Personal maturity is an important underpinning for any therapist doing family constellations. The more life experience a person has had, and the more the experiences which have been worked through, the greater will be the capacity for leading constellations. Seen from the negative aspect, the more blind spots and illusions a person has, and the more serious problems have been left unseen and unattended to along the way, the more obstacles will block the way to the work with the client.
A certain groundedness comes with maturity, which could be called a healthy common sense. Things become simpler instead of more complicated, not because complicated problems are over-simplified, but because a more straightforward vision makes clear what steps are to be taken next.
This maturity is not simply a question of age. There are people who are astoundingly mature, even in their youth, and there are older people who seem rather far removed from a state of maturity, despite many years of life. There is a saying that only the wise can learn from experience, it will never make a fool clever.
On the other hand, it is clear that time itself supports the process of maturation. Life is the best school of learning, repeatedly offering challenges, surprises, and new opportunities for learning and gaining new insights. To use an old fashioned term, we get older and wiser.
The questions is, how can we support the maturation process? What can one possibly say to young people, aside from, “Sooner or later, you’ll understand what I'm talking about.”
For one thing, it’s wise to remember that maturity cannot be forced. It’s impossible to tank up on life experience at a faster pace, or through will power. Patience is called for in this process. If I am content with the experiences that present themselves, I’ll be better able to learn from what comes next. The more I can enter into new experiences which push up against my own boundaries and the more I dare to take risks, the more life experience I will gain. An additional factor is personal integrity, honesty in relation to oneself and to others.
Respecting one’s own boundaries
For a therapist just beginning to do family constellations, I believe the most important skill is being aware of one’s own boundaries and respecting them. By remaining within those boundaries, the work that is done will be appropriate and useful. Otherwise, the therapist may go beyond his or her support, which becomes dangerous for both therapist and client.
What are the actual boundaries to be observed? Each of us has personal limits as to how much we can carry. The limits may be physical ones, that is, after a certain number of constellations or a certain number of days of a workshop, the therapist’s capacity is depleted for the time being. The boundaries may be psychological and emotional. There are particular topics and particular constellations that may exceed the therapist’s capacity at a given moment. The question the constellation leader needs to ask is, “How much can I withstand?” More precisely, one might ask, “How much pain and suffering can I take in?”
Each of us is aware of hitting these limitations in our own way. It might be an inner state of simply knowing, “That’s enough!” Or perhaps there's a sensation in the stomach or chest, or some other signal that says that capacity has been reached for that moment. It could also be some particular issue that makes the constellation leader pull back or feel overwhelmed.
During a practice session in my training programme, a participant took over leading a constellation having to do with crimes committed by the client’s father during the Third Reich.
It was clear that the representative of the daughter was feeling increasingly bad. She was leaning off to the side and feeling ill, and the person leading the constellation was completely ignoring this information. I watched for a time, and then, uncharacteristically for me, I intervened out of concern for the representative and broke off the constellation.
In talking about the experience afterwards, the woman who had led the constellation confessed to having had a bad feeling about working with this issue, right from the beginning. Actually, she would have liked to have refused to do it altogether, but decided to go ahead anyway.
The moment we, as therapists, exceed our own boundaries, we overlook an essential inner sense and block out a portion of our awareness. This is why it can be dangerous. It is appropriate and important to refuse to do a constellation at this point. Sometimes the boundary only become noticeable during a constellation. If a therapist becomes aware of exceeding a boundary, the most sensible thing to do is to break off the constellation immediately. Sometimes it’s enough to simply be aware of the limit and pause for a moment, and the boundary itself may be pushed out a bit further.
As Hellinger says, a client can step beyond their normal boundaries if the therapist agrees to his or her own. This demands the courage to admit your own limits. If you break off a constellation because you have bumped up against your own limitation, it’s helpful for the participants if you admit this openly. The most straightforward way is the simplest: “I am at my own boundary here, so I’m going to interrupt the constellation.” It is best not to get into any debate about it. There is dignity in standing by your own boundaries. A constellation that is interrupted in this way will have the same power as any other constellation.
A therapist weakens a constellation with a group discussion of other steps which would have been possible in the constellation, or something similar. The collectedness that has been created is destroyed in this way.
In my own work with constellations, I am repeatedly aware of meeting my own limits, and in this way my boundaries are stretched and expanded. My own capacity grows through the work and my limits move outward into new, unknown territory. Everyone who does this work will keep running into the limits of his or her own boundaries, but it doesn't always occur with awareness during a constellation.
The client is the mother of a fifteen-year-old daughter. Fifteen years ago, as her child was six months old, the woman had intended to commit suicide with gas, and take her baby with her. The two were rescued.
I set up a constellation of the mother and the child. In the constellation the child’s representative is fearful and nervous, and doesn’t want to look at her mother at first. The mother’s representative is feeling great pain. I have the two look at each other and the whole atmosphere between them changes. I attend to what seems appropriate to me in the situation and I have the mother take the responsibility and the guilt for her actions upon herself and turn away. The child continues looking at her mother and won’t let go. After a few more tries, I break off the constellation.
In retrospect, it became clear to me that I hadn't grasped the child’s love during the constellation, because it was stronger than what I could comprehend. The child was so loving that she would have gladly given her life for her mother. I was trying to establish ‘order’, but only because that love was so unbearable for me. I had come to my own limit.
There are always inner resistances which make it difficult for you to stand by your own boundaries, and it’s a good idea to be very aware of your own tendencies. Are you worried about what the workshop participants will think? Are you concerned about whether or not the client can bear the outcome? Do you make demands on yourself and your own ability which preclude such an end to a constellation? A good question to ask yourself is, “Where do I make problems for myself?”
In my training courses, a basic exercise is facing up to the inner catastrophic fantasies, and each asks the question, “What catastrophes can I imagine happening in a constellation?” Some of the answers that have emerged in this exercise are: “Something is shaken loose in a client that I can’t guide or control.” “Someone becomes violent in a constellation.” “The participants talk me into a constellation.” “I have to break off a number of constellations in a row.” “The participants think I’m incapable of doing this work.” “A potential suicide shows up in a constellation.” “Something terrible happens after a constellation—like a psychotic episode or a suicide.” “The other therapists think I’m not good.”
It has proven helpful to do role plays of these kind of brink experiences to conquer some of the fantasies. The person is confronted with the worst possible scenario and has to work on through it. Even though this demands a lot of a person, it builds self-confidence and strength.
It’s some comfort to know that although one’s own limits appear repeatedly, it is not a continuous experience. Much of the time, what appears in a constellation is well within the bounds of what the therapist can manage, or can tolerate.
Question: The danger for someone who’s just learning family constellation work is that they will merely imitate what you have already discovered and developed. What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out? I’ll go back to the example of the couples. I have heard often enough from you that when a couple are standing facing one another, they are separated. That may not be someone else’s direct impression or experience, but rather something that has been heard from you. I’ve seen that the statement is true in your constellations, but my own direct experience is missing. How do I get there?
Hellinger: You have to restrict yourself to what you are actually aware of, and you’ll learn, step by step. You then remain within the boundaries that are appropriate for you and for the actual situation. If you stay within those limits, you will do good work. If you exceed those limits, it gets uncomfortable for you and for everyone else. Within the limits, everything is in order.
In addition to our strengths, each of us has blind spots, the areas where our awareness is clouded to a greater or lesser degree. The peculiar thing about a blind spot is that we're not aware of it at all. My own impression is that I’m seeing everything clearly. A portion of my awareness is excluded, so that I can’t see a portion of the field and I’m also not aware of not seeing it.
The causes lie most often in our own personal history. Take the example of a woman therapist who was abused as a child. If this therapist works with a client who is an abuse victim, without first having healed her own wounds at a deep level, she will get caught and won’t be able to work appropriately. She may be extremely engaged and may give her client her full support, but all of her own unresolved issues will prevent a full resolution for the client.
Dealing with your own past and your own pain is often difficult and painful and it often takes a long time to expose these old wounds to the sunlight where they can heal. Finding peace in relation to your own personal issues is a great source of strength and potential.
If the therapist in the example above is at peace with herself and her own history and can look at her past without feeling overcome by pain or accusations, then she will be able to transmit this attitude to her client. She will have something extraordinary to offer to victims of abuse and will be able to accompany them along their way towards resolution. This therapist will have a deeper understanding of the client’s situation.
In this process, the blind spots are a part of your own shortcomings. Through the work with constellations and feedback, the therapist becomes aware of his or her own blind areas. Looking at those spots that have been previously avoided is a part of one’s own development.
At the same time it’s necessary to accept one’s own imperfections. These are a part of me and will always belong to me. When I acknowledge them, they strengthen instead of weakening me.