Helping as an art

We depend on the help of others in every way. This is the only way we can develop. At the same time, we also depend on helping others. Those who are no longer needed, who can no longer help others, become lonely and dilapidated. Helping, therefore, serves not only the other but also ourselves.

But helping is an art. And like any art, it involves a skill that can be learned and practised. Bert Hellinger in his Ordnungen des Helfens[1] and Wilfried Nelles have described all you need to know about it – an overview.

The primal image of helping

The primal image of helping is the relationship between parents and children, especially between mother and child. The archetype of this is Mary and the child Jesus. This image has been depicted countless times in art and is part of our collective consciousness.

Parents give, and children take. Parents are big, strong, and have possessions, while children are small, needy, and have nothing. Because parents and children are bonded by a great love, giving and taking between them can be almost limitless. Children can expect almost anything from their parents, who are willing to give them almost anything. In the parent-child relationship, children’s expectations and parents’ willingness to fulfil them are necessary and, therefore, OK.

This is good while the children are still small. As they get older, parents also set limits for their children to which they can rub themselves and mature. Does this mean that parents are then less loving towards their children? Would they be better parents if they did not set boundaries for their children? Or is that actually why they are good parents to demand something from their children that prepares them for adult life? Many children are then angry with their parents because they would rather keep that original dependency. But it is precisely because parents step back and disappoint them that they help their children get beyond dependency. They help them to take responsibility for themselves step by step. This is the only way children can take their place in the world of adults and grow from takers into givers.

Helping as trade-off

Helping is generally reciprocal, for example, between spouses. This relationship is ordered by our need for balance. Those who have received from the other what they desire, or need, also want to give something back, thus balancing off what they have received.

Sometimes, this equalisation by giving something back is not easily possible, for example, towards our parents. What they have given us is too great to be balanced through our giving back. We can only acknowledge what we have received from them,  and be grateful for it. Balancing through giving and the associated discharge takes place here through passing on to another, for example, to our children.

We see that giving and taking take place in two ways. One time between equals, here giving remains at the same level and therefore requires reciprocity. The other time between, say, parents and children, but also between teacher and pupil, it takes a different course. Giving and taking here can be compared to a stream that transports what it takes in. This giving and taking is greater because it happens with a view to what follows, to the future. In this helping, what is given is constantly growing. The helper is immersed and bound into something bigger, richer and more enduring.

This helping does presuppose that we have first received and accepted something. Only then do we have the need and the ability to help others, especially if helping requires much from us. At the same time, we assume that those we want to help also need and want what they receive. If that is not the case, the giving ends in nothing, separating more than it connects. This brings us to the first order of helping.

The 1e order – Only what you have, only what is needed

From the above, it follows that you should give only what you have and expect and take only what you need.

The first disorder of helping begins when the helper wants to give what he does not have and the other wants to take what he does not need. An example is consumerism in healthcare: how many patients take what they don’t need and thereby deplete our collective facilities? How many nurses give what they don’t have and exhaust themselves morally and physically? But it also applies when the helper is not allowed to give something to the other because he thereby takes away from the other something that only he can or should bear. Giving and taking are thus subject to limits, and it is part of the art of helping to see and observe these limits. This helping is humble and modest. It sometimes refrains from helping in the face of expectation and suffering. As a result, both the helper and the help-seeker often have to endure a lot. This modesty and detachment often contradict conventional notions of what helping is and often confront the helper with reproach and criticism.

The 2e order – the give/take reversal

Helping serves survival on the one hand and development and growth on the other. However, survival, development, and growth depend on external and internal circumstances. Many of these external aspects are given and cannot be changed, however much we would like to. Think of disability, hereditary illness or the consequences of events through one’s own or someone else’s fault. If helping ignores or denies these circumstances, then helping is doomed to failure.

This applies even more to inner conditions, such as systemic entanglements, neurotic beliefs and the effects of smaller or larger traumas.

Many helpers themselves suffer from the fate of the other, and partly because of this, they want to change that fate. But often not because the other person needs or wants it, but because they find the other person’s fate hard to bear. When the other does allow himself to be helped by the helper, not so much because he needs it, but because he wants to help the helper, he creates a reversal. The reversal is that helping becomes taking and accepting help then becomes giving.

So, the second order of helping is that it adapts to the circumstances and limits the help to what the circumstances allow. That helping is restrained and has strength.

The disorder of helping is when the helper disregards or covers up these circumstances instead of confronting the beast, along with the help-seeker. Wanting to help per se, against the circumstances, weakens both the helper and the person expecting, being offered, or even being forced to accept help.

The 3e order – the parent/child transference

Many helpers, for example, therapists and social workers, but you also see it with managers, think that the help-seeker should help like parents help their children. Conversely, many help-seekers, but also employees, expect that the therapist or the manager will take care of them like parents take care of their children to get what they once expected or demanded from their parents afterwards.

When helpers meet these expectations, they face a long road ahead. Where does it lead? Helpers then find themselves in the same position as the parents in whose position they have put themselves with all their positive intentions. Step by step, however, they will have to set limits and thus disappoint the help-seeker, just as parents must do towards their needy children. The help-seeker then develops towards the therapist the same feelings as towards the parents. In this way, helpers who have put themselves in the position of parents, and who may also want to be the better parent, become equal to the parent for the client.

Many helpers remain trapped in the transference[2] and countertransference of the child vis-à-vis the parent and they therefore hinder the client’s detachment from both the parents and the therapist or manager. In addition, a relationship like the child-parent transference also hinders the personal development and maturing of the helper himself.

For example, when a young man marries an older woman, we think he is looking for a replacement for his mother. And what is she looking for? A replacement for her father. Conversely, of course, the same applies to the younger woman and the older man. So, as strange as this may sound, those who remain in an uber position for a long time, who even seek it and necessarily want to keep it, refuse to take their place as equals among adults.

There is a single exception to this picture that concerns the completion of the interrupted rapprochement between parent and child, but for brevity’s sake, I will not go into that now.[4]

So, the third order of helping is that the helper – and thus in our context both the therapist and sometimes the manager – approaches the client or employee as an adult. Thus, the helper rejects the client’s attempts to get him into a parental role. This phenomenon, especially in times of sensitivity to micro-aggressions and subjectification of transgressive behaviour, is perceived and criticised by many as harsh. It is often even seen as arrogant. However, on closer inspection, of course, the therapist or manager who does go along with a child-parent transfer is far more presumptuous.

The third disorder is when we allow an adult to make demands of a helper or manager as a child does of his parents. If the helper then treats the client like a child, he takes something from the client for which only the client is responsible and for which only he can and should bear the consequences.

This third order of helping is especially where constellation work is most distinct from conventional psychotherapeutic work.

The 4e order – the systems approach (and what is “system”?)

The fourth order of helping described by Hellinger deals with the starting point of classical psychotherapy, which often sees the client as an isolated individual. This too can easily lead to a parent-child transference. Therefore, seeing that the client is part of a family system is important. If the therapist can see the client as part of that whole family of parents, ancestors, partners, and children, only then will he really see him. Only then can it become clear who in the system needs his attention and help and to whom the client should turn to take the decisive step.

A systems approach to help requests is fairly common nowadays. But its significance for the contact with the client is still often overlooked: the helper’s empathy is explicitly less personal but mainly systemic. The helper does not connect personally with the client. That precisely is the fourth order of helping.

The disorder of helping here would be when completely different people from the client, who are key to the solution, are not seen or recognised. This includes those who have been excluded from the family because they were, for instance, shamed.

Again, there is a great danger that this systemic empathy, this systemic observation of clients will be experienced as harsh, especially by those who make childish demands on their helpers. However, those who search for a mature solution often experience this systemic approach as a liberation and source of strength and insight.

Nelles’ systemic perspective

To this systemic perspective, Wilfried Nelles[5] adds a very important element.

He starts from the same point: that the core of systemic therapy is that one cannot separate the individual from the larger context, e.g., the family, to which it belongs. The thinking and actions of the individual and the system constantly mutually influence each other. Therefore, the goal of systemic therapy is not to liberate the individual from the system but to improve the relationships within it. Compared to individual-centred methods, it is an advancement that recognises the fact and necessity of being part of a larger context.

Unfortunately, this recognition in systemic therapy is no more than superficial. The “system” is a human invention: either a mental abstraction or a human construction. If you construct life theoretically as a system and then treat it that way, you miss exactly what life is at its deepest level: that which precedes us and transcends us. There are living organisms and there are systems, but there are no “living” systems. The moment I think of my body, for example, as a system in which structures and functions interact, I abstract life from it. It is then an engine or computer. The same applies to a family. Some proponents of systemic therapy see family as a construction and not as a living organism that precedes us. This systemic take lets everyone construct their own family in their mind. Therapeutic acting is then adapted to this construct. Therapy tries to align the different constructs as much as possible so that the system works, and the individual can cope with it.

But if the bigger entity, the system, is a construction, then it is not actually bigger than us, its constructors. Its size is then only something quantitative, but not something essential. Indeed, in systemic constructivist thinking, the self is still the bigger because it sees everything as its own construction. Of course, constructions like engines or computer have specific characteristics that we have to submit to, but these are changeable, we can construct them differently. This is exactly how the family and life are considered in their totality. As something that may have its own traits, but which can be constructed differently. Seen this way, systemic thinking is an extreme form of ego-consciousness. Even though it seems to place the self in a larger context, it sees everything as a subjective construction, ultimately implying that everything larger is a priori part of the self.

It is sometimes assumed that systemic thinking is a form of holistic thinking, only scientifically articulated. However, this is a big misconception. Systemic thinking destroys wholeness and the vibrant self. Wholeness is the way being is. We live in it and are part of it, but we cannot produce it ourselves. She is the á-priori wholeness that was there before our existence, in which we live and from which we emerge.

So what does this have to do with helping and therapy? Everything, because it gives therapy its direction, and on that, the client bases his life orientation on it. It makes a big difference whether we assume we construct our lives ourselves or see ourselves as part of a wholeness. The first belief involves gaining or maintaining control. The second belief involves surrendering to life’s movement and its own laws. With the first, you ask yourself: what can, and should I do? With the second, you ask yourself, what can, and should I let go? This letting go in the sense of not doing does not mean that you no longer act. Acting here is the natural, spontaneous and effortless consequence of inner contact with the movement of wholeness and life.

The 5e order – integrating evil

The essence of a system constellation is that it brings together what was previously separate. In this sense, it is at the service of reconciliation. According to Hellinger, especially with parents; according to Nelles, it is reconciliation with life itself.

Many helpers stand in the way of the difference between “the good” and “the bad” in this regard. They are hindered by their conscience or are under the influence of what is politically correct social opinion. For example, when a client complains about his parents or his sometimes deplorable fate and the helper adopts that perspective, the helper reinforces conflict and separation rather than being in the service of reconciliation. Helping in the service of reconciliation is possible for the helper only if he directly gives the one about whom the client complains a place in his soul. In this way, reconciliation takes place with the helper even before it has taken place with the client. So the fifth order of helping is love for all people, however, he or she is and however different from myself. In this way, the helper encloses him in his heart. What is reconciled in his heart can also be reconciled in the client’s system.

So the disorder of helping here is having a judgment of the other, which is usually condemnation and the accompanying moral outrage.

In conclusion

We should not see these orders of helping as a strict and methodical framework, as a protocol. Those who do so overthink.

To help conform to these orders, a special perception is needed,  the phenomenological perception. This phenomenon deserves its own article, but very compactly, Nelles says the following about it[4]We can see and recognise only that which appears. Everything else is mere thought, mere theory and unreal. That which appears is infinite – infinitely great, infinitely many-sided and infinitely deep. The more and the deeper we engage with that which appears, the more and deeper we experience the world – and thus, at the same time, ourselves

[1] Ordnungen des Helfens, Bert Hellinger, Carl-Auer Verlag, 2006.

[2] Transference is the displacement of feelings about a specific person to someone else (in therapy, this refers to the projection of a client’s feelings about someone else to the therapist). Countertransference is the shifting of feelings from a therapist to the client.

[3] Wilfried Nelles, Das Leben hat keinen Rückwertsgang, Innenwelt Verlag, 2009, pp 180-191

[4] Ordnungen des Helfens, Bert Hellinger, Carl-Auer Verlag, 2006, page 15-16

[5] Wilfried Nelles, The world we live in, Noorderlicht, 2024, Preface