4. Karin Huyssen

Reflections on a Family Constellation gone wrong

It was at 15:00 in the afternoon and there was an hour left before the end of the constellation workshop I was facilitating. I asked if anybody else wanted to work, and after a while a woman tentatively put up her hand and said, “I am willing to work.” The focus of the group shifted to her immediately. I remember asking her if she really wanted to do a constellation, and when she said that she was really willing to work, I proceeded. Perhaps she even said, “I don’t mind.”

She talked about herself and her family in a very intellectual way, without showing any emotions. During the interview it became clear that she always put her own needs behind those of others, and that she did not really know what she wanted in life- or from the constellation. I think in the end she settled on wishing to improve her self-esteem. In her family there was a lot of trauma, including emotional neglect, boundary issues and possible sexual abuse or incest – this was a hunch I got; she did not explicitly talk about it. There were holes in her story and some things did not make sense. But hey, is there a better way to get a good picture of a family than doing a “family of origin” constellation? It’s the safe one to begin with…

Dear reader, I hope that by now you are cringing. The only thing I can say in my defence is that this was many years ago, when I was young and inexperienced.

What happened next was a constellation, which, with more awareness on my side could have been avoided. But I went ahead, trusting the field. The field led us to the theme of sexual abuse, which she was in no way ready to face. Luckily the client’s protective defence mechanisms kicked in: she could not relate to the constellation at all, found the whole process weird and, needless to say, has not been back for more.

So what went wrong? Oh, so much went wrong that I feel quite embarrassed to recount the story here. The reason I do it is because I know I am not alone. I have seen and experienced everything I am recounting here in similar ways in constellations where I was an observer, a trainee, a representative or a client. I hope that others can learn from my experience and that we as facilitators become more open and willing to share our mishaps with each other in order to become increasingly sensitive towards our clients.

To begin with I felt pressure to do a constellation. This was a constellation workshop, after all! There was time left and people had paid for a full day. Falling for that pressure I gave away my power and was blind to what the client had brought. I lost sight of her although she was sitting next to me, giving me all the information I needed to assist her. And what she needed was not a constellation. The client offered to do a constellation, not because she really wanted to, but because she felt compelled to help out the group. Nobody volunteered, and, true to style, she did what she always does. But she never said that she wanted to work. The best intervention would have been to make her aware of this and to empower her to take back her offer. The group would have been the perfect therapeutic environment for her to experience the pressure and not give in to it. It would have been a small but significant step in building self-esteem. She would have had the opportunity to become aware of her own needs and express them in front of other people.

This woman had not been in any kind of intensive therapy before. It was her first constellation workshop. She was so obviously unaware of the blatant sexual themes in her story. Doing a constellation in this context is like playing on a really busy railway line. If you know that things might come to light for which a client is not ready don’t go on “trusting the field”. We as facilitators need to take responsibility for what we decide to do. The field is not a kind of insurance policy which gets us out of trouble! In this case I could have offered her individual therapy sessions to work with those issues in a safe context. I could have referred her to another therapist, if that would have been more appropriate. Or I could have waited for her to get to a point where she really wanted to work.

By the way, how do I know that my hunch was correct? The fact is I don’t. I had a hypothesis, and this was based on the way the client talked about her family, the way she presented herself, her body language, and the way she interacted with me. But even then I have to be careful before I make up my mind about a person and “what had happened.” Even if something is “confirmed” in a constellation so many other factors can play a role. What do I bring to the work?  How do my –and the representative’s- belief system, background, and training, etc. shape a constellation? I get very uncomfortable when I hear facilitators say to clients, with certainty, “You had a twin”, “Your father had an affair”, or “It is clear that there was incest in your family.” Perhaps it is true- and perhaps it is not. We should rather keep these ideas to ourselves, test them, and then most importantly, think about the impact our words might have on the client and on the whole system. And when we decide to offer such suggestions, we have to make sure that we do not present them as facts, but rather as tentative questions that need to be explored. I think a lot of damage is done to clients and to the reputation of family constellations as a therapeutic modality because some facilitators do not tread carefully enough with sensitive issues. Intuition needs to be grounded in sound clinical judgement.

In this situation I could have stopped the constellation as soon as the client expressed that it did not make sense to her. Not because it did not make sense to her – that in itself is not necessarily bad – but because it was not helpful in any way and it was her way of telling me that. She was not connected to the constellation, and it did nothing for her self-esteem, which was after all the presenting problem. Eventually I interrupted the constellation, but I do suspect now, in hindsight, that it went on for too long. I hoped for a happy ending. She had paid, remember!

Ah, the happy endings… Why are we so invested in a constellation ending on a happy note? Sometimes facilitators artfully manipulate a constellation towards a “good” end, when it is quite clear that it does not reflect where the system is at. I suspect we want to help, want to feel effective, and want to have happy clients. That’s what I wanted.

I don’t remember if the constellation really got out of hand, but I felt out of control, and unsure, so there is a great possibility that it did. Since then I make sure that I do not allow representatives to take over, because clients feel unsafe if they see that their facilitator is not in control. I have seen facilitators stand back to watch helplessly as representatives take over a process. This mostly happens in the name of let’s-see-what-happens. Of course we can do that, but only if the process is contained. Sometimes representatives take the role of co-therapists and make interpretations about their experiences. Often these are experienced representatives or therapists who do not understand their role as representatives. We need to educate them, preferably at the beginning of a workshop. It helps to (gently) ask representatives who are too enthusiastic not to talk, and then observe their non-verbal behaviour instead.

Another important factor is to know the limitations of the group. How much can the group carry? Sometimes a client might be ready to do deep work, but the group dynamics does not allow it. As facilitators we have to keep contact with the group at all times. And if they are not able to contain a certain client, we should not work with that client in the group. I remember that the group had the capacity for containment, but it was late and most people were tired. Had I registered what was happening to the group I could have allowed the day to end early. Or we could have taken time to reflect on what had moved us during the workshop. I could have done some grounding exercises or just allowed us all to sit and be quiet for a while.

For months after that constellation I was upset about the damage I had done. Then one day I got a phone call and the client made an appointment for an individual session. She wanted to talk about her son who experienced some difficulties. She never mentioned the constellation and in the subsequent sessions we focused on the issue she had with her son. She seemed fine. Not damaged. So the field had kindly saved me! And therein lies our hope, and the reason I can continue doing this immensely rewarding work. We all make mistakes, but if we are willing to learn from them and approach our clients with respect and the basic therapeutic ingredients of unconditional regard, warmth and congruence, our clients will forgive us a multitude of sins!

Karin Huyssen, 14 October 2010

Karin Huyssen is a clinical psychologist in private practice. She has been involved with family constellations for many years – as client, student, supervisor and trainer. What attracts her to constellation work is the clarity with which patterns and dynamics come to light and the opportunity constellations offer for us to experience the world in a different way. Karin does individual constellations in her practice, conducts workshops in Gauteng and will offer basic family constellation training in 2011. Apart from constellation work she runs a general practice in Pretoria with a special interest in assisting people who have experienced early trauma in their lives.

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