Bert Hellinger and the History of Family Constellations

Bert Hellinger (*6.12.1925)
Bert Hellinger is probably Europe’s most innovative and provocative psychotherapist and a best-selling psychotherapy author. A former priest and a missionary to the Zulu in South Africa for 16 years, as well as an educator, a psychoanalyst, body therapist, group dynamic therapist, and a family therapist, he brings a lifetime of experience and wisdom to his work. The family constellations, which have become the hallmark of Hellinger’s approach, as well as his observations about systemic entanglement and resolution, have touched the lives of thousands of people and have changed how many helping professionals carry out their own work. 
Hellinger studied philosophy and theology in Germany. At the age of 20, he entered a Catholic religious order and began the long process of purification of body, mind and spirit in silence, study, contemplation and meditation. He went on to spend 16 years in South Africa as a missionary to the Zulu, an experience that had a profound effect on his later work. There he directed a large school, taught, and was parish priest simultaneously. With time he came to feel as much at home with the Zulu as is possible for a European. The process of leaving one culture to live in another sharpened his awareness of the relativity of many cultural values.
His decision to leave the religious order after 25 years came with the realization that being a priest no longer was an appropriate expression of his inner growth. Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy were to be the next major influence. Several therapeutic schools have made their marks on his work, in addition to the phenomenological/dialogical orientation of the group dynamics from the Anglicans, the fundamental need for humans to align themselves with the forces of nature he learned from the Anglicans and the Zulu in South Africa, the psychoanalysis he learned in Vienna, and the body-work he learned in America.
Those familiar with the full range of psychotherapy will recognize in this approach a unique integration of diverse elements (see more information below). In the gathering of powerful approaches from psychotherapy as well as other paradigms, he has created a uniquely compelling healing approach. He has learned specific tools from a variety of sources, but the overarching strength of his work comes from his refined skill of listening to the authority of one`s own soul.
Bert Hellinger has written 83 books. Translations of them are available in 30 languages. His work is documented in many CDs, DVDs, Audiobooks and eBooks.
A short outline about the history of constellations
Dan Booth Cohen, who worked for years with constellations with inmates sentenced to life imprisonment, in his book “I carry your heart in my heart” informs us that the form of the Family Constellation process can be traced to four prominent system-oriented psychologists: Jakob Moreno, Eric Berne, Virginia Satir, and Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy.
At this point we also have to mention Freud, Jung and Adler, without whom the development of transgenerational therapy would not have been possible. Freud was the one to discover the “unconscious”, the “unvoiced” and the “collective mind”. Jung was the one to introduce the “collective unconscious”, an unconscious that accumulated human experience and is transmitted from generation to generation. Adler was the one to first use the term “Family Constellations” in a somewhat different context to refer to the phenomenon that each individual belongs to and is bonded in relationship to other members of his or her family system and that birth order influences a person’s lifestyle choices.
Jakob Moreno, the father of group therapy, in the first half of last century, developed psychodrama and sociometry to reveal elements of the unconscious that could be altered in the course of a session. A central idea was that individual biography could not fully account for mental disturbances and illnesses. Nor could individuals resolve serious psychological issues absent a systemic perspective. Moreno’s “social atom” oriented the key members of an individual’s system in relation to each other. So the illness or problem could be fully understood or remedied by perceiving the interaction of the members of the system.
During the 1960’s and 70’s several psychoanalysts and psychotherapists raised the complex question of transgenerational transmission of unresolved conflicts, of hatred, revenge, secrets, of what is “unspoken”, as well as premature deaths and choice of profession.
Building on Moreno’s insights, Eric Berne came up with transactional analysis (1973) proposing that dysfunctional behavior results from self-limiting decision made in childhood. Berne talks about a “life script”, a preconscious life plan that governs the way life is lived out, but can be changed.
Bert Hellinger, the father of family constellations, immersed himself in transactional analysis and his work with clients validated, for him, Berne’s key premise that there is an underlying, unconscious structure that shapes and drives our responses to external stimuli.
From the beginning Hellinger operated from a phenomenological rather than from a theoretical stance. So, when his experiences contradicted a theory’s hypothesis, he was willing to discard or modify the theory. Regarding Berne, Hellinger discovered that, the life scripts being based on early parental messages, was not the whole truth, but that some of the scripts came from other sources. His conclusion from years of operating was the following: “Whether we are aware of it or not, a great deal of our suffering is not caused by what we have personally experienced, but what others in our system have experienced or suffered. ” (Hellinger 2001a, p.434).
This insight brought Hellinger to the United States to work with Virginia Satir and Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy.
Virginia Satir developed and popularized her family sculpture and family reconstruction methods in the 1960s by merging elements of Moreno’s psychodrama with innovative systemic family therapy techniques. On one occasion she experienced the following (1978): “If I put people in physical stances, they were likely to experience the feelings that went with that stance.” (P.68)
Satir, like Boszormenyi-Nagy, recognized that any given symptom was part of a larger tableau that connected not only the members of the immediate nuclear family but also members of past and future generations (Franke 2003).
Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, working with thousands of families from all social and economic backgrounds, concluded that unconscious regulators of balance, merit and entitlement bound individuals into narrow roles within the family structure. And because these regulators are not apparent in conscious awareness, he labeled them “invisible loyalties”. He said: “The structuring of relationships, especially within families, is an extremely complex and essentially unknown “mechanism””. And this unknown mechanism operates on individuals without their awareness.
What Hellinger did, was to strip gradually the kinetic and verbal elements from the role-playing dramatizations. From this arresting of motions and language the movements and insights of the Family Constellation process emerged.
It shifted the emphasis away from exploring or processing narrative, cognitive, or emotional content. Instead, the process aimed to identify and release impulses and hidden loyalties embedded in the unconscious.
With time passes Hellinger’s insights diverged further and further from the generally accepted precepts of family therapy. Did Boszormenyi-Nagy talk about “extremely complex and essentially unknown “mecchanisms””, Hellinger now claimed that these mechanisms are subject to consistent organizing principles which he called “The orders of love”. And these could be discerned and used to find healing resolutions to specific personal issues. So, in a constellation the spontaneously emerging feelings and perceptions of the representatives are understood to mirror the unconscious mind of whom or what they represent.
In her book “The ancestor syndrome”, Anne Ancelin Schützenberger who is a professor emeritus at the University of Nice and co-founder of the International Association of Group Psychotherapy and internationally renowned trainer in group psychotherapy and psychodrama does not mention the word “constellation” once, but she describes the importance of including the genogram or genosociogram in the work with clients.
There are still people who put family constellations in the corner of esoteric quackery and nonsense. From this historic thread we can see that it has a quite solid foundation of different thoughts and theories, with the addition of the courage to go beyond and to add also the transgenerational and transpersonal.