What is Family Constellation?

Family Constellation is a therapeutic work - usually experienced in groups - that reveals relationship dynamics and aims to achieve resolution for a specific issue, or to move towards change and transformation. It is also called Systemic Constellation, because the process considers the whole Family System, with all its members, including previous generations.

Despite its somehow misleading name, Family Constellation has nothing to do with stars, Astronomy or Astrology. But it refers to the interconnectivity of the family members, how they affect each other and how the ‘whole’ is also affected by each individual.

Sometimes you might be feeling stuck, not knowing what to do and unable to understand why you behave in certain ways. Or you have been carrying unresolved issues that are beyond your control. Constantly repeating old patterns. Or you have physical and emotional symptoms that don’t seem to be your own, as if they have been ‘passed on to you’. Common statements are ‘I wasn’t being myself’ or ‘I don’t know what took over me’.

These are some examples of situations that are called ‘entanglements’, when events from the past are expressed in later relationships – in other members of the family – in impulsive and inappropriate ways, either via actions, inexplicable intense feelings or other symptoms.

These entanglements can be explored in Family Constellations in a safe and therapeutic way. In the Constellation process, images of the system will be revealed and looked at, including how people relate to and feel about each other, bringing the disruptions and repetitions to light. As consequence of the work, new relationships can be created and a new image of the system, a new perspective can be formed and felt by the client.

Family Constellation was developed by the German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger, in the 1970s. Over many years, Hellinger observed a certain loyalty and fellowship of fate in families, transmitted down the generations through a ‘family conscience’. Hellinger’s approach aims to reveal the truth of ‘what is’ and the spatial representation of the Constellation provides an insight of the hidden dynamics of the system.


What happens in a Workshop?


In a workshop, we work in a circle, one client at a time. The client is the person who has an issue, a question or problem they would like to explore in his/her own Constellation. The others in the group will be observers or representatives.

At the start, the therapist interviews the client, asking for any specific aspects of their family or life situation. This is normally a short conversation and a good therapist knows how much information is enough and necessary for that particular case.

During the Constellation, under the therapist’s guidance, the client chooses members of the group to represent specific family members or any other elements related to that particular situation. The representatives are asked not to ‘act’ or make assumptions, probably even better to forget about the client’s story and disconnect from their own thoughts.

The client is invited to place the representatives in relation to each other, creating a visual image of the family system. For example, if we set up the family of origin, we will notice how the mother, father, client and siblings relate to each other. We start to observe where they are looking at, how far they stand from each other and what each of them is experiencing in that particular dynamic.

The representatives are asked to describe what is happening for them, the sensations in their bodies, and how they feel about the other members, or anything they consider important to report. This experience is very unique and can be extremely surprising at times. The representatives are strangers and have never met any of the people they are representing. Nevertheless, their descriptions can be extremely accurate, either physically or emotionally, and might reveal intimate and hidden dynamics, that the client wasn’t aware of.


The ‘resolution’: change and transformation


Family Constellation is a solution-focused therapy, which means that there’s an aim for some sort of resolution or healing. Not a ‘final solution for everything’ but, more likely, a significant step towards change and transformation.

It is only possible to see and work with one piece of the whole picture. It is not realistic to expect to see the whole System and to solve all problems. Therefore, it is very important to define and specify what is most important for the client at that exact time. It is very important to know exactly what the client is asking for and needs to know at that moment in life. 

During the Constellation, the therapist is constantly in tune with the client and with what’s happening with the representatives. Noticing ‘what is’. The therapist then offers some sentences to be said and communicated between the representatives, and sometimes to the client too. The use of language can be quite poetic in Constellation work, in a way to touch deeply and help detangle lifelong - sometimes transgenerational - issues.

The core of the work is to recognise such family entanglements, both personal and systemic. By creating new ways of relating during the Constellation, by creating new images of the System, the client gains a new perspective of his family and, consequently, his own life. As a result, he/she feels enabled and empowered to lead life and relationships in a new and more conscious way.


And the group?


The Constellation process benefits and touches each individual in the group, regardless if they were the client, a representative, or simply an observer. By representing another person – someone they had never met before – and ‘feeling their feelings’, ‘walking in their shoes’, the representatives get deeply touched and learn something new about themselves and their own family system.

The work can be powerful and go straight into the core of the issue. It is important that participants have some sort of emotional and psychological support, and feel safe and stronger for the future ahead.


One-to-one Constellation work


The Constellation work can also be done in private, in a one-to-one setting, in many different ways. This will depend on the individual therapist, their preference and training. The individual Constellation can be done through guided visualisation, using markers or paper on the floor (as representatives), or even with toys, such as Playmobil mini figures.

In visualisation, the therapist guides the client into imagining the family members and the system, as the client describes what he/she sees happening. The work is done in a similar manner as in group, including the observation of dynamics and resolution at the end.

With markes or paper sheets on the floor, the client can step on them and have a felt sense of that specific person. In this case, the client represents each member of the family and has a more personal sensation of the dynamics in those relationships. The therapist can also step in and help to represent some members too.

Mini figures are an easy way to visualise the system and to have an overview of the dynamics of the family. This method is also very helpful when working with children and teenagers, who feel more able to talk about how they feel about the family relationships.


Is Family Constellation for me?


Every time I’m asked what Family Constellation is, I answer: ‘Only when you experience it, you will be able to fully understand what it means’. Personally, if I hadn’t tried it first hand, I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend the process or even believe it.

However, having now experienced it, having felt the deep and powerful effects that Family Constellation has on individuals and relationships, I decided not only to spread the word, but to go deeper in that field, with intensive training and practice.

I am aware that no words, books or articles will be able to explain or to give a fair idea of how you will experience it. So I would say, if a very small part of you feels curious or attracted to this work, just give it a try. It will be worth it.