother she felt a profound release. The representatives feel relieved when the excluded person is acknowledged, restored to their rightful place in the system, and respected for the fate they endured.

Once a resolution comes to light, the client stands in her place in the constellation. The final step is for the facilitator to suggest one or two healing sentences to be spoken aloud or inwardly. In this case, the healing sentence was for the representative of the grandmother to say to the client, “Go live!”.

Afterwards, there is no processing by the facilitator. Clients who are in an ongoing course of psychotherapy can integrate these insights with their therapists.

There is a wealth of anecdotal and case study reports that over time the new image of the family system - with belonging, balance and order restored - gradually melts the archaic image that supported the entanglement (Cohen 2005; Franke 2003; Lynch & Tucker 2005; Payne 2005) . Rigorous research is needed to test objectively the longitudinal outcomes of client’s experiences with this method.

See also



  • Cohen, Dan Booth (2005), "Begin with the work: Constellations in large group sysyems.", written at Phoenix, in E.J. Lynch & S. Tucker, Messengers of healing: The family constellations of Bert Hellinger through the eyes of a new generation of practitioners., Zeig, Tucker & Theisen.
  • Franke, Ursula. (2003), written at Heidelberg, Germany, The river never looks back: Historical and practical foundations of Bert Hellinger’s family constellations, Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag.
  • Lynch, Ed & Suzi Tucker (2005), written at Phoenix, Messengers of healing: The family constellations of Bert Hellinger through the eyes of a new generation of practitioners., Zeig, Tucker & Theisen.
  • Payne, John (2005), written at Forres, Scotland, The healing of individuals, families, and nations: Trans-generational healing & family constellations, Findhorn Press.

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