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Family Constellation

Definition – What is Family Constellation?

Family constellation
Family constellation (Pixabay: © geralt)

Family Constellation is a method of family therapy or systemic therapy, in which individual persons are positioned (set up) in the room as stand-ins for family members and relationships are drawn to one another. In this way, the network of relationships within a family can be visualized. Family Constellations can be also set up on a Family Board, except when for a group, with the help of figures and symbols.

The term family constellations, systemic constellations or systemic family constellations may refer to different concepts and approaches. Thus, there are constellations that follow the approach of the family therapist Virginia Satir. In this concept, the solution is open and is developed by the client constructively. In addition, there is the method of Bert Hellinger, well-known in recent decades, in which a constellation facilitator largely dictates the solutions. There are also combinations and variants of these configurations. (See also Development of the Family Constellation).

Table of contents

  1. Definition
  2. What happens?
  3. How does a family constellation work?
  4. Development
  5. How long does a family constellation take?
  6. Flow
  7. Which roles are there?
  8. What is the hierarchy?
  9. What is an imaginative family constellation?
  10. What is an energetic family constellation?
  11. What does it really do?
  12. When is a family constellation useful?
  13. Can I do a family constellation myself?
  14. Who may perform a family constellation?
  15. What dangers are there?
  16. Criticism
  17. How to learn family constellation?

What happens in a Family Constellation?

In a constellation, the members are first arranged according to the client’s internal representation. In other words, a client positions the individual members of his family as he is currently experiencing the relationships between the individual members and his own person. He also names a stand-in for himself and positions it. His inner, perceived reality is thus made visible externally. The persons who represent the positions of individual family members do not receive detailed information about whom they represent. They empathize with their position and, from this perspective, describe what they momentarily perceive. This can already lead to astonishing situations when, for example, the "aunt" makes statements that really correspond to the real aunt. The client initially observes the events from the outside. Later, towards the end of the constellation, he can take up his own role in the family system.

How does a Family Constellation work?

Our attitude towards life and our view of the world is to a large extent shaped by our family. Here we learn the first rules and norms. Some of these rules and beliefs have been in effect for generations and can influence our feelings and actions. We are not aware of much of this. A Family Constellation provides a new image of one's own family and of our feelings towards the other members.

Those representing each family members slip into the position of another person, but do not engage in role play. In the perspective assigned to them, they can freely perceive what is actually going on inside themselves and express this. This can be e.g., statements about who is standing in the way of other people, being perceived as too close or as not belonging. Frequently, participants in the position assigned to them perceive things they cannot know in reality, e.g., that someone is missing or that the relationship between father and daughter is disturbed in some way. The constellation can thus help to clarify patterns within the family, and the implications these patterns have on their own lives or the lives of their children. The view from the outside on painful experiences, taboo topics or beliefs within the family can help to regain balance or take new developmental steps.

Development of the Family Constellation

The systemic family therapy and the beginnings of the Virginia Satir’s constellation work was founded in the late 1960s in the USA. Satir wanted to make the relationships between the family members visible through their posture. In a Family Sculpture, as she called it, the family members involved were able to pose themselves and sometimes pose the symptom as well. With exaggerated postures, they expressed their relationship to each other. The posture was exaggerated in order to make the relationship patterns clear (for example, extremely submissive or highly rational). The whole picture was static, like a sculpture. Thereafter, the family members could share their feelings that this image triggered before another member created his views on the relationships. This was the basis for further discussions and solutions. Another method developed by Satir was Family Reconstruction. In this form, the clients played scenes from their family of origin, especially those which played a burdensome role in their current lives. In this way they could develop understanding for the parent generation and for behaviors in their family and therefore see some things in a different light.

Thea Schönfelder, a German psychiatrist who was inspired by Satir's work, developed a special form of Family Sculpture. She took statements from clients literally, e.g., "I am attached to you" and let this be represented realistically by stand-ins for the family members. In addition, clients were able to relate other members to each other and allow this constellation to make and initial impression on them. Afterwards, they were asked about how they felt in their position. This procedure, asking after the perception and feelings of the stand-ins, is today a common method used in the Family Constellation. Schönfelder was also the first to employ the variant whereby stand-ins are placed without further information as to their role, gestures or posture. In addition, she and the systemic therapist Kurt Ludewig are the inventors of the Family Board. On this, a client can represent his family with wooden figures, if no members or group are available for a constellation.

Virginia Satir’s concept was further developed in Germany by Matthias Varga von Kibéd and Insa Sparrer (Systemic Structural Constellation). Thea Schönfelder's work has also significantly inspired their work.

Bert Hellinger first learned about Family Constellations from Thea Schönfelder. He made Family Constellations known to a very large audiences, especially in Germany, since he performed live performances on stage at large events of several thousand spectators. Many people therefore became acquainted with Family Constellations for the first time and considered Hellinger the inventor of the method. Hellinger expanded the constellation work through his "Orders of Love" (which assigns each member a firm place in a particular ranking), through insights from the multi-generational perspective, from the law of giving and receiving within the family or the pursuit of belonging. He chose stand-ins for the constellations who had no information about the family and had them positioned. By questioning the stand-ins on the stage, he deduced where order in the family was disturbed and positioned the stand-ins back into their right place. For many critics, his procedures and guidelines are therefore too dogmatic (he determines where the right positions are). They are even considered dangerous, because they limit the autonomy of the clients too much.

How long does a Family Constellation last?

A constellation usually lasts 1 - 2 hours, sometimes a little longer. Preliminary talks and possibly the creation of a genogram are added. Debriefing also requires time. Constellations are often performed in the context of constellation evenings or whole constellation weekends. This is so that enough people can be present who are available as stand-ins. The time should then also be scheduled, although setting up the constellation itself takes only a fraction of the time. For some profound topics, however, a single constellation is sometimes not enough, and additional constellations may be required.

Sequence of a Family Constellation

Frequently, Family Constellations are offered as part of a weekend. Most of the attendees are stand-ins, some of them have their own concerns. Depending on the methodological focus and philosophical orientation of the leader, variants are available in the course of a Family Constellation.

Preparation for a Family Constellation

It makes perfect sense to prepare for a constellation. The client should bring concrete questions for which he is looking for an answer or new solutions. Possible questions could be what impact certain familial beliefs have on his current financial situation or why he has such a strained relationship with his mother. These questions are important because the stand-ins are set up in relation to the issue at question. We recommend a preliminary talk with the coach / therapist who will facilitate the Family Constellation. Another helpful preparation is to create a genogram of the family.
Part of preparing a family constellation is choosing the facilitator. Participating in a constellation just because a suitable time-slot is available at the institute around the corner is usually not a good decision basis.

Sequence of a Family Constellation – Short version

Who belongs to the family? Who is involved in the problem at issue? Once the most important members have been named, a stand-in is selected and intuitively positioned in the room by the client. He also positions a stand-in for himself. Who stands where in the constellation is thus determined by the client’s subjective internal image. Subsequently, the stand-ins are questioned about their perceptions and their feelings. This often leads to the first insights.

Next, the facilitating therapist or coach changes individual positions and observes the effects. The client first observes the scene and the changes from the outside and returns to his position in the family system shortly before the end of the constellations. In some constellations, the stand-ins are allowed to leave their position or are led by the client to other positions, until all are satisfied, and a solution emerges. In some contexts, formulating and stating healing solutions is one of them. These may e.g., expressing love or the relationship with other members "Dear Mom, I am your son and you are my mother." Or "Dear X, you are my brother and have already died, but you remain my brother and I love you." Some sentences are specified by the facilitator, some are formulated individually by the client. Finally, all stand-ins are dismissed from their role and sent off with their own name.

What roles are there in a Family Constellation?

Familiy Constellation (iStock: © Zdenek Sasek)

Depending on the concern, the family members are set up who are involved in the specific issue. However, it may be that more members join later. Mostly father, mother, children, siblings, etc. are set up, sometimes even the grandparents. For example, a person has the role of the daughter (towards her father and mother) and at the same time the role of mother to her own daughter or son.

What is Ranking in a Family Constellation?

The term was coined by Hellinger and is based on his concept of "orders of love". As a result, everyone in the family has a specific place that is theirs alone. This is defined by a certain hierarchical ranking, which must be observed by the family members. If this hierarchy is disturbed, individual family members may become ill. The ranking is determined by the time of belonging to the family. It says that those who belong to the family first come in front of the family members who joined later. Therefore, in rank, the parents come before the children, and the first-born before their later-born siblings. The one who came first, comes first in the ranking. This is true even if the firstborn is already dead. Some are higher and therefore come first, some are lower (that is, below them) and therefore come only after. The order gets mixed up when a subordinate member rises above a member in front of him. This means, for example, that a child "presumes" to rise above his parents by taking over something out of love that is the responsibility of the parents. Beliefs here are, e.g. "I'd rather that I get sick than you."

Not only who, but also what was first in a system, takes precedence over what comes afterwards. Thus, the relationship between a couple takes precedence over the parenting. Systems within the family also have a ranking, but here the temporal ranking is reversed: the new system (e.g., the present family) takes precedence over the old system (the family of origin). In a constellation, the injured orders of ranking are to be restored.

What is an Imaginative Family Constellation?

Enough people are not always available who can act as stand-ins for a constellation. Sometimes, in coaching or psychotherapy, there is a need to deal with issues that arise without the presence of mother, father, son or daughter. Robert Dilts, one of the co-founders of the NLP, developed his method of Re-Imprinting in the late 1980s as an opportunity to carry out an imaginative Family Constellation even without stand-ins. For this purpose, so-called floor anchors (objects or just paper cards) are laid out on the floor and symbolically represent the other family members. This, too, expresses how the client inwardly experiences his family and their relationship with each other. Instead of a stand-in, the client himself turns to the different positions one after the other and senses what the respective symbolized person needs at that moment. From a meta-perspective, an observer position from the outside, he can himself formulate the necessary resources and solution thinking and let the respective person think.

What is an Energetic Family Constellation?

In an energetic Family Constellation, it is assumed that the client’s concern is already present in the "knowing field" and can be felt. It does not follow a fixed order, sometimes needs no stand-ins, but orients itself to the energy that exists in relationships and in the morphogenetic field. Often, the term "Energetic Constellation" is used only as another term for constellation work that follows no clear sequence.

Family Constellation – what real use does it have?

A Family Constellation can bring clarity to a family's relationship patterns, new insights into mechanisms and well-rehearsed patterns that we unconsciously and unreflectingly adopt in our family. Often this is the first step to new, constructive relationships in the family and in one's life. However, anyone who goes into a constellation without a concrete question cannot expect concrete answers. Therefore, a clear formulation of the concern in advance is important. Frequently, the question arises as to when a family constellation is effective. Depending on the issue, solution strategies can emerge very quickly, i.e., immediately after the constellation or within the next few days; some developments only become apparent over the course of several weeks. It may take a while for a constellation to have effect. The after effects may also include changes in areas of life that were not so much in focus and that were not initially associated with the constellation. For example, the solution of a professional problem after the unclear relationship between mother and son had been worked on. But it can also be quite possible that a constellation does not bring any clear knowledge. The question of what happens afterwards is also handled differently by the facilitators. Some recommend that the constellation and the "solution image" at first be allowed to have effect and not to talk about it. If the solution is constructive and the client leaves the constellation with a sense of relief or insight, that is perfectly legitimate. In the case of unclear conclusions, it should be possible to rework the experience with the facilitator or coach.

When does a Family Constellation make sense?

A family constellation is not a panacea and not indicated for every issue. In addition, a constellation is not synonymous with therapy. However, it can make sense if problems probably have to do with the family or have a suspected family background. Anyone who wants to do a Family Constellation should therefore have a specific question. Questions or reasons for a constellation are, for example:

  • Inexplicable, recurring strains, crises, separation or failure of life goals
  • Suspected blockages through beliefs that are current in the family system (never make debts, divorce is sin! Etc.)
  • Strong feelings of guilt, obligations or remorse that cannot be explained.
  • A suspected or actually experienced trauma within the family (if the constellation is part of a psychotherapy)
  • Quarrels, conflicts, avoidance of contact with family members (or other close persons)
  • The assumption that certain diseases could be related to the family
  • Unfulfilled desire for children
  • Inexplicable feeling of loss of a human with the suspicion of having a lost twin
  • Self-esteem problems, as far as they are justified in early childhood.
  • Etc.

Can I conduct a Family Constellation myself? In the context of self-coaching?

This should be rather discouraged. Anyone who has the suspicion that problems could have a family background can work on the family structure by creating a genogram. As with most forms of self-coaching, that is, without an accompanying coach, it is usually difficult to ask the right questions or follow-up questions them at the right time. In addition, there may be experiences or insights that cannot be identified on one’s own initiative and therefore should be sensibly accompanied by an experienced leader.

Who may conduct a Family Constellation?

A constellation can have a profound impact on the client's psyche. So, who is should facilitate lead a constellation? The procedure is not copyrighted or patented. In principle, anyone who feels called to do so can offer a constellation. Some constellation facilitators have attended a course lasting several days and yet otherwise hardly have any background in psychology, coaching or therapy. Others are well-educated through regular training for several months with regular supervision, and are also mostly a systemic coach or therapist, psychologist or social worker. A constellation can also create dynamics that an inexperienced or insufficiently trained leader cannot guide or deal with. The method the leader uses to facilitate the constellation is secondary, whether according to a certain concept or rather freely and following the inner intuition. If you want to have a constellation, you should be very careful about who you want to do it with. Often the participation in a constellation as a stand-in offers a chance to get to know the facilitator and how he deals with the clients. Caution is necessary when promises of healing are excessive.

What dangers are there in a Family Constellation?

A constellation can go very deep and bring long-buried emotions back to the surface. It can be very emotional and disturbing, not only for the clients, but also for the stand-ins. Anyone who has a constellation is often in trouble and has great burdens. In such a situation, a family constellation sometimes seems like the last salvation, and the expectations therefore are extremely high. However, this form of dealing with one's own family, often associated with pain, suffering, grief or anger, is not recommended in the case of very heavy burdens. Especially in the case very painful issues, the constellation can cause additional stress. Also, the choice of the wrong facilitator can be dangerous. There are a lot of very well educated and empathetic facilitators who treat their clients well and are also available for discussions after the constellation. But there are also people who do not have the necessary personal and professional competence and who leave their participating clients on their own. In this case, a constellation and the associated experiences can be dangerous. Sometimes remarks made by stand-ins or the image of the family are not seen as a momentary condition or expression of inner experience, but as an incontrovertible truth. This can lead to fatal consequences if no subsequent treatment takes place. Even dogmatic or insensitive interpretations on the part of the facilitator, who in this case is considered an authority, can place the client in additional distress. In the case of some disorders, moreover, such as psychosis, severe depression, a borderline disorder, epilepsy or traumas experienced are not appropriate or may be dangerous. Here is another approach in the context of family therapy makes more sense.

Criticism of Family Constellation

The dangers mentioned, if they are disregarded, are a major criticism of Family Constellations. In addition, constellations have come under criticism when people with serious concerns are spectacularly presented in mass performances on stage. Even the dogmatic approach of Hellinger and some of his followers has led to violent resistance to and skepticism towards the method. In addition, many self-proclaimed facilitators, who hardly have adequate training, are found in the Constellation market.

How can one learn Family Constellation?

There are many courses for Family Constellation work or Systemic Family Constellations, lasting from a few days to continuing occupational training with supervision in the context of a family therapy or systemic training. A constellation is not a therapy but is sometimes promoted with promises of healing. It is important to emphasize that therapy may only be performed by persons who are doctors or psychotherapists or who have permission to practice medicine according to the applicable Naturopathic Act.

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