What Happens in a Family Constellation Workshop
After a relaxing introduction the constellations begin. The facilitators and participants sit around in a circle. A participant then requests to do a constellation to help with their particular issue.
Next the client’s concern is clarified. Usually they will want a better relationship with family members. Sometimes they are concerned about another family member’s health of behaviour or their own health or behaviour. Constellations can often help with these matters as entanglements in the family system can often worsen illnesses and destructive behaviours. It is important to be precise and serious about the concern so the constellation can have the best chance of being effective.
After clarifying the issue with the participant, the group leader or facilitator then asks a few questions about the family of which the individual is a member. The essential questions are:
- Who belongs to the family?
- Are there any stillborn members of the family, or any who have died young? Has there been any special fate in the family, for example someone with a disability?
- Was one of the parents or grandparents engaged, or married before, or in a significant prior relationship?
Any further questioning usually hinders openness to information which emerges simply by observing the constellation. This is true both for the facilitator as well as the representatives. This is also the reason why the facilitator declines any prior conversations with the client or extensive questionnaires. In addition, it is generally best if the client remains silent during the constellation, and that the representatives refrain from asking the client any questions.
The client is then asked to choose individuals from the group, men representing men and women representing women, to take the position of family members: father, mother, sister, etc. It does not matter if the representatives resemble the family member or not. This represents a first step towards withdrawing inwardly, and collecting oneself, and letting go of old images and ideas about one’s family. The client then positions family members in a way that represents their relationship. This uses two basic dimensions: distance between individuals and the direction which they face. Once the constellation is shaped in these terms, the facilitator asks the client to sit and watch. The facilitator then inquires from each of the representatives how they are feeling.
Remarkably, the feelings of each individual commonly come very close to the feelings that the client believes that family member has. The representatives do not invent these feelings. They are simple statements of how they feel emotionally and in their bodies. i.e. The person representing the client’s sister may say “I am feeling weary. I am looking at my father and wanting him to look back at me.”
The facilitator now moves an individual nearer to or further from another and may invite that person to say a few words (as given by the facilitator) to another. The result of the move or the words is then assessed. Often quite a simple move causes a reshaping of feeling throughout the whole group. For these moves to be genuinely helpful the facilitator needs:
- to be well grounded in family systems theory
- to have deep respect for the facts and not be seduced by magical thinking
- to be capable of “phenomenological presence”. That means being able to stay non judgementally open. This is surprisingly difficult. At the same time it is very easy for highly ungrounded people to fool themselves that they can do this.
- to draw on the above three skills to make intuitive leaps where necessary and then to be able to test those leaps against the known facts.
As the interactions continue the tensions in the constellation lessen and the entanglements in the relations between the members are unraveled. When a significant flow of natural affection through the group is achieved the client is usually asked to take his/her place once more within the representation of his own family. This is commonly a highly emotional moment of realization for the client. S/he now finds themselves in a representation where love flows without distortion by jealousy, distrust, resentment or any other of the many means whereby it has been formerly blocked. The participant can thereby experience membership of a radically transformed family and feels supported by others and open to others in a way that may be radically new. The participant experiences this through all the senses as they gaze into people’s eys , feel their embraces and hear the sounds that go with it.This is much more powerful than an intellectual understanding alone and it can create the impetus for significant healing down the track.
Most constellations require between 2 to 10 representatives. The rest of the participants sit in the circle observing respectfully. Benefit is not only gained from doing your own constellation. As a participant you get to experience different positions and different entanglements in family and organizational systems. This allows you to experience both greater insight and more naturally flowing compassion.
Examples of Aspects of Constellations
- The Sister Who Died Young
A client who has problems getting on with his siblings selects a representative for his father, mother, his/her siblings and one for himself. He then sets them up in a space, and they are all looking in one direction. That is very strange, and it suggests that somebody has been forgotten or excluded. Then the client suddenly remembers, “Oh Yes! … there was a sister who was handicapped and died at three months of age.” So a representative for that dead sister is selected and is placed in front of the others. The other representatives then feel a sense of relief. The family is complete again. The client now has a different picture of the cause of difficulties with his siblings and he also heas an image of including the forgotten sister which helps him to relate with his siblings in a more relaxed way.
- The Father’s Former Wife
A woman presented for a constellation because she has had serious difficulties getting on with her mother since childhood. Her siblings did not seem to have the same problem.
It turned out that this woman’s father had been married and divorced before he met her mother. A former wife of the father will often be represented by a child of the second wife. So one of the daughters of the second wife will feel emotions that belong to the first wife. She becomes angry with her father and nobody knows why. She may also have an unexplained rivalry with her mother. She is in fact experiencing the feelings that belong to the father’s former wife. That is a result of the family soul/system maintaining a place for everyone, including the forgotten ex-wife.
In the constellation, the husband, will look at the ex wife and will tell her: “I am sorry I hurt you. I honor you as my first wife”. And the second wife will tell her: “You are the first. I am the second one. Please be kind if I keep my husband and please be kind to my children”. And then the daughter who represented the former wife no longer needs to do so and she can tell the ex wife “I am my father and mother’s daughter”. And she can tell her father: “You are my Dad, I am only your daughter. I have nothing to do with your former wife.” She can now tell her mother. “You are my mother. I am your daughter. Please be kind.” This frees the daughter from the entanglement and allows the whole family, including the ex wife, to relate more healthily.
- Acknowledging Aboriginal Ancestry
Often people find their roles as representatives help them to silently deal with their own issues. For example a very fair complexioned man had just discovered his grandmother was an Aboriginal. He was having trouble coming to terms with this. No one else in the group was aware of this. Nonetheless he was chosen out of 30 participants to represent a grandfather who had trouble acknowledging displaced aboriginals . The family farm had been established on land used for hunting and fishing by Aboriginals. Finally the grandfather’s representative was able to acknowledge the Aboriginals with respect. This move was not only healing for the client’s family, it also helped the representative more fully acknowledge his own Aboriginal ancestry.
- The Young Man Afraid of Becoming a Father
Another example is a young man who wanted to become a father but at the same time was very scared of the responsibility. Again other members of the group were not aware of this. During the workshop he was repeatedly chosen for father roles. After the workshop he said that he had become much more comfortable with the idea of being a father.
The Holding Circle
Meanwhile participants, who are still sitting in the circle during a constellation, are able to observe the whole process more objectively. They get more of an overview of what is happening in the system, as well as getting a rest from being a participant. They also have an important role supporting the constellation by holding its energy.
Constellations done around organizations are similar, except people from the organization are represented. The principles that allow energy and respect to flow in organizations are similar but distinct. Just as in families, an entanglement that can cause unexplainable difficulties in an organization. An example of this is the failure of an organization to acknowledge its founders. This work shows that despite seeming innocent, these sorts of omissions have drastic consequences. Resolution of these entanglements in a constellation can make it much easier for the client to then deal with the organization in real life.
Many people find that this is a powerful approach to unraveling knotted attitudes that are long standing. One of its striking features is the way in which the presence of supporting figures, such as long dead parents or grandparents, can radically transform the feeling of a key individual. The feeling of support coming down through time strengthens the identity and enables the expression of openness to another to arise. So people are able to let go of previously locked-in feelings of resentment, jealousy, etc., In this way they can open up to a new experience of others in their family. Once a client has done a constellation to resolve a particular entanglement, a healing movement in the family system can begin to operate spontaneously without any further willful effort by that client.
After a day or weekend workshop it is common that participants feel a much stronger sense of belonging with each other, belonging with their family, friends and work colleagues, and belonging in the world. This is a measure of the improved flow of love energy and respect. This is because a common theme of the helaing this work achieves is that it finds a way for aperson to feel they belong comfortably to bigger systems, like their family, without having to give up their individuality.