by Wolfgang Lenk - published in Anchor Point, June 1998


Keywords: family constellation, Hellinger, Familienaufstellung, NLP, Hypnotherapy, Reimprinting, Wolfgang Lenk

There is a number of versions how systemic family constellations (Familienaufstellungen) can be applied in working with individuals; for instance, figures representing family members on a board, shoes or other "stand-ins" in the therapy office, the client acting out his or her own role with the therapist stepping into the locations of other family members, or the client exploring all the roles one by one.


The concept of re-imprinting

So, if individual clients have the ability to stand in the different locations of the system, to step into the different roles a family constellation can be done in individual therapy. This approach is similar to what we generally speaking do with the so-called re-imprinting (Dilts, 1990) in NLP. Stepping into the locations he or she has assigned the respective family members the client very distinctly experiences the different "perspectives" as he or she moves from spot to spot: he or she goes through the respective emotions, attitudes, and perceptions. It is true that an overview of the whole system in the form of a standing system of role players is missing, and also there is no feed-back from other individuals from outside the system who are sort of neutral. However, if the person is able to "see" the participants of the system in his/her mind's eye all relevant information about the problem system can be gathered that way. At the same time, the client learns a lot about systemic thinking and understanding.


The metaphor "wisdom of the unconscious"

M.H.Erickson was convinced that people are naturally gifted with the abilities to overcome difficulties, to solve problems, to go into trance, and to experience all the phenomena this entails (see O`Hanlon, 1987). Along these lines Erickson said or is supposed to have said: "Your conscious mind is smart, but your unconsious mind is much wiser than your conscious mind." His numerous therapeutic case stories illustrate the therapeutic application of this approach. In Mind Body Healing D.Cheek and E.Rossi (1988) thoroughly elaborate on this concept for a whole range of diverse symptomatologies and illnesses. In doing so they conceive of the unconscious potentials as a knowledgeable agency with considerable creative energy (homunculus). Based on ideomotorsignals they create and unfold kind of an inner dialogue with the "wise unconscious" to solve the respective problems. Part of it is the client's renewed conscious working through of some aspects of his/her life and of doing something about it on his/her own, part of it is the "unconscious" being ready to come up with new solutions for all sorts of problems on the agenda. Thus, this process involves cooperation between conscious wanting and unconsious potentials. (see Lenk 1988, 1995)

Occasionally, I apply this hypnotherapeutic concept in individual therapy, at times in the form of "verbal communication with the unconscious" to help clients who have difficulties to be "focused" while doing the family constellation or who are not sure whether it is "correct or not"; also, I use it occasionally to find steps to a solution or to resolve incongruencies.


Posthypnotic instructions

In proceeding the assumption that therapeutic processes of change occur between sessions various kinds of "posthypnotic instructions" (Erickson/Rossi/Rossi, 1976) are part of the repertoire of hypnotherapy - such as further integration of the therapy-experience, such as completion of processes initiated during the session e.g. through dreams, such as conscious and unconscious learnings, and personal growth in general. (As I see it there are certain parallels with Hellinger's view that the solution of the family constellation has to take effect in the soul for a while before a congruent transformation in real life can occur or until time is ready - in particular when the family constellation cannot be completed congruently.)

At times, I use the notion of posthypnotic instructions to assist clients in letting their "process" of the family constellation take effect in "benificial ways" and to let it unfold.


Case study

A client started therapy with me because of her strong feelings of fear, her insecurity in her professional work, her never-ending relationship issues, a complicated retinitis and - as it turned out later - most of all because of the troubling question whether her phantasies of abuse were actual memories of a difficult childhood or mere phantasies. In therapy she was able to integrate the experience of abuse and to establish a kind and loving relationship with her father, she overcame her fear and insecurity almost completely, and in cooperation with the "unconscious" her illness turned into a process of healing. Toward the end of her therapy she wanted to put "her family relationships and her emotions in the right order", so that we did a family constellation in individual therapy.


Family constellation

I asked the client to get in touch with her inner image of her "unconsious" (who she had a lot of favorable experiences with in the course of her therapy) and to ask it how the constellation of her family of origin should be set up since again she did not feel safe and was not "focused". Guided by her unconscious mind she did the constellation, i.e. she marked space anchors on the floor for her grandparents, her parents, her brother, and also for her parents' aborted child (even though I had learned it differently from Hellinger). It is something like a panorama of "split couples and scattered family members"; the grandfather on the mother's side moving out of the system. Once she had taken in the problem constellation she observed from outside she stepped into the respective individuals' shoes to explore their emotions and experiences.

The unconscious mind told her to first support the aborted fetus - male - which we did. After her parents acknowledged their guilt, she was supposed to clarify her relationship with her two siblings and to accept the ranking of their positions. Once again from observer position, all three siblings met in her mind's eye, in her imagination, they had a seat at a round table and enjoyed each other as if they were a "crew". She had a sense of relief as "a painful gap closed". The unconscious commented she should take this image of a (partial) solution in so that she could easily remember it in many other (problem) situations. Deepening the trance and as posthypnotic instructions I told her (with hypnotic language patterns) that she was able to receive this image and this experience in her heart and to let it take effect there, and also, that she was able to sense the strength and power of the sibling-crew hair and hide, that she could feel it more and more with every pore, now and in many other significant situations.

When she stepped into her mother's shoes she could feel a new impulse: noticing that all three children are nicely together the mother now wants to be next to her husband. After the parents have acknowleged and respected each other as the right partners we were able to shift the constellation of the family of origin until we achieved a solution. With her parents behind herself and next to her siblings the client felt very safe, clear, and empowered. And she began to believe that truly every family member under this "law of love" ("Ordnung der Liebe") can continue to grow and to evolve.

As she was observing the family constellation from outside and let this image sink in the system self-organised and shifted in her mind's eye as if it only needed to be initiated. After a brief discussion the grandparents on her father's side form a couple, then the parents also become a "true couple" - as she said. And the males in this new standing system (Systemaufstellung) gain strength and influence, they turn into "real men, strong and reliable", an experience that was healing for her. However, nothing happens with the grandparents on her mother's side. It was unclear for a moment what the issue was with these grandparents. The unconsious said: Grandfather does not belong to the system! Thus, she let him leave in a respectful way. Nobody in the system was sad about that. Then it occured to her that there had always been rumors in the family as to whether the grandfather had killed his wife. He had died a year after the grandmother's death.

But in her mind's eye the grandmother on her mother's side, now without a husband, absolutely wanted to stand right next to her grandchild - with an angry face. The unconscious directed her to a location next to the other grandparents saying that this was her location temporarily, another issue needed to be clarified between herself and her grandchild (client), however, not today.

The client herself had a sense that this was enough for today emotionally and that her energy and receptivity were gone.


Next session, six weeks later

In the meantime the client had been doing very well, and she wanted to complete the family constellation! Our therapeutic approach changed into what might be called "dealing with the inner family through hypnotherapy" (even though this work continued to be based on Hellinger's ideas).

I asked the client to go into trance and to step into her grandmother's shoes to explore how she is doing and what she wants. The grandmother does not want to be set aside in a location of the older generation. Actually, she wants revenge because so much evil has been done to her in her life time, and because she has never been able to find her own space in life.

I asked the client to find out from her unconscious what should be done. The answer was the following:

  1. She should tell her grandmother: I am sorry that I have not kept you in kind remembrance;

  2. then, she should tell her grandmother about where she had come from, her life experiences, her accomplishments, and failures;

  3. then, she should get the other family members to notice the grandmother and to acknowledge her hard lot.

  4. finally, (and here the metaphor of the inner family is very appropriate) the grandmother should pass on to her the experience what it is like, what it feels like to truly and naturally belong to the family. Then she would automatically find the right location for herself within the system.

In my opinion these "interventions by the unconscious" were excellent, since as the client told her grandmother about where she had come from she reorganized her life experiences through the "filters of the last six weeks" on the level of the unconscious (and this process continued after the session), and with step 4 (in addition to the outcomes we achived in therapy before the family constellation) she learned to deepen the feeling of "truly and naturally belonging".

Through these steps by the end of this session all family members in the family constellation had an aligned location in this family system.



(Translated by Barbara v.Bechtolsheim)

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