Frequently Asked Questions about Family Constellation

1. How does a family constellation therapy day look like? What is it people actually do there?

A group of people gather in a quiet place and sit in a circle on chairs. Phones are turned off. The therapist says a few words about the process and answers initial questions. Participants each say a few words about who they are (or just a first name if they're shy), if they want to do a constellation session or if they have a professional interest ("I'm a psychologist, I'm an artist" etc.).People can come along to have a personal session about a particular problem or merely to play along. There is a price for basic participation in the therapy day and another one for having your problem modeled in an individual session.

One person comes forward, sits down by the therapist and briefly shares his/her problem or goal. The therapist may ask a couple of questions about family history that could lead to a more successful session (for example, "do you know of any elder brothers or sisters that would have been born but didn't make it"; or, "did your grandfather fight in the war" etc.) Then the therapist lists representatives that the main participant should pick role players for (e.g. "yourself, your Mom, your grandmother, your stepfather" etc. - whoever is involved in the story). You stand up and formally ask other participants to play the parts, e.g. "Mary, would you please be my Mom?" The traditional way was to hold their hand or shoulder and slowly lead them into the common space, one by one, letting them come into the role for a few seconds, but this can be done without touching as well.

You can refuse to play any role if you feel uncomfortable, for example if right after your previous session you are still overwhelmed by your family story and the healing, or if you just want to rest. It's OK to even close your eyes for a while. It's OK to choose males or females for yourself or any other character. It may have significance in your story ("My parents were expecting a boy...") but sometimes in a given group, there may simply be a shortage of one gender. Generally, it's best to choose a matching gender, but let your soul and the quality you intuitively feel in the other person to be your main guide. A man may fill a role as a mother all right if he has those qualities for that particular participant in that session.

Participants in someone's session do not have to do anything actively, just observe and let things happen within the safe space of the group. They may move around a little if they feel it comes from the role. The very place they move in after assuming the role may show something important about the client's family unconscious field. Some people may feel like lying down or kneeling down, some want to stand at a different place than where they were first standing. As a participant, just observe whatever comes from inside, or ask the therapist ("I feel like sitting down at my husband's foot, is that OK?"). All this is quietly observed by the main participant (who sits back to observe) and the therapist. There is no small talk, and no conscious roleplaying as it is in psychodrama. Sometimes feedback is asked from the participants (e.g. "How do you feel towards Mary's father as her sister?"), and the therapist may suggest to try certain changes ("Sue, please try standing closer to your Dad now.") Some amount of physical touching is unavoidable in this process, people may lean on each other as players, sit down on the floor or even lie down, hold hands or hold onto each other's feet, or even hug. It is advisable to come in light clothing in which you can do these things, and preferably take shoes off when you join the group. If you are uncomfortable with anything, either as a person or in the role you're playing, just signal to the therapist. (See FAQ No. 11 as well.)

After this stage, the main participant is usually asked to enter and take the place of the character who played him/her so far. That role player will then sit back and leave the role. At this stage, important changes can be done - we try saying some "solving sentences" and important gestures with the other important participants. These sentences are usually about restoring the ancient order of the family system and the correct roles played within that matrix. Sometimes a slightly different wording will fit you better; don't be shy and say that to the therapist, who will then rephrase the solving sentences to suit you better. Sometimes this resolution stage will bring out tears of joy, sadness or other emotional release. These should take their time and be handled with the appropriate respect.

One individual session usually takes place from anywhere from 15 minutes to over one hour. Between individual sessions, usually there are 15-minute break for coffee, snacks, tea, water, bathroom, calls etc. plus a longer lunch break in the middle. One basic rule is that a successful constellation session is never verbally discussed later: all the participants must hold anything they observed as role players in total confidence and secrecy. The main participant (whose session we witnessed) should not discuss the details of what happened with anyone for the minimum of three weeks. This includes friends, family members, other therapists etc. All you can share initially about the session is its main topic - e.g. "my session was about my father who died in the war." Parents must never reveal their session contents to their children even later. After a session is done, the role players formally give their roles back to the protagonist (the most formal way is to touch their palms from the top and say, "I'm giving my role back to you, I'm Agnes again" (or whatever your REAL name is), but this reversal can also be done without touching. The therapist observes people and makes sure that they really left the roles behind and are capable to return to their normal selves. Sometimes someone is asked to return the role with words or palms once more just to make sure. But this also depends upon the style of the individual therapist.

2. Can I just come in and see how it goes, and play roles if I'm requested, then decide if I want an individual session later?

Most likely you can. Please read FAQ No. 1. to make sure you understand the requirement of secrecy and confidentiality and the process. As we say in FAQ Answer No. 1, we require full secrecy from participants, and there may also be some touching and moving involved in the group therapy process (unless your religious views or health prevents it, in which case a special arrangement is going to be made by the therapist). You may refuse to play any individual parts. Mere observers who do not participate in playing roles of family systems are very rarely allowed though, they usually do not help the group as much as people who are willing to play. However, even if all you do is playing some parts, there might be things during the therapy day that actually say something valuable about you and your family systems in a metaphorical way. (This therapy can work in funny ways.)

3. I'm from a small town, and a very shy person. I'd feel strange about sharing my family secrets with others, especially if I'm known to some people. What should I do?

You can safely enter the group. You can choose to be anonymous even, or just go by a first-name basis. By entering the group for that day, all participants are asked to keep your information in complete secrecy as long as you wish. That means if you don't say anything, secrecy will be everyone's default setting! No one is allowed to say anything about your affairs without your express prior (written) permission. You can later decide to discuss details about your own session with anyone (after the three weeks' minimum period expired), but even then, it's advisable to be very gentle towards your healing processes. These healings and changes go on in another, naturally altered state of awareness spontaneously, and others who have never done a family constellation day may not even understand the deep significance of what you found in the field of your own family unconscious. But one thing is sure: your secrets are safe with the group and the therapist. As a Yogi once observed about the process of meditation, if you plant a plant, you don't dig it out day by day to observe how far its roots have grown.

4. I'm planning to go to the therapy day with my daughter. Am I allowed to be present at her session?

Sometimes you are, if your daughter feels she's completely safe with it. Or you may suddenly be asked to leave for a short while as the session goes on. On the reverse, your daughter may never witness your own session, as you are one stage higher in the family hierarchy according to Bert Hellinger's findings; neither should she learn what happened there later. The same rule refers to couples, or brothers and sisters; sometimes it's OK to be present, but sometimes you are asked to leave - then called back at the end - it's nothing personal, it's simply how this therapy works the best. Some people are more reserved than others and feel safe with complete strangers only. If you are asked to leave for a while, stay close and remain safe.

5. I'm an important person, I might be called in the middle of therapy, what should I do?

We are asking everyone to mute their phones, put them in flight mode or switch them off while sessions go on. You can naturally do whatever you wish in breaks or if you are asked to be out (for example, if you're a relative of the main protagonist). The therapist may grant special exclusion to people whose relatives are just being on the operating table, but even then, the best idea is to do your calls during the breaks and switch your cell phone off before the next session begins.

6. I have a serious disease and I think this therapy may uncover the psychological roots of the problem. Should I discontinue treatment?

While family constellation therapy certainly brought significant healings in the case of serious diseases in certain documented cases abroad, we are not medical personnel, neither licensed psychiatrists, therefore we do not assume the responsibility for your other treatments. There are no medical studies on this method either, just anecdotal evidence; it is an experimental method, as are many psychological and non-conventional attempts towards improving health. It is your responsibility to try, plus, you'll never know what you'll find in the family unconscious before you are actually seeing it! Regarding any other treatment, you should refer to that practitioner, medical, psychiatry etc. If you take a psychiatric drug and feel markedly better after a family constellation session, see your psychiatrist and discuss with him or her about a possible decrease or ceasing of your dosage of psychiatric medicine. After the three weeks are up, it's safe to discuss with them what happened to you here, if you feel that way. You are the absolute judge of whether you have gotten better or not, but if you are under medical or psychiatric treatment, it is their responsibility to continue treatment any way they see fit.

7. I'm a serious addict, but I've been clean for some weeks now. Can I try constellation therapy?

Perhaps, perhaps not. You should have a brief individual consultation with the therapist ahead of time. Sometimes your life is really at a turning point and yes, you can use this to strengthen your resolves and solve the real reasons why you were an addict in the first place. But if your life isn't coherent or stable enough, you may have to wait with family constellation, because this type of session actually turn your life somewhat upside down, and to deal with inner changes, you may need some initial stability (like a stable place, a job, your family background etc.).

8. I'm out of work now, I can barely pay for this session. Can I have a session for why I'm so unsuccessful?

Most likely you can. The individual causes may be hidden in your family system which you can possibly modify in a single session. Discuss with the therapist if you have enough stability in your life to try and do that. It won't get any worse, that's for sure.

9. I could go but I might have to leave at three o'clock. Can I have my session early on?

Generally the expectation is that you stay for a whole day once you signed up. Important things can happen which are metaphorically adding to your story, and people sometimes are changed even if they're just role players because it's never by total chance what people precisely gather together on any given day. The group might need you too. However, the therapist may decide to let you off early if she thinks it's OK.

10. How long before this therapy will have a measurable effect upon my life?

That may depend on your individual case. Sometimes, especially when you've already done a lot of work on self-knowledge, the effects are immediate. Sometimes it goes underground for a few days, while your basic beliefs about the world shape themselves back and forth. It is frequently seen that exactly six months after the therapy session, the original issue will return and shows up in some form for a day or two, then a similar anniversary is repeated exactly after one whole year. But this is just something many people experienced; no general rule is applicable to everyone. Sometimes other markedly different types of therapy or counseling or coaching speed up the efficiency of a family constellation session. Other people come along for family constellation for a few times and suddenly the critical mass breaks through, and you feel like you're a different person. If your topic was couples' relationships, for example, and during this period you are also learning better communication patterns, or your partner also goes to family constellation therapy, the whole field of the relationship may change for the better very soon, but you have to do some more work in your daily life. This is a very deep, contents-seeking, unconscious (or semi-conscious) type of therapy, so frequently other, more conscious types of self-improvement help bring out its fruits from the depths. As do physical movements by the way: walking, Yoga, T'ai Chi, sports - they may help your body process the new information with more ease. But each case is different. Someone may start painting or write a book or start a blog, another goes for an astrology reading, or takes a new job, moves to a new apartment and that's what speeds up the process of healing. Some adopt a different diet or stop smoking.

11. I'm very religious and I observe very strict beliefs and rules - I'm merely curious about my family. But how can I be sure there's no hidden forces here that threaten my faith?

Hellinger's therapy is about family systems, and your religious beliefs are probably very much in harmony with those. Rest assured, the sacred laws of your religion and your faith are going to be either strengthened or left in place. Hellinger was a deeply religious man when he discovered this group solution to family problems among the Zulu people where he was a Christian missionary. In fact, many people have sessions which are spiritual and where a transcendental force is accorded its rightful place. There are no rituals here, but you are allowed to pray or meditate when you think it's necessary. The work of Bert Hellinger did much to restore the traditional adage found in the Torah and the Christian Bible as well as the Confucian teachings, "respect your mother and father" in this modern world. If they were religious, you may want to especially respect that religion with all the forms referring to you. In that respect, his system and what Hellinger practitioners found in people's family unconscious fields all over the world are in a marked contrast to iconoclastic psychologists like Freud. Religious people from all faiths have participated, and sometimes spiritual topics are also modelled in addition to family systems, if you desire so. You may have to be in the company of people here, however, who hold other beliefs than you.

One additional point: if your religious rules forbid touching people under certain circumstances, just signal to the therapist ahead of time, and we will integrate you with comfort. No participant would be against the basic family values Hellinger emphasized and usually people are very respectful towards others anyway, as the space of the heart is what opens up. These values - about family systems in particular - are almost universal; additionally, many people feel during the constellations that they are connected to a Higher Power. We advise you to wet your feet, and judge for yourself.

12. Is there an individual follow-up of this? Maybe I can do only one group but I'd prefer to do some more work.

Yes, there are individual techniques derived from and supporting the basic Hellinger group technique. Some therapeutic things can be done in spatial modelling with objects such as seashells or stones. Sometimes a group setting is more powerful, but later adjustments and refinements can be done if you schedule an individual appointment too.

You can wait with booking an appointment until you feel perfectly safe and comfortable about the process, and feel free to write me further questions about procedures and experiences - see CONTACT