Family Constellations: An Unconventional Tool for Healing Baggage
Marine Sélénée was in Paris studying to be a psychologist when she suddenly felt uninspired. In a bit of a malaise—not happy, not unhappy—she left France and started dabbling in the world of spirituality. That’s when one of her mentors told her about a form of therapy called family constellations. She was pretty skeptical: “I was really French.”
Still, she set up her own session. She had some unresolved issues in her love life that she had been trying to tackle. Forty minutes later, Sélénée thought, Oh my God, here it is. “It” being the answers Sélénée had been searching for but had not found in psychology. She spent a year working through her family history before training to become a family constellations counselor. Eventually, she opened a private practice in New York.
Family constellations is the creation of a German psychologist named Bert Hellinger. Hellinger traveled to South Africa as a missionary in the 1950s. He became interested in the customs of the Zulu people and a particular ceremony they used to understand one another. In Zulu tradition, ancestors are sacred, and healing ancestral wounds is a key to strong family ties. He saw family members speak to one another candidly, without being passive-aggressive or becoming frustrated. It wasn’t quite how he was used to seeing family matters play out back home.
This was not the family constellations method in its final form but the birth of the idea. Hellinger returned to Germany and spent the rest of his life examining the ways our family narratives influence our personal identities. Family constellations advocates tend to be devout: It’s not just therapy; it’s a life philosophy to them. It’s seeing people with a different perception—and accepting what you see (for example: learning to see your mother as a human being).
Building a Family Tree
Family constellations therapy takes two forms: group therapy and one-on-one. I host group workshops once or twice a month. You meet with a group of strangers, and each person has a chance to be the main point of focus of their own family constellation. A facilitator selects others from the group to represent significant family members, and you all work together by role-playing characters and acting out familiar family dynamics. Though groups are made up of complete strangers, participants are able to role-play in an alarmingly realistic manner. Of course, sometimes you can come with a friend or a partner, but most of the time you come by yourself and connect with people you don’t know and share a deep experience.
For one-on-one sessions, we place footprints around the client to create the constellation. Each pair of footprints represents either a family member, an emotion, or a difficult situation. All the footprints on the floor represent a visualization of your subconscious, and once they are in position, you can start thinking about how you connect to different parts of your story. It’s important to visualize because, as human beings, when we can see it, we can feel and understand better. Then the facilitator asks the client to step on each set of footprints, close their eyes, and respond to what they feel as they stand there. To close, the client repeats a few healing mantras.
For healing to take place, you need to be active in your healing and ready to commit. Also, forget about wanting to be right. Open your perception. Be open to how you want to feel after therapy.
If you want to begin working on a family issue on your own, I recommend starting with a family tree. We should all do a family tree at least once. There’s the saying “If you do not know your history, you won’t know where you’re going,” and I completely agree. A family tree helps you see the patterns that are influencing you today and helps you understand that the behavioral patterns you experience did not start with you—but can end with you.
If you can’t fill in all the branches of your family tree, start with the information you have. If you’re dealing with the absence of a family member—like a parent or grandparent you never knew—that, too, can be represented by footprints. When you’re looking at the footprint symbol on your tree, you could say something like “I don’t know what happened because I do not know your story. But what I know right now is that I have been suffering from it, and I want to acknowledge it.”
Draw your family tree.
Note the dates of birth and death of family members, along with events that feel important (for example, graduations, marriage, abuse, career changes).
Look for patterns or repetition. You may notice shared birthdays or death anniversaries or even certain disorders. Perhaps traumatic events occurred at similar ages, or relatives were excluded from the family for the same reasons. You may become aware of a lot of car accidents, that your grandmother lost her younger sister during a war, or that a few women in your family were depressed. This might give you clues regarding the energy of your family. Circle the event that is the most traumatic or that strikes you the most when you look at it. Then circle the event that gives you the most strength.
Let your thoughts and insights come into your mind and pass through. Look at your family tree with love. Thank each member one by one for being a part of your family system. How do you feel? Do you see how you’re a part of a bigger picture?
Read these questions, then close your eyes and answer them:
What’s the first picture you see when you think about your family tree?
What adjective describes your family?
How would you talk about it?
Marine Sélénée is a New York–based family constellations facilitator, executive coach, Reiki practitioner, and motivational speaker.