The pros and cons of a new psychotherapeutic method
My article is about the worldwide spread (including to Ireland) of a new form of potentially dangerous type of psychotherapy. It has reached Ireland from Germany via the UK where it is already a huge business. The new development is that followers of this semi-cult want to apply it to politics and other social areas.
“I am your dead brother. There’s a place for you here and I will wait for you.” There is a moment of silence, and everyone is choking and holding their breath. My mind starts racing. I think, oh my god, if the man on the ground goes on like that, this woman will commit suicide. “But for now, I want you to live your life and have fun.” Brenda’s mouth is forming a smile, as if she can finally believe these words. I am relieved that she’s been helped. She looks a great deal happier than yesterday, when I first met her.
This was the most memorable moment I had of a new, very powerful psychotherapeutic treatment called “family constellation”, which I witnessed at a weekend workshop at the Sunyata Centre in Co. Clare. With this therapy, practitioners claim to be able to find a solution to an array of psychological conditions and family problems, ranging from depression to personality kinks. But where does this method come from and how does it work?
Family constellation therapies reached Ireland from Germany via the UK only around five years ago.
So far, a couple in Cork, who also run the website www.ochre.ie, are the only therapists with a permanent family constellation practice in Ireland. Yet, the method is clandestinely spreading all around the country with therapists regularly coming from the UK and Germany for weekend workshops and conferences.
Heiner Eisenbarth, the organiser of the constellation workshop in Clare, describes a constellation this way: “A “client” and the facilitator talk a while about the client’s issue and his family, and then he chooses people from the group to represent the various elements of the constellation, usually people or abstracts, and sets up the initial constellation. In a constellation, the representatives often have experiences and feelings that reflect the client’s situation and are quite similar to those of the person they represent.
The facilitator then moves and asks the representatives to endeavor to find a solution.”
For representatives to have the feelings of other people, even of long-dead ancestors, they enter what therapists call a “knowing field”.
Constellation Practitioners claim that there is a sort of universal soul that stores all the world’s emotional information and is tapped within this field during a constellation. 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.
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.
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.
According to a web-blog entry, the representative of an abused child once had to kneel down in front of the father’s representative, and ask for forgiveness, saying: “I thank you Dad, I am very grateful to have been able to do this for you.”
In Germany, there were already 2,000 registered constellation practitioners in 2003. However, Bert Hellinger has increasingly come under fire from journalists and psychologists for his therapeutic approach.
In Ireland, as in most of the 25 countries where family constellations are available, critical analysis of the method does not take place.
Mike Garde, director of Dialogue Ireland, an organisation which watches the development of new movements in religion and psychology, says he has never heard of family constellations.
In 1997, a woman from the German city of Leipzig committed suicide after a mass constellation session in Northern Germany, headed by Bert Hellinger. And there is also rising suspicion about the personal background of Hellinger, especially as it transpired in 2004 that he had bought a villa which once belonged to Adolf Hitler.
Hellinger, a former German soldier and priest, has also made various anti-Semitic and fascist statements in public and wrote a controversial poem to the deceased Hitler.
But the attractiveness of the system is still growing worldwide. This year, Hellinger will be heading conferences in Poland, Italy, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. It all is very lucrative for Hellinger and his colleagues: the typical attendance fee for a conference is around 400 US dollars. Hellinger has also sold more than half a million books and videos on family constellations.
In some Latin American countries, his teachings seem to be filling a void that the weakening of the Catholic church has left behind and have been incorporated in education and politics. In Brazil, Hellinger will give a seminar on organisational constellations in the country’s health ministry and in Mexico City there are several institutes which apply his theories all the way from kindergarten to university.
The German city of Würzburg will soon be hosting the Third International Conference on the Resolution of Large Group Conflicts. Run by one of Hellinger’s followers, Dr. Albrecht Mahr - with guest speakers from all around the world, the conference will focus on the use of large-scale constellations and the “knowing field” in politics and national conflict resolution.
Whether this controversial method will become accepted in Ireland is almost out of the question. And most constellation practitioners are convinced that the future potential of constellation work and the “knowing field” is huge.
In an email, practitioner Vivian Broughton wrote: “I don’t think we yet know the extent to which this method of diagnosis, clarifying and problem-solving is usable… those boundaries are yet to be reached.”
participants of a family constellation workshop at the Sunyata Centre in Co. Clare
Breda Perrem, family constellation therapist, Cork
Heiner Eisenbarth, family constellation therapist, Brighton
Martin Buchholz, German journalist from Zeit newspaper, edition 35/2003
Mike Garde, director of Dialogue Ireland
Franz Ruppert, family constellation therapist, Munich
Vivian Broughton, family constellation therapist, Somerset