Family Constellation Therapy
By Anneke Hogeland, MS, MFT, CHom
Family secrets have a way of remaining hidden. They are not talked about or expressed directly, and over time people or events become ‘excluded’ from the family story. Many life events have a direct impact on the family system and can leave an energetic imprint for many generations; examples are miscarriages, a child’s untimely death, murders, suicides, sexual abuse, wars, mental illness, criminal behavior, adoptions, artificial insemination, failed love affairs, extramarital love affair, addictions, abuse, aggression and violence, etc.
How can we uncover these unconscious patterns? How do we make the invisible visible to help someone overcome a life long problem? I have found family constellation therapy (FCT) to be an invaluable tool for identifying these deeply hidden ripples in a client’s background. I believe FCT to be a simple and practical method to illuminate a person’s existence with enormous benefit, especially for clients with deep psychological or miasmatic issues. (A recent research project reports: “I have 223 responses! At first glance, this research proves that Family Constellations is a highly effective method (on average, 86% of all respondents reported their problem as being solved – compared to 40-75% effectiveness of traditional psychotherapy).
FCT is the work of German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger(1)(2). Hellinger discovered that the family system, like any system, has its own natural order and when that order is disrupted, the effects are felt by subsequent generations as the system tries to right itself. It is based on a number of simple phenomenological principles:
- Everyone born into a family belongs equally
- “Orders of love:”
- The parents come first, the children later
- Parents give, children receive
- Birth order is significant
- Tragic events have an impact
- If anyone or anything is excluded, a systemic imbalance results
In FCT, a central tenet is that everyone that is born into a family belongs equally, and if anyone becomes excluded, that excluded person or event becomes an energetic burden that influences the family system. This burden is carried unconsciously by those born into the family at a later time. These entanglements are powerful connections, below consciousness, which create an invisible loyalty to that excluded ancestor or that ancestral event. These invisible loyalties keep individuals from attaining the full freedom to live their own lives in the here and now. Nor can the family itself live in a good order when some members of the family cannot live their own fates, but are instead living out the fates of past generations.
FCT graphically demonstrates that each of us is a part of a field or energetic patterning which we carry into all aspects of our lives. This field is variously termed an energy field, informing field, or morphogenetic field (Rupert Sheldrake (3).
“Field Theory” is the phrase used by Kurt Lewin(4) to explain this phenomenon. Lewin is considered to be the father of social psychology. For him, behavior was logical and determined by the totality of an individual’s situation. In his understanding, one’s field is defined as “the totality of coexisting facts which are conceived of as mutually interdependent.”(5) Individuals behaved differently according to the way in which tensions between perceptions of the self and of the environment were worked through. The whole psychological field, or “lifespace,” within which people acted had to be viewed in order to fully understand behavior.(6) This field includes everything we have ever encountered on any level: physically, energetically, spiritually, on a soul level, experientially, in fantasy; it all belongs equally in one’s energy field. In addition, Lewin believed that for any real change to take place, the total situation has to be taken into account. If only part of the situation is considered, a misrepresented picture is likely to develop. When people feel stuck and/or repeat the same negative behaviors, we know something is missing but the client cannot supply it consciously. FCT is a dramatic yet concrete way in which the missing pieces can be discovered and re-incorporated.
In FCT, the practitioner and client (frequently with the help of other people acting as representatives) work together to elicit these hidden aspects of the family dynamic. This is essentially taking the history of the entire family system in a direct, experiential fashion. Order becomes restored when the excluded family member is brought back into the family fold or the past traumatic event is understood and resolved. Everyone can then assume their rightful place, breathe, and pursue their own fate. Illnesses and dysfunctions can then fall away.
Field Theory and FCT offer an explanation for repeated negative patterns of behavior, which often persist despite years of good therapy. Examples are: addictions, always choosing the wrong partner, pervasive chronic depression, suicidal or homicidal tendencies, eating disorders, self-abuse, or any other deep-seated chronic disease or illness. FCT gives voice to the hidden cause that lies beyond conscious awareness.
An example from my practice is the case of a 33-year old man, sexually abused by a family friend during childhood. This young man seemingly could not heal from his past. Whatever interventions were tried, they would work for a bit and then he would relapse into his old state; depressed, anxious, and often unable to function. It seemed clear that some piece was missing, so we decided to set up a family constellation.
His constellation revealed that the original traumatic event happened in the generation of his great-great grandfather, who was excluded because he committed a murder. In the initial phase of this constellation it was clear that none of the men could find a good place for themselves, nor could they be in relationship with anyone else except through violence or aggression. A representative for that great-great grandfather was brought in. The patient was immediately drawn to this new person, showing an obvious entanglement with or loyalty to this ancestor. He had no prior knowledge of this man and only became aware of his feelings for him via the constellation, where he experienced a deep attachment and love. There was a tearful, loving reconciliation. The ancestor was able to explain that he did what he did to save the family. After that the patient was able, for the first time, to find a good place for himself in the constellation with the representatives for his parents and siblings. The entire family breathed as the system re-positioned itself. After this constellation, the young man started becoming functional, and interventions worked and held, as if a start button had been pushed. The missing piece had been found so that healing was now possible.
FCT is an elegant therapy: it fully addresses family tendencies, includes ancestral influences, and depicts the greatest possible totality of a situation. We can see the significant implications for psychotherapy. We can begin to include in our work all the information derived from family constellations, especially that information which was outside the client’s conscious awareness.
I cannot recommend the practice of Family Constellation Therapy highly enough. I have been involved with FCT for about 8 years now and it has helped me to understand myself, family systems, human nature, and my clients in a much larger totality. From FCT I have learned that what we see and hear is often only the superficial layer and that a clear totality perspective can only be gained by these deeper energetic techniques.
This work is best experienced, not merely read about. I suggest you go and see a Family Constellation yourself to fully experience this work. You can then explore how you can incorporate this work into your practice. I would also suggest that your clients do constellations and report back to you as this experience can often clarify the underlying conflict and your remedy choice. Have your own constellation done or participate by representing in someone else’s constellation. The Hellinger website (www.hellinger.com) has video links so that if you cannot attend a constellation in person, you can witness this powerful work in action. Whatever you do, you will be enriched by the experience and your practice will benefit from it.
1. Bert Hellinger is considered by many to be Europe’s most innovative and provocative psychotherapist. Described as the ultimate empiricist, Hellinger acknowledges several important influences on his life and work: his parents, whose faith immunized him against accepting Hitler’s National Socialism; his 20 years as a Catholic priest, particularly as a missionary teacher to the Zulu; and his participation in interracial, ecumenical training in group dynamics led by Anglican clergy. After leaving the priesthood, he studied psychoanalysis, and eventually developed an interest in Gestalt Therapy and Transactional Analysis. It was in Hellinger’s later training in family therapy that led him to develop the family constellation approach that has become the hallmark of his therapeutic work.
3. The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance & the Habits of Nature. R. Sheldrake, 1995
5. Lewin, 1951: 240
6. Smith, M.K. (2001). “Kurt Lewin: Groups, experiential learning and action research,” The Encyclopedia of Informal Education.
Anneke Hogeland MS, MFT (1948 – present) practiced as a homeopath, psycho therapist, and hypnosis expert in and around Berkeley, California .Anneke leads Family Constellation Therapy workshops worldwide. As the founder of HomeopathyWest, Anneke has organized many homeopathic seminars in the San Francisco Bay Area; Judy continues this work. Anneke is semi-retired now and moved to Portugal in 2018. With Judy Schriebman she is co-author of The Trituration Handbook, which further elucidates Field Theory as it applies to homeopathic practice.
Franke, Ursula. In My Mind’s Eye. Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany, 2003.
Hellinger, Bert. Love’s Hidden Symmetry. Zeig, Tucker & Co., Inc., Phoenix, AZ, 1998.
Hogeland, Anneke and Schriebman, Judy. The Trituration Handbook: Into the Heart of Homeopathy. HomeopathyWest Publishing, El Cerrito, CA, 2008.
Lewin, K. Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers. Harper and Bros., New York, NY, 1951.
Schuetzenberger, Anne Ancelin. The Ancestor Syndrome. Routledge, New York, 1999.