By Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP
Imagine a constellation in the sky -- a grouping of stars that depicts you and your ancestors.
These ancestors have imbued you with strengths to face the struggles of your daily life. And ironically, some of your struggles may actually belong to these ancestors, not to you. You are “carrying” the struggles because they have been passed to you as a curious inheritance.
New studies that focus on epigenetics – the study of biological mechanisms that will switch genes on and off – are suggesting that we inherit experiences of our ancestors just as much as physical characteristics like eye color and nose shape.
However, these inherited traumatic experiences can be healed with Family Constellations, an unusual experiential approach that defies typical therapeutic categories. The Family Constellations approach is not talk psychotherapy, nor is it a true creative arts therapy. It has similarities to psychodrama although it most closely resembles sociometry, the sister method to psychodrama, as developed by Dr. J.L. Moreno.
Systemic Constellations – sometimes called Family Constellations – is a phenomenological approach developed by family psychotherapist Bert Hellinger in the 1970s in Germany. The experiential method originated to address the trauma passed to the descendants of the Nazi perpetrators and Jewish and other victims after World War II and has grown into an international movement that is comparable to psychodrama.
A growing number of mental health professionals and other healing practitioners are integrating Family and Systemic Constellations into their practices of psychotherapy, coaching, healing and training settings.
This method looks remarkably like psychodrama – yet also has great differences, as described in my book Integrating Psychodrama and Systemic Constellations Work: New Directions for Action Methods, Mind-Body Therapies and Energy Healing with the late Ronald Anderson. Essential to the process are key principles – about how family systems best operate for the benefit of all – which often produce enduring positive change for many seemingly insoluble problems. Its practitioners report the action goes more deeply and the resolutions often come more quickly.
Some believe that the approach expands upon the theories that J.L. Moreno, the developer of psychodrama, pioneered with his writings on tele and co-consciousness, plus other writings about family loyalty from Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy and Geraldine Spark, and what has come to be called energy medicine.
What happens in a Family Constellation session?
In the classic format, which takes place in a group, a person identifies a personal issue – relationship, business, children, family or health – and selects group members to represent family members who are placed in open space, which is called "the field." The positioning reveals the dynamics – both hidden and evident – within the family system.
The facilitator re-positions the people to restore respect, dignity and love, especially those who’ve been excluded or forgotten. Sometimes the facilitator directs the repeating of what are known as healing sentences, similar to the psychodramatic technique of doubling. As reconciliation is felt within the body, the genuine love and strength in the family appears to begin to flow.
Out of this flow, participants find healing: Kathleen (not the real name) connects her panic about descending escalators to her grandfather’s terrifying coal mining experiences in the early 1900s; Harry finds a satisfying relationship after discovering and acknowledging the man who impregnated and then abandoned his grandmother; CJ notices that their difficulty with loosing teeth disappears after confronting their grandfather’s wartime experience in the early 20th century.
Depending on the practitioner’s training, additional modalities, such as breath work, art, yoga, acupressure or music may be added to enhance the experience. Because I am a psychodramatist, I integrate psychodrama and sociometry into the session, as well as Tarot and oracle cards, sand tray, energy postures and meditation.
Each person who attends a Family Constellations session, whether as participant, representative or observer, can experience the profound effects of this change.
Constellations appear most effective in group settings. However, there are times when individual sessions are employed because groups are not available or the person is not interested in attending a group yet. At other times, online sessions are available for those who cannot easily attend in-person groups.
Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP, is an author, trainer and psychotherapist who promotes, practices and teaches experiential methods including psychodrama, Family and Systemic Constellations, sand tray, mindfulness and Tarot imagery.