Family Constellations: Healing the Family Soul
"If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people." — Thich Nhat Hanh
Have you ever experienced a life pattern that keeps repeating no matter how you try to unravel or heal it? Genetic research now confirms psychology’s earlier theories that the origin of this problem may possibly lie before your birth; furthermore, when we heal ourselves we also heal our future family lineage.
I first read about the Family Constellation work of Bert Hellinger (b. 1925) over 15 years ago and was fascinated by the idea of family wounds being carried forward into current and future generations — the invisible family ties that bind. Hellinger’s brilliant observations over decades of work on such profound issues as why individuals are pushed out, not spoken of or denied a place in the family, and why behavioral patterns appear to repeat unconsciously over generations have provided fertile ground over the years for Family Constellation Work to sprout many branches in North America and Europe.
While Hellinger’s biggest contribution to family healing may be his unique integration of insights into a usable body of work, many still find it somewhat elusive to grasp how moving people around in “constellations” in a room like pieces on a chess board could have anything to do with healing the family soul. Hellinger’s early experiences taught him unwavering loyalty to and the skill of listening to the authority of one’s own soul. From this empirical foundation arose the awareness of looking at reality exactly as it is. Here is where we notice that the family energy field or family soul intimately influences the lives of each of us through healing and wounding, and it is within this sphere that family constellations are created and transformed.
Hellinger noted that families are, by nature, permanent and indivisible, a collective of individuals spanning past, present and future from which one can never be expunged, not even through death. As individuals, our yearning to belong is so strong that we act in accordance with the desires and norms of our group in order to fit in and be accepted, sometimes no matter what the price. Our beliefs and ultimately our actions reflect this greater group consciousness. Science is now discovering evidence that genetic coding may bind us to conform to behavioral patterns in our family of origin, simply to belong. Knowingly or unknowingly, you will go through life expressing layers of subtext, disconnect, personal interpretation and shadows that are part of your family’s reservoir until you can speak for something new.
Like the celestial constellations that have traveled our heavens since time immemorial, we are stars placed within the constellations of our families, each with its own unique mythology to play out. However, unlike the stars, our paths are not fixed and we can rewrite our stories to insert happier endings for ourselves and future lineage. — Carol Bedrosian, Editor
As we approach summer, many people anticipate some vacation or time off. For some, summer is a time for a family vacation or road trip. We may visit old friends or family members who we don’t get to see that often. When anticipating a family visit, we may look forward to being with our loved ones, yet often there’s a sense of worry, anxiety and perhaps even dread that wells up from within when we think about spending time with family members. Gathering with family often evokes memories of fights, silences, disagreements and tension. What might life look like if abundance, joy, and strength were felt when being around our family? What if good communication, peace and calm were present at the July 4th barbeque and the only fireworks were the real ones seen exploding in the night sky?
Being around family members often triggers negative emotional and life patterns. Big sister knows best so you pout, Mom lets you know your potluck dish isn’t up to par, Dad intimidates you in front of everyone and there you are — seven years old again and terrified. In your own life, you’ve struggled with low self-esteem for years and somehow you always end up with angry bosses at work. No matter how much you seek to learn, change and grow, life never changes.
The latest findings in biological research suggest that deep-seated emotional patterns and irresistible impulses are part of our genetic inheritance and some of our core life challenges do originate before our birth. The stress of traumas that we experience can be registered as elevated cortisol levels in the body, lodging especially around the heart. At McGill University, research on the epigenome — the protein cover around the genome — reveals that emotional impact is registered and stored there in our genes and passed on transgenerationally. 1 What this means is that our hearts, our bodies and our genes carry echoes and repercussions of traumas experienced by our parents, our grandparents and even our great-grandparents.
Bert Hellinger advanced this theory long before a confirmation came from science. As a young man, Hellinger became a Catholic priest and was stationed as a school principal at a Zulu Missionary in South Africa for close to 20 years. He was greatly influenced by the Zulu’s powerful beliefs and deep connection to their ancestor spirits. After leaving the priesthood, he trained in psychoanalysis in Vienna. Unsatisfied, he traveled to the US and delved into the study of many forms of depth psychology including Family Systems Therapy, Transactional Analysis, Primal Therapy, Hypnotherapy, and Gestalt Therapy.
After working with thousands of individuals in group and family therapy, Hellinger observed that many of us unconsciously adopt destructive familial patterns of sickness, abandonment, guilt, depression and other behaviors difficult to “cure.” In the context of love and loyalty to the family, these behaviors mirror hidden family dynamics and issues unresolved from current or previous generations. These dynamics are ever-present within us as long as they reside unhealed in the family conscience.
The family soul includes all members of the family. Every member of a family has an equal right to belong, including those who have died, been forgotten or psychically banished due to immoral or unacceptable behavior such as imprisonment or institutionalization. The family conscience, though unconscious to us, doesn’t distinguish between good or evil, and as such, leaves no one out. Members who make up the family soul include the parents and grandparents, all the siblings and children including terminated pregnancies, stillborn children and those who have died early, grandparents, great-grandparents and ancestors even further back, particularly in families that have suffered trauma and upheaval. Additionally, influence from outside the family circle includes former partners of parents or grandparents, victims and their perpetrators, and those whose misfortune or death brought the family a gain or loss.
The family conscience has one goal: to keep us connected so that we belong. This pattern of belonging includes information passed down genetically from our ancestors and is communicated non-verbally among family members, and may include both healthy and unhealthy instructions for certain members. If we are in harmony with our family, we sense that we belong and feel innocent and good, even if our behaviors are harmful to ourselves and others. When in disharmony with our family, we feel we have violated the unspoken agreement of where we belong and try to change ourselves so we belong again. We are inextricably linked by this energy field to our current family, yet it is also possible to free ourselves of unconscious links to unnecessary suffering. Through awareness, we can remain connected and introduce a new vibration of healing and love that shifts the family energy field affecting not only our own lives, but those of our current and future family members as well.
Working In A Constellation
The overall health in the family energy field can be observed when a family constellation is set up, much like a living family tree. In a typical setting, a group of unrelated people gather for the purpose of working on their personal issues through creating constellations. One person (seeker) at a time is invited by the facilitator to briefly present a few facts and details about his or her issue. The facilitator may choose to gather more pertinent facts about life events, or possibly parent or grandparent life details, however Hellinger, himself, discouraged too much questioning, believing it hinders openness to the intuitive information that can only emerge from the body and the felt experience of participating in the constellation. In general, the seeker remains silent as the constellation unfolds and other group members refrain from asking any questions.
Next the facilitator asks the seeker to choose people from the group to represent family members based on the issue they presented. This may be as simple as one representative or as complex as representatives for the client’s parents, siblings, grandparents and perhaps the great grandparents. One representative is also selected for the self. The seeker silently guides and places these representatives in particular locations around the room, according to his or her intuition and inner picture of the issue at hand. The seeker then sits with the facilitator and the process of going from the conscious understanding of the issue or story into the unconscious family energy field begins to unfold.
Time and silence is required for the representatives to let go of the story they heard, center themselves and allow the energies of the person they are representing begin to move through them. In doing so, they are tapping into what Rupert Sheldrake calls morphogenetic fields,2 which contain an energetic blueprint of past energies and experiences that are stored in our DNA. This creates an energy field in which all involved participants begin to receive information (physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, etc.), related to the family member whom they are representing.
The facilitator works with this three-dimensional space to gently assist the seeker in seeing their issue in relation to the larger family history, remaining deeply humble and open to be touched by this larger soul and available to receive guidance on the next step, a word, a picture, a phrase. The facilitator may ask some or all of the representatives to notice what they are feeling in their bodies or sensing as they stand in, like surrogates, for their family member. They may be asked to comment on reactions to others in the constellation or invited to move where they are drawn in the room that feels more balanced.
A re-creation of the family energy field can become startlingly apparent once the constellation is set up. One woman set up her constellation to ask whether an unresolved issue in the larger family system contributed to her daughter’s anxiety and chronic intestinal pain. The constellation included a representative for the daughter, the mother and the mother’s parents. In the layout of this constellation, the daughter was facing and looking behind her mother. The grandfather stood at a distance at the back of the workspace, facing his granddaughter. The configuration suggested there was a person who belonged between the mother and grandfather. This person would be the object of the daughter’s gaze and perhaps offer a clue to her uncontrollable anxiety.
The facilitator tested this by placing an additional unnamed representative in the space between the mother and grandfather. The other representatives reported immediately feeling more uncomfortable. The facilitator asked the actual mother, still sitting in her chair, “Do you have any idea who that might be? Is there is a missing person in your family or a hidden secret between you and your father?”
The woman was uncertain. She talked a little about her family lore, mentioning, “My grandmother told me once that my father was married before he married my mother. No one else ever said one word about it.” Then she added, “He had a daughter from his first marriage.” The facilitator pointing to the unknown representative said, “Maybe that is your sister.” The woman responded, “I don’t have a sister.” Then reality hit her. She brought her fist to her mouth as if she stunned by this truth.
Her father’s first wife and daughter had become a buried family secret. Whether they left, died, or were abandoned, the relatives who knew the truth never spoke of them. When a family member connected to a shameful secret or painful truth is excluded from their place of belonging, a child born into the family gets drawn into the fray. Somehow, the truth persisted in the granddaughter’s gut. Her mother’s lost sister was the ghost in her genes and would not be forgotten.
It is up to the facilitator to intuit what direction to follow and how representatives can be positioned to illuminate hidden patterns, dysfunctional connections or to bring the constellation to a balanced place where participants feel “right.” In this case, when the representative for the mother turned around to face her father and lost sister, the representative for the daughter let out a deep exhalation. The mother’s heart opened and the anxiety-trapped daughter could release.
At some point the seeker is asked to take his or her place in the constellation to deepen the connection with the family soul. As the session unfolds towards a sense of relief and resolution, the seeker and the representatives may feel energy shifts, strong feelings, and gain deeper insights about what happened in the past. Ultimately the goal is to restructure the constellation to one in which all members are acknowledged and honored, and provide new healthy images within the family consciousness.
Some constellations require few words to be spoken. At other times it is helpful for the seeker or certain representatives to say particular “statements of empowerment” to each other. When a few simple words are spoken from the heart with reverence and truth, a resonance can be felt by everyone within the space like a deep sigh, often accompanied by tears and heart-opening experiences.
Opening the door of compassion to whoever has been cast out has a powerful healing effect for individuals, families and even the wider human community. As seeker, facilitator, representative or witness, an energetic transference can take place during a constellation that has great meaning in one’s own life. Whether it is by divine synchronicity or chance that we are assigned certain roles in constellation work and in life, it is clear we are deeply interconnected in more ways than we are consciously aware. One person's work can further the work of all and impact what we pass on to the future generations.
1. NOVA: “Ghost in Your Genes.” (2007). http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/transcripts/3413_genes.html
2. Sheldrake, R. The presence of the past: Morphic resonance and the habits of nature. Park Street, 1988,
Linda Marks, MSM, has practiced heart-centered body psychotherapy (Emotional-Kinesthetic Psychotherapy) for nearly 25 years and leads workshops on Healing the Traumatized Heart. Family Constellations are part of the EKP Apprenticeship Training program. 617-965-7846, firstname.lastname@example.org. www.healingheartpower.com
Dan Cohen, MBA, PhD, uses Family Constellations to help individuals and families find their own way to healing. He recently published I Carry Your Heart in My Heart: Family Constellations in Prison (Carl-Auer International, 2009).781-718-7158, email@example.com. www.hiddensolution.com.
Jamy Faust, MA, blends holistic counseling, energy healing, guided imagery divination and the Constellation Approach in her private practice. Peter Faust, MAc, is a licensed acupuncturist, energy healer and constellation facilitator. They have been facilitating seminars and learning programs in the Family Constellation Method since 2002. 617-484-4325. www.constellationapproach.com. www.hellingerboston.com.
Carol Bedrosian is the editor of Spirit of Change Magazine. www.spiritofchange.org.
•The Healing Power of the Past — A New Approach to Healing Family Wounds: The Systemic Therapy of Bert Hellinger by Berthold Ulsamer. Underwood Books, 2005.