understanding the ‘sentence of intention’

Understanding the Sentence of Intention and working with the ‘I’

In the latest developments of the method used in the trauma constellations work developed by Franz Ruppert, we stay strictly with the ‘sentence of intention’ developed by the client. Currently Franz calls this method the Constellation of the Sentence of Intention, or CoSI. This essay is a work in progress, and is what I have learned so far from Franz’s current thinking about this form, with a particular focus on the state of the ‘I’ as represented in the constellation.

This essay is probably of more interest to the student of this work.

Forming the ‘Sentence of Intention’

The client formulates their intention for their constellation into a sentence that they can write on a flip chart board or piece of paper. There is clarity to the process of writing one’s intention down that gives a clear framework to the subsequent process of the constellation. The written intention is visible at all times to the client and therapist, keeping both in touch with the purpose of the work.

HealthyselfdominantThe forces at play in the client that result in the particular wording and grammatical structure of the sentence are the unconscious forces of the three parts of the trauma split, the traumatised part, the healthy part and the survival part. In this way the therapist can know from how the intention is framed that there is an authority that she can trust as to what the client is unconsciously able to accommodate; the healthy impulse to wholeness and integration is mediated and moderated by the survival self’s protective mechanism, their survival strategies. So, for example, an intention of “I want to feel the reality of my trauma” may become moderated in the final written up sentence of intention as “I want to know what my trauma was” where ‘knowing’ is safer and more unconsciously or consciously acceptable at this time to the client than ‘feeling’.

The Constellation

Then the client chooses one of the words from this ‘sentence of intention’ and a person to represent this word. So, for example, using the latter sentence of intention above the person might choose the word ‘know’ and a person to represent this word. This forms the beginning constellation: the client him or herself and the representative for the word ‘know’.

From here the constellation proceeds, including representatives for other words in the sentence as and when the client feels ready to do so. No other elements are included in the constellation, and in this way the constellation stays strictly within the boundaries that the client has consciously and unconsciously set by how the sentence of intention is framed.

Advantages of this method

This process may sound a bit literal and ‘left-brain’, somewhat confined and confining, but there are some distinct advantages to it, particularly when we keep in mind that trauma is always the central issue.

Some of the advantages in my view are:

  • More of the process of the work is within the client’s authority since the therapist is not the person who chooses what elements are included in the constellation. The client has chosen the words of the sentence, and no other representatives are included. When we understand trauma properly it is clear that in the present moment the client must ‘own’ the work and be the sole authority of what happens, since trauma by definition is an event in which the person had no authority and their very being was ignored and even annihilated. In good trauma work the therapist must never become more powerful or a greater authority than the client because such a power imbalance may be a repetition of the trauma and likely to precipitate an unhelpful re-traumatisation.
  • This respect for the client as the author of the work keeps in mind that, although at the time of the trauma he or she was a victim, in the present moment she is not; she is autonomous and can make good decisions for herself.
  • The therapist is relieved of having to decide what elements are included. This may sound unimportant but it isn’t. In order to include particular elements in the constellation the therapist has to have a hypothesis, which might be wrong. Not having to choose the elements allows the therapist to really wait and see what happens, thus dispensing with pre-emptive hypotheses in favour of reality as it emerges in the process of the constellation. Of course in the ground is the MGPT theory to provide a framework of understanding what you see in the constellation.
  • The representatives are instinctively freer to follow their experience since it is harder to impose experience and meaning to the word represented. To represent, for example, the word ‘and’ or ‘life’ is not intellectually a clear thing to do. Even representing the word ‘mother’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the representative is representing the mother of the client, it is just the word ‘mother’ which can mean many things.
  • The words often do present several meanings over the course of the constellation, thus the word ‘to’ can become ‘two’ or ‘too’, or the word ‘know’ can become in the representation ‘No!’.
  • The meaning of the sentence will deepen over the course of the constellation, offering new insights and showing the more unconscious motives. For example with an intention stated as “I want to feel the trauma that affected me as a child” in the first instance one would think this refers to the clients own trauma. However the use of the term “the trauma” may indicate the mother’s, or father’s, or even grandmother’s trauma, which of course would have affected the person as a child.
  • The constellation is thought to represent the state of the client’s psyche in relation to the current situation (as represented by the sentence). Since all the representations are words, and in a sense nothing more, the necessary elements for the resolution of the issue can emerge in one or other of the words. For example in a sentence such as “I want to connect with my traumatised part” the word ‘connect’ may for a while portray the client’s mother (as recognised by the client). In other words the representatives can have several distinct and different experiences over the course of the constellation, and some of these experiences may be recognisable by the client as actual people in her family/life.
  • This point above is another example of how the choices of the therapist as to what is represented are unnecessary… what is necessary for the constellation will show up in one or other of the words.
  • Another advantage is that if a representative is chosen in the traditional way to represent, say, the mother of the client, this representative is, in a sense, confined to that element. There is a restriction there that dissolves when one only uses the words. In addition, having a representative for the mother, as we did in the past, often resulted in the ‘mother’ changing and becoming more amenable in the process of the constellation… which is never the reality of the actual mother (who is of course herself not present). This ‘more amenable mother’ in those more traditional constellations in my view were in fact representations of parts of the client, and the amenableness is actually the change process of the client’s own psyche. To see this change as to do with the actual mother only reinforces the delusion that we have a tendency to cling to that we can change our mother into that ‘good’ mother we wanted her to be, thus avoiding the reality of our trauma. When working with trauma we have to stick to reality, and the best way to do this is to see the constellation as always a representation of the client’s inner psychological world.
  • The process of the constellation, and the end result, is contained within the sentence. One could hypothesise that once the full sentence is represented everything necessary is there for this particular issue. However it is often the case that the full meaning and resulting insight occurs much earlier before all the words are represented. For example with an intention stated as “My intention is to live fully and happily and find a good relationship” the client may find that they are avoiding the underlying issue of trauma, and see in the constellation something of this underlying fragmentation and unhappiness.
  • Many ‘intentions’ come from a predominantly survival self. The intention itself then forms an avoidance of engaging with the issue. This is often clear to the therapist in the beginning, but becomes clear to the client through the resulting process.
  • In addition many of the words represented will clearly show the person’s different survival strategies.
  • The task of the therapist in this constellation is to understand what happens in the constellation and to make observations of this process in a way that is helpful to the client.

Understanding the ‘I’

The existence, or not, of the word ‘I’ as a subjective authority in the sentence of intention is Franz’s current focus. If the word ‘I’ is in the intention, and is represented, the state and condition of this representation is key to the work.

Many people unused to this method may not include the word ‘I’ in their sentence of intention, thus: “My intention is to…” or just “To feel happier…” Those familiar with the work will know to include this subjective ‘I’, as for example: “I want to…” or “I need to…”

I call this latter use of the word ‘I’ the ‘executive I’, meaning that part of the person that lives by whatever verb is used after the ‘I’; the ‘willful’ ‘I’… the ‘I’ that wills something, that wants something, that does something. Grammatically we would call this ‘I’ the subject of the sentence, where the word ‘me’ would be the object of the sentence. A sentence that does not include this word ‘I’ loses its executive authority, and in our work is indicative of the person’s lack of a sense of executive authority and autonomy.

Of course when we understand the nature of trauma as being an event where this autonomy is violated and ignored, where the victim is the object of the perpetrator’s actions and their subjectivity is obliterated, it is understandable why many of us shy away from using this speech form of personal will and force, the use of ‘I’. I have heard many of my clients, once they have understood the point of using the form ‘I want…”, become conscious of how difficult they find it to say such a thing. Some people, even knowing that the use of the word ‘I’ is important in the work, will still avoid using it. Their deep experience of their trauma has taught them that such assertion of themselves was dangerous and best avoided, and they may continue to do so until they feel strong enough. For example in a traumatised family system, where the only dynamics possible are those of victim and perpetrator, the child’s perception is that any assertion of themselves as an individual with rights will incur further perpetration against them.

A ‘sentence of intention’ that avoids using the ‘I’ is obviously an intention that is dominated by survival strategies. There is nothing wrong with this… it is what it is, and the learning and insight is there.

Strengthening the ‘I’

When it is represented in the constellation, the ‘I’ will show the essential state of the self as it can be in this particular context, as framed by the ‘sentence of intention’.

The ‘I’ is a direct indication of the strength, or lack of strength, of the healthy part of the self. The ‘I’ may manifest in the constellation as a healthy ally, an avoidant and frivolous survival self, or a frail and struggling traumatised self, or indeed a multitude of versions of these and even a combination of these, oscillating from moment to moment. However, it will always be the representation of the essential self as it can be in this particular constellation.

In a sense the current method has as its focus understanding the state of this ‘I’ and seeing what can strengthen its healthy component. To quote Franz:

“When the client and the representative for their ‘I’ have a good connection, what is necessary for healing will then show up.”

In other words the representation for the ‘I’ gives a direct opportunity for the client to understand better how to strengthen their healthy part. This makes sense if we bear in mind the principles of the process of healing that Franz has described previously:

  1. Becoming aware of your survival self (strategies), which helps to…
  2. Strengthen the healthy self, in order to be able to…
  3. Encounter the traumatised self

Often the CoSI will, as I have said in the previous section, show clearly the many strategies the person had to employ merely to survive their trauma. This is such an important part of the process of coming into good contact with our ‘I’.

Different personal words

There are other words that appear in ‘sentences of intention’ that pertain to the self, and each has its own importance. The word ‘I’ itself has another context as, for example, in the sentence “I want to know why I cannot make a good relationship”. The second ‘I’ is a different ‘I’… it isn’t the ‘executive’ ‘I’ of the sentence and doesn’t qualify as the ‘I’ that we need to make a connection with. It is part of the clause: “I cannot make a good relationship” and is a statement of fact of one’s experience… but it isn’t the executive of the sentence that intends something different.

The words ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘myself’ and ‘mine’ all have their own specific meaning and character in the sentence. For example the phrase “my trauma” is quite different from “the trauma”. The word ‘me’ is grammatically the object of a sentence and as such is often represented as a victim or the traumatised self in the constellation.


I hope that this essay is helpful. It has been helpful to me to write it. Do leave some comments if you have any, plus any thoughts you have that I have missed. To finish I would just quote Franz again:

Professor Franz Ruppert

Professor Franz Ruppert

“All that we need to remember during our psychotrauma therapy is stored within us (in our body and our brain). It will show up, if we are prepared for it.”

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understanding the ‘sentence of intention’ — 13 Comments

  1. This is quite fascinating, Vivian. But I’m unclear on the representation of the non-executive “I”. Could you clarify?

    • Barbara, the very interesting thing about these kinds of constellations is that if you have two words that are the same in the same sentence they will be different in their representation. There seems to be a contextual difference, and so it seems with the second ‘I’. It may be represented in all sorts of ways, and is, of course, a part of the self as are all the words, representing the client’s psyche. It may show as a survival impulse, or may even show up as an entanglement with the mother, but it isn’t that part of the self that forms the will for something different and so isn’t the central focus of the work. Grammatically it isn’t the subject of the sentence, only the subject of the sub-clause, and as such takes a second place. So it seems in the process of the constellation.

  2. Hi Vivian,

    Is the healthy self in your diagram the same as the Executive “I”? And is the executive I a part of the ego or that presence/witnessing part of us or….?

    I recently set a constellation with the intention “I want to utterly and completely support my authentic self.” I would think that the first I is the executive I and the authentic self is the healthy self (that couldn’t say “No” when she needed to) – would love to hear your perspective.

    • Ah yes… good question. The short answer is ‘no’. The term “executive ‘I'” is used to define the grammatical use of the word ‘I’ in the sentence of intention… When this ‘I’ is represented in the constellation it may show as healthy, but equally is likely to show survival self and/or trauma self characteristics. The point is that the represented ‘I’ in the constellation indicates the state of that essential self of the person, how strong, healthy it is, or how embedded in survival strategies. If you think of a sentence of various words, which word in the sentence is the most personal word to the person? It must be the word ‘I’ if it is in the sentence, and in that way its representation in the constellation will reflect the true state of the self.
      The word ‘ego’ comes from the Freudian construct of the self, as distinct from the ‘id’ and the ‘super-ego’. To overlap the two systems (Freudian and Ruppertian) can be done but is confusing.
      Regarding what you say about your constellation I would say that the ‘healthy self’ doesn’t have difficulty saying ‘no’… that would be a function of the survival self where not saying ‘no’ is a survival strategy that protected.

  3. Thank you, Vivian, for this Blog. It has been so very helpful.
    I hadn’t realised the importance or significance of how the ‘I’ was used in the Sentence of Intention.

    Thinking about it all, I recalled a constellation I did in Feb 2014, where the representative for my Intention was not even able to stand up. She flopped against me twice and then lay on the floor for a long time, saying she needed time out to rest and think.
    In a more recent constellation, my Sentence of Intention said that I wanted to know what part of me was operating at any time, so I could understand what was going on. During the constellation, I felt annoyed and indignant at someone and thought these feelings were justified and came from my healthy executive self. But it was pointed out to me that they came from my survival self which was deflecting attention away from the pain of being criticised. Instead, I needed to feel that pain. It sounds paradoxical, but that would strengthen my healthy ‘I’.
    I suppose anger does sometimes come from a healthy ‘I’. It will be good to recognise more quickly which ‘I’ it comes from.

  4. Thank you for your blog, which gave me a more precise idea about this new version of Prof Ruppert’s method. I feel he has done a huge, important, inovative contribution to psychotraumatology. I wounder how long it will take to be recognized by psychotherapeutic establishment! In any case, I feel motivated to use the method as soon as I have learned it sufficiently, if needed outside (and after) my actual activity as psychiatrist and psychotherapist, being “retired”.

    • Dear Christophe, yes indeed. It took about 40 years for Bowlby’s work to be given its proper central place. There are significant challenges to the more usual psychotherapeutic framework and form of thinking, so I don’t hold my breath. But in the meantime significant work is being done despite the necessity of standing outside the normal structures.
      Best wishes

    • No, this is a new development, from just under a year ago… That is why I wrote about it here.
      I guess it may sound complicated when attempting to describe it, but as is so often the case when it comes to doing it, and the experience of doing it, it really is quite simple, and very effective.
      Perhaps it would be helpful for you to go to a workshop and find out for yourself experientially.

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