Family Constellations and CAT: Reciprocal Roles Through The Generations?

Bancheva, M., 2006. Family Constellations and CAT: Reciprocal Roles Through The Generations?. Reformulation, Summer, pp.15-17.


Presented at ACAT’s 14th Annual Conference on March 4th 2006

Bert Hellinger’s work with Family Constellations places the individual in the context of the wider family group over a number of generations and explores how loss, betrayal and abandonment disrupt the family bonding system and create entanglements and splits which get passed down from generation to generation.

Some of Hellinger’s insights

At the heart of Hellinger’s work are his insights about love and bonding in family systems. It could be argued that his approach to such relationships is truly dialogical in that he talks about the concept of one’s soul as ‘the other-in-me’. He believes that at the core of a child’s soul lies the need to bond with others, particularly the mother/father figures in early infancy. This he calls the child’s ‘blind’ love for which the child willingly sacrifices his own welfare. This is not far removed from Fairbain’s idea that the child takes the ‘badness’ of the parent onto himself in order to purify the parent on whose ‘goodness’/wellbeing his survival depends. According to Hellinger, at the core of all distress is the child’s ‘interrupted movement’ of love towards his mother or father due to circumstances such as a parent’s depression, hospitalization or general inability to respond to the child’s needs. In such circumstances the love of the child for his parents turns into pain and later on, instead of moving towards loved ones, the adult prefers to keep his distance and feels anger, despair and sadness instead of love. And if the anguish caused by such ‘interrupted’ love does not get resolved in one generation, the burden of its resolution falls to the next one. In CAT terms what we have is the transmission of Reciprocal Roles such as rejecting/abandoning/excluding to rejected/abandoned/ excluded leading to core feelings of rage, hopelessness and despair which can be transmitted from one generation to the next, a chain of transmission which can go back to at least four if not seven generations.

The Methodology of Family Constellations

Family constellations work was originally devised by Hellinger for work in groups and this is still the most powerful way to explore intergenerational dynamics. It does nevertheless lend its self to individual work too and can be used in CAT to facilitate exploration during the stage of Reformulation and to find ‘exits’ during the Active phase.

When used in groups, the process starts with the client identifying the problem he/she wants to work on and the aims they want to achieve. The therapist then collects factual information about important people in the client’s life and the lives of parents and grandparents. The therapist develops a hypothesis based on the facts and the feelings attached to them and tests this by helping the client set up a constellation of important people in their lives. The client chooses people from the group to represent important family members, including a representative for himself/herself. He/she then sets the representatives in a special relationship to one another according to their inner image. The therapist asks each representative to give feedback about physical sensations, feelings and awarenesses. The representatives’ statements confirm or change the original hypothesis. If necessary, additional representatives can be added as the picture of the dynamics broadens. Often deceased members of the family are represented if they are deemed to have had an impact on the family system. When all the representatives have found a place that feels right for them, the client takes his or her place in the constellation. The therapist may ask the representatives to utter certain sentences or complete certain rituals in order for the client to move towards a resolution. Often representatives are added to represent inner resources the client can access to move forward. In CAT this is particularly useful when working towards exits. Most constellations lead to insights about family inter-psychic dynamics and often bring lasting physical and emotional relief to the client.

Recent research by scientists such as Giacomo Rizzolati and his team into mirror neurons as well as the work of Professor Allan Schore with psychoneurobiological models of therapeutic empathy and projective identification supports the phenomenological experience of intersubjective or ‘knowing’ fields and help us understand phenomena such as empathy, sympathy, identification and countertransference which underlie much of the therapeutic work with Family Constellations.

CAT and Family Constellations

CAT and Family Constellations have quite a lot in commonin terms of their view of human beings. They both view the self as embedded in a social system and created in dialogue with significant others. Both models aim at describing dynamics and patterns rather than interpreting them and both identify reciprocal patterns of dysfunctional relating. Both therapies use the idea of the ‘observing I/eye which in fact constitutes the work in Family Constellations as the client experiences patterns and dynamics by observing the representatives and their behaviour. Finally, both therapeutic models are goal/ change oriented.

The most powerful Reciprocal Roles that come up in Family Constellations are the ‘abandoning to abandoned’, ‘rejecting to rejected’ and ‘excluding to excluded’ reciprocal roles which seem to underlie the rest, such as ‘critical to striving’ or ‘controlling to controlled’. This is because as Hellinger says, dysfunction arises when some basic laws of family systems get broken as in the case of the child’s ‘interrupted movement’ of love towards his/her parents or when certain members of the system are excluded. . Because of this, the work with Family Constellations focuses on healing through developing the alternative reciprocal roles of ‘accepting to accepted’ and ‘integrating to integrated’ which I find serve as the most powerful ‘exits’ of all in CAT.

There are of course some fundamental difference between CAT and Family Constellations which is far more phenomenological and experiential in its approach. CAT, on the other hand relies much more on cognition and reasoning. Also and most significantly, Family Constellations work involves the transmission of patterns and ‘voices’ through the generations and deals primarily with early bonding issues aiming at healing early interruptions in the bonds between children and their parents.

Family Constellations and CAT: some practical applications

In CAT, the therapist can use coloured felts, stones, shells or plastic toys to represent the various members of a client’s family. The client is asked to arrange these according to the particular picture of family dynamics they have in their mind’s eye and the therapist can then make suggestions about repositioning figures and can ask the client to say certain sentences to important members of their family constellations which can work on symbolic level to shift feelings and perceptions in the client.

Setting up a client’s Family Constellation can be a powerful way of exploring clients’ life stories leading up to Reformulation. Some of Hellinger’s insights such as the systemic need for balance and compensation can also be very useful for the understanding of the concept of ‘snags’ in CAT. Introducing objects to represent ‘resources’ during the Active Phase can be a very helpful way of working towards ‘exits’.

In my experience, using Family Constellations concepts in CAT can be a powerful way of altering punitive and selfdestructive internal dialogues. Working with inner images and the body can help the integration of the split off parts of the self, leading to the development of the healthier Reciprocal Roles of ‘accepting to accepted’ and ‘integrating to integrated’

Mina Bancheva

References

Frankle,U. ( 2005) In My Mind’s Eye Heidelberg Carl-Auer

Hellinger,B. ( 1998) Love’s Hidden Symmetry Phoenix Arizona Zeig, Tucker & Co

Hellinger, B.( 1999) Acknowledging What Is Phoenix Arizona Zeig, Tucker& Co

Hellinger,B. ( 2001) Love’s Own Truths Phoenix Arizona Zeig, Tucker & Co

Ruppert, F. ( 2006) The Knowing Field International Constellations Journal Issue 7

Full Reference

Bancheva, M., 2006. Family Constellations and CAT: Reciprocal Roles Through The Generations?. Reformulation, Summer, pp.15-17.

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Family Constellations and CAT: Reciprocal Roles Through The Generations?
Bancheva, M., 2006. Family Constellations and CAT: Reciprocal Roles Through The Generations?. Reformulation, Summer, pp.15-17.