In our day-to-day lives, we all face our own unique set of problems and challenges. Some challenges are manageable and easily resolved, whereas others may feel like embedded, intractable patterns in your life that you have little or no control over. Do you struggle to effect change in some areas of your life? Perhaps you feel hindered by ongoing personal, social, financial, or health issues that you cannot seem to resolve for yourself no matter what you try. Perhaps you feel burdened by behavioral patterns or belief systems within yourself or within your family that you do not feel are yours to begin with but are something you have unconsciously taken on. Or perhaps you experience feelings of grief, fear, depression, or anxiety, even when there is no apparent cause. Or maybe you feel lost or stuck without reason.
Perhaps you are seeking to identify the origin of these problematic patterns in your life. Or maybe you are already consciously aware of the origin of your life’s dysfunctional behaviors or relationships but still find yourself unable to resolve them successfully. The experience of being trapped by unresolved challenges can leave you feeling stressed, powerless, and stuck in a loop. Family Constellations seeks to remedy the feeling that the power to overcome these challenges in your life is beyond you.
According to Family Constellations therapy, the root cause of our personal challenges does lie beyond us as individuals. The stressors, conflicts, and illness we experience in our lives may, in fact, not be our own but rather deeply rooted patterns that we have inherited from our ancestors. This therapeutic approach is designed to reveal ruptures within your family’s history that may negatively influence your life. By healing these ruptures and repairing the family system, the individual is released from the inherited dysfunctional patterns of their family and is thereby free and able to create positive transformation in their life.
Family Constellations (also known as Systemic Constellations) was originated by German psychotherapist Anton ‘Bert’ Hellinger (1925–2019). It is the synthesis of Hellinger’s many years of study and training across a breadth of cultures and psychotherapeutic approaches. Its main influences include indigenous mysticism and healing traditions, Eastern and Western philosophical traditions, and several different schools of psychotherapy.
In the 1950s, Hellinger traveled to South Africa, where he lived for 16 years as a Catholic missionary. Studying the customs, ceremonies, and social dynamics of the Zulu tribe was one of Hellinger’s earliest influences. Hellinger observed how the individual and collective lives of the Zulu people were inextricably tied to and influenced by their relationship with their ancestors. He was particularly inspired by how their ancestral bonding rituals and ceremonies could strengthen and heal both the individual and the social group. This ancestral connection and surrounding practices would later become a foundational principle of his Constellations system.
After his time in South Africa, Hellinger returned to Germany in the 1970s, where he began his training in psychoanalysis. During his career, Hellinger studied many psychotherapeutic approaches, including psychoanalysis, family therapy, transgenerational therapy, hypnotherapy, NLP, primal therapy, Gestalt therapy, and psychodrama. Through his various training experiences, he learned about concepts of relationship systems, such as group dynamics, family constellations, identification, hidden loyalties, and reciprocity, which became the foundational principles of his work.
Hellinger began integrating these different influences into his family therapy practice. Further, based on his observations, he developed theories on energy fields across familial bonds and the correlation between family narrative and personal identity. By the 1980s, he began incorporating into his practice a therapeutic method of utilizing groups to represent a family system, an approach that would eventually evolve into the Family Constellations model.
Family Constellations became a popular therapeutic approach early on in Hellinger’s home country of Germany, eventually spreading to the U.S. and elsewhere internationally. Hellinger published over 30 books that have been translated into several languages, and his work is practiced by several thousand professional practitioners worldwide. In the years since Hellinger first coined the term “Family Constellations” and began teaching his method, several different schools of practice emerged as the method evolved. “Classical Family Constellations” is the method Hellinger practiced until the end of the 1990s. Hellinger then renamed his method “Movement of the Soul,” which he used between 2000 and 2006. “The New Family Constellations” or “Movements of the Spirit-Mind,” is the method he practiced from 2006 until his death in 2019. These approaches differ in their philosophical and theoretical assumptions, and they are usually taught and practiced independently of each other; however, their format and objectives are largely the same. Classical Family Constellations is the predominant format practiced today.
Family Constellations is an alternative therapeutic modality designed to help individuals heal specific stressors in their lives by unearthing hidden patterns within their family history. Further, it helps clients gain insight into the multigenerational dynamics at play in their ancestry that may be causing stress or illness in their present-day lives. Finally, it can help to restore harmony to both the individual and the family.
The central premise of Family Constellations is that your family system is the blueprint for your life, and, whether you are aware of it or not, you may be carrying burdens that energetically span multiple generations. Present-day issues experienced by an individual (e.g., illness, anxiety, depression, addiction, dysfunctional relationships) may be an expression of family-related trauma experienced by their ancestors.
In the context of Family Constellations, the family system refers to both living and ancestral generations of one’s family-of-origin. If a family system is in balance, then love and energy can flow unimpeded down through the descendent lineage of the family, and living family members feel supported in their life’s journey. However, suppose there are ruptures or imbalances within the family system resulting from unresolved traumas experienced by one’s forebears. In that case, this dysfunction is energetically passed down the family line, negatively imprinting on the lives of their descendants.
Hellinger coined the term “systematic entanglements” to refer to the relationship between intergenerational ancestral trauma and present-day stressors not caused by an individual’s direct interactions or experiences. These entanglements have the power to influence an individual’s health, personal and professional relationships, job performance, lifestyle, and habits. Traumatic events within a family that may cause these entanglements could include illness, premature death, deaths that did not occur by natural causes, assault, fraud, secrets and concealments, or addiction. Entanglements can also be caused by excluding a family member, perhaps through divorce, ostracism, adoption, or abortion.
Hellinger theorized that these entanglements are created by “unconscious connections with the fates of family ancestors.” Hellinger did not attribute these “connections” to genetic influences or repressed memories, but rather to the phenomenological concept of “morphic resonance,” also called the “Knowing Field.” These concepts refer to a psychic energy field that holds memory and connects family members across generations, much like wolves seem to have a telepathic connection over great distances. Unresolved traumas or ruptures within the family disrupt this energetic field and creates an imbalance that reverberates down the family line to later generations.
The Family Constellations process is designed to identify the specific cause of the entanglement that is causing disharmony within the energetic field of the family system. The facilitator and representatives (i.e., symbolic representations of the living and ancestral family system, which could include participants in a group session, figurative objects, or mental imagery) utilize the phenomenon of the Knowing Field to heal the trauma and, thus, repair the rupture (e.g., by accepting the “excluded” ancestor back into the family field).
Family Constellations can be used for a wide range of mental, physical, social, and spiritual issues. Purported benefits of this work include a greater understanding of your family history and dynamics; greater self-awareness; the ability to view yourself and your family relationships from a new perspective and with greater empathy and compassion; spiritual and emotional freedom; a healthier and more fulfilling life; the resolution of generations of grief or unhappiness.
Family Constellations therapy is typically conducted in either a group workshop setting or an individual one-to-one session. These different settings require different techniques, but the fundamental principles of the process remain the same.
Group Workshops: In Family Constellations group workshops, members of the group can either participate as an “issue holder”/”seeker” or as a representative. Facilitated by a trained practitioner, the “issue holder” will choose people from the group to represent their family members and arrange them in the space in such a way as to represent the loyalties and entanglements within their family system. The placement of the representatives creates a living map that reflects their perception of the situation that they want to explore. Once the constellation is formed, the issue holder sits down and observes while the representatives then work through specific family dynamics to “disentangle” the issue holder from their ancestral binding. This is not done through acting or role-playing, but rather through tuning into the Knowing Field that allows the representatives to perceive and articulate the sensations and emotions of the family members who they represent. Then, guided by the issue holder, the facilitator repositions representatives within the family constellation until the issue holder intuitively feels that everyone is in their proper place. The seeker then rejoins the newly reconfigured system, thereby mending the ruptures within the family system and arriving at a healing resolution.
While the constellation is formed around the question or issue that the issue holder seeks to resolve, participating as a representative can also be therapeutically beneficial as the issue holder’s experience often inspires insights into the representatives’ own lives. Moreover, this experience can help representatives become more attuned with their own bodies and be fully present without judgment or interpretation.
Private Individual Sessions: Family Constellations work can also be conducted one-to-one with a trained practitioner in a private setting. There are no other participants in an individual session to enact family members, so mats or objects can instead represent them. Alternatively, the constellation can be created in the individual’s mind’s eye through visualization guided by the facilitator/practitioner.
by Robyn Michele Jones, MA, CMT, RCST®
by Dominique Clothiaux, RCST®
To date, there have been no independent studies specific to Family Constellations that have provided unbiased, scientific evidence to support the efficacy of this modality directly. The process and methods of Family Constellations are largely subjective and experiential in nature. Moreover, it is based upon unquantifiable theories of energetic fields and spiritual phenomena. Therefore, it is not considered an evidence-based treatment. There is, however, growing research in the fields of inherited trauma, transgenerational epigenetics, and quantum physics, which indirectly supports Family Constellations’ foundational theories.
Whether an individual is engaging with Family Constellations therapy in a group workshop or individual session, there are a couple of ways they can prepare for their experience.
Firstly, gather as much information as possible about your family of origin (both living and deceased). Detailed knowledge of one’s family tree and significant events within the family history are instrumental to the process. Ideally, your family tree should include any members of the family that were excluded from the family circle.
Secondly, choose a specific subject you wish to address within the workshop or session; that is, an issue causing particular stress or challenge in your life. If it is not possible to easily determine a single issue to work on before your workshop or session, you will be able to do so within the Family Constellations circle with the help of the facilitator.
There are no additional actions required by the participant after the Constellation. It is a condition of Family Constellations that, following a workshop, participants do not approach each other to discuss or analyze the experience, nor offer any interaction with the issue holder that could be considered as intrusive. The post-Constellation process should be given the space to unfold naturally without interference so that the experience can be integrated into the issue holder’s body, thereby transforming their beliefs, emotions, and daily life.
*For more information on the process and methodology of workshops and individual sessions, see the “Summary of Family Constellations” section.
Two of the main training organizations are The Hellinger® School and Hellinger Institute Canada, both of which offer online training. The Hellinger® School, which Hellinger’s surviving family operates, provides Original Hellinger® Family Constellation accreditation consisting of 18 modules over at least three years. The Hellinger Institute Canada (run by Marina Toledo, a student of Bert Hellinger) offers a 3-level training consisting of 12 modules over approximately 190 hours.
There is, however, no singular governing body for Family Constellations and no standardized accreditation, diplomas, or training. Instead, there are several different branches and training bodies of Family Constellations, each with its own requirements for certification. In addition, there are several training bodies that do not directly affiliate themselves with Bert Hellinger or with his family, who continue his work.
There are no prerequisites qualifications for becoming an accredited Family Constellations practitioner; however, training is typically designed for health and wellness professionals (e.g., therapists, counselors, life coaches, bodyworkers, healers, bodyworkers, etc.) who wish to integrate Family Constellations work into their existing professional practice.
A license is not required to facilitate Family Constellations.
Family Constellations can be used to treat a wide range of health conditions. However, as with all therapeutic practices, this modality may not be suitable for everyone. The following are drawbacks and criticisms you may wish to consider before engaging with this modality.
In recent years, the founder of Family Constellations, Bert Hellinger has come under scrutiny for his controversial ideas regarding homosexuality, victim-perpetrator dynamics, and patriarchal roles. However, Family Constellations is represented by a wide range of practitioners, many of whom do not subscribe to these ideas. In fact, many practitioners and proponents of the therapy have sought to distance themselves from Hellinger for this reason.
There are several different schools of Family Constellations, so it may not be apparent which school a facilitator practices. Therefore, anyone seeking to engage in Family Constellations work is recommended to ask their practitioner about their particular approach to the modality in advance of participation.
Family Constellations is based on psychotherapeutic ideas; however, most psychotherapy governing bodies do not recognize Family Constellations training as they do not meet their criteria. Moreover, Family Constellations training does not qualify practitioners as psychotherapists or counselors.
Family Constellations is a modality that is not evidence-based, and its foundational theories, such as morphic resonance, are still considered controversial in the scientific community.
https://www.hellingerinstitute.com/family-constellations-trainings – Hellinger Institute, Family Constellations Trainings [accessed: Apr 1, 2021]
https://www.hellinger.com/en/training/ – Sophie Hellinger, Training + Education [accessed: Apr 1, 2021]
https://www.theinnerprocess.com/bert-hellinger-the-history-of-family-constellations.html – Bert Hellinger: the History of Family Constellations’, excerpt from ‘Love’s Hidden Symmetry, by B. Hellinger, B, G. Weber, H. Beaumont (1998) [accessed: Apr 1, 2021]
https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/family-constellations – Family Constellations, GoodTherapy.com (2016) [accessed: Apr 1, 2021]
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_Constellations – Family Constellations, Wikipedia (last edited on April 1 2021) [accessed: Apr 1, 2021]
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/transcending-the-past/201910/family-deeds-constellation-therapy-generations-trauma – Family Deeds: Constellation Therapy & Generations of Trauma, by Nikki Mackay (Oct 26, 2019) [accessed: Apr 1, 2021]
https://kripalu.org/resources/healing-deep-wounds-family-constellations – Healing Deep Wounds with Family Constellations, by Portland Helmich [accessed: Apr 1, 2021]
https://goop.com/wellness/relationships/family-constellations/ – Building a Family Tree, by Marine Sélénée [accessed: Apr 9, 2021]
https://www.centroconstela.com/who-are-we/constellations/what-are-family-constellations/ – What are Family Constellations?, Centro Constela [accessed: Apr 1, 2021]
https://chronicillnesstraumastudies.com/healing-multigenerational-trauma/ – My Adventures in Healing Multigenerational Trauma and Chronic Illness with Systemic Family Constellations, by Veronique Mead (Jul 12, 2019) [accessed: Apr 1, 2021]
https://medium.com/@LookingGlass/my-family-constellation-session-review-ec965b771e2b – My Family Constellation Session Review, by Alice Cheshire (Feb 2, 2018) [accessed: Apr 1, 2021]
https://medium.com/@LookingGlass/family-constellations-96e437aa4a38 – Family Constellations, by Alice Cheshire (Jan 26, 2018) [accessed: Apr 9, 2021]
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JydjryhEl5o – Morphic Fields and Systemic Family Constellations, by Rupert Sheldrake (2012) [accessed: Apr 9, 2021]
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZ1oYiR5VpM – Hellinger Family Constellation Introduction, by Emily Waymire (Oct 2, 2014) [accessed: Apr 1, 2021]
https://emilywaymire.com/frequently-asked-questions/ – Family Constellations FAQs, by Emily Waymire [accessed: Apr 1, 2021]
https://isca-network.org/wp-content/uploads/Historical-developments-of-the-SCW-by-Wilfred-Nelles.pdf – Classical Family Constellations, Movements of the Soul, Movements of the “SpiritMind”: Where is Constellation Work Heading to?, by Wilfried Nelles, translated by Martin Hell (2008) [accessed: Apr 10, 2021]