Mother and father holding hands and walking with daughter in park

I’ll do it for you, even if it costs me my happiness

In Children and Family, Community and Relationship by Brenda Sutherland2 Comments

“Your body tells the family story”

Here are some examples of Family Constellations in practice to let you see the amazing power of this modality

Maria was distraught. For two weeks now she had been having panic attacks and didn’t know why. She was desperate for them to stop, as they were worsening. This was the reason she had found her way to counselling. Two weeks prior, her partner of five years had asked her to marry him and she had said ‘yes’ with such excitement that she told her family he had proposed. The next day, though, she found herself getting extremely anxious, doubting whether he would be a good husband or father, not trusting his ability, questioning who she had been living with over the last five years. As the days went by her anxiety grew, until she found herself experiencing full-blown panic attacks. What had happened?

Maria’s panic attacks are not unlike many symptoms that appear, which are connected to the family lineage, as we are part of the family soul.

What is the family soul?

We all are connected to a family system or soul that reaches many generations past. We are limited by this history as well as strengthened by our ancestors. A family system is governed by:

The need to belong

Those who are born into a family (whether survived or thrived), brought into a family through marriage, or who have taken a life from this family, in other words, ‘those who belong’, belong. If anyone is excluded they will be represented by a family member. This is often seen in children of divorced parents, where a parent has been criticised by the other, and, out of hidden loyalty, the child will side with the parent excluded and criticised. We are only truly at peace when everyone is included.

The need for social order

This ensures everyone is given their rightful place. In a literal sense, this means those who come first, come first. For example, partners take precedence before children, unless in a blended family. In that case, each other’s children come before the new partner. We are born into a special place in our family – that is, the first born’s place is before the next child and so on. If out of place, a child will feel burdened, be treated as a parent, or may take the place of a lost child or previous partner, resulting in strange dynamics.

The need for equilibrium

This is the balance of giving and taking that governs the sharing of resources, but also ensures that which has been taken is given back to maintain equilibrium. We feel innocent only when equilibrium is maintained; guilty if it is unbalanced; or righteous and embittered if we give too much and do not receive.

What is Family Constellations and where did it come from?

Western culture prefers to assume that all useful knowledge comes from the mind. In truth, as neuroscience has proven, we live the world through our bodies, mapping social space and our interconnectedness. Family Constellations provides a framework to map interconnectedness in families. It reaches deeply into the family soul, with the greatest respect, humility, and dignity, to provide a healing movement to restore flow of love, support, and strength to the entire family, through an individual.

Family Constellations is a therapeutic phenomenological approach that looks to restore balance in the family system through highlighting systemic principles that, when in order, restore the flow of love, support and interconnectedness.

Bert Hellinger, born in Germany in 1925, founded Family Constellations in early 1990s, aged 70. It came from a combination of experience as a Parish Priest in Africa working with the Zulus for 16 years, his psychotherapist training, experience as a POW in War II as a German solider and a book he read on phenomenology.

With over 30 books translated into at least 10 languages being published by Hellinger, he continues to travel the world training facilitators, with many facilitators now throughout the world.

“The Greater Soul moves in only one direction, and that is to bring into union that which has been made separate.” Bert Hellinger

Systems thinking

Most therapists look at issues presenting within a client on a personal basis. For example; ‘what does the client need to change, integrate, realign within themselves for this issue to be resolved?’.

A Family Constellations facilitator, to bring to light the entanglement, looks beyond the individual or person. They engage systemic thinking to look in the direction to which the symptom points (in this case panic attacks) within the family system.

As members of a family we are symptom-bearers, pointing to what has not been resolved in the family system. We are all connected. And our soma, behaviours, reactions, emotional patterns or struggles often tell a story of what beckons to be acknowledged in the family that was unable to be resolved, or seen back many generations. We are in subconscious devotion to the family system. And all are connected to this out of love, and to ensure the family system stays balanced.

An indicator that a client’s presenting issue is systemic is that the symptom or issue persists no matter what interventions are applied. The dynamic is: ‘I have this symptom and I don’t want it’, and the family soul says ‘that is how it is’ until this is acknowledged.

Words are worlds

Back to Maria’s panic attacks. My question on hearing her story would be: “Who in the family lineage would be panicking about marriage?”

In Maria’s case, together we looked in the direction of the panic, tracking it using a genogram. We noticed hotspots such as accentuated words. She explained that her grandmother (mother’s mother) was Italian, and grew up in a little village in Italy. She was Roman Catholic and, on her honeymoon, her newlywed husband announced that he had a mistress, who was pregnant. So who would be panicking around marriage? Grandmother!

This highlighted the systemic principle of belonging (as the mistress had to be included in the family, as well as the child born of this affair) and the guilt and innocence governing belonging. As a symptom bearer Maria was reliving Grandmother’s panic.

Clients have access to the entire family system. Therefore Maria did a simple visualisation to include everyone, and her panic attacks disappeared. She married her partner and now has a child.

Your body tells the family story

Family or Systemic Constellations gives the client a new somatic experience of what they know in their gut to be true. The format this can be done within is:

a) a group whereby participants are chosen to represent a member of the family and are placed to highlight the dynamics between each and the governing principles in play; or

b) in the mind’s eye of the client as a visualisation, whereby the facilitator gains all necessary information from the client: words, their soma such as eye gaze, breath, how they hold their body, attachment styles and their intention; or

c) using props such a figurines, stones, shells, or seeds that represent family members – how these are placed in relation to each other and the feelings invoked by each allows the facilitator to gather a picture and prove a new healing picture.

I will do it for you

Many years ago a client came to see me. She frustratedly spoke about having spent thousands of dollars trying to cure her chronic fatigue to no avail. I asked if she was an only child of divorced parents and, with complete astonishment, she said “Yes.”

My next question was: “Who are you holding the burden for?”

Wanting to see if my hypothesis was correct, I asked her to close her eyes and picture her parents in relation to herself and where they would be standing. She said, “Either side of me. And I am standing in the middle!”

A child, out of their absolute love for both parents, will do anything to bring about balance in the family by holding the burden. As hubris as this may be, it is not their job. Each child is the little one with a need to take their rightful place, their social order in the family. That is, those who come first come first.

The client leaves their parents with their fate. Holding such a burden or taking a position in between parents is too much for a child to hold. It often results in chronic fatigue.

The healing picture or remedy in this case was to ask the client, “What is one movement you could do to change this?”

In her mind’s eye she took one step back to enable the parents to look at each other. They addressed what had yet to be dealt with between them. For them – and, indeed, in most cases – they saw the love that remains.

A week later she very excitedly rang to say that she had no chronic fatigue symptoms! She hadn’t for a week. Wonderfully, she is symptom-free to this day.

We all come from perfect families

As is the case in nature, the family soul continually moves to bring about balance. It moves to acknowledge those who are excluded, and to ensure everyone has their rightful place in the family. And it aims that the balance of giving and taking is equal.

About the author

Brenda Sutherland


Brenda Sutherland is principal of the Awakening Group, which offers weekend workshops in Family Constellations, webinars with international facilitators and facilitator training programs throughout Australia.

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  1. Can I ask what is the reason for a man having huge connection to his mother and pushing away his wife. I am married to a man for 22 years and he is so attached to his mother I actually can’t take it anymore.

    1. Author

      Hi Mary – great question. As Family Constellation work is phenomenological we cannot theorise, as in that way we cannot identify the actual dynamics going on.
      In saying that a child will look to see what is needed in the system and offer it, it is often a sacrifice. This also depends on their social order in the system – are they the youngest?
      So a facilitator could ask:
      Who does the son represent for the mother? Has the mother enough resources?
      What place does the son hold for the mother?
      What dynamics being played parallel to the wife’s family lineage?
      Is there a time the mother needs to be looked after?
      Is the child the youngest child, so is responsible for looking after the parents?
      Is the wife able to support the husband in his role, if that is what he needs to do?

      So many questions that we can look to see the dynamics and see what is really going on, add resources, understand responsibilities based on social order, belonging etc.
      I hope that helps?


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