I was at a Family Constellations training in Australia in 2018. In case you’re not familiar with it, Family Constellations is a therapeutic approach that can help you address personal issues and problems by looking at the systemic dynamics and unresolved trauma in your family and ancestry.
It is estimated that up to 90% of populations worldwide have some experience of trauma, so I’m always looking for ways to help address and heal it. I find that the roots of trauma can go back for generations, and it’s only when we address it at deeper levels that we can truly heal and thrive.
On the day I was to take my flight to Australia for the training, I was feeling resistant to leaving. I’d been at my office during the day and had to get home to pick up my luggage before going to the airport. On my way home, I got on the wrong bus twice then missed my bus stop twice. I’d never done that before. When I got home and ordered a GrabCar to the airport, the cab went to my office, not my home, so I had to cancel it at the last minute then order another one, which delayed me even more. I made my flight but cut it very close.
The carrier had changed from Scoot to SIA and there were multiple timing changes. I’d received a series of emails which confused me with all the changing information. I mistook the flight number for the terminal, as the new IATA code for Scoot flights is TR. It used to be TZ. I told my friend, Claire, who was picking me up, that I would arrive at terminal 3 when I saw TR 3 in the email. In fact, my flight number was TR 3 and I was actually arriving at terminal 4. The flight also arrived two hours early. I don’t even know how that happened, as we didn’t leave any earlier and there was no announcement on the flight about this.
Claire had arrived early to pick me up, but at terminal 3, which she then realised was a domestic airport. She couldn’t find my flight details online so thought that maybe I’d taken two flights with the second being a domestic one. She waited at the domestic terminal for a while until I called her on arrival and let her know where I was, which took me a while to figure out. Eventually, we found each other and my sense of resistance to the trip abated with her warm hospitality.
The morning I was to go to the training, the resistance returned. Logically, it didn’t make sense, as I’d been looking forward to it for months. But as I made my way to the venue, I got lost and was walking up and down the streets adjacent to it but somehow kept missing the actual street I needed to go down. This was very unusual for me, as I can orient myself easily with directions, even abroad. I’m usually the one directing others, and I will plan ahead to learn about where I’m going and how I’ll get around to places I want to go to so I can get there on time.
I found the location eventually and since I was late, they’d already started. I located the organisers so I could hand over Claire’s music stand, which I’d brought for the trainer to put his notes on. They had put out a request in the Facebook group that week to ask if anyone had a music stand they could borrow, I’d asked Claire if she was willing to lend them hers and she said yes.
We hit the ground running and worked through our family histories in pairs and as a group. I paired up with a participant who was in tears as she told me that her mother would beat her repeatedly when she was a young child. Another person I was paired with, a stylish, weathered woman, shared her genogram with me, “Then there was a rape at 13.” That’s her rape, I thought. She continued, “I lost my husband… then my son committed suicide.” I felt for her and how hard it must have been to have experienced so much in her life from such a young age, to the point where she was so matter of fact talking about it.
The Mean Girl
Then I met a mean girl. At first, we got on well and she was friendly. She introduced me to her group of friends. I was impressed by her credentials as a medical doctor and psychotherapist who ran retreats. She shared about her ethnic background, how her parents had been immigrants to Australia. I shared about my father being born in Australia because my grandmother was evacuated there when the Japanese invaded Singapore during World War II.
As we worked together, her manner changed, and she became harsh and interrogated me. “What do you mean you tried?” she asked, as I was explaining how I’d tried to overcome some personal issues. I sincerely wanted to get to the bottom of my issues so was very open and shared honestly about where I was feeling stuck in my life. “Did your grandmother speak English?” she continued.
“Ye-es,” I responded, unsure why this was even relevant.
“Are you part of that small community of Eurasians?”
I nodded. Her voice hardened as she continued, saying that she’d met someone who was Eurasian, as her lips curled with disdain, almost contempt. I was caught completely off guard and undefended. Her tone and attitude were unprofessional and unkind at best and I felt devalued and unsafe.
Then we had to switch, and I had to guide her in her issues, which wasn’t any easier in the sense that she questioned the work I was doing. The more she rejected my work, the more I stuttered and the colder she became. At one point, she asked the trainer to come over and ‘check’ my work. He came over to us and looked at what I was doing and said, “Good job!” I had already taken his online class earlier in the year and been practising this approach with my clients for six months so it was not as new to me as it was to her. I’d also had a one-to-one session with him and knew how he worked with others in the first stages. Nevertheless, she didn’t want to acknowledge the work I’d done and shared her own conclusions when it was time for us to share with the rest of the group. It was clear I was also no longer welcome in her group of friends.
I got up on the last day of the course and felt like a schoolgirl who didn’t want to go to school. I pushed myself to get to the course and through the rest of my time with the mean girl, then other partners, though I was disoriented and unable to focus and take all the material in. A few others also seemed to be at their capacity, some participants leaving early, another participant saying that she didn’t want to continue working with her partner, and her partner then asking if he could just sit out the rest of the practice sessions at the corner of the room. The atmosphere felt intense, scattered, and fragmented.
All through the day, I looked forward to meeting Claire for dinner. We hadn’t made any firm plans though and my phone battery was very low and I couldn’t charge it. Somehow, by switching up my phone battery with an old one I had on hand, I managed to call her and communicate just enough to confirm that we would meet in the city before both batteries died. As I got to the meeting place, she pulled up in her car and I jumped in, relieved to be in her kind, gentle company. She drove to the beach and we went for a short walk on the windy clifftops before she bought me a delicious Mediterranean meal and a much-needed glass of wine. It was a welcome respite.
The next day, I was to catch my flight but neither Claire nor I could find my flight information online. When I got to the airport, my flight wasn’t on any of the departure information boards either. I decided to make my way to the SIA counter and found the check-in line for my secret flight, wondering if I should be looking for platform 9¾. As I walked up to the end of the line, I was met by a young and open face with wide blue eyes who looked at me then said very enthusiastically, “Hello!” This little boy of about ten looked beside himself to see me even though we didn’t know each other. He proceeded to make conversation with me in a language I didn’t understand but was to find out later, from his mother who stood beside him, was Polish. We found a way to communicate even though we didn’t speak the same language. I showed him pictures on my phone of dogs and videos of my Latin dance class. He would go between his mother and me with a face of unbridled delight. At one point he took my hand to kiss it, looking up at me with a sweetness that did not seem of this world and I can only describe as angelic. It was a soothing balm at a time when I was feeling disheartened and disappointed about my experience at the training, so unexpected but needed, reminding me that though mean girls exist, so do angels, in the most surprising and joyful ways.
I’m glad I went to the course because of the new tools I learnt. I was also struck by the mastery of the main trainer in this therapy and particularly his ability to soften in tone and manner as soon as someone hit a sensitive and vulnerable emotional spot. His empathy was embodied and heart-centred.
What I like about Family Constellations is how I learnt that we can repeat the conflict and issues of the past and victim-perpetrator dynamics when we identify or reject the unresolved pain and hurtful actions that our family has experienced. We can also atone for the perpetrators in our family when they have not faced the full consequences of their actions. Also, our relationship and experiences with our mother at an early age are so formative because this is our first relationship so if we had a break in the bond with her, whether physically or emotionally, this can have a lifelong impact on us.
But my observation of this approach to addressing personal and family issues is that there’s no requirement for those who do this work with others to have processed their own personal issues, so some, like the mean girl I partnered with, are unable to respond to the vulnerability of others with care and kindness. Creating a safe therapeutic container to work with others also doesn’t seem to be a part of this modality. And my experience of doing the training as an overseas participant was that my cultural context was not respected and honoured. There wasn’t any talk either of the importance of being inclusive and embracing diversity in other forms such as gender. Another concern I have is that there’s no clear competency or certification process and a huge range of trainings offered, some of them very comprehensive practitioner trainings that run over several years and some like the one I attended, a few days.
What also gave me pause was the organisers not telling me that they had broken a part of Claire’s music stand until the end of the last day. They offered to buy a new one, but I thought that they should’ve told me that it was broken from the moment it broke. It all added up to a general callousness I felt was present throughout the weekend, a callousness I had experienced previously in this modality where people can be forced to reach resolutions and forgive those who have harmed them before they are emotionally ready or willing. During one previous session in Singapore, I witnessed a facilitator pull participants roughly around a room until one of them fell. It was not the first time that I’d witnessed her physically endangering the safety of participants.
I still wanted to go deeper into this work with ancestors and in particular learn how to help with trauma but wasn’t sure if this was the right trainer or modality for me. It was the best modality I knew of at the time addressing ancestral patterns and persistent personal issues. I had read about the effectiveness of Family Constellations for many people and even in high-security prisons to help offenders admit their guilt and take ownership of the harm that they had done and even resolve estrangement in their families. My sense though was that Family Constellations was not teaching the tools needed to work with the chaotic unregulated energy I felt was present when working with trauma. So I started to look out for other teachers and courses that might help me be better equipped to manage this type of ancestral energy and a community that felt more safe and respectful, one my body was not resistant to joining, where I could feel valued and seen.
A few months later, I was to find this community and teacher.
Watch out for part two of this article where I’ll be sharing more about this community and teacher.
Do you notice any resistance in your life to situations, communities, or people?
What does that resistance look like? How does it show up in your life or in your body?
What communities and situations feel safe, respectful, and welcoming to you?