What Exactly is Family Constellation
an Interview with Svagito Liebermeister
Q: Can you give a description of what ‘Family Constellation’ is?
S: Family Constellation is a process in which we recreate the structure of a person’s family. This is usually done in a group where one participant chooses other group members to represent important members of his family – either of his family of origin or of his present family. And he chooses someone to stand in for himself. Those family members whose personal lives were unusually difficult in some way–for example those who died young or who had a certain disability or who were separated from the family for some reason or another–these are the especially important ones.
The participant takes each member and places him or her in a spot in the room, and has them stand there in relation to each other according to how he feels in the moment. He doesn’t give them any special hand gestures or have them take up a particular body posture, he just has them stand there. Each person standing in for a family member is then asked how he feels. What we’ve found is that even without knowing any details about the person they are standing in for, that family member’s energy is being represented quite accurately. So what we have is a montage of parents and children, brothers and sisters, and so on standing before us, but what we actually notice is how the relations within the family system have suddenly become visible to us.
Now the therapist moves the representatives to different places in relation to each other and checks with them where they feel more at ease. His aim is to find a natural balance where they can each feel more relaxed. He also asks each person to say simple sentences to each other that clarify a healthier relationship. In doing this he stays in close contact with each one and is guided by the immediate feedback he receives from each of them.
The understanding behind this way of working is that in a family system each member has the same right to belong and needs to be acknowledged as such. If this has not happened in the past to certain family members, then frequently the present family members carry the burden of this imbalance. For example, if your mother’s father died when your mother was still a child, it might have been too painful for her to fully face the loss of her parent. In this event, you, as your mother’s child, might come represent this forgotten parent for her. So one would say the system tries to complete itself, even when this is not “fair” on the newcomer and creates a life burden for them. Children in this way become entangled with the people of their past family without knowing about it.
Q: As if the mother puts the expectations she had of the absent father onto the child…?
S: Yes, but it’s not a conscious expectation, it happens unconsciously. Neither the parents nor the children have any say in it. You could call it the ‘family conscience’. It is like a law operating unknowingly within the family.
Q: This is very interesting. When did you start working with this technique, and why?
S: I first started to use these new methods in 1997 in my other therapy groups and counselling trainings. But I was quickly impressed by what participants got from this way of understanding the family system and so I started to run purely Family Constellation groups. I had heard about Family Constellation long before but had not been interested until I participated in a group myself.
I remember always having had the feeling I wanted to get away from my own family and I was never really interested in my ancestors. Later I noticed a kind of denial in myself, an arrogance in relation to them, and I started to pay more attention to what Osho actually means when he talks about ‘loving myself’. Loving myself included loving my parents and their parents – all those people who where here before me, who made my coming to this life possible. For me this work was very much connected to saying a basic ‘yes’ to life and to myself.
You cannot add or take anything away from yourself, and in the same way you cannot add or take anything away from your parents. You can only receive your parents’ energy – what we’ve been calling ‘taking’ the parents. You take your parents with deep respect and gratitude. And then, without trying to go beyond, you find yourself beyond — beyond your own family.
Q: Can you give an example of what actually happens during a Family Constellation session?
S: Yes. Let’s say a young man has selected representatives to stand in for his father, mother, a sister and himself, and he has placed them in the room in a way that they all face in one direction. This usually indicates that someone from this family has been forgotten or excluded. When I ask about any important incidents that happened in this family, the person might say: “Oh yes, I actually had an elder brother who died soon after he was born. We never talked about it.” When we then select a representative for this dead brother and place him just in front of the others, they all may feel a big relief that this person who was missing before is now in the picture. If the parents had not really dealt with the pain of losing a child then one of their other children–our young man, our client, for example–might be representing him in the family. He could be in danger of becoming sick or even of dying. But by bringing this missing child into the picture, we are able to resolve an identification of this sort and find that child’s rightful place within the family system.
Another common example might be of a man who is married for the second time after having abandoned his former wife in an unresolved and perhaps unjust way. If he now has children in his new marriage, it is likely that one of his daughters will represent his former partner and behave towards him like an angry and betrayed lover rather than as a child. When this becomes evident in a constellation, we can see if our client is ready to acknowledge his former wife and accept his guilt and responsibilities. This will greatly relieve his daughter, who then can behave towards him like a child towards her father.
As you can see it is usually the children or the newcomers who carry the consequences for what was not properly dealt with in the past. Out of their unconscious love – what we sometimes call ‘blind’ love – and out of their wish to belong to the family system, they take on a destiny which is not theirs, and then they suffer the consequences. Obviously they cannot relieve someone else of their guilt or suffering, so the suffering is simply multiplied and passed on to another generation. In Family Constellation we bring all this to light and ask everyone to accept the consequences of their actions.
Q: What kind of person chooses to do this work?
S: Anyone who is interested in understanding his conditionings–why he behaves in a certain way–and who has the courage to face reality, which can sometimes be painful. So this work is for people who want to start looking at themselves more closely as much as for those who have already done a lot of looking. It brings a new dimension to one’s vision because it goes beyond the individual viewpoint, it includes the collective or systemic dimension.
Q: Do concepts such as having ‘honour’ and ‘respect’ towards the family create any problem?
S: Many people misunderstand the meaning of these things. To ‘respect’ your father doesn’t mean you have to follow him or do what he says. Respect in this way means being grateful for the fact that your parents gave birth to you, it has nothing to do with what kind of personality they have. It is a form of bowing down to existence itself, a gesture of reverence for the fact that it is through these people that life has come to you. It is a spiritual act essentially, and goes beyond the psychological dimension.
In this way I can honour my parents and yet still disobey them. In fact honouring means taking what you received from your father and mother and then being creative with it in your own way. One has to grow beyond one’s parents. Many people follow what their parents ask from them or do what their parents tell them to do, but that doesn’t mean to say they respect them. Quite often they follow them out of fear and repress their hatred for them. And the people who emphatically go against their parents are not much better. They are reacting against them, which means they are still caught up with them but in a negative way. Rebellion has to be done with deep respect and love.
Q: How do you see the way this work connects to a more primal type of therapy, which people are more familiar with?
S: This is related to what I was just talking about. In a way, primal work is a first step: If we have been very repressed, we have to bring out all our suppressed energies, all the anger — all the spiders and cobwebs out from our unconscious. This has a cleansing effect on both the body and the mind.
Primal work is good for that. It helps you to move your energy, and parents are a good excuse to bring that out because we have all experienced suffering in our family in one way or another, and we would all like to throw responsibility onto someone else, that’s part of our unconsciousness. In the beginning it is okay and we have to do it if only to be able to free up our energies. But when we have done enough of it, and shifted what is accessible from the surface of our unconscious in this way, then it is time to take another step. This is to understand the way in which we are our parents. We are not separate islands; nobody ever asked us which parents we wanted and we will never be able to create a new pair for ourselves! We are deeply connected to our past, just as a tree is connected to its roots. We cannot ignore that.
Q: Do you think Family Constellation is particularly helpful in facing a specific kind of problem? And, if so, which one?
S: The new insight contributed by Family Constellation is the way it shows how many of our problems have systemic causes and cannot be understood only in an individual context. We have to include the family, our ancestors, our culture–the collective dimension.
Bert Hellinger, who is the originator of this work, works a lot with terminally sick people and has shown the systemic entanglements that lead to certain diseases. To some extent we all are entangled. Family Constellation is specifically helpful when those facts about one’s family which cause entanglements become known to us–an unusual death or the disease of a family member, for example.
Q: How is this work related to meditation? What is different when this work is used in the context of the spiritual teacher Osho*?
S: Like all therapies, it helps to clear the mind of conflicts. As Osho says, it is easier to move into meditation if your mind is relaxed than if you are burdened with conflicts. For me this work is not trying to change or fix or improve anything, nor are we trying to heal anybody in the normal sense of the word, it is more about being connected to a feeling of ‘yes ‘ towards life – life just as it is, now, here. And that is what meditation is all about. It simply wants to bring something to light and into your awareness, trusting that this insight will eventually change how you live your life – without any struggle or push, without ‘doing’ in the normal sense.
But of course this is only a method. What really counts is the understanding of the person using this method. An Osho therapist is basically a meditator. His interest is to prepare the ground for a person to move more easily into meditation. The technique of Family Constellation is very simple, anyone can learn its basic tools. But many people start using this technique without being grounded in meditation. And how one uses a technique makes all the difference. An ordinary therapist might be satisfied if the client feels a certain relief for the moment, but an Osho therapist will make it clear that this is only a beginning. He will create or strengthen the client’s interest in meditation, not only in order to have a peaceful mind, but to find something beyond the mind itself.
*Osho is an enlightened mystic who inspired millions of people around the world to know themselves more deeply. He created many unique meditation techniques.
Q: Would one Family Constellation session be enough?
S: Usually you do one constellation, at the most one constellation for your present family (or current relationship) and one for your family of origin. Then you let whatever you saw in that do its work within yourself in your meditation. Sometimes some new facts may come up that you didn’t know before, then you can look at it again and you may find a deeper layer. But it is not like other therapies where you meet your therapist every week.
In Family Constellation you see something and then you go your way, trusting your own internal shifts and changes. You can do this work in an individual session or in a group. It is easier in a group, as you can use other group participants to play out your family members. In an individual session it works slightly differently: the therapist has to use devices such as cushions or shoes to stand in for family members and then has the client experience the different positions himself.
Q: Why do you think this work has been so successful with people?
S: I think that the time was ripe for this discovery. In the world and in the way we are living, we are increasingly coming to see that we are not isolated individuals, but a part of many systems and of more and more complex systems. Our decisions and acts have to be understood in a context; what may be appropriate in one system may not be appropriate in another.
I think people are experiencing the conflicts arising out of this growing complexity of life more than ever before. So there was a need to bring a clarity and understanding about a certain systemic order that is mostly operating on a very unconscious level. The family is the first and most basic system we meet in life (and some of its operating laws can be applied to other relationship systems as well, like work groups, organisations, even ethnic groups). And of course the principles of this work are very easy for anyone to understand, you don’t need to have done a lot of work on yourself. It adds a new aspect to therapy and can help to bridge therapy with meditation.