Hellinger’s blind spot

….the purpose of the child’s attachment to a family system and the necessity of detachment to become an adult.

From the first moment I got acquainted with Bert Hellinger’s work through a videotape of Karl Auer Verlag, I was struck by his view of the relationship between parents and children. I was intrigued by the apparent beneficial effect of the child’s bow before the parents. I was fascinated and annoyed by it, in particular, of course, because of my relationship with my own parents, with whom I still had a bone to pick.

Hellinger’s Trinity

Hellinger’s ‘Trinity; his yes to the parents, ‘I take you as my parents, the ‘please’, ‘also accept me as your child.’ And ‘thank you’, ‘I take life from you the way I got it’, in constellations, it all converges in the bow before the parents. Although this bow somehow started to chafe with the feeling of independence of my recently acquired young adulthood, I felt intuitively that it was true. It was not politically correct, but it was “true” on a deeper level than where my mind usually sojourned.

Often, family constellations aim to create overall harmony with and within the system of origin, the family. But Wilfried Nelles contends in his book The World We Live In that the disconnection from parents and other authorities is necessary to reach inner adulthood. Sometimes, even a firm no is necessary to make a crucial step to emotional maturity. Without this, our spiritual development does not stand steady on adult legs but rests on children’s feet. Nelles calls this absence of a no in Hellinger’s work ‘Hellinger’s blind spot’. Constellation work that serves inner growth also makes room for rebellion and the no. After all, a yes only has any value if I have the choice to say no. Furthermore, a no can imply a yes, a yes to myself.

After several years of getting acquainted with Hellinger’s work, something began to itch. In the meantime, I could fully reconcile with the image of my parents as exactly the right parents for me. I had seen many bows in constellations and their beneficial effects. And yet, something kept festering; a piece of the puzzle was missing, in my view.

7 levels of consciousness

In 2009, I found a book on the reading table of a therapist. Das Leben hat keinen Rückwärtsgang, from Wilfried Nelles. This book spoke to me. Since then, he wrote another major work, Die Welt in der wir leben, recently translated into English, titled The World We Live In. Nelles describes a model of the stages of consciousness, which he also used for constellation work, consisting of seven steps. For the moment, the first four suffice:

  1. The unity consciousness of the unborn child
  2. The group consciousness of the child
  3. The I-consciousness of the adolescent
  4. The self-consciousness of the (young) adult

The necessity of adolescence

Nelles points out in his book that Hellinger in his constellation processes directly proceeds from the child to the adult, from level 2 to level 4. In his workshops, he works with either the child or the adult. Puberty, and adolescence are skipped. The ideal conventional constellation ends with the unravelling image of the parents and the children who are positioned in the right order towards each other. This image displays the natural systemic order. Everyone (again) has the position it is entitled to. The image captures and confirms the inner, continued, and indissoluble soul unity of the family. But this is a children’s image, the ultimate fulfilment of the child’s soul. But what this picture does not clarify is that we must leave the family to grow up. Factually, emotionally, but also with our soul. We must leave the family as well as we have left the body of our mother.

In constellation work however, you’ll rarely observe the adolescent. Now youth is an intermediate stage, a phase leading to adulthood. And the presumptuousness and the cocksureness of youth can sometimes be tedious or even ridiculous, although conflict and overconfidence obviously are serving this phase. But that does not mean that it is insignificant. If we disregard this life phase, deny it, or renounce it, we will have to pay systemically for this as much as when we ignore parents or parts of our childhood.

Adolescence is an intermediate stage. The youngster stands with one foot outside the family but cannot do without the family entirely. He or she is not yet sufficiently confident to stand alone in life. The teenager, who has deferred old groups and traditions, seeks peer groups and associations with their own traditions. These replace the family connection but do not yet represent a step into adulthood.

Hellinger has not so much disowned or refused to acknowledge the stage of adolescence, as that this phase has no place in his work. Nelles tells a beautiful story from his childhood to illustrate the meaning of this third phase. He grew up in the Eifel in Germany in the fifties of the last century where the relationships between parents and children were still quite authoritarian. The young Wilfried had a conflict with his father. He wanted to give his son a beating because he bigmouthed his mother. The 16-year-old however, said determined: ‘If you hit me, I’ll hit back’. His father looked at him for a moment and then turned around. He understood that the one in front of him was not a child anymore and almost a man.

The detachment from parents (and other authorities) is necessary to become an adult inside. Those who skip this step do not live their own lives, but that of others. Sometimes this step is relatively easy and can proceed in harmony, sometimes it requires a crystal-clear no and occasionally it is a struggle of life and death. The no we are talking about here is not a rebuke of the parents or parenting but a denunciation of the infringement, the crossing of boundaries of parents. It is a rejection of the pretence that one belongs to the parents and an expression of the right to a private life. We do not find this distinction with Hellinger.

A new trinity: Yes-No-Thank you

Constellation work that serves inner growth also makes room for rebellion and for the no. Sometimes even a firm no is necessary to make a crucial step to emotional maturity. Without this no our spiritual development is not steady on adult legs but rests on children’s feet. After all, a yes only has any value if I have the choice to say no. Furthermore, a no can imply a yes, a yes to myself.

In doing so, Nelles replaces Hellingers’ Trinity; ‘Yes – Please – Thank you’, by ‘Yes – No – Thank you”:

  1. Yes, you are my parents, and I am your child, I take life from you as I got it, I take you as you are and myself as I am.
  2. No, I’m not your possession and I do not exist to fulfil your needs and expectations. Your life is yours, I have mine. I do not belong to you but do lead the life I myself think is correct.
  3. Thank you for life, for everything you have given me. I take everything and make the best of it, in my own way.

This was the puzzle piece I was looking for. There are moments when life falls into place, this was such a moment.