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‘Family constellations go beyond the concept of a purely personal experience of trauma to include trauma that has been the fate of others, primarily those we are bound to in empathy and blind love and in a kind of unconscious attempt to balance and compensate. This, too, extends beyond the limits of present time and space.’ (p32, Schneider, 2007)

 

This is a paper I have prepared in order to supplement my talk on this subject. I hope you find it interesting and useful. For further reading, please look at the bibliography I have provided.

I believe transgenerational trauma is a ubiquitous phenomenon. The experience of trauma in some form is unavoidable for an individual and a family, as I also believe is its transmission to, and influence upon the lives of subsequent generations. I view this reality as a reflection of the breadth and depth of our connections with one another, in life and death. Our common failure to see this is itself a significant issue. Whilst the transgenerational consequences of, for example, the violence, colonial dispossession and cultural & spiritual genocide experienced by Indigenous Australians are horrifically obvious (Atkinson, 2002), I believe those of us with less disastrous histories, will also gain significant personal enlightenment from an exploration of this dimension.

  1. A brief introduction to family constellation work

In ‘The Transgenerational transmission of trauma and resilience in the offspring of Holocaust survivors: A qualitative study with Brazilian offspring of Holocaust survivors’ (See handout: Braga, Mello, and Fiks, 2012), important familial and relational factors were identified. The study found a relationship between the orientation of survivors and their relationship with the next generation, and the transmission to the latter of trauma or resilience:-‘These phenomena were related to three elements: (i) modes of parental psychic working over, (ii) ways in which survivors communicate the traumatic message to their offspring, and (iii) repercussions of trauma on second-generation experiences’.

I believe such psychological and sociological research is compatible with the insights and resolutions that can be found through the approach I wish to talk with you about.

Family constellation work attends to hidden systemic processes that take place within the ‘soul’ of a family (p35, Schneider, 2007). This approach has much in common with the perspective of field theory, one of the ‘three pillars on which gestalt practice is deemed to stand’, (pxiii, Parlett in Gaffney and O’Neil, 2013). In Gestalt therapy the ‘self’ is conceived ‘as being intrinsically part of an organism-environment field’ (p39, Gaffney and O’Neil, 2013). This perspective is fundamental to how transgenerational trauma is understood and worked with in a family constellation.  (Note 1)

The family constellations model originates from the work of Bert Hellinger and his colleagues. It is a systemic, phenomenological approach that can aid understanding of, and the working through of intergenerational entanglements (unconscious identifications) which carry forward the effects trauma from one generation to another. Its usual format is a workshop comprising of a dozen people or more, but it can be applied within 1 to 1 work. I also find that a simple holding of this perspective deepens work with both clients and supervisees.

A family constellation is not considered to be an ‘objective’ representation of reality, but rather an uncovering and exploration of the aspect that is affecting the issue holder:

‘Something is presented in image and word in a compressed form that allows us to experience a previously hidden reality. It is similar to truth in art. Art brings forth, in a concentrated form, what was previously invisible in reality.’ (Schneider, p180, 2007)

This work is not psychotherapy (at least not as it is commonly understood), but it can complement the therapeutic process in several ways. One of these is its facilitation of a greater understanding of the effects of family history upon our sense of self, and orientation to the world. With regards to our relationships with parents, it can assist us to appreciate the systemic background to their behaviours that were injurious to our development and well-being.

I do not view this approach as taking precedence over the essential therapeutic work of uncovering and processing  deep hurt, grief and rage carried from early experiences, which have caused a person to  close down against their depth of being.

Nor does the systemic overview which this approach facilitates, excuse the injurious behaviours of parents, or the importance of feeling and processing the damage they caused. However, it can help create space to accept and hold what was/is nutritious in these relationships. In this way, it can help ameliorate transgenerational trauma, and support our movement towards maturity, and beyond the limiting confines of ‘object relations’ (Almaas, 1988) with a victim/perpetrator dynamic (Note 2).  I believe Hunter Beaumont’s writing on this area is important, and recommend his book ‘Towards a Spiritual Psychotherapy’ (2012).

Beaumont describes how ‘Feelings of justified resentment’ against our family can leave us ‘dependent and incomplete’ (p8-9, 2012), observing: ‘When we are able to remember our father’s essence we do better, our children do better and our father does better’ (p33, Beaumont, 2012)…and …‘This soul movement towards our mother’s essence can succeed because we are reaching out to the potential behind our entangled mothers.’ (p59, Beaumont, 2012)

Within the philosophy of family constellation work there is the belief that the family has a collective soul, which holds ‘Orders of Love’ (Hellinger, Weber & Beaumont, 1998) and a systemic conscience for inclusion and balance. If events take place within the family that disrupt balance and the flow of life and love within it, compensatory entanglements are a likely consequence.

It is important to note here that the ‘family circle as a collective soul…is not restricted to direct bloodlines, living or dead. It also includes everyone who belongs on the basis of loss or gain, or who is existentially connected.’ (p42, Schneider, 2007)

Inclusion: One of the organising beliefs in this work is that: ‘Everyone in the system has an equal right to belong, and no member can deny another his or her place…Members may forget those who have been excluded, but the system “re-members” its own’ (p153, Hellinger, Weber & Beaumont, 1998)

If someone is excluded, whether explicitly or by a failure of collective memory, there may be a movement towards correcting this imbalance via the unconscious identification and entanglement of a member of a subsequent generation with her/his fate. An example relevant to the focus of this paper, would be the exclusion from memory, or failure to fully honour people lost as a result of genocide, and as a consequence the members of a subsequent generation of the family having an unconscious entanglement with their fate. The members of the following generations are likely to be completely or largely unaware of this entanglement, but it would be reflected in their experience of life, and their behaviour e.g. feelings of guilt and/or terror, and actions which imperil or thwart her/his life.  A key function of family constellation work is the enabling of a movement towards the inclusion and honouring of the excluded and forgotten, and thus the freeing of members of the current generation from entanglement with the fate of the former.

Balance: The family soul seeks balance. Here are a couple of examples of this systemic process, and possible solutions: i/ A person may experience an inhibition towards living fully, because of the tragic death of a member of a previous generation. A healing movement in this case would be the remembering and honouring of the lost member, through the living member’s pursuing of a good life: A movement from blind, entangled love to an enlightened expression of love.  ii/ Where a family’s coffers have been enriched by the misappropriation of wealth via genocide or war, a member from a following generation may act in self-sabotaging ways rather than benefit from the misdeeds of her/his family. A constructive, balancing movement to free the person from his pattern of self-defeating behaviours could be the recognition of those who have been affected by the injustice, and the providing of appropriate restitution.

  1. A brief description of the procedure in a family constellation workshop

Whilst family constellation work has a commonly used (& evolving) procedure and set of practices, its practitioners have a commitment to a phenomenological approach to the unfolding process. The model works with the direct experience of the issue holder, representatives and facilitator: ‘Constellations basically look at two questions. Firstly, what entangles one family member in the fate of another and what might resolve this entanglement? Secondly, what is needed to support a free flow of love?’ (p32, Schneider, 2007)

The issue holder sits next to the facilitator and is asked to speak of the ‘burning issue’ and/or ‘heart’s desire’ inspiring her/him to work. It is essential that there is sufficient energy in her/his concern, to enable the work to start and unfold. Following this initial conversation, if clarity and energy is accessed, the facilitator will invite the issue holder to choose, one by one, people from the group to represent members of her/his family, other involved people and her/his self. S/he will then intuitively and gently guide each representative to their starting position in the constellation.

Members of the group chosen to be representatives, act in the service of the issue holder’s family system: The helpful information in thoughts, feelings and movements which emerge through them to support the work, is frequently extraordinary. Different explanations have been offered for this remarkable phenomena, such as Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of ‘morphic fields’ (Sheldrake, 2011), and Vivian Broughton’s use of a comparison with the unconscious processes of transference, projection and projective identification (British Gestalt Journal, Vol 22, No.2, 2013).

Commonly, a constellation will commence with a just a few people e.g. father, mother and issue holder, with more representatives being added as the work progresses. Through the information manifested through the representatives, the reactions from the issue holder and the attuned guidance of the facilitator, there occurs an unfolding of the issue within the family system.  This can help a freeing of the issue holder from entanglements, and, her/his re-connection with support for his ‘personal conscience’ and ‘enlightened love’; through actions such as the voicing of feelings of loss and grief deeply held within the family soul, sentences of gratitude, and bows and blessings.

In family constellation work there is the pursuit and facilitation of resolutions within the system which support the flow of love and enhancing of life.

Through the words and movements of their representatives, the systemic entanglements of ancestors and parents that have contaminated or impeded their acting with love and care towards their children, are uncovered and addressed. This opens a way for helpful, re-ordering movements and the voicing of healing and reparative statements.  And so love can flow, and allow a nourishing movement beyond the object relations and polar relational process of victim/perpetrator.

Where deeply traumatised family patterns have been present for several generations, a line of representatives of ancestral mothers and fathers may be employed to enable the issue holder to connect with an archetypal support that has not been disturbed by suffering and entanglement.

  1.  Family Constellations & Trauma

‘Family constellations go beyond the concept of a purely personal experience of trauma to include trauma that has been the fate of others, primarily those we are bound to in empathy and blind love and in a kind of unconscious attempt to balance and compensate. This, too, extends beyond the limits of present time and space.’ (p32, Schneider, 2007)

A family constellation can work with the impact and effects of traumas from a previous generation, by helping:-

1. A person to see, and be freed from, the form of her/his traumatising entanglement with the past.

2. To open the way to, and facilitate the honouring of ancestors who suffered.  

3. A re-connection with support and affirmation to live more freely.

My personal experience of the work and its benefits is a common one: - I carried a disempowering terror from the annihilation of my mother’s extended family and community in the Holocaust, which was very significantly eased through family constellation work. It involved the uncovering of a complex of entanglements with family members who were killed; the honouring of these people; their representatives voicing of their desire for me to have a good life, and finally my connecting with support from my family system to live and prosper.

A family soul is deeply affected when a person/persons are lost in a way which does not accord with the normal flow of life, examples of this are: murder, suicide, a mother’s death in childbirth and the death of an infant. As a result, members of succeeding generation are often found to carry an unconscious entanglement with the lost person, in ‘blind love’ (Schneider, 2007) which overrides her/his personal way of being, and causes her/his flow of life to be diverted and restricted. In family constellation work the identification of such entanglements can be freeing,  enabling the recognition and honouring of the lost and excluded, and the connecting  of the issue holder with ‘enlightened love’ (Schneider, 2007) which supports the forward flow of life. In the case of the off-spring of survivors or perpetrators of genocide, there can be the liberation from a tormenting identification with trauma, guilt and concomitant self-defeating ways of life. This allows space and energy for the opening of a greater appetite for life and living.

  1.  Franz Ruppert: An alternative model of constellation work for the treatment of transgenerational trauma  

Franz Ruppert was trained in, and initially used the family constellation model, but became disenchanted with it. He subsequently developed a fundamentally different approach to constellation work, which has an explicit focus upon the treatment of trauma. He has been influenced by the work of Pierre Janet, John Bowlby and contemporary neuroscience.

Ruppert asserts a ‘general principle’ …that…‘A mother who has suffered trauma will inevitably pass her traumatic experience onto her child in some form. Thus a traumatic experience always has some effect over several generations.’ (p25, Ruppert, 2007). Following on from this, he lists three principles of ‘Multigenerational Systemic Psychotraumatology (MSP)’ (Ruppert, 2007)

  1. Traumatic experiences are handed down to the next generation via the emotional bonding system.
  2. The human psyche is a multigenerational phenomena
  3. The healing of psychological injuries must be sought through maintaining sight of the entire trauma-disturbed bonding network in which the individual is entangled. (p29, Ruppert, 2007)

Ruppert has identified four types of trauma:

  • Existential Trauma: The experience of threat to one’s life
  • Trauma of Loss: The loss of a person with whom we had a deep bond. This category includes miscarriages, abortion, still births and adoptions
  • Symbiotic Trauma: Trauma from the early attachment process with mother
  • Trauma of the Bonding System

In the development of his model of constellation work, Ruppert eschewed transpersonal and systemic concepts such as family soul and orders of love. He instead focusses upon the psychological holding and transmission of trauma through the bonding system, and the use of family constellations to heal ‘splits in the soul’. He conceives the traumatised psyche as consisting of three defining parts:

  1. A traumatised part: Lost in trauma, as if the traumatising event(s) were happening now.
  2. A survivor part: Defensive, resistant and vigilantly focussed upon the survival strategies that were formed in response to the trauma in which the traumatised part is held. In relation and proportion to the severity and complexity of the trauma, this part restricts and limits a person’s freedom to be.
  3. A healthy part: Able to be in contact, without projections and illusions. Seeking healing and reintegration.

Having rejected notions of a family soul with a systemic hidden symmetry, Ruppert’s approach to constellation work focuses upon the intrapsychic process of the client vis a vis his tripartite conception of the traumatised psyche. The client’s relationship to her/his ‘intention’ (e.g. to feel more in control of her life) is the driving force for the therapy: A constellation commences with the setting up of representatives for the intention and the client, and an exploration between them is facilitated. This can be very illuminating as nuances, attachment related restrictions, injunctions and familial entanglements of the client’s relationship with her intention become apparent.

Again in contrast to the family constellation model, representatives of family members are only used for the function of aiding understanding, and the processing of the client’s place and experience within the trauma system; they never become the focus of the work.

Vivian Broughton is the foremost practitioner of this model in the UK.

  1. Concluding thoughts

Family constellation work and the approach developed by Ruppert’s clearly are radically different philosophically, epistemologically and methodologically.

You may be interested to read an edition of the British Gestalt Journal (Broughton; Morgan in No 2, Volume 22, 2013) in which there are two papers, one from each of these models.

I have not attended a constellation workshop using Ruppert’s approach, but from my study of his books I have found some of his concepts to be valuable, such as the tripartite traumatised psyche. However, I believe there is a loss of depth because of the exclusion of the transpersonal and what I perceive to be a retreat from phenomenological methodology. I appreciate Ruppert’s model may have greater acceptability to therapists who wish to maintain a more traditional psychotherapeutic perspective and approach.

My personal experience and belief is that family constellation work, in addition to making a significant contribution towards the working through of transgenerational trauma, can aid appreciation of our interconnectedness and the ultimate unity of being; and the diminution of our alienation from the latter, through the uncovering and disentanglement of relationships between individual souls.

I respect the research concerning epigenetics and transgenerational trauma (Kellerman, 2013; See handout:Thompson, H. in The Guardian, 21 August 2015); recent findings confirm what is shown in family constellations, and what we can sense in our souls when we engage with this dimension.

Isaac Pizer

October 2015

Notes:

  1. I am drawing upon Almaas’s use of object relations theory within his spiritual model, The Diamond Approach, which combines western psychotherapeutic knowledge (primarily concerning object relations), with spiritual knowledge. See ‘The Pearl Beyond Price’ (1988).
  2. I think it is one of the reasons why many gestalt therapists are involved in, or have an affinity with family constellation work. For an examination of the relationship between Gestalt therapy and family constellation work, see Wheeler (2011).

Bibliography

Almaas, A.H. (1988) The Pearl Beyond Price. Integration of Personality into Being: An Object Relations Approach. Boston: Shambhala.

Atkinson, J. (2002) Trauma Trails: Recreating Song Lines. The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia. Victoria: Spiniflex Press.

Beaumont, H. (2012) Towards a Spiritual Psychotherapy: Soul as a Dimension of Experience. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Bragga, L.L. Mello, F.M. & Filks, J.P. (2012) ‘The Transgenerational transmission of trauma and resilience in the offspring of Holocaust survivors: A qualitative study with Brazilian offspring of Holocaust survivors’. BMC Psychiatry.2012; 12: 134.

Broughton, V. (2013) Gestalt, trauma, constellations. British Gestalt Journal, Vol 22, No. 2.

Gaffney, S. and O’Neil, B. (2013) The Gestalt Field Perspective. Methodology and Practice. Queensland: Ravenwood Press.

Hausner, S. (2011) Even if it costs me my life: Systemic Constellations and Serious Illness. New York: Gestalt Press.

Hellinger, B. with Weber, G. & Beaumont (1998), H. Love’s Hidden Symmetry. What makes Love Work in Relationships. Phoenix: Zeig, Tucker & Co

Hemming, J. (1998) In the Field of Soul: An Interview with Hunter Beaumont. British Gestalt Journal, Vol 7, No. 2.

Kellerman, N.P.F. (2013) Epigenetic Transmission of Holocaust Trauma: Can Nightmares Be Inherited? Israel Journal of Psychiatry & Related Sciences.2013; 50(1):33-9.

Morgan, B. (2013) Constellations. A Response to Broughton. British Gestalt Journal, Vol 22, No. 2.

Parlett, M. (1991) Reflections on Field Theory. British Gestalt Journal, 1, 68-91.

Parlett, M. (2013) Foreword to Gaffney, S. and O’Neil, B. The Gestalt Field Perspective. Methodology and Practice. Queensland: Ravenwood Press.

Ruppert, F. (2008) Trauma, Bonding & Family Constellations: Understanding and Healing Injuries of the Soul. Gloucs: Green Balloon Publishing.

Ruppert, F. (2011) Splits in the Soul: Integrating Traumatic Experiences. Gloucs: Green Balloon Publishing.

Ruppert, F. (2012) Symbiosis & Autonomy: Symbiotic Trauma and Love Beyond Entanglements. Gloucs: Green Balloon Publishing.

Schneider, J.R. (2007) Family Constellations: Basic Principles and Procedures. Heidelberg: Carl-Auer

Sheldrake, R. (2011) The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the habits of nature. Second Edition. London: Icon Books.

Thompson, H. Study of Holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children’s genes. The Guardian, 21 August 2015.

Wheeler, G. (2011) Afterword in Hausner, S. Even if it costs me my life: Systemic Constellations and Serious Illness. New York: Gestalt Press.

 

 

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