Thursday, 5 November 2009

Constellation Therapy

Several months ago, in November 2009, I attended a rather wonderful course at The School of Life ( The morning involved several exercises designed to enable us to reflect on our family makeup. The afternoon included a session introducing us to constellation therapy.

Constellation therapy relies on a theatrical moment. It isn't (quite) a trick, but nor is it completely devoid of trickery. A group of people sit in a circle and compose themselves through breathing techniques. Someone offers a problem. He or she briefly names the problem, and has a short discussion with the therapist about the background to the issue. Then the questioner is invited to choose several people from the circle, who are to represent key characters in the issue. The issue is always interpersonal.

These representatives are then positioned, seemingly at random, by the questioner, within the circle. The questioner acts instinctively, placing the representatives in a pattern, or constellation, that makes sense to him or her. Then she or he takes a seat with the rest of the group.

The therapist moves amongst the representatives, and simply asks them how they feel at being put in such a position. This is where it becomes astonishing: the representatives, in talking about how they feel in the present moment, somehow speak about the problem facing the questioner. The therapist starts to move the representatives around, and gradually this repositioning opens a dialogue, the possibility of a solution to the problem. It must work like synecdoche: a part stands in for, and reveals, the whole. The sceptre stands in for, and reveals, the idea of monarchy. The representatives stand in for, and reveal, a family dynamic.

Ever the willing experimentalist, I stuck my hand up, and offered a problem that troubles me. I duly chose 4 representatives, and shuffled them around. Then I sat down and looked at what I had done. And started to cry.

I found that I had positioned a figure representing myself, and one standing in for Beauty (my daughter), both facing outwards, but very close together, with Beauty just at my shoulder. The therapist pointed out that figures who look out of the circle are often looking for a missing family member, someone who has been written out of the family.

To my own astonishment, I heard myself talking about my crippled Uncle Antony, rather than my own father, or any more obvious 'missing' person in my family. I might easily have talked about my father -- I will never know why I didn't. I realized that the constellation I had put together, which was supposed to stand in for my current family, was an uncanny replay of the family structure that prevailed while I was growing up — and that it would probably also have been true of my mother's family. All looking for the same missing person, my poor, disabled uncle.

I came home truly shaken by this event. It had never, ever occurred to me that a 'missing figure' might be exerting an influence over the shape of the family I grew up in. I had always looked at the palpable present state of my family, never at what had been written out of it. That's not quite true: I had always looked from the perspective of my father, never from that of my mother.

I was always jealous of my brother as a child -- it's eased a lot since we both left home. I am starting to understand that my jealousy was probably triggered because my mother helplessly compensated for her guilt about her crippled brother through an especial closeness with her son. Somehow I had never before made this thought concrete for myself. I could not separate it fully from myself. Yet paradoxically my jealousy felt, even when I was a child, as though it had very little to do with me. I always sensed something missing in my relationship with my mother. I now wonder whether I was looking for something that was missing in her.

The constellation therapist mentioned that in families with excluded members, individuals will sometimes enact behaviour that actually 'belongs' to the excluded person, supplying what they instinctively realize is missing. To my shock, it occurred to me that some of the depression, and some of the extremes, I have felt in my life, which have often seemed as though they weren't 'mine', but borrowed or imported, may have been an attempt to cripple myself, as an instinctive compensation for the way in which I think my mother and her family were themselves crippled by Antony's disability. In most ways I was a very bright over-achiever, but my 'highly-strung' personality meant that this intelligence was forever being compromised by wild outbursts.

My mother often commented on my being a show-off. I was very exuberant, and highly excitable, and did need help as a child to control my wild impulses. I also loved acting and drama from an early age, and was good at it. But being called a show-off was like being stabbed: it crushed me completely. I suspect that she was also called a show-off, and also learnt to crush her exuberance, and simply couldn't bear it in me.

I do the same to my own daughter. I try very hard not to crush her, but to teach her ways to keep or become calm. She appears super-resilient, but my great fear is that I might have done as well, while inside, my self-esteem was shrinking throughout my childhood and adolescence.

Throughout my life I have monitored social situations like a hawk, watching for the boundaries of permissible showing-off — this was why I loved academia so much while I was an undergraduate, because it was licensed showing-off: I was actively encouraged to display knowledge, argue back, produce insights, and make connections. I was also able, as an undergraduate, to combine academic work almost seamlessly with a huge amount of stage acting, so that the boundaries between thought and acting became porous.

I am still very frightened of being criticized and judged, and have gone to great lengths to avoid censure — again, part of becoming an academic was about controlling other people's reactions to me.

It is now May 2010, and I am still digesting the thoughts and feelings of what was undoubtedly an epiphany during that afternoon at the School of Life. I have since taken my own children to visit my uncle, who lives in a home in Norfolk. When I first told my daughter that she had a great-uncle, her granny's brother, but that he had always been disabled, the first thing she said was: "Oh, poor Granny P". I knew that she would be able to manage a visit to see him, and she was determined to meet him -- she wanted to meet this important member of her family. She and the Beast chose toys they thought he would like, and took them to show him. The Beast showed him how to play with a magnetic toy, and Beauty talked to him. He was delighted with the attention, and loved the game.

It is now possible for my mother and I to talk more evenly about him, and about the practical issues that may lie ahead for him as he and my mother age. Finally we are inching towards a normal view of something that has blighted my mother's whole life -- not the fact that her brother was crippled by his birth, but the feelings that were never taken into account or dealt with around him. My mother had to grow up overnight. She needed to look after her mother, who was absent from her, frail, depressed, withdrawn. She was expected to achieve very highly, because the son could not. She still cries because she remembers a moment when she was asked if she would like her wild and uncontrollable brother to 'go away', and she answered: "Yes, please". Poor Granny P. No wonder she could not bear my jealousy of my own brother. No wonder I exhibited it.

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