Exploring Constellations

A brief examination of the synergies between Constellations and Inter-subjective Systems Theory

Kim Liversidge

The knower affects the known. Quantum physics – understanding the world as system – helps us to accept this perhaps. In my view the beauty and challenge of Inter-subjective Systems Theory as first developed by psychotherapists Drs Robert Stolorow, George Atwood and Donna Orange (1979,1984, 1987, 1992, 1997) and the methodology of Constellations as first developed by German psychotherapist Burt Hellinger (see for example Hellinger 1998), is that they also both subscribe to this systemic view; the knower affects the known.

I come from the unusual position of having experienced both these meta-theories during my training as a Humanistic and Integrative psychotherapist and therefore am highly influenced by both. I feel strongly that each enhances the other, and in my view both are particularly helpful for building self-esteem and getting ever nearer to one’s ‘Original Self’ as described by Thomas Moore (2000). Both offer the possibility for dialogue between self and other, leading to insight about one’s creative needs. It would be impossible to give an overview of both theories here. However, I am interested in starting a conversation about their synergies and also to wonder about some of the differences between them. To begin with, in order to highlight my thesis, I will describe a constellation. The constellation I am writing about is a composite, made up of several of my own experiences of constellations over the years. To further protect confidentiality I have also altered various details. The facilitator is an experienced psychotherapist, skilled in working phenomenologically and with trauma.

A group of strangers, about fifteen people, sits in a large circle. The facilitator asks who would like to go next. A man, mid-forties, raises his hand; I shall call him Sam. He sits next to the facilitator and speaks about his growing fears of losing his young son. He speaks of always having had a fear of his son turning away from him, and a sense of frustration that he feels he is now making that very thing happen. Sam doesn’t want to lose his son but he can feel the relationship beginning to break down, can feel a horrible coldness in himself towards his son that he does not understand. The facilitator asks him a bit about his upbringing: “It was pretty ordinary, though I often felt cut off from Mum and Dad. They always seemed kind of distant. I know they loved me very much, but they were never demonstrative sorts.” The facilitator asks: “Where were your Mum and Dad from?” Sam replies: “Not from the UK. They were both German Jews; they came over here to escape the war.” The facilitator thinks about this… “Your parents must have been very young when they left Germany?” “Yes,” he says, “Mum came over on one of the last Kinder ships.”

(A bit of history) In response to Hitler stepping up his persecution of the Jews in 1938, a time seen as the beginning of the Holocaust, ‘Kinder transport’ refers to an attempt to remove the endangered Jewish children from Germany. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain agreed to allow specially organised ships to bring over thousands of unaccompanied children aged from birth to eighteen. They were allowed one small suitcase, though it is reported that many arrived in the UK with nothing except a label attached to their coats.

“How old was your mum when she was put on the ship?” asks the facilitator. “She was five years old.” Sam replies. They speak a little more and then the facilitator asks: “Shall we begin? Please choose somebody to represent yourself, and someone to represent your wife and son.”

We all watch as these representatives move very slowly in the space until each feels in the ‘right’ place. The wife and son stand quite near one another, but are not looking at each other or at the representative for Sam. He is turned completely away, reports feeling very cold and finds it anxiety provoking when his son tries to move to where Sam can see him. The son reports fleeting feelings of sadness and numbness. After a while the facilitator asks Sam to choose someone for his mother. The mother can’t bear to have her son see her and tries to move as far away as possible. Sam tries to move towards her, feels terrible guilt at turning away from his own son, yet only wants to turn towards his mother. The facilitator asks him to choose someone to represent his mother’s mother, his maternal grandmother. He chooses me. It’s hard to explain, but I find that once I enter a constellation, I stop hearing or being able to concentrate in the same way. So, with the aid of the facilitator working phenomenologically, I am tuning into my body as it leads me.

I feel myself utterly unable to look at or be anywhere near ‘my daughter’. I notice panic arise in me if she moves so that we could see each other. She reports feeling deeply angry one minute, desperate the next; she wants me to look at her, to see her. Why don’t I look? She weeps and then reports deep feelings of despair and gradually she loses energy and begins to report feeling cut off. I can feel in me the absolute refusal to look or listen. I do not want to see her. That’s all I know. The whole process of slow, slow steps towards me, with me turning away as I follow my body, seems to go on forever. My body is rigid and aching with the need to not look. Eventually, at some point my ‘daughter’ comes into my line of sight. We see each other. The strangest sensation comes over me. My body slowly seems to fold itself in half; I feel grief-wracked, acute pain. The facilitator asks Sam what happened with his mum and her mother. “They never saw each other again… my grandmother wasn’t able to escape in time, so she last saw mum when she was five, lined up to get on the ship.”

It’s difficult to put into words just how powerfully this experience connected me at that time in a new, embodied and immediate way with a strong ‘Organizing Principle’ (Stolorow, 1992:55). The other representatives, including Sam, also expressed a strong sense of having reached new insights and understanding in relation to self and others. Sam later reported that in the weeks and months following this experience he felt himself able to be in a much more intimate and loving relationship with his son in particular, no longer experiencing that coldness and turning away that had confused him and caused him such pain. Donna Orange says: “To risk testing our organizing principles in dialogue with a text or a person makes possible new meaning … empathy is implicit conversation between perspectives.” (Orange, 1995:73). Orange is referring to psychotherapy but these words, in my view, are equally applicable to a constellation. She also says ‘effects are reasonable grounds for theory-choice’ (ibid: 41).

To place oneself in acConstellation is to take a risk, to experience consciously what it feels like to ‘not know’ but rather simply to report and follow one’s instinctual responses. I feel the experience and learning that occurs in a constellation experience supports the therapist striving to work inter-subjectively.

At the conclusion of his teaching on Inter-subjective Systems Theory (IST) in Contexts of Being Stolorow (1992) puts it thus: “We are led inexorably to a consideration of the limits of self-reflection. Analysts are in the position of the mythical snake devouring itself by swallowing its own tail unless they are able to reflect from a position that encompasses principles of organization alternative to the ones being reflected upon.”

With an inter-subjectively inclined facilitator, a constellation presents the opportunity to do exactly this.

One way in which these two theories appear to clash is that in setting up a constellation according to Hellinger’s approach, the facilitator holds in her mind certain ‘rules’. Constellations work arose out of Burt Hellinger’s original theory ‘Orders of Love’ (Neuhauser, 2001) however, I want to be clear that this is a very simplistic interpretation of his intentions in those early days. Psychotherapist Barbara Morgan states: “The ‘orders’ and the natural laws which help maintain them, are much like any other theory we learn in our psychotherapy training – they form the ‘ground’ from which we move out to the work. They are not foreground. What’s foreground is in fact an emptying of the mind and an openness to what emerges in the moment. The methodology has changed and evolved over time but generally a constellations facilitator would be holding these ‘orders’ in mind as part of the process but would be willing to let them go if what showed up in front of him or her indicated something different. In other words, the work is phenomenological.” (Morgan, 2012)

An example of a basic order is: ‘each of us was given life by a mother and a father’. However, Orange speaks of ‘the harmful effects of rules’ (Orange, 1995:50) pointing out the dangerous but understandable need we have to seek certainty as opposed to exploring meanings and being with the ‘not knowing’. On the other hand, it is a given that in individual therapy and supervision certain rules are applied on the understanding that ‘holding the frame’ in itself forms part of the therapeutic process. There’s a history to this understanding and not so long back this wasn’t understood so clearly; boundaries were less well considered and re-traumatisation was not uncommon. Today, from the outset, we strive to hold certain boundaries because we understand this to be in the service of the client and the relationship, just as we understand the importance of boundaries in any healthy relationship.

I hope there will come a time when the teachings of Hellinger and the methodology of constellations (when practiced inter-subjectively) will become integrated. I believe that experiencing the struggle to widen our understanding of how to include it will be similar to that of our struggle to let go of Stolorow’s ‘myth of the isolated mind’.

I am currently running a small experientialcConstellations group and I am in group and peer supervision for this work. Ordinarily one might attend a one-off Constellations Workshop and this can be particularly useful for clients who are in long-term psychotherapy as a means of widening their perspective of a suffering. The purpose of my on-going constellation group however is part of my own passionate enquiry as to how this way of working deepens and supports individual psychotherapy: how am I translating what I am learning – as a facilitator of constellations, as a representative in my constellations supervision group and in my individual practice? What I am consistently discovering is that I find using constellations in my individual practice, through use of images, visualisations and representative objects (there are some specific items one can use) is extremely effective in terms of illuminating meanings. I find that constellations theory supports my quest to maintain ‘a stance of empathic enquiry’.

There are at present, increasingly in the UK, and worldwide, many different sorts of constellations facilitators and of course slowly emerging are different sorts of trainings. Perhaps in the end there will be as many different sorts of constellations facilitators as there are different types of psychotherapy!

For the interested reader I would highly recommend UK Constellations Psychotherapist Vivian Broughton’s In the Presence of Many: Reflections on Constellations Emphasising the Individual Context (Broughton, 2010) and German psychotherapist Professor Franz Ruppert’s Trauma, Bonding and Family Constellations (Ruppert, 2008). You are welcome to email your thoughts/responses to this piece to me [email protected]


Kim Liversidge is a UKCP registered MA Integrative Pyschotherapist working in private practice in Bath, Somerset. She also works in Bristol for the charity Trauma Foundation Southwest which provides long-term integrative psychotherapy for asylum seekers and refugees. Her key area of interest is working with people who suffer with issues of low self-esteem and seeking to creatively enhance and develop her understanding of what helps.


Atwood, G. E. & Stolorow, R. D. (1984) Structures of Subjectivity: Explorations in Psychoanalytic Phenomenology. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.
Broughton, V (2008) In the Presence of Many: Reflections on Constellations Emphasising the Individual Context. UK: Green Balloon Publishing
Hellinger B, Weber B and Beaumont H (1998) Love’s Hidden Symmetry. Phoenix: Zeig, Tucker
Moore, T (2000) Original Self. New York: Perennial
Morgan, B (2012) Private Communication
Neuhauser, J (ed) (2001) Supporting Love: How Love Works in Couple Relationships Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen Inc
Orange, D (1995) Emotional Understanding London: The Guilford Press
Orange, D. M., Atwood, G. E., & Stolorow, R. D. (1997). Working Intersubjectively: Contextualism in Psychoanalytic Practice. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press
Ruppert, F (2008) Trauma, Bonding and Family Constellations: Understanding and Healing Injuries of the Soul, UK: Green Balloon Publishing
Stolorow, R. D. & Atwood, G. E. (1979) Faces in a Cloud: Subjectivity in Personality Theory. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson
Stolorow, R. D., Brandchaft, B., & Atwood, G. E. (1987) Psychoanalytic Treatment: An Intersubjective Approach. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press
Stolorow, R. D. & Atwood, G. E. (1992). Contexts of Being: The Intersubjective Foundations of Psychological Life. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press


Image: Humans by Stefano Corso


Please enter your email address below to receive notifications about Contemporary Psychotherapy:

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.


20 Lonsdale Road

In association with The Minster Centre, London.


Opinions expressed in this journal are solely those of the author(s).
Publication in Contemporary Psychotherapy does not imply endorsement of those views.


Copyright belongs to Contemporary Psychotherapy. Material may only be reproduced with written permission from the Editor. Authors may use their own material elsewhere after publication without permission. Production of single copies for personal use is allowed without special permission.

Scroll to Top