When someone seeks treatment for an emotional problem or mental health issue, there are several options available. Some people may see a doctor for medication, whereas others may see a counselor or therapist.
One option for treating mental and emotional problems is family constellation therapy, which can help people to heal by uncovering dysfunctional family dynamics.
History of family constellation therapy & impacts of the therapeutic modality
Bert Hellinger is credited with beginning family constellation work after being drafted in the German war during the Third Reich and then spending time as a missionary in South Africa.
After studying other modalities, including Gestalt therapy, Hellinger determined that psychological symptoms resulted from the soul subconsciously trying to stay loyal to a person’s family system.
Bert Hellinger’s family constellation work focuses on the idea of the “family soul” and states that when people are not connected correctly to this system, they are deeply impacted.
When people feel that they have been disloyal to their families, they feel guilty, whereas they feel innocent when loyal to the family. Guilt surrounding disloyalty to the family system can lead to psychological distress and mental health problems.
Studies with constellation therapy have shown that this modality can be highly impactful. A recent report that reviewed the results of 12 different studies indicated that 9 studies found an improvement in mental health with this type of therapy.
Based on the available research, family constellation therapy is beneficial for treating a variety of mental health problems, which will be discussed in further detail below. An additional benefit of this modality is that it is typically brief.
Someone may be able to attend a group family constellation workshop over the course of one day, or they may identify troubling family dynamics within just a few individual sessions with a counselor or therapist.
What is family constellation therapy?
Now that you have an idea of the history and benefits of family constellation therapy, it’s helpful to understand the specifics of this modality, as well as the answer to, “How does family constellation therapy work?”
In most cases, family constellation therapy is carried out in a group setting. Therapists may host workshops, and people with no relation to each other attend to participate in family constellation sessions.
People who are seeking a resolution to a family issue are called “seekers” during these group sessions, and those who are representing the seeker’s family are called “representatives.” People chosen as representatives of the family dynamic do not know the seeker or have any background information on the seeker’s problems.
During the group sessions, the seeker brings forth issues they would like to resolve, and the representatives react to the seeker’s emotions. The therapist or facilitator may ask members about their emotional reaction to the problem the seeker brings forth.
The therapist may also place “representatives” of the seeker’s family in certain positions or have them role-play certain scenarios to replay the problems in the seeker’s family of origin.
This process is said to shed light on the nature of the seeker’s problem, and it may even help them to resolve the issue at hand. The representatives play the role of the seeker’s family relationships, and they are said to be able to feel the emotions that come up related to the seeker’s issue.
Through this process, the representatives are believed to identify the issue within the seeker’s family.
Learn more about family constellation therapy here:
Forms of family constellations
While family constellations are usually carried out in a group setting, this is not the only type of family constellation. Different types of family constellations are described below:
1. Group constellations
A group family constellation is a classical form as described above.
These family constellations involve a group of strangers coming together and playing out a person’s family issues. Some members of the group represent one member’s family, and the group works through family dysfunction together to reveal the cause of a person’s psychological distress.
Group constellations usually occur during a workshop, during which each participant has an opportunity to take on the role of “seeker” and explore the issues that have brought them to therapy.
2. Individual constellations
While less common, some family constellation therapists may use individual sessions. In these sessions, individual people may use figurines to represent their family members, or they may use art therapy techniques to recreate family dynamics.
Techniques used in family constellation therapy
The following techniques are common in family constellation therapy:
This therapeutic technique allows family problems to “play out” in a dramatic fashion as if acting them out in a play. Family constellation therapists use psychodrama to represent scenes or problems from a person’s life.
In psychodrama, a scene is created to re-enact events or scenarios, either real or imagined. During this process, the person can gain new insights and move toward healing.
2. Use of objects
In individual family constellation therapy, a person may recreate family scenes by using objects to represent family members. A therapist guides the person toward viewing family problems in a new light.
3. Painting and drawing
Just as scenes from a person’s family life can be recreated using psychodrama, they can be represented through paintings and drawings. This is an alternative approach used in individual family constellations.
How can family constellation therapy help you?
If you’re struggling with relationship problems, mental health issues, or another form of ongoing stress, you may benefit from family constellation therapy. This therapeutic modality can provide you with insight into the root of your distress.
For example, constellation therapy may help you to identify family patterns or dysfunctional family behaviors that you never noticed previously. You may also identify personal struggles, such as the tension between who you’d like to be on the one hand and who you feel your family wants you to be on the other hand.
Group family constellations can provide you with different perspectives that allow you to arrive at a resolution for psychological problems. Group members may pick up on emotions or thoughts that they had never considered before.
Once these things are revealed in therapy, you can begin thinking differently about your life and move toward changes.
By bringing issues to light and identifying some of the root causes of your problems, family constellation therapy can help you develop coping strategies for overcoming a variety of psychological problems.
Methods used in family constellation therapy
Family constellation therapy uses a variety of methods to help people overcome whatever issue is causing them distress. You can expect some of the following methods in a family constellation session.
1. Being a seeker
In group family constellation therapy, one person serves as a seeker, which is the person who has the issue or problem to be presented.
The rest of the group serves as “representatives,” acting as family members of the seeker. Multiple people may take turns being seekers during a family constellation workshop.
When carrying out family constellation therapy, the therapist or facilitator rearranges representatives in various formations.
They may rearrange group members several times until the arrangement feels right to the seeker.
3. Connecting and making adjustments
As the seeker works through their issues, the facilitator may need to make adjustments to the arrangement of group members representing the seeker’s family. The seeker will emotionally connect with the arrangement, with adjustments made as needed.
After exploring their problems in a group setting, the seeker is able to identify the source of their distress. They may even try to resolve the problem with their family if this is feasible. Once issues are brought to light, a person can begin to address them and move forward.
For those preferring individual sessions, a family constellation therapist may use objects, paintings, or drawings to help people recreate and explore family dynamics.
Settings for family constellation therapy
Family constellation therapy is often performed in group settings, but there are also family constellation therapists who work with individuals. You can search for a family constellation therapist or workshop online.
Some settings for family constellation therapy include:
Conference centers offering workshops
Community counseling centers
Private counseling or therapy practices
Group family constellation workshops are likely to be held in conference centers or at churches or universities, whereas individual sessions can be conducted at community or private counseling centers. Some counselors and therapists may employ concepts from family constellation therapy in their work.
Based on what is known about family constellation therapy, this approach is beneficial for treating a wide variety of psychosocial problems.
By uncovering unhealthy family dynamics, the approach can help people to heal from whatever is holding them back, whether it be a mental health condition or difficulties with self-concept.
Are family constellations effective?
A rather large body of research shows that family constellation therapy is effective in addressing psychological problems.
It has been shown to improve overall health and well-being, and it reduces psychological distress as well as symptoms of mental health disorders, according to multiple studies conducted with constellation therapy.
That being said, there is no single treatment modality that works for everyone. You may find family constellation therapy to be beneficial, but in some cases, people do not experience significant improvement with this modality. If family constellation therapy isn’t a good fit for you, there are other therapeutic modalities available.
A mental health professional can help you to decide upon the best treatment option for your unique situation.
Criticism of family constellations
While family constellation work is beneficial, this model is not without criticism. In fact, Bert Hellinger’s family constellation work has been criticized for being potentially misogynistic and homophobic.
There is also some evidence of victim blaming in his work, which doesn’t align well with the values of mental health professions like psychology and social work.
For example, some critics argue that family constellation therapy treats homosexuality as if it is a disease or problem that needs to be cured. Others have pointed out that Hellinger holds patriarchal views and seems to blame the wife for problems in a family.
There have also been critics who assert that Hellinger blamed victims by encouraging them to “thank” their abusers for the experience.
While these criticisms may have some basis in reality, some people state that Hellinger’s viewpoints are taken out of context.
Regardless of where the truth lies, therapists and counselors who use family constellations today are bound by ethics codes that prohibit discrimination. Family constellation therapists are able to reject notions like homophobia and sexism and work effectively with diverse groups of people.
If you’re struggling with an emotional or mental health problem, or you’re having difficulty in your relationships, you may benefit from working with a family constellation therapist.
With this treatment, you may discover new insights into your problems and develop the tools needed to heal. Search for a family constellation therapist online today, or contact your local mental health board to learn more about mental health services in your area.
If you’re a practitioner and this modality seems interesting to you, you can learn how to become a family constellation therapist by completing a certification program. Information is available online
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Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.