Family constellations encourage watching your issues being played out by total strangers, taking a step back and seeing the bigger picture
Writer Beverly Cheng
WOMAN SMILING IN A POPPY FIELD WITH HER BABBY GIRL./THINKSTOCK
Sitting on the sidelines and watching your life unfold is an unusual predicament – especially when complete strangers take on the roles of your closest family members with someone standing in as you. Strange as it may sound, this is the idea behind Family Constellation – an alternative therapy guided by a facilitator, which invites a group of participants representing family members in a client’s life. There’s no script, planning or discussion, and participants are oblivious to who they will be ‘channelling’ in the session, just as the client doesn’t know the issue to be resolved until minutes beforehand.
Curious and open-minded, though a little apprehensive, I set out to discover more about family constellations (also known as systemic constellations) and what it would reveal about my seemingly harmonious family unit. After booking a private session, I sit across from Sonia Samtani, a family constellation facilitator and founder of All About You Centre in Hong Kong, after a draining day at the office. I draw a blank when she asks what issue I’d like to work on, while five of my most free-spirited friends patiently wait in the next room, clueless as to why we’re at this centre rather than a cocktail bar instead.
Samtani asks me to choose any issue ranging from chronic health conditions, to past trauma and relationship problems among other physical, psychological or emotional stress. I decide on a larger, more abstract issue that reaches into every nook and cranny of both my professional and personal life – my lapses in confidence that prevent me from fully expressing myself. Recalling a history of negative emotions and pent-up insecurities is a lot to deal with in a two-hour session, but she reassures me it’s possible if we start by looking at family. “The presenting issue and the real issue can be two different things. A physical pain is just a symptom of what’s going on inside, which is related to whatever issues you may have, and most issues can be mapped back to the family of origin,” Samtani explains.
I’m told that constellation work is based on the belief that there’s a natural order to the universe, and just as the stars follow a certain constellation, so do families. A family’s biological order – father, mother, first child and second child can be disrupted if the roles are entangled and confused. One example would be if a mother is absent and the first daughter steps up into a matriarchal role where causing an imbalance and dysfunction that needs to be remedied. “What we’re looking for as a facilitator is where love went missing,” says Samtani.
After confirming my presenting issue, Samtani jots down my family tree and we join the others. Everyone, including Samtani, two volunteers and my five friends sit in a circle and together we do a one-minute grounding meditation before I’m invited to stand up and select representatives. I ask a volunteer (Samtani’s husband) to represent my father, and friends to take on the roles of my mother and elder sister, another to ‘be’ me, and another participant to personify my sense of confidence.
With my hands on their shoulders, I guide each person to a spot in the circle, but the rest is out of my control. For the remaining 90 minutes, they interact with each other via Samtani’s simple questions and initiations. She asks them, “How do you feel now?” and gives each participant the space to reflect and respond in the context of their new inherited identities. I sit silently on the side, rendered speechless because I cannot comprehend how these strangers and friends channel the conscious and subconscious thoughts of my loved ones and how they’ve tapped into my deepest, darkest thoughts.
MOTHER AND SON COOKING TOGETHER/THINKSTOCK; MAN AND WOMAN HOLDING HANDS AT A TABLE/THINKSTOCK; LITTLE GIRL HUGGING FATHER THANKSGIVING CELEBRATION CONCEPT/THINKSTOCK
“There’s something beautiful about the way constellations work,” says Samtani. “I’m a therapist and it takes much longer in therapy to build the same trust and rapport with the client, especially when they’re logical and headstrong. Here, you get the client out of the way and they can see how strangers depict them and their family. It’s much easier for people to believe what they can see.”
The experience is surreal on so many levels. Within minutes, the representatives take on the attributes of my closest kin – not only in the way they begin to move and speak, using the exact words each of my family members would, but also in the unnervingly intimate thoughts and fears they express, which stun and move me in their poignancy. Most deeply touching is when my representative captured my exact sentiments as a seven-year-old, speaking in a tone and manner identical to how I would have expressed myself as a child, feeling alone and unsure.
Facilitators attest that family constellations work on trust alone. And while I observe this phenomena unfold in a centre in Hong Kong while my family are thousands of miles away, I felt so connected to them. For the first time, I could see the story of my life clearly, the hidden family dynamics and layers of misunderstanding that led to adult insecurities. By witnessing what went wrong and my interpretation of the past, I could finally see my true self – a person filled with confidence and potential.
“Family constellations make you see what is, but if someone isn’t willing to change their perspective and continues to blame their parents, then it will not help,” says Ronny Wan, a Cantonese-language family constellation practitioner in Hong Kong. He says, “Some people blame their mother or father for passing negative emotions to them, but they’ve missed the whole point of this work and our purpose in life. On a spiritual level, everyone has a lesson to learn and the reason you’re born into a certain family is for them to teach you a life lesson, to face it and overcome it. First, you must see your deep-rooted issues and identify the source, then you can learn and grow.”
Family constellations are gaining tremendous traction because of their profound ability to heal past wounds and restore love in disrupted households. Founded by German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger in the 1990s after studying Zulu tribes for 12 years while working as a missionary in South Africa, they are gaining popularity in Asia with a fast-growing community in Greater China where a recent boom has taken place in spirituality and alternative healing practices.
“We all have issues, no one’s free from them, yet we spend so much energy pretending everything is ok,” says Samtani. “The more we can be honest and admit that we have all felt various disempowering emotions and would like to do something about them, heal and move on, the better life will be. Constellation work is one of the most powerful mediums because it gets our logical selves out of the way, and we can finally see the truth of who we are, and bring love back into our relationships with the people closest to us.”
“The reason you’re born into a certain family is for them to teach you a life lesson”
~ Sonia Samtani
GROUP OF PEOPLE SITTING ON CHAIRS IN PARK, HOLDING HANDS, ELEVATED VIEW/THINKSTOCK; THREE GENERATION FAMILY SITTING AT A PICNIC TABLE/ THINKSTOCK; FAMILY AT SUNSET/THINKSTOCK