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Family Constellations: A controversial and bold ‘development’ in therapeutic practices

In one-on-one constellation sessions, inanimate objects such as dolls represent family members. Photo: Robyn Fergus

From the courtrooms of Mexico, through university masters programmes, to several doctoral theses in circulation on the topic today, Family Constellations is a ‘work’ or ‘modality’ that has undergone much research and scrutiny in its relatively short but controversial 30 years of existence.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to observe a Family Constellations (FC) session by facilitator Robyn Fergus, who worked for Woolworths for 22 years as a planning manager in buying teams and then in IT before leaving it all behind after attending a Family Constellations session and opening up her own practice called Inner Peace Healing in Hout Bay, Cape Town.

Family Constellations or Familienstellen was founded in the 1990s by Bert Hellinger, who was born Anton Hellinger in Nazi Germany in 1925. Throughout his life — which ended in 2019 — Hellinger walked a number of paths, from practicing as a priest in the Catholic church to immersing himself in psychotherapy, spiritual and meditative practices, and educational didactic work during a 16-year stint as a missionary in rural KwaZulu-Natal in the 1970s and 1980s.

Hellinger’s time in KwaZulu-Natal is argued as an important informant of Family Constellations as he was influenced by living in and among local rural communities. As he observed oral traditions, he was struck by transgenerational impacts like respect for family hierarchy and ancestors, and the dignity of elders in the culture, which would later form a large part of the Family Constellations process.

Clinical psychologist and Family Constellations facilitator Jackeline Plank explains: “Hellinger walked in with a different perceptual lens that is a hybrid accumulation of five arteries of knowledge. In psychology, he cherry-picked from drama therapy and gestalt therapy. From the Catholic church he cherry-picked various biblical rules and themes, from the rural educational context he cherry-picked what he learnt about family structures and hierarchy; but the genius was that he let himself cross-pollinate in ways that most people weren’t doing at that time.”

Hellinger’s “hybrid accumulation of knowledge” might have been revolutionary, if not confusing and at times baffling.

When Hellinger returned to Germany in the 1990s, he left the church and immersed himself in psychotherapy training and developed his idea of Family Constellations as a “relief” or “healing” agent, which steadily began to gain traction as a movement in psychotherapy.

As fast as the Family Constellations movement gained traction, so did criticism of Hellinger, such as when, at a lecture in Norway in 2007, he articulated  some questionable views that bordered on misogyny, antisemitism and homophobia. In her dissertation, Liz Jelinek reported that Hellinger had dedicated a poem to Hitler in which he wrote that, “Hitler was no better or worse than any man” (sic).

On this, Tanja Meyburgh, a counselling psychologist, Family and Systems Constellations trainer and supervisor, explains: “Hellinger says that we need to be able to have compassion for both the perpetrator and the victim if we are going to help both… The work was developed post-war to help the second generation of post-war Germany, so he worked a lot with descendants of perpetrators. So what people think he is saying is that they don’t have individual responsibility but they do have individual responsibility but Hellinger says that Hitler did not operate on his own, he was part of a much bigger systemic movement that was happening… 

“Hellinger had a lot of time to think about good and evil and in the end he said that good and evil is quite a complicated construct because people can do very evil things with a good conscience and people can do good things and feel very guilty about it.”

The work and the practice of Family Constellations continued to develop and quickly spread from Germany where it began to the US, South America, Asia and Australia and reached South African shores in 2002 when Ursula Franke-Bryson, a doctor in Systemic Constellations and author of In My Mind’s Eye – Family constellation in individual therapy and consultation presented a Family Constellations workshop to a group of psychologists in Cape Town.

So, what is Family Constellations?

As the name indicates, the family system is the “blueprint” for all other systems that one encounters in one’s life and, essentially, past patterns or issues in a family system (which can span generations) affect one’s present life.

Hellinger purported that there are three basic orders of life: The right to belong in a family system, the hierarchy of a family system and, lastly, balance between giving and taking in a family system. Ruptures or contraventions in one or all of these basic orders of life in the family system (which can span generations), whether intentional or not, cause problems (also known as “entanglements”), for example, in interpersonal relationships or at work. This entanglement is said to manifest in issues ranging from illnesses and addiction to depression and anxiety.

Hellinger proposed that, if we know and understand these basic orders of life, we can “consciously integrate them into our daily routine and act according to them, turning our view and our behaviour into something positive that enables us to live an easier and happier life”.

Meyburgh explains how looking at a person’s ancestry can help work through a problem: “When we look at a family problem we look at historical parts of the system, sometimes as far back as four generations, in order to understand what’s happening in the present and how parts of the past are playing out in the present.”

She adds: “What we find when we go back and look at this trans-generational system is we can start to see patterns and things that may not make sense in the person’s own life or in the current organisational climate, but it does make sense if we go back.”

Plank explains: “Family Constellations is the process that is used to move beyond life’s entanglements and back into the flow of one’s life. As a facilitator you understand the symptom, you see how the symptom is working and then you need to find the “seed” event of this symptom and then address the seed event. And then the love can flow and it is resolved.”

What does a session look like?

I had read incidents of skeptics attending a Family Constellations session and coming out the other side fully convinced of the seemingly esoteric, parapsychological modality’s therapeutic abilities.

In a reflective article published on Medium in 2018, Alice Cheshire, hailing from the US, initially described the “business” as “hokey as hell”.

“I had a Family Constellation session last Saturday in Austin, with a group of kooky folks who do this regularly … I’m sharing my thoughts, after spending a week to digest and process the experience I had last weekend, which has been nothing short of incredible,” Cheshire writes.

Peer Sessions at Inner Peace Healing (Image Robyn Fergus)

For Fergus, the experience proved conclusive: “My constellation was for asthma that had worsened after the passing of my mother. I was on two medications and they made no difference. In the constellation, the facilitator brought in a representative for my mother’s guilt that I was carrying. I gave it back to my mother saying that I was too small to carry this guilt for her. My chest felt like a steel girdle had been removed and I could breathe again. That is when I knew that I had to include Family Constellations in my healing toolbox that I offered to clients,” she explains, adding that her first constellation helped her restore balance to the “second order of life”, the order of giving and taking in a family system.

Albeit intrigued, my own experience attending a Family Constellations session left me feeling generally unsure of what to make of what I had observed.

A humble group of seven, we removed our shoes, gathered in Fergus’s gently aromatic studio around a big rectangular woollen carpet (which would come to represent the morphic field) and Fergus began the session with a breathing exercise to “ground” the group.

When we opened our eyes, the constellation was in session and Fergus, privy to the client’s problem and a bit of history, called for someone from the group to represent the client, the client’s late mother, as well as the client’s son.

These three “representatives” stepped up and placed themselves in relation to one another on the carpet. If the client had a good relationship with her mother it is alleged that the representatives would be placed very close to one another.

However, this was not the case here.

There was apparent tension displayed between the person representing the client and the person representing the client’s late mother, with the former moving around the carpet, almost seeming to want to get away from the person representing the client’s late mother.

Tension between the person representing the client and the person representing the client’s son was also quite evident, to the extent that the person representing the client’s son reported having felt physically ill.

Throughout the session, Fergus was studying every move the representatives made, regularly checking in with the client to see how they felt about the movements they were observing.

Every now and then, Fergus would check in with the representatives to see how and what they were feeling and prompted the representatives to say a line or two, like: “I am your mother. I am big. You are small.” It was later explained to me that this helped establish “hierarchy” — a cornerstone in the practice of FC.

Towards the end of the session, which lasted an hour and a half, Fergus stepped in to facilitate a few movements between the representatives on the carpet.

Then, everyone returned to their seats for another breathing exercise and patted themselves down which was explained as a kind of “ritual” to break the energy bonds between the representatives and the family members they had been representing.

The client and the group were advised to try not to think or talk about the session to anyone for at least two weeks as I was told this could disrupt the work that had just taken place.

Meyburgh explains that what happens in a session is not to be mistaken for “spirit possession” or “talking through someone” like channelling, but rather “the positioning of the people in the constellation, what they experience in that moment, by tuning in with their body to the field of knowing that we work within constellation”. 

“It is described by Rupert Sheldrake as “morphic resonance”, and by native American Indians as the “indigenous field”, explains Meyburgh.

“Perhaps something like Jung’s collective unconscious. And in that way they can sense into what it is like to stand as that person in that particular system. It takes no special skill. Anyone can do it. The person who represents may also have an important experience of understanding or healing in the role that they are in. Even the witnesses watching might resonate with the story and find meaning and understanding for their own situation. So ultimately the group experiences are completely varied, but many people report feeling a sense of belonging after the session,” adds Meyburgh.

Family Constellations sessions usually take place indoors in a quiet, designated studio space but can also take place outdoors. Since the Covid-19 outbreak last year, Family Constellations have sometimes been facilitated via Zoom.

A session traditionally takes place in groups of five to 18 people. However, Meyburgh says there have been occasions where up to 100 people have been present.

A constellation is open to anyone. People in the group usually don’t know each other; anthropologist, counsellor and Family Constellations facilitator Lindiwe Mthembu-Salter explains the reason for this is “so that the past thoughts, and previous judgements about what one knows about a person, do not enter the neutral space of a set constellation”.

One person in the group is the “client” who comes with their problem and the rest of the people in the group will represent the client’s various family members when the Constellation is in session.

“The client observes and the representatives note body sensations, emotions or urges to move. There could even be a representative of an emotion or significant objects emanating from the client’s story,” says Mthembu-Salter.

There is no set time to a session, which can vary depending on a client’s issue or “what shifts need to happen in the family constellations process at hand. One might need multiple sessions or a stand-alone session, but healing has a delicate simplicity that cannot be generalised,” adds Mthembu-Salter, who has been in sessions lasting up to three hours.

In the case of one-on-one constellation sessions, certain inanimate objects like stones or dolls are used to represent a client’s family members. Fergus works with dolls in one-on-one sessions and says she either chooses the dolls or lets the client choose the dolls.

“I then place the dolls on a table. I describe it to clients as follows: Imagine that you are holding two magnets. You feel the forcefield between them. Then suddenly the client finds a place where they stick together. That is how it feels for me when I hold the dolls over the table. There is a place exactly where it wants to be placed. Once the dolls are set up I ask them what they feel when they look at the way the dolls are set up,” says Fergus.

“In a one-on-one session it’s down to the facilitator working with the client to see what needs to be revealed in a session,” she adds.

How does it actually work?

As mentioned earlier, the process of Family Constellations is said to work with phenomena known as the “knowing field” and the “morphic field”. The knowing field was a term coined in 1999 by German psychiatrist and Family Constellations facilitator Albrecht Mahr. 

Elizabeth Maureen Jelinek in her dissertation titled Epigenetics: The Transgenerational Transmission Of Ancestral Trauma, Experiences, And Behaviors — As Seen In Systemic Family Constellations, writes that Mahr suggested “the knowing field carries information from the ancestors to individuals in the present. He contends the knowing field also can carry information from the ancestors to representatives in a constellation.”

British author and parapsychology researcher Rupert Sheldrake proposed the concept of morphic fields and morphic resonance in 1981 as “organising fields of animal and human behaviours, mental activities and/or social and cultural systems, and contain inherent memories that are shaped by the influences of previous generations”.

These organising fields of behaviour are proposed to be able to surround and extend through family systems. The morphic field is what is said to carry information “from the past to the present, and then to the future”, says Sheldrake.

In a video titled Morphic Fields and Family Constellations uploaded last year, Sheldrake uses the example of the behaviour of schools of fish and flocks of birds that rapidly change direction without bumping into one another; he suggests the human family system is much the same and that members of the group are bonded via the morphic field that representatives in a Family Constellation are said to “tap into”.

Unlike traditional psychology, a Family Constellation is intended as a once-off session. Some people report an immediate effect, others describe the process coming to completion only two years after their first constellation experience.

Meyburgh says that the cost of a constellation depends on the facilitator, their qualifications and the nature of the constellation they are facilitating, but can range between R800 to R1,100 for a one-on-one session and between R200 and R400 for each representative in a group session.

“There are no pricing guidelines due to the wide reach of the work across disciplines. Each facilitator is suggested to work according to their own communities and expertise,” she says.

Mthembu-Salter says people usually seek Family Constellations sessions when they experience repeated patterns and wish to transform from an unhealthy system into a healthy one.

“People seem to need family constellations to be able to identify the current state of relationships in their family system when problems present themselves as causes of confusion, needing clarity as self-management especially over ruptures like losses, death, addictions or illnesses,” she says.

Plank describes needing a constellation when the flow of one’s life feels ‘blocked’, adding, “Hellinger says suffering is when love stops flowing. In any system, there is a flow of love that cascades like a waterfall. Something blocks or prevents that love from flowing and you get symptom representation, from a migraine to depression to anxiety.”

Criticisms and risks

Family Constellations has been criticised for not being evidence-based. At a lecture in Norway in 2007, Hellinger is reported to have admitted that his work is completely based on observation.

He said: “All this is based on observation. I have no theory about it. I have seen thousands of family constellations, and I exchanged my observations and findings with many of my colleagues who also do constellations. We found some basic laws operating in families. But you cannot use them like a theory. They point in a direction, but every family constellation is different.”

Since its inception in South Africa, a regulatory board called the Systemic Constellations Association of South Africa (SCASA) has been established based on the International Systemic Constellations Association (ISCA). It has a comprehensive directory of registered facilitators and a handful of trainers qualified to train Family Constellation facilitators, along with an ethical code of conduct that contains rules and regulations on competence, training, boundaries and professional responsibility among other things co-created by the SCASA board in 2008.

The board is chaired by Meyburgh, one of the first people to bring Family Constellations work to South Africa. SCASA is not regulated by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). Facilitators and trainers who are not medical doctors or psychologists are not required to be registered with the HPCSA in order to practice Family Constellations, even though some Family Constellations facilitators are also qualified psychologists or medical doctors and are registered with both the HPCSA and SCASA boards.

Because Family Constellations work does not require one to have a background in medicine or psychology, clinical psychologist Dr Natalie Kerr has expressed concern that, if done incorrectly, the work could cause more harm than good.

“I think there is a place for it but, as with any therapeutic method, the approach should be appropriate to the specific client. Also, most importantly, any treatment that ventures into the field of psychology needs to be carried out by a professional who has received proper training, has passed the HPCSA board exam and is registered with the HPCSA.

“One cannot practice psychology in South Africa without these qualifications. Yes, it’s possible that some people do benefit in some way from these interventions like Family Constellations but ultimately there is still a reason why it takes years to qualify as a psychologist. For example,  issues may emerge in therapy that an improperly trained facilitator may not be trained to handle adequately and in those instances, clients may be harmed or left worse off in the long term.”

Meyburgh says the risks lie with insufficient training, or self-understanding and pre-existing ethical or controversial practices that are attempted to be integrated into the Family Constellations work.

“We must remember that the people who practice this work, and even the founder, have their own shadows and issues that they bring. This is why the associations support ongoing training, development and mentoring or supervision for practitioners, to stay professionally accountable. It’s important to work with someone whom you trust.  I always refer people to the SCASA website to find a registered facilitator.”

“There are unfortunately also people who facilitate the work unethically, as in all professions. And, like the HPCSA, if they are not registered with our own association, they cannot be disciplined,” echoes fellow SCASA board member Mthembu-Salter who says if a facilitator registered with SCASA is reported for misconduct they can have their names removed from the website directory.

While Family Constellations still seemingly has a long way to go before it can leave the realm of pseudoscience and enjoy mainstream acceptance in orthodox scientific psychology. Fergus sums up the therapy in the words of fellow constellator, Max Dauskardt, as an “open door to enter into an altered state of consciousness”.

Fergus adds: “When I’m working, I’m stepping in and out of that door. I think that is what we do as facilitators — we are stepping in the other realm of connection that allows us to have glimpses of what needs to be revealed for the client to bring a healing movement into their lives.” DM/ML

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  • Strong echoes of Emile Durkheims classic theory of Anomie. For me, the economic regime has morphed our society bonds into individual institutionalised parts, and so we have forfeited the benefit of extended family and close social bonds. Also, conflicting norms erode the ties of society.