Family Constellation work was developed by Germany’s Bert Hellinger, one of Europe’s most innovative and provocative psychotherapists and best-selling author. Hellinger, was born in 1925, and after studying philosophy, theology, and education he became a priest. For 16 years, he worked as a missionary and the head of a number of schools in Natal. His experiences during this time in South Africa are deeply reflected in the way the constellation method has been developed. Hellinger says that “A Zulu would never dream of putting anyone in an embarrassing situation, but has a deep courtesy that assures that no one ever loses face, and that everyone keeps his or her dignity. I was also deeply impressed by the absolutely natural authority of Zulu parents over their children and by the children’s easy and unquestioned respect for their parents. I never heard anyone speak disrespectfully of their parents. That would be inconceiveable” (Hellinger 2001, p.443). He gained insights into the group dynamics of interdenominational groups without any racial barriers. He returned to Germany and went on to studying psychotherapy and various therapeutical methods.

Integrating his experience and work with varied groups, Hellinger indentified what he called “Orders of Love”. These are not hard and set rules, but rather ways to re-establish a “good order” in the family system. A systemic view of psychology acknowledges that we are all part of a greater system that is more than the sum of individual parts, and that when something happens in one part of the system, then all the other parts are affected too. For example, should somebody be excluded from a family, there will be implications for everyone else of that family.

This example illustrates the first order, that is, that every member belongs equally to the family and is respected in the same way regardless of whether, for example, they are talented, mentally ill, died early, committed suicide, are handicapped, or the black sheep of the family. Secondly, those that come first need to be acknowledged and the others follow in order. For example, a first wife comes before a second. This does not mean that the first wife will always be the favourite wife, but rather that her presence is felt in the system, through the love that was there for her in the past, and the loss. Thirdly, each member of the family has their own fate, regardless of how terrible it may be. Each person must carry this fate as their own burden and those feelings that accompany it, and must take responsibility for everything that they have done in their own life. This frees the other family members to go their own way, and fulfil their own destiny.

Family Constellations asks you to acknowledge what is. To see things as they are, and to know that you are the only one who can change, and through this bring change to all those around you. Finding honour and respect for those that came before you, you allow them to look friendly on you as you walk your own way in life. These are your ancestors, and they give you life. It is up to you, to take this life forward in honour of them. This is your task, and setting up a constellation of your family of origin could be your first step to untangle that which stands in your way…

Family Constellation therapy is usually done in a group of 8 to 30 participants. A person will present an issue to the facilitator, and with the help of some basic family information, the facilitator suggests who the client could set up for their constellation. This is based on a hypothesis that the facilitator has about the origin of the possible family entanglement. Representatives are then chosen by the client for those family members. The spatial positions and bodily sensations of the representatives, give information about the systemic entanglement.

This highlights one of the most fascinating and meaningful aspect of the method for many people. The representatives when standing in the “field” of the system, feel sensations and emotions that fit the person who they are representing. This has been described by Rupert Sheldrake as the morphogenic field, and by others as what Jung describes as the collective unconscious, or even an auric energy field. Behavioural psychologists would perhaps describe it as the same phenomena that enables birds to fly together without colliding. It is this aspect that also allows people to find meaning in participating in other people’s constellations, and gaining a new perspective on their own questions and family dynamics.

Family Constellation work has been used to create a movement in the lives of many people seeking healing for a number of different issues. These range from physical ailments such as cancer, AIDS, drug and alcohol dependency, accidents, physically challenged individuals and chronic fatigue syndrome to symptoms experienced on an emotional level such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, trauma and grief. Difficult relationships in the family, suicide, death of loved ones, murder, inability to move on in life and find one’s own place, can find solutions in this work. Although Family Constellations do not profess to cure or solve the issues that people bring, it helps understand the symptom, and open ways for seeing and acting on a new image of the symptom that can lead to resolution. Some people report an immediate effect, and others describe the process coming to a completion only two years after their first constellation experience.

Constellations are also effective in individual or couple settings.  In fact, the work has growth exponentially to include working with all sorts of systems including coaching, organisations, intra-psychic parts, nature and environmental constellations et cetera. All the developments of Constellations rest on the basic principles of order, inclusion and acknowledgement as first seen in Family Constellations, with some differences when applied, for example, to organisational contexts.

In Family Constellations, the work of reconciliation begins in the individual soul and in the family. When reconciliation is achieved there, it can spread to larger groups or contexts. Constellation work has been used for decades in reconciliation work with descendents of victims and perpetrators of war crimes in Nazi Germany, in working for peace between different religions, and between masters and slaves in Brazil and the United States.

Family Constellation work has only reached South African shores recently, and is growing rapidly as more people find healing and understanding of their issues in a broader perspective. The potential for crossing racial barriers, and for bridging the divide between Western and African healing methods and psychology gives this work a special place in the South African context. Observing a constellation a recent workshop, I saw the resolution of an Afrikaner family represented by workshop participants. Representing the mother was a Zulu woman, the father, a Muslim man with their ancestors standing behind them – Xhosa, German, Zulu, and Indian representatives. Representatives of the family of that Afrikaner woman experiencing a good and loving place with each other. There was understanding, respect and love. An observer to the constellation remarked how beautiful it was for her to see the many cultures represented in that one family:

“By the end of the two days having witnessed and experienced the constellations of a cross section of the South African population, I found that I was experiencing feelings of compassion and interconnectedness to the group and a sense of unity in our humanness. Racial, cultural, class, sex and any other barriers had been transcended. I believe that working with constellations has enormous potential for nation building in South Africa. If more people can share in the experience of transcending our barriers and truly connecting at the human level, we will move significantly toward a non- racial society. Our differences will no longer be an issue as recognition of our commonality as humans will mean that respecting and valuing our differences with follow naturally without judgement”

T.Meyburgh, 2005