Family Constellation Therapy

KMK asks: “Are you familar with this type of therapy?  My brother’s girlfriend has her doctorate in Psychology and she admits she is New Age in her thinking.  She is very involved in being trained in this method and now my brother is going to attend a weekend conference on Constellation Therapy with her.  What can you tell me about it?”

This is an extremely troubling form of therapy that is steeped in New Age beliefs based on the concept that people become entangled in the fates of their ancestors through “unconscious connections.” These unconscious connections have nothing to do with repressed memory or genetic traits, but are thought to be psychic fields of energy which contain memories and therefore influence us in ways that connect us with people, places and even animals from the past. It’s all quite bizarre and totally unsubstantiated by science.

The inventor of this theory was the German-born Bert Hellinger (b 1925) a former priest turned psychotherapist. The author of more than 30 books, he is best known for this therapy technique which is popular throughout Europe.

A typical family constellation therapy session involves participants in groups of 10 to 30, led by a facilitator, who sit in a circle. One participant (referred to as a client) is chosen to work on some personal issue while the others participate either by serving as “representatives” of the client’s family or by watching closely.

The client brings to mind the issue he or she wants to resolve, usually some traumatic event from the past that is believed to have “systemic resonance” such as premature death, abortion, murder, suicide, etc. The facilitator then asks the client to select members of the circle to serve as representative members of their family. The client stands behind each member and, after placing his/her hands on their shoulders, moves them into places representing family relationships. Once they are positioned, the client – and the rest of the group – sit and observe. There is no talking or role playing, just silence.

During this time, it is believed that members of the circle are “tuning into” the resonance of the family energy field or “family soul” of the client. The participants then describe what they’re feeling, which supposedly reveals what someone in the client’s real family may be unconsciously expressing that descends from a previous generation. It is thought that the living family member may be repeating the fate, or compensating for, what happened in the past. Facilitators then seek some kind of healing resolution.

As of 2021, numerous studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of this therapy and the conclusion is that “the quantity and overall quality of the evidence is low.”

It is also important to note that Hellinger subscribed to many disturbing and controversial ideas. For instance, he believed that the perpetrators of incest should not be punished because it is commonly caused by a wife who withdraws sexually from her husband, causing a daughter to step in, even though she may not be consciously aware of why she’s doing it.

He also believed breast cancer victims might have a death wish due to a woman’s “unconscious war with her mother.”

He believes homosexuality resulted when a boy felt he had to assume the feelings of a dead sister when there were no other female siblings in the family to do it.

Perhaps most controversial was his poem dedicated to Adolf Hitler in which he asks readers to identify something of themselves in Hitler, then learn to respect that part of themselves.

That his bizarre ideas have caused pain and suffering on some clients is attested to by this testimony by a skeptic from South Africa who writes:  “I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been in a family constellation workshop.  It cost a few thousand rand [$275] . . .  for a single day workshop. Not only was it not helpful, it was also damaging because it said a lot of negative things about my family that have no basis in reality, and I believed them at the time.  Which is not to say there’s no validity in understanding how family structure and history can influence people, but the workshops are way beyond that, based on a set of so-called “universal laws”.

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