In the few months before writing this article, I had an exacerbation of symptoms which I came to recognize as a trauma response. It had slowed me down to a crawl and to the point where I couldn’t even write a blog post. Here, I describe how symptoms can stem from trauma in a family system and describe an approach for healing multigenerational trauma. The approach is known as Family Constellations work.
Note – I refer to this type of trauma as “Adverse Multigenerational Experiences” (AMEs), a term I’ve coined to build on the growing science of how adversity shapes health. The term builds on the most commonly recognized research and trauma, which is referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
Healing Multigenerational Trauma and Chronic Illness
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Table of Contents
- Healing Multigenerational Trauma and Chronic Illness
- What is Systemic Family Constellation Work for Healing Multigenerational Trauma?
- My Adventure in Healing Multigenerational Trauma
- Setting Up My Family Constellation
- What My Family Constellation Revealed
- Initial Effects of My Family Constellation
- Learn More about Systemic Family Constellations and Healing Multigenerational Trauma
A few months ago, a friend introduced me to the work of Stephen Hausner. Stephan is a Systemic Family Constellations facilitator in Germany – an osteopath, naturopath, homeopath who also trained in Chinese medicine before landing upon the approach he’s gravitated to for the past 25 years – an approach for healing multigenerational trauma and it’s many different effects.
To address my latest trauma symptoms, I was working with my EMDR therapist (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). During the processing, Stephen’s name flashed just for a second before my eyes. It landed solidly in my being and I knew at that point that my next step toward healing was to attend one of his workshops.
Trusting and following this impulse was a major process.
I had gained just enough capacity to make such a trip happen, including continued gradual improvement in my energy levels and from regaining my ability to eat most foods last fall when I healed another layer of trauma in my family system.
Despite it taking all my focus, time, and concentration for a month and more of preparation; flight delays, reschedulings and cancellations (travel is an adventure all to its own!); needing to spend a few days in bed at Amalurra after the workshop (which I had scheduled into my trip just in case); long gentle days, much of it in bed after my return (and more recovery time still to go now, in early July), it was even more than I had cautiously but optimistically hoped for.
My experience, in other words, was wonderful confirmation that the impulse had been real and true and supportive of my healing process.
It reaffirmed how following what comes from the deep intelligence that lies within each and every one of us – and within our symptoms too – can help us find our way.
What is Systemic Family Constellation Work for Healing Multigenerational Trauma?
Family Constellation or Systemic Constellation work (which is a term that reflects how the work orients to different kinds of systems, and not only family systems) is an approach originating primarily with Bert Hellinger, another German man who I mention in my list of books and therapies for healing nervous system perceptions of threat as a way of working with chronic illness.
I use the terms interchangeably since both are widely used even as I like the widest possible view of this work (here’s more on experiences that influenced Bert Hellinger’s development of this approach).
From a Systemic Constellation perspective, symptoms and chronic diseases arise because something in a family system has been excluded, or not recognized, acknowledged, dealt with, or known. Constellation work, in other words, finds that chronic illness and other symptoms reflect unresolved trauma in a family system.
In this way of working, chronic illness reflects a systemic problem that is seeking resolution, rather than a personal issue that belongs to the individual with the symptoms.
It’s also hugely respectful and non-blaming of all members of a family system – regardless of what they have done (such as leaving, abusing or harming others or other perpetrating behaviors) or not done (such as not connecting to others in their own family including their children or spouses…), how they have coped with it (such as by leaving), and more.
Through such a lens of curiosity and non-blame, this approach for healing multigenerational trauma examines family patterns to either help clarify an issue so the person with symptoms can have a greater capacity to find their way into letting go of what is not theirs – or to relieve or even heal the family systems’s unresolved dilemma(s).
My Adventure in Healing Multigenerational Trauma
The workshop I attended was held at a rural retreat center called Amalurra in the Basque country of northern Spain.
Amalurra – which means Mother Earth – was founded by Irene Goikolea, a Basque woman with a PhD in Depth Psychology from Pacifica University in California (among many other studies, journeys, and travels). You can learn about her and her work in her moving video at the bottom of her page, where you’ll also see the inside of the space where I participated in the Systemic Family Constellation work, sitting in a large circle as they did in her workshop in her video.
Irene’s goal has been to support the process of deepening and refining ourselves in order to be the best vehicles of change and as fully on our paths as we can be. Stephan has been conducting annual Constellation workshops at Amalurra now for about 10 years as one of the kinds of work that facilitates this process.
I felt supported by the energetic field of this rural retreat center from the moment I first arrived. The unexpected tender and heart-lifting bonus came from the people I met. Probably 90% of the 35 or so participants in the workshop were from the Amalurra community.
I felt cared for. I felt seen and accepted for who I was, even in my relatively quiet state that felt the most comfortable in my new environment. Being seen and accepted and loved for who you are is so much a part of our healing journey.
Setting Up My Family Constellation
In short, I was able to do a Constellation. I’m still integrating, although it feels like the process may be helping to lift a layer off of my chronic illness experience.
I summarize what happened in the following way for now, as best I understand it and while I give my process the space to percolate and integrate further.
Reading Stephan’s book and slowing down to be with the difficult feelings I was experiencing over the past months helped me recognize that these feelings were ones I had lived with throughout my childhood. These emotions from childhood were intense feelings of fear and anxiety, profound grief, shame, self-doubt, the occasional fatigue attack, and the often added feeling of “wanting to go home” – back to the other side, to the world of spirit.
I suspect these overwhelming emotions eventually increased from an accumulation of other unresolved events, to a point that my system shifted into a hibernation-like state of freeze, which I experienced physically as chronic fatigue (ME/CFS).
Stephan’s response when I explained the feelings of “wanting to go back home,” having been immobilized by chronic fatigue for 20 years, and now having immobilizing emotions, was that it would make sense to experience immobilizing symptoms as one way my system prevented me from actually following that impulse – that these symptoms were a way of keeping me on the planet long enough that I might find my way into my own life.
One of his first comments in my process, in other words, was to acknowledge the intelligence behind the symptoms.
I was then guided to select representatives for myself, my symptoms and for the family members that Stephan had gleaned through our conversation appeared to be relevant to my question and concerns.
Representatives in Systemic Constellations
In Constellation work, you select representatives for relevant symptoms, issues, relatives and others from your group of fellow participants. Sometimes you yourself place them in the circle where it feels right to you, as you slowly follow your intuition as best you can.
Sometimes they are invited to place themselves where it feels right to them.
What representatives have in common is that they take on the sensations, emotions, or attitudes of the people or issues they have been asked to represent.
This isn’t done consciously and representatives usually have very little – if any – information.
Trying to understand why it is that people can manifest what others have experienced is one of the areas that brings up a lot of questions from those unfamiliar with this work. And yet we all know what it’s like to step into a room and immediately feel warmly welcomed, or have a sense of sharp static electricity or an impulse to leave before you’re seen because maybe there’s been a fight or conflict, or to feel the temperature drop when two people have just stopped talking or don’t want to say another word to each other.
Our bodies, in other words, pick up on what is in the energetic field – whether near or far.
Psychiatrist Stan Grof and others research and explore this from concepts such as “non-local mind” and other perspectives.
For now, it remains unclear just how Constellations work.
Once representatives are in place, you watch with your facilitator, and observe what arises for them and what their impulses are. This gives you information for next steps in the process of discovering what is happening in your family system.
What we witness tends to be jaw-droppingly accurate for our own personal history – often demonstrating family patterns, secrets and unresolved issues you may not even know existed until you verify what you were shown with a family member.
How representatives tap into the energetic, non-local field to reflect events so accurately is not clear – but it happens in a reliable way in this type of work. It’s a vital piece to how it supports healing – including when you are selected to be someone’s representative and it turns out to help you recognize and heal something that is relevant in your own life.
Stephan asks the constellating person to select a representative for their symptoms. How these representatives feel and behave on their own and with respect to the person’s representative and other family members informs the process. So does the way others relate to the symptoms.
Symptoms and representatives can reflect all of the different kinds of relationships.
A client’s representative may walk away from their symptoms in fear or hate; they may stand next to the symptoms as close friends, perhaps while caught in the tension of a family issue or standing far away from the family because there is too much pain or conflict or tension, or because something stands in the way of their leaving or stepping into their own lives.
Symptoms and clients may also relate to one another as if they are allies. Sometimes symptoms are the only way a client can survive in an untenable, inescapable situation or tension-field or “function” they serve in their family system.
These relationships help identify what is missing, excluded, unacknowledged and unresolved in the family system.
The behaviors demonstrated by symptoms can represent unresolved trauma a client experienced when their mother or father left, or because their parents died when the client was young, or because their parent lost a loved one at a critical time in their own lives.
Symptom representatives may demonstrate what a parent or grandparent had to do to survive, such as having committed atrocities when forced to serve in a war.
The symptom may therefore represent a parent’s loss, a tragedy they witnessed and other unresolved trauma that still affects them or that their soul, as Stephan puts it, never survived or fully recovered from.
What’s important to note here is that none of these symptoms are conscious.
People don’t “choose” to have symptoms for sympathy or attention or to get out of a job etc. They experience symptoms because something remains unresolved and unresolvable and is looking for a pathway through, in order for healing to occur in the family system.
What My Family Constellation Revealed
What this constellation revealed was that my symptoms belonged to someone other than me.
What the constellation showed was that I was actually carrying these symptoms – these overwhelming feelings that are such well-known and common effects of trauma – for another person in my family system.
There are many different reasons for symptoms to arise. Carrying symptoms for someone else is just one of the ways multigenerational trauma can exert its effects.
What became apparent through the process of observing the dynamics among the representatives I had chosen was that the feelings I was struggling with would have been a natural response to my relative’s experiences of trauma.
A person looking into space – and who isn’t connecting to any of the others – is sometimes demonstrating disconnection, perhaps because they have not been able to recover from their own shock or trauma.
This is one of the most beautiful and poignant aspects of Constellation work and of healing multigenerational trauma. It has to do with holding respect for everyone involved in the process.
There is no judgement of the person with the symptoms.
There is no judgment of the person who has unresolved trauma that is being carried or that has shown up in someone else.
Quite the opposite in fact, is that the facilitator – and consequently the person seeking healing as well as the entire group of participants – holds compassion and respect for everyone involved.
There is much more to describe about how the Systemic Constellation process unfolds, how representatives are selected and what they do, and you can learn more in the videos and book I link to below.
For now, what’s of interest is the discovery I made that I have been carrying symptoms for someone else in my family system who has unresolved overwhelming trauma from their past.
This is a not uncommon.
And to reiterate, this process of “carrying” an illness is not conscious nor done out of “choice.”
Carrying symptoms is seen, from a Constellations perspective, as a process through which family members do things – including experiencing debilitating illness or the inability to fully step into their own lives – out of love for – and loyalty to – others in their family.
This happens even if it comes at a high cost, which I believe is what Stephan’s book title about this work refers to “Even if it Costs Me My Life.”
To repeat what I’ve mentioned before, the Constellations perspective is that this happens because a system is trying to resolve something so it, too, can heal.
Systems have their own “lives” and needs. They have an innate blueprint of health and this is seen in every family system, just as the innate blueprint of health exists in each individual.
This innate blueprint has a powerful drive to heal. And so it drives family systems to heal what is unresolved, just us it drives us to heal from chronic illness even when others tell us it can’t be done.
In the natural order of life, members of a healthy family system are designed to feel love and respect for the others As part of this health that is innate in the family system, individuals within a family receive and feel the support and protection that is inherent within that system, and this allows for love, health and energy to flow freely in each individual’s life.
When someone has a chronic illness or symptoms, it reflects what remains unresolved within a family system.
The Steps to Address My Symptoms
As a step to support healing multigenerational trauma for me and within my family system, Stephan guided me to speak to my relative.
He gave me words to say, waiting to give me time to feel and acknowledge the meaning before I spoke them.
I don’t remember the exact words I said to my relative and they were along the lines of,
“I now see and honor what you have carried.
I have carried it for you with love, and now I leave it with you.”
The movement that happens in the circle of representatives demonstrates possible movement that can happen inside the client as a result of the intervention.
In my case, it reflected the possibility that acknowledging my relative’s trauma and identifying the source of the symptoms might help my own body come more fully into its / my own life. Especially since it is done from a place of respect.
This process is ultimately so simple. Even as it can be very difficult to feel and act upon.
It takes skill to see what emerges in each and every Constellation, to hold respect, and to select which threads to follow in order to best support the process of healing.
It also requires that the client in the hot seat find the place within themselves to truly see and acknowledge pain in their family member and to respect it and the person.
The process allows something that was disconnected in the client as a result of trauma, to repair and reconnect with one’s self.
I felt this with the person representing my relative, and we spontaneously hugged at the end of the process.
It felt good to acknowledge what had happened, how it affected the other person, and to see things simply as they are.
It is not always possible to repair the event or traumatic experiences that happened in the family system, but something shifts even with the act of simply witnessing and acknowledging them.
Going at the Client’s Pace
One goal of Constellations work is to go at a pace that allows the person doing the “work” with their symptoms – in this case me – to integrate, feel, and stay present as much as possible. In other words, it’s a way of titrating and pacing the process in support of healing what is unresolved, to whatever extent is possible.
This is how somatic approaches for healing trauma operate.
During my process, my body shook intensely.
I felt large, chunky, lumbering shaking in my legs and belly and arms throughout most of my process. It had a neutral quality (it wasn’t scary or painful), which is something you look for when doing trauma therapy and assessing whether you are supporting the client to go in a helpful direction towards healing, as opposed to going more deeply into the trauma.
Trembling can be a form of discharge, which is a common process through which trauma releases from our bodies. It can also reflect the amount of trauma a system has been holding and that remains bound in the system.
In my case (and probably in others), it felt as though the shaking reflected the enormous amount of life force that my body has been holding back. I wonder if this is part of the process in chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) in which my body exerts a tremendous amount of energy to hold down overwhelming feelings and impulses that have nowhere to go in the family system, and thus is constantly maxed out in trying to stay “safe.”
Regardless of the origins, Stephan’s instructions were to simply allow the shaking to happen.
This is one way trauma therapists work with the body in support of healing by tracking, allowing and trusting it do what it needs to do (learn more about somatic trauma healing approaches on my therapies page and in founder of Somatic Experiencing, Peter Levine’s book, In an Unspoken Voice).
There were also indicators of additional layers of multigenerational trauma to work through from what we observed with my representatives – and I can feel and see them with greater clarity and less angst in my system.
I will continue to integrate, rest and recover. And as Stephan recommended when I asked if there was any particular way to support the integration and healing after my process – I will trust.
My task for now, therefore, is to trust and see what happens next.
Initial Effects of My Family Constellation
What I have noticed since my Constellation is that I feel lighter. Less burdened.
The longing to “go back home” to the other side has seemed much lighter as well since my Constellation, which is a lovely relief. I haven’t felt as emotionally distraught and on the occasion where I have experienced intensely difficult emotions, it’s been shorter lived. When they’ve arisen, I’ve been able to give the painful feelings a context.
Having greater clarity about where my symptoms come from gives more of a name to their origins and to recognize that they aren’t all mine.
This is one way in which trauma healing takes place over time, as it enables us to watch symptoms with greater detachment and curiosity and to stop believing that the symptoms are the “truth.”
The act of not reacting is also what meditation trains us to do when it enables us to watch without attaching or having to distract, move away, fix, or otherwise change what is happening. Every time we can observe without reacting it weakens the link to the life of a particular symptom or experience.
Physically, I’ve been understandably very tired since returning home. My body is gradually recovering, however, and I didn’t get sick with an infection or other aggravation of symptoms from this huge Adventure.
There has also been one particularly noticeable shift, which is that I haven’t had the common experience of waking up feeling as though I’ve been run over by a truck.
This is a common description of the quality of exhaustion many of us feel with ME/CFS and I’ve had this feeling regularly for many years, even as it’s been decreasing in frequency. It would have been a very likely response simply to the travels I did. It’s been encouraging to not feel it at all.
And I’ve been able to write a blog post :-).
I’ll let you know more as I learn and allow the process to keep working within me.
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Learn More about Systemic Family Constellations and Healing Multigenerational Trauma
You can learn more about Family Constellations / Systemic Constellations with the following terrific resources.
Stephan Hausner’s Book Focuses on Chronic Illness
Read Stephan Hausner’s thoughtful, in-depth, compassionate book “Even if it Costs Me My Life: Systemic Constellations and Serious Illness,” which focuses almost exclusively on chronic physical illness.
If you hesitate because of the price ($39.95 USD), think of it as an investment in your health that costs less than most prescriptions, less than a single therapy session, less than a tank of gas for many people, and much less than doctor visits.
Reading the case studies and the effects of Constellation work will give you hope. It will also help you start to get more clarity about your own family system.
Even if it Costs Me My Life illustrates many types of multigenerational trauma through the dozens of case studies and examples of actual Constellations. It also frequently references the very common role of what I call adverse babyhood experiences (ABEs) and attachment disruptions as important contributors to disease.
Some of family-based traumatic experiences the book identifies as risk factors for chronic illness are ones I cover here on my blog, including:
- attachment /developmental trauma
- adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
- adverse babyhood experiences (ABEs)
- metaphors and more sometimes found in events that trigger the onset of illness, and more
In this book, you’ll learn what multigenerational trauma looks like, the many different faces of how multigenerational trauma can manifest in a child, grandchild or other family member; and how an issue can sometimes heal or resolve – either in the family system, in the person with the symptoms, or by enabling a person to heal by letting go of longing for connection with parents that can never be met.
Case studies are mostly about Constellations conducted with adults but some also include working with parents of children with health conditions.
Many choose this approach because other treatment approaches aren’t working. Some heal after Constellation work with no need for other treatment.
Others find that their treatments are now more effective (from the book and also an interview with Stephan). A large percentage of the case studies include follow-up information about these people, including some with medical documentation from before and after the Constellation work.
While Stephan has begun to see certain patterns with specific diseases, he stresses the importance of starting with fresh eyes and treating each person as an individual in order to be open to seeing what emerges in order to carefully identify and follow what is unique to their process.
Case study examples of healing multigenerational trauma in Stephan’s book include examples of people with diseases such as:
- asthma (with some histories of bonding disruptions similar to Tony Madrid’s work)
- different types of cancer
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- lifelong nightmares
- and more
The act of reading the book – all by itself – can be helpful, as it was in helping me to clarify my own questions.
It also helps soothe the perpetual parts of ourselves that wonder if it’s our fault we’re sick, or our fault we’re not yet better, or if we’re doing something wrong etc.
Ali Mezey’s & Stephan Hausner’s Documentary Series on Systemic Constellations
Another important resource are the documentaries created by Ali Mezey, a family constellator here in the US who has created a 5 part documentary series with Stephan about Constellation work. The documentaries are beautifully filmed and were created in a gorgeous setting outside of Las Angeles from a day of Constellation work.
Learn more about the documentary series and Constellation work with the nicely detailed 9 minute trailer and in this interview Ali did with family constellator Karen Carnabucci.
Ali’s 5-part film series includes 2 documentaries with interviews with Stephan and other participants (including other Constellation facilitators, as well as a number of medical doctors new to the work) and the full Constellations of 3 individuals. The individual Constellations feature follow-ups with all 3 (2 interviews involve follow-up at 2 months and one a year later).
These documentaries can be watched or downloaded for a nominal fee. As with Stephan’s book, if spending $125 dollars for the 5 films, which are about 90 minutes each and which you can also purchase and watch individually since they are independent of one another, consider that this is less than the cost of a single therapy session or doctor’s visit. You might also want to ask your local library to purchase them if cost is an issue (and even if it’s not :-)
Learn more about similar approaches for healing chronic illness from a somatic trauma perspective in general – and for healing multigenerational trauma in particular – in the lists on my books and therapies blog posts, which also have links to help you find therapists around the world. Ali Mezey is working on a list to find Family Constellations Therapists and I will add the link here and on those pages when it becomes available (if it isn’t already).
You can learn about my story and how I’ve come to look at chronic illness (my own and many other diseases) from a trauma perspective. The post explains how it’s not in our heads and offers tools like this one for healing multigenerational trauma.
Wishing you all the very best on this incredible, often difficult, enlightening, powerful journey of healing.