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Bert Hellinger and family constellations

Bert Hellinger1, 2 (b. 1925) is a German psychotherapist who studied psychoanalysis, gestalt therapy, and transactional analysis after leaving the priesthood. He spent 20 years as a Catholic priest, mostly in South Africa as a parish priest, high school teacher and administrator, and missionary to the Zulu. He is the author of some 30 books that have been translated into several languages. Hellinger is known for a type of therapy he calls family constellations. He resides in Germany. His therapeutic technique is popular throughout Europe, and has been growing into a worldwide phenomenon. On reason for the growth is that there are very few requirements for someone to become a "facilitator" and most places around the world don't require that these folks have extensive training or be licensed therapists.

Family constellations is a type of systemic constellations, which is a type of group therapy. Here's one description of systemic constellations:

A group of participants (10-30), led by a trained facilitator, sit in a circle. One participant (client or seeker) is selected to work on a personal issue. The others either serve as “representatives” or actively contribute by observing with concentration.

The facilitator asks, “What is your issue?” The issue may be extreme: “Two years ago my husband and child were killed in an accident. I’m trying to learn how to live with that.” It may appear to be more commonplace, such as a college student who reports, “I’m 21 years old and have been diagnosed with clinical depression.”

Then the sessions get a bit weird. The client stands behind and puts his hands on the shoulders of each representative in turn. Then, the client sits down. Nobody says anything for awhile. The representatives supposedly tune in the resonance of the family field. The facilitator asks the representatives what they're feeling. Supposedly, "what emerges is that someone in the current family is unconsciously identified with a deceased family member from a previous generation. If this connection is to an excluded person, or one who had a difficult fate, the living family member can be drawn to repeat this fate or compensate for what occurred in the past."*

According to Hellinger, we have "unconscious connections with the fates of family ancestors" that must be revealed if psychotherapy is to be effective. He thinks that Rupert Sheldrake's idea of morphic resonance best explains how we get "entangled" in the fates of our ancestors. "Fields of energy" have "memory and influence" that connect us in the present with people, places, and animals from the past. In short, Hellinger's "unconscious connections" are not genetic influences, nor are they repressed memories. They are thought of as psychic fields of energy. Like many New Age therapies, this one hypothesizes a psychic energy that must be in harmony to function properly, whose imbalance is the cause of physical and mental ill health, and whose structure is somehow related to quantum physics. One of Hellinger's models, Dr. Albrecht Mahr calls this field of energy "the knowing field." He puts it this way:

The constantly surprising findings particularly in quantum physics brings science ever closer to spirituality, i.e. the consciousness of our deep interconnectedness and of love being our original quality and our essence. Quantum physics and spirituality are teaching us that we are deeply connected ("entangled" in quantum language) to all and everything: what happens to others happens equally to us in a very concrete and by [sic] times even measurable way.

Physicists call this quantum quackery, as there is no good reason to believe that there are quantum effects at the biological level. At best, the notion of entanglement to explain complex psychological problems might serve as a metaphor, but even then it would be a poor one. It may be true that because humans are members of the same species, in some abstract sense whatever one of us does any of us is potentially capable of doing. But it is certainly not true that "what happens to others happens equally to us in a very concrete...measurable way."

The existence of these "family constellations" is questionable, but the way in which they are accessed and "disentangled" in therapy sessions is truly bizarre. Hellinger thinks that "constellation work results in movement on a very deep levelthe level of the soul."* One of his early influences was family therapist Virginia Satir,* who believed "that human beings across our planet are all connected...[and]...that healing of the human spirit and reaching out to connect with others through the universal life force...is essential to world peace." Lovely sentiments, perhaps, but based on what evidence? The universal soul that Satir and others believe in is identified with Sheldrake's morphic resonance as a field that stores all the world’s emotional information and can be tapped when a "family constellation" is created.* Anyway, Hellinger writes:

In setting up a family constellation at a workshop, a client chooses workshop attendees to represent members of his or her family, then places them in relationship to each other, without comment, based on how it "felt" to be in the family. Despite not knowing each other or having much information about the family members or their relationships to each other, the representatives become a living model of the original family system.*

Workshops aren't necessary, however, to get the soul to "disentangle" from the connections with ancestors.

In individual work, the "representatives" may be small figures moved about on a tabletop, sheets of paper or footprints placed on the floor, the therapist standing in for family members, or the client him- or herself moving from place to place. The constellation may also be done in the form of a guided visualization that the client experiences with eyes closed or in the form of a story told by the facilitator.*

According to Hellinger, the therapy begins by having the client state what the problem is and what outcome he or she is looking for. The kinds of problems he cites as being a result of energy entanglements are: "feelings of isolation, depression, mental and physical illness, accidents, financial or relationship issues, and even suicidal thoughts or attempts."* Through the use of the morphic field, "entanglements may be seen, unresolved issues may be addressed, and resolutions may be found which release the flow of love in your life."* Or, as Albrecht Mahr puts it:

We are inflicting on ourselves what we reject, fight, and destroy. And the practice of compassion, loving kindness, and perceiving the human being in the opponent are the intelligent expression of our very own self-interest.

We might say that family constellations is a New Age quantum energy application of the advice to "love your enemies." In simple terms, the therapy seems no different from many others that aim at getting people to think about their problem in a way that will help them deal with it effectively. The client is led to believe certain metaphysical things and these beliefs are said to positively affect the client. Does it work? I don't see why it wouldn't with some people, if by "work" we mean "have satisfied customers." What and how people think affects how they feel and behave. So, any kind of therapy that changes the way people think might work for some people, even if the therapy encourages clients to belief in myths, fantasies, illusions, or delusions. Again, "work" means little more than "helps them be less anxious and function in society better." Finally, much of the affirmation of the therapy will consist of subjective validation of what the representatives say they feel and what the facilitator says about the alleged family members whose "fates" are revealed in the alleged morphic field. In short, part of the "success" is due to cold reading techniques used by the facilitator which are validated not only by the client but by the communal reinforcement and confirmation bias of the "representatives." Some might even attribute some of the customer satisfaction to the drop in cortisol and the boost in serotonin and oxytocin that pleasant group encounters evoke. Of course, that would assume that some of the group encounters are indeed pleasant and stress-reducing.

Journalist Florian Burkhardt reports on participating in a family constellation session:

As an observing, though skeptical journalist, I also agreed to enter several constellations during the workshop. Some of the feelings that I had during those constellations were not my own, and I cannot explain their origin. It felt as if you could tune on a TV set and watch your deepest family relations unfold, with the therapist holding the remote control.

Burkhardt doesn't seem much of a skeptic to me, however. He writes of where the feelings he had might have originated:

How this knowing field comes to exist has always been a secret (even to me) and its existence has never been scientifically proven. Experts say that the concept of “knowing fields” has most likely developed out of tribal rituals in South Africa, where Mr. Bert Hellinger, the German founder of the therapy movement, spent some time as a Catholic missionary.

How about the power of suggestion and empathy as an explanation for how someone might feel something without an external cause? Actors do this every day. There doesn't seem to be any mystery here that needs explaining, except perhaps the mystery of why anyone would believe that the "representatives" were tapping into the feelings that a dead person had long ago.

Does the fact that this therapy has many satisfied customers mean that there is something to these ideas of entangled fates uncovered by penetrating morphic resonance in family constellations or any other bit of gobbledygook? Not at all. It doesn't even matter if the feelings and thoughts that clients believe reflect those of family members actually reflect anybody's true feelings about anything. In fact, since many of the "fates" that are allegedly bound in the morphic field can't possibly be known with any accuracy (since the ancestor is long dead and the beliefs impossible to verify), it's obvious that truth is irrelevant to successful therapy. What matters is not what actually happened to anyone, but what the client agrees to believe happened and what the client agrees to believe is now the best way to think and feel about it. If you think beliefs in a "soul" and "morphic resonance" are nonsense, this therapy is not going to work for you. I guarantee it.

On the other hand, if one accepts Hellinger's metaphysical ideas about souls and energies and entanglements, then one might find his therapeutic technique to one's liking. An added attractive feature is that he can work his wonders in a few one-hour sessions. If you're really busy, the therapy can take place over the telephone, though the fee is the same as for an in-person session.* "Clients have reported tremendous shifts stemming from even one phone session" he says.

the unverifiable meets the unbelievable

Hellinger has expressed several questionable notions that range from the merely unverifiable to the absolutely absurd.1, 2, 3, 4  For example:

Homosexuality often results because a boy must assume the feelings of a deceased sister when there are no female siblings in the family to do it. (Hellinger expresses pride at having "cured" a client of the disease of homosexuality.)

Rape and incest create a bond; the perpetrator must receive "due respect" before the victim can bond with another.

"Now about incest. If you are confronted with cases of incest, a very common dynamic is that the wife withdraws from her husband, she refuses a sexual relationship. Then, as a kind of compensation, a daughter takes her place. This is an unconscious movement, not a conscious one. But you see, with incest there are two perpetrators, one in the background and one in the open. You cannot resolve that unless this hidden perpetrator is brought in. There are very strange sentences that come to light. The daughter can tell her mother, "I do it for you." And she can tell her father, "I do it for mother."

His views on incest seem to stem, in part, from his view of the nation and the family as patriarchies. The ruler or father is considered the absolute head whose will is to be obeyed by his subjects or his wife and children. His notion that fathers commit incest with their daughters because their wives have cut them off from sex is something Hellinger cites no scientific evidence for, probably because there isn't any.

Burkhardt writes:

Two sometimes worrying aspects of the method are the incredible power of the therapist and the method’s reliance on the so-called “Orders of Love”, a set of guidelines for healthy family constellations, which are largely based on ancient notions from the Old Testament. Two such rules that troubled me, during my research and in interviews with practitioners, are that the wife should succumb to the husband and that the first-born child has preference over any other child. For example, if a family constellation reveals the sexual abuse of a child, the guilt is put on the mother in the family in some cases, presuming that she had not given enough love to her husband. In other cases, the child simply has to accept the rape as fact, despite the huge emotional burden.

Hellinger's views on rape, war crimes, and other heinous acts seem to stem, in part, from his generally fatalistic view of the world. History unfolds according to some sort of Heglian Absolute over which we have no control. We are pawns and must submit to whatever role fate has assigned us.

Some think Hellinger's philosophy is summed up in his ode to Hitler:


Some people consider you to be inhuman, as if anyone ever deserved that qualification. I look upon you as I look upon myself: namely as a human being with a father and a mother, and with an extraordinary fate. Does that make you any greater? Or smaller? Are you better or worse? Because if you are greater, then so am I. And if you are smaller, then so am I. If you are better or worse, then so am I. For I am a human being like you. If I respect you, then I respect myself. And if I loathe you, then I loathe myself.

In 2004, nearly 200 Hellinger practitioners signed a proclamation distancing themselves from Hellinger as he had distanced himself, in their view, from systemic therapy. This, however, is the pot calling the kettle black.  More telling criticisms are found in the complaints against his treatments that have sent people over the edge, leading to obsessions, mental problems, or even suicide.*  We've seen this before with other New Age therapies and personal growth programs: some of the people who sign up for these things have serious brain disorders or psychological issues and are likely to be harmed rather than helped by the mythologies and rituals engaged in.

A more likely harm caused by family constellations is shown in this comment from a participant in South Africa:

I'm embarrassed to say I've been in a family constellation workshop.  It cost a few thousand rand (I think it was about two thousand rand [$275], about two years ago) for a single day workshop.  Not only was it not helpful, it was also damaging because it said a lot of negative things about my family that have no basis in reality, and I believed them at the time.  Which is not to say there's no validity in understanding how family structure and history can influence people, but the workshops are way beyond that, based on a set of so-called "universal laws".

Not only can Hellinger's ideas either help or screw up your personal life, they can help or screw up your business as well. As one Irish website puts it:

Ochre offers ways of working with individuals and organisations to enhance relationships, development and change. Ochre specialises in family and organisation constellations based on the work of Bert Hellinger.

Did I mention that Herr Hellinger is an ex-priest who is fluent in Zulu?

See also New Age psychotherapies.

further reading

books and articles

Dawes, Robyn M. House of Cards - Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth, (New York: The Free Press, 1994).

Beyerstein, Barry L. Ph.D. Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work.

Gold, Mark. The Good News About Depression: Cures and Treatments in the New Age of Psychiatry (Bantam, 1995).

Haley, Jay. "Therapy—A New Phenomenon" in The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ and Other Essays (Rockville, Md.: The Triangle Press, 1986.)

Kandel, Eric R. & James H. Schwartz, eds. Principles of Neural Science 4th ed. (McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, 2000).

Singer, Margaret Thaler and Janja Lalich. "Crazy" Therapies (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1996).

Stenger, Victor J. "Quantum Quackery," Skeptical Inquirer. January/February 1997.

Watters, Ethan and Richard Ofshe. Therapy's Delusions: The Myth of the Unconscious and the Exploitation of Today's Walking Worried (Simon and Schuster, 1999).



Dancing with Souls (has photos of a family constellations session held in Clare, Ireland)

Family Constellations (Wikipedia)

Fringe Psychotherapies: the Public at Risk by Barry L. Beyerstein

Review of "Crazy" Therapies by Singer and Lalich

Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy

The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice

Last updated 12-Feb-2015

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