I wrote this article in 2012 for the British Gestalt Journal. This was quite early in Professor Ruppert's development of what eventually came to be called Identity-oriented Psychotrauma Theory (IoPT), and the process for healing at the time was called Trauma Constellations.
While to some extent out-dated, I still think the relationship between Gestalt theory and thinking, with its phenomenological approach, and the theory and practice of IoPT very interesting. As I was originally a Gestalt Psychotherapist, I found my Gestalt background immensely helpful in understanding and working with Identity-oriented Psychotrauma Therapy, and wanted to put this article 'out there' for anyone else with this kind of interest.
For those who are more familiar with the later developments of IoPT you will realise that some of the points I make are out-dated... eg the notion of the process being a field phenomenon, whereas now we think more in terms of it being a phenomenon of resonance.
In the main my idea to publish this is due to the fact that I know it is buried in the past annals of the British Gestalt Journal... probably never to surface again, and I want to have it available for study by those who start to get interested in IoPT and who already have a Gestalt perspective. Basically I wanted to have it online, and discoverable!
Gestalt and Trauma-Oriented Constellations (IoPT)
In this paper I focus on one of the innovations to emerge from the work originated by Bert Hellinger using the methodology of Constellations. The Trauma Constellation, also known as the ‘Constellation of the Intention’, involves a theory of multigenerational trauma, early attachment trauma (‘symbiotic trauma’), and the methodology of the constellation as a configuration of intrapsychic elements that facilitates integration of traumatic fragmentation. Also I discuss why a Gestalt approach to working with trauma and constellations is desirable.
This paper is abstracted from my forthcoming book, Becoming Your True Self: Working with Trauma and the Constellation, due for publication in 2013, and from an article I wrote for The Knowing Field: International Constellations Journal to introduce constellations facilitators to Gestalt concepts and principles.
KEYWORDS: Gestalt, constellations, trauma, phenomenology, symbiosis, autonomy, symbiotic trauma.
It is now  more than twenty years since the work of the German psychotherapist and philosopher Bert Hellinger came to the attention of the psychotherapy world. A lot has happened since then, not least some separation of the work of constellations from the persona of Bert Hellinger himself, and the development of other ways of thinking about and using the methodology of the constellation.
Specifically I want to discuss the innovations developed by Franz Ruppert, Professor of Psychology at Munich University of Applied Sciences. Seventeen years ago Ruppert began studying bonding, and trauma and at the same time he came across the work of Hellinger. Since then he has focused on working with severe mental illness, continuing his research into bonding and trauma, developing a theory of multigenerational Psycho-Traumatology. He uses the methodology of the constellations process as his research tool and his way of working with clients. He teaches his theories at the University of Munich and has written five books on the topic, three of which have been translated into English. I have studied with Ruppert since 2005.
Ruppert’s work offers an understanding of what trauma is, how it develops, what the effects are on the traumatised person and on those who are bonded with the traumatised person, particularly children bonded to traumatised parents.
A note on terminology: I call myself a constellations facilitator because what I do is facilitate a particular process. Hence in this article when I am talking about constellations facilitation I use the word ‘facilitator’, and when talking more in terms of psychotherapy I use the term ‘therapist’.
History of the Study of Trauma
Trauma study has had a chequered history, as Judith Herman, professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard University, states in the opening chapter of her book Trauma & Recovery (1992):
“The study of psychological trauma has a curious history – one of episodic amnesia. Periods of active investigation have alternated with periods of oblivion.” (Herman, 1992)
Ruppert’s theory of trauma shows why this has been so: the defining experience of trauma is terror, helplessness and a fear for one’s survival, and the natural instinct is to avoid this experience. Our strategies for surviving the original trauma, strategies of avoidance and dissociation, remain, attempting to ensure that we never go near the experience again. So it seems likely that the psychotherapeutic and psychiatric professions, all people themselves, in general have operated from a collective avoidance, what the German Professor of Child Psychiatry at Hamburg University, Peter Riedesser, has called ‘trauma-blindness’, in relation to the study of trauma (Riedesser, 2004, in Ruppert, 2008).
Perhaps the most notorious example of this avoidance of trauma is Freud’s presentation, The Aetiology of Hysteria (published in 1896), setting out what became known as his ‘seduction theory’, and his subsequent retraction of this theory in the face of “an icy reception” from his colleagues (Masson, 1984). I am sure that most readers know this story well; however I would like to point out some issues it highlights.
The paper was oriented around Freud’s patients’ accounts of what we would now call childhood sexual abuse, as having been traumatic and implicated in the development of ‘hysterical neurosis’. Freud’s subsequent abandonment of this thesis set in train his journey towards valuing the internal world of fantasies and dreams over patients’ accounts of real trauma experiences, which eventually became psychoanalysis. However what got missed, probably because of the outrage at the notion of such prevalence of sexual abuse, was violence and severe emotional neglect. Although of course sexual abuse by its nature is violent, some children are violently abused, but not sexually abused. By moving away from further investigation of sexual abuse, child violence and domestic violence were missed, as was the opportunity for understanding early attachment trauma. In fact the topic of trauma itself was avoided.
It is interesting to speculate if this line of enquiry had been pursued, how it would have influenced Bowlby’s work in the 1950s (Bowlby, 1958, and Holmes, 1993). Had it been pursued there probably would have been more attention given to infant development and bonding even before Bowlby. It is generally agreed that Freud’s move from the seduction theory was the beginnings of psychoanalysis as we know it; Masson states that had he not moved away, psychoanalysis would not have existed. In the hotbed of work that was being done at the time on the topic of hysteria, neurosis and trauma by many others including Freud, I find this unlikely, although it would have been radically different. Nevertheless we can have a sense of just how this affected the whole direction taken by psychotherapy, to the point that a proper understanding of trauma is still, now, in the development stages.
If we consider every diagnostic category in the DSM IV from the perspective of unresolved ‘symbiotic trauma’ (very early, even in utero, trauma of attachment), and thus see symbiotic entanglement with systemic trauma (parental and grandparental, across-generational trauma) as the cause of subsequent psychological disturbance, we could come to a different conclusion than that stated in the DSM IV official diagnoses. Currently [again in 2012] there are a total of only 20 categories in the DSM IV - out of over 300 - that use the term ‘trauma’, all referring to rememberable trauma, i.e. from a time that the person can recall - 15 of which refer to childhood trauma, more specifically sexual abuse than anything else. There is no mention of any kind of early trauma of the bonding and attachment process. Within the diagnosis of PTSD there is no mention of the possibility of an underlying predisposition to traumatisation because of in-utero or very early attachment trauma.
The Constellations Process
Most people connect the facilitation of constellations with the particular style and personality of Bert Hellinger. However, from the moment I first saw Hellinger work I was not happy with some of what I saw. As a Gestalt therapist I was uncomfortable with the high degree of authority and management of the process taken by many practitioners; the potential for arrogance and narcissism in such an approach I found dangerous and abhorrent. At the same time I could see the enormous potential in the strange phenomenon of the constellations process itself.
In my book on constellations (2010), I give a detailed discussion of this more directive style that is the tendency in traditional or ‘family’ constellations, compared with a less directive style which for me incorporates a more Gestalt-compatible approach, noting the benefits and potential dangers of both. As my understanding of trauma grew, so too did my conviction that the latter was essential for the work to be safe and useful. I found a similar conviction in Ruppert when I met him. Although not a 'gestaltist', he has a devotion to the work of Carl Rogers:
“This client-centred approach makes the client the authority of what is true and what happens. It doesn’t help if the facilitator directs things. The client must be the one who shows what is going on, and the facilitator needs to try and help him do this using a Rogerian approach.” (Ruppert in Broughton, 2010b)
A THEORY OF TRAUMA
“Psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless.” (Herman, 1992)
The following is my brief definition of trauma influenced by Ruppert’s work:
• Trauma is experienced subjectively as completely overwhelming, rendering the person helpless in the face of unstoppable and consuming forces. There is a real fear that one may not survive the experience.
• Trauma causes the psyche to split as a means of coping with the intolerable feelings, primarily terror.
Trauma and Stress
“The difference between stress and trauma can be expressed thus: in a stressful situation one has the option of either fighting of fleeing (‘fight or flight’), while in a trauma situation there is only one possibility - to become frozen and split inwardly (‘freeze and fragment’). The stress reaction leads to a mobilisation of the body’s energy, while the trauma-emergency mechanism leads to a demobilisation and disconnection of energy… The stress reaction opens the psychological channels, whereas trauma closes them down.” (Ruppert, 2008)
“Traumatic reactions occur when action is of no avail.” (Herman, 1992)
Some writers on trauma talk about ‘fight’, ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’ as different reactions to ‘traumatic stress’, whereas Ruppert defines trauma as distinct from high stress, where ‘fight’ and ‘flight’ are stress reactions, ‘freeze’ and ‘fragment’ are trauma reactions. ‘Fight’ and ‘flight’ are actions we can take, ergo we are not completely helpless. Helplessness and life-threat define trauma and the survival reactions are entirely internal without any recourse to the external. The ‘freezing’ is a psychophysical numbing and limpness, known as ‘tonic immobility’ (Rothschild, 2000). The fragmentation is a psychophysical dissociative splitting. The process is through a high stress reaction, which if unresolved becomes a trauma reaction. There comes a point when a highly stressful situation takes such a psychophysical toll that it has to stop otherwise it will cause physical death. Therefore a trauma always involves high stress, but high stress does not always result in trauma.
The psychological dissociative strategies, e.g. numbness, fugue, trance, memory loss, remain and form part of the split structure I describe below. We are never the same again. At an unconscious level we are constantly alert for a recurrence of the trauma, and any incidence of serious stress is experienced as a potential retraumatisation, thereby immediately activating the original survival strategies.
Types of Trauma
Ruppert has defined four types of trauma:
1. Existential Trauma - a subjective experience of threat to one’s life, e.g. car accident, attack, rape, persecution, torture, natural disaster, war experience.
2. Trauma of Loss - the loss of a closely bonded person, particularly: death of a young child for the parents and siblings; death of a parent for young child; death of a son or daughter in unexpected circumstances such as accident, war. Adoption, miscarriages, stillbirths and abortions may fall into this category.
3. Trauma of the Bonding Process - (symbiotic trauma). when the process of parent/child bonding is traumatic for the child. More on this later.
4. Trauma of the Bonding System - the whole family over several generations is traumatised, usually originating with an extreme act by or to family member(s), e.g. murder, severe persecution, torture, extreme violence, incest, sexual violence. It has a massive collective impact on the family, often involving shame and guilt; the system closes in on itself, establishing behaviours aimed at keeping the issue secret, at the same time re-enacting the original event repeatedly over subsequent generations.
All the above revolve around hopelessness, helplessness and the experience of threat to one’s survival. The fourth category deals with the threat involved in divulging the secret, becoming the whistleblower. In my view at bottom all trauma experiences are experiences of threat to one’s actual psychophysical survival.
While Ruppert describes these components as ‘parts’, it is closer to reality (and Gestalt) to describe them in terms of process. The ‘self’ that is ‘created at the boundary’ is always mediated by unresolved trauma, which provides the ground against which every new experience is set. Thus in relationship we may move through all dimensions from moment to moment: the healthy aspect desiring relationship, but when confronted with increased intimacy the split-off traumatised dimension may register as anxiety and suppressed panic, which immediately stimulates the protective survival strategies. In Gestalt terminology we would term the survival strategies as interruptions to contact, but understanding them in terms of trauma gives a different feel. They are indeed interruptions to contact, but contact at this stage would potentially be a retraumatisation, and so must be avoided.
The Split Self
“… [Pierre] Janet demonstrated that the traumatic memories were preserved in an abnormal state, set apart from ordinary consciousness.” (Herman, 1992)
Below is Ruppert’s diagram showing the primary splits that occur in a trauma situation.
The splitting is unconscious and out of our control. The primary split structure is into three components: the healthy part, the survival part and the traumatised part. Each component has its own function that it eternally tries to fulfil, and each part has its own characteristics. The table below sets these out.
Holding the trauma emotions and memory of the trauma.
• Is always the same age as the time of the trauma
• Is constantly engaged with the trauma as if it is still happening
• Can unpredictably and suddenly be triggered – retraumatisation
· Constructing and guarding the splits by developing survival strategies.
· Preventing the trauma from breaking through.
· Denying and suppressing the trauma experience.
· Producing new splits if necessary to maintain the suppression.
• Avoidant behaviour*
• Inappropriately aggressive behaviour
• Controlling behaviour
• Compensating behaviour
• Fostering illusions and delusions
• Inability to make good bonds and relationships
• Being in contact with reality without illusions.
• Attempting to integrate the trauma experiences – and so is in conflict with the Survival aspect.
• Openness to truth and reality
• Capable of expressing and regulating feelings
• Capable of genuine empathy**
• Is able to make safe bonds
• Is able to resolve destructive bonds
• Sexual desire and behaviour is appropriate
• Has a good memory of their past
• Capable of self-reflection
• Is able to be self-responsible
• Seeks clarity and truth
• Desires integration within self
• Is confident and makes good contact
• Feelings of guilt and shame are situation appropriate
* These can be seen in any addiction or compulsive behaviour, and the more severe forms of mental illness.
** As opposed to compulsive and merged or entangled empathy.
Potential for Integration
What makes working with trauma difficult is that the healthy and survival components are essentially in conflict. The healthy self desires integration, which means making the trauma conscious, while the survival self’s entire function is to keep the trauma out of consciousness. We can understand that the survival strategies, as potentially destructive and life-limiting as they are, provide a thin protection between us and the terrifying forces of trauma, and will only dissolve when the person feels safe enough. When working with trauma, I know that if a client starts to exhibit his survival strategies, his trauma is likely to have been stimulated.
Our first position in life is one of symbiosis from which, given the right circumstances, we develop autonomy. In his latest book Ruppert (2102) discusses our lifelong need for symbiosis “as a permanent challenge of how we get along with other humans … and all life on the planet, and how these intertwined life concerns are reflected emotionally in each of us”, always in tension with our need for autonomy. He suggests the following categories:
• Constructive symbiosis - healthy ability to be in intimate relationship
• Destructive (or entangled) symbiosis - an inability to separate or develop autonomy due to trauma.
• Real (or authentic) autonomy - the ability to make decisions for oneself and function independently of others’ opinions of us; self-responsibility.
• Pseudo autonomy - the inability to be truly oneself due to entangled symbiosis.
“The long-term frustration of childhood symbiotic needs brings its own trauma category: symbiotic trauma.” (Ruppert, 2012)
This is the trauma of the parent/child symbiosis, and is the gateway to a multigenerational perspective. During our time in the womb we are not separate from our mother; we eat what she eats, we drink what she drinks. If she smokes, we smoke. If she is stressed, we are stressed. Our whole nervous system is not separate from her nervous system; our metabolism not separate from her metabolism. When we are born we take a gigantic step towards individuation and separation; in fact birth is our first autonomous act. In a natural birth it is as much the baby’s decision as the mother’s as to when the birth will happen.
The human baby is more vulnerable post partum than any other mammal. Apart from the possibility of trauma having occurred in utero or during birth, the critical time between birth and, say two years old, is the time when trauma is most likely.
The needs of the newborn child are:
• Physical contact: warmth and metabolic regulation through limbic resonance
• Emotional contact: love and emotional regulation through limbic resonance
• Safety and protection
All these are interlinked and equally crucial to the wellbeing of the child; without one the child will fear for his life, and may even die. Ideally they need to be with the mother, as a continuation of the in utero connection.
“Feed and clothe a human infant but deprive him of emotional contact and he will die.”
(Lewis, Amini, Lannon, 2001)
Helplessness and vulnerability are the basic conditions of trauma, and the potential of traumatisation for the infant is high. Since the bonding process between mother and child is largely unconscious, highly intimate and emotionally close, the psychological state of the mother has a massive impact on the child.
“The reasons why parents are unable to satisfy their children’s symbiotic needs sufficiently lie in their own trauma experiences. Because they are traumatised they are unable to give their children the necessary emotional strength, or support their autonomous development.” (Ruppert, 2012)
The Traumatised Mother
The main cause of symbiotic trauma is if the mother herself has suffered trauma. If so she is psychologically split and there are various consequences for child and mother:
• The first imprint on the baby’s psyche will be the psyche of his mother: he absorbs his mother’s split psyche configuration. He cannot not connect with his mother in this way just as, because her trauma is unconscious, she cannot protect her child from her own split psychological state.
• When we feel any emotion the gateway is opened for other feelings that are pressing for expression. When the mother feels love for her baby, her split-off trauma feelings of terror/grief/rage will be restimulated and she will experience anxiety or panic. She then dissociates and withdraws from the child. Intimacy with her baby becomes a potential retraumatisation for the mother, stimulating her dissociative survival strategies whenever she comes into close contact with the child.
• When the mother withdraws or dissociates the baby experiences the mother’s panic as his own and experiences her dissociation as abandonment. He will likely experience despair, desolation and a fear for his survival - a trauma.
• Eventually the baby may become the source of suppressed terror for the mother, and the mother becomes the source of anxiety for the baby.
“Symbiotic traumas and symbiotic entanglements increase the risk of further traumatisation, and this continues across the generations in all parent-child relationships if these processes are not recognised and interrupted.” (Ruppert, 2012)
The result is confusing for both child and mother, and because it is unconscious and essentially unresolvable, it is a trauma for the child, leaving him helplessly entangled symbiotically with his mother. The child doesn’t know which feelings are his, and which are his mother’s; all his later close relationships are replicas of this early traumatic entanglement; all later situations of intimacy restimulate these first experiences of intimacy, and all later trauma situations retrigger this original trauma and may cause further splitting. The child grows into an adult with a traumatised split psyche that then may be the cause of a symbiotic trauma for his or her own child.
The situation is different for the father. The first contact is always with the mother, beginning in the womb. The earliest contact with the father is at birth, and even then the mother/child bond is so crucial for the survival of the child that any real connection with the father must be secondary at this stage. If circumstances require the father to take on the major parenting role, perhaps because the mother is ill or dies, the child will always experience a loss of connection with the mother thereby causing a symbiotic trauma. The psychological state of the father will have a big impact on the child, but usually after the original trauma.
A simplified description of the process of healing trauma is:
1. The disintegration of the reified split structure, allowing movement, connection and better contact between the split parts; followed by
2. The integration of the split-off trauma components through improved contact.
This naturally occurs in the constellations process, resulting in the following:
1. Strengthening of the healthy structures;
2. Increased awareness of the survival strategies;
3. Increased safely regulated contact with the trauma.
4. Increased integration of the split-off parts of the self.
The methodology of constellations is quite simple. A person with an issue chooses people in a group to represent elements relevant to her issue. These elements may be people or abstract concepts. She then places them within the room according to her intuitive sense. This in itself can often disclose useful relational information in terms of who faces whom, who faces away from whom and the distance between representatives.
However the real power of the constellations process is that when the representatives pay attention phenomenologically to their experiences, what they report is relevant to the client and her presented issue. So the basic assumption of the constellations process is this:
The experiences of representatives in a constellation have relevance to, and provide useful information about the presented issue of the client.
This is a more field-oriented assumption than that of projection, where we assume a disowning of something to do with the person then being projected onto another. In constellations the representatives often provide information that is to do with the person represented, sometimes information that the client herself doesn’t know, but may corroborate later. We don’t have a definitive explanation for this phenomenon yet, but possible answers are limbic resonance, mirror neurons and Ervin Lazlo’s ‘informational field’. (Lazlo, 2007; McTaggart, 2003; McGilchrist, 2010; Rizzolatti, Fadiga, Fogassi, Gallese, 2002; Lewis, Amini &Lannon, 2001)
The Constellation of the Intention
This is the particular form of constellation developed by Ruppert. The process begins with the client exploring what she wants from the constellation. This may not be clear to the individual in the beginning, but nevertheless the assumption is that there must be some intention and the beginning process focuses on establishing this.
Once this ‘intention’ is established the client chooses a participant from the group to represent her ‘intention’, placing this representative and herself within the space available. So the beginning constellation is always two people, a representative for the intention and the client herself. Already we have two aspects of the self: the part that is connected to the intention and the part that is the client without whatever the intention is. If the intention represents something I want, it is something I do not have, it is in a sense outside of myself. If not there would be no point to doing the constellation. The strange thing is that as soon as the ‘intention’ is placed the representative begins to have experiences that were not there before… and the experiences are almost always closely aligned with experiences that the client knows very well, often ones she has never before been able to put into words.
The ‘intention’ is an indicator of what the client is available for at this moment in time, and a continuing source of useful information throughout the process. From this initial point on representatives are only added when deemed necessary either by the client or the ‘intention’, or the facilitator in negotiation with the client. Additional representatives fall into two categories:
1. Aspects of the client; for example if she starts to talk about an experience when she was young, a representative for this young part of her might be included.
2. Family members; for example the client’s mother and grandmother.
My tendency when facilitating is to include anyone that the client (or the ‘intention’) mentions once the constellation has started, taking the mention as an indicator. If it is relevant it becomes obvious by what happens next. If it isn’t it doesn’t matter, and by not making any discriminatory decisions about this myself I remain phenomenological and experimental in my approach, and the client remains the authority for what we do and what meaning she gains from the process.
This is an intrapsychic constellation, the goal of which is to bring the split-off parts of the self into better contact and thence to integration. Family members represented, sometimes back four or five generations, are only relevant in so far as they illuminate the client’s understanding of the traumatised field - to show the trauma - and so the facilitator does not address interventions to them. Any contact by the client with family members is only ultimately useful if it supports better contact between the intrapsychic parts. This is different from ‘traditional’ or family constellations where the facilitator often worked with the representatives of family members, sometimes long since dead. Our view is that this fosters illusions (“I can get the love I never could get from my mother”), and perpetuates the symbiotic entanglement with the mother, her trauma and the trauma field.
“True autonomy… means saying an unconditional ‘Yes’ to oneself and to the reality of one’s own life.” (Ruppert, 2012)
Integration brings true autonomy (as opposed to a pseudo, forced autonomy), which comes from understanding that one’s parents will never be able to repair the symbiotic trauma; one has to do it oneself. Ruppert has expressed this movement as “the self falling in love with the self”. If one gains this perspective one can leave the parents be, with real compassion and understanding, and, by being fully in relationship with oneself (integrated), one is then able to be in good relationship with others. Autonomy and symbiosis (interdependence) are always in figure/ground movement and tension, like the yin yang symbol, and in health we are in a constant motion between these two.
Advantages of Constellations as the method
Advantages when working with trauma are:
• It is an embodied experience, and so reaches a more whole sense of truth than talking;
• It enables the split-off aspects of the self to be embodied separately, allowing for movement and disintegration of the reified structure;
• It shows graphically the nature of the relationship structure between the split components, and the dynamics involved;
• The ‘representative experiences’ give valuable information about the needed processes for the split components to come into good contact (integration).
A further advantage, particularly when working with trauma, is that a representative of some part of the self in the constellation may experience some of the trauma emotions that the client at this particular time cannot. For the client to observe someone else express what she at the time cannot, can be extraordinarily helpful to her. The strange phenomenon of the constellation is that the representatives generally have no difficulty with experiencing strong emotions, sometimes even quite traumatic emotions, and come out of it quite easily when their representation ends.
GESTALT, CONSTELLATIONS & TRAUMA
I see a natural affinity between Gestalt, Ruppert’s theories on trauma and the methodology of constellations. A phenomenological and experimental approach, in which “perceiving, feeling, and acting are distinguished from interpreting and reshuffling pre-existing attitudes…” (Yontef and Simkin, 1981) and “Explanations and interpretations are considered less reliable than what is directly perceived and felt,” (ibid) is in my view essential when working with trauma in order to minimise the potential for inadvertent and dangerous retraumatisation (see below sections on phenomenological approach, and trauma and power).
However, as will be obvious from this paper, this is not relational work in the intersubjective sense. While good work with constellations can only occur if the client feels she can trust the facilitator, the facilitator/client relationship is not the central focus, the constellations process is. In this sense when I refer to Gestalt I am referring to the underlying principles, and perhaps a way of working that reaches back to a time before ‘relational gestalt’, where the experiment was more figural. In my view the constellations process is best facilitated as an ongoing phenomenological experiment. Since Hellinger’s work with ‘family constellations’ takes as its basis the Orders of Love, a kind of dictum of principles that are deemed to support loving relationships in families, there is in my view a tendency to attempt to order and manage the constellation to conform to these principles, which sometimes can result in the client feeling unacceptable unless they do conform. The idea of the constellation as an experiment then is lost.
Often I see people for private sessions who I have never met before, and I am very conscious of the need in the first phase of the session to establish enough of a relationship for the subsequent work to be useful. However since my way of working currently is that sessions are on an ad hoc basis, with the client deciding when and how often to come, it is also true that the client knows ahead of time that the constellation is the focus, and that initially they are only committing to one session. This means that she arrives in a different state than for a conventional therapy contract, and with different expectations of me.
Below I set out the concurrences between Gestalt and our constellations approach, and the odd place where there is a difference.
Both Gestalt and Constellations are:
• Existential – having a primary focus on issues of existence, including our mortality;
• Experiential – giving a primacy to experience rather than interpretation;
• Experimental – giving primacy to the notion that within any moment there is always the potential for discovery and the emergence of the new;
• Phenomenological – giving primacy to the phenomena of perception and awareness in the present moment, over analysis or interpretation;
• Based on a field-oriented perspective; however the ‘field’ in constellations is much more focused on the multigenerational than in conventional therapy;
• Oriented towards increased awareness - the strengthening of the healthy component and the increased awareness of the survival strategies;
• Oriented towards improved contact - between the different parts of the self, and thence between self and environment.
A phenomenological approach by the facilitator serves several purposes:
• It keeps the process experimental;
• It keeps the facilitator out of a position of power (very important when working with trauma because the defining feature of trauma is powerlessness);
• It holds the client as the authority (and power) of their own constellation;
• It assumes that the healthy part of the client does know what is possible in this moment, even though this ‘knowing’ may not be conscious;
• It builds trust in the client and the constellations process, thereby supporting the client to trust herself, and the representatives to trust themselves, a mutually reinforcing process;
• It helps the representatives stay phenomenological in their reporting of their experiences;
• It helps keep the facilitator and everyone else open to new emergent phenomena;
• It helps one’s ability to tolerate uncertainty, confusion, not-knowing and the ‘creative chaos out of which new insights can emerge’ (Broughton, 2010);
• It minimises the risk of retraumatisation because it holds the client as the authority for how far the work goes, and how fast.
Working with Trauma
I would like to make two further points about working with trauma:
Trauma and Power: Trauma is essentially about power, and powerlessness, and even though a client’s defining experience due to trauma from very young may be one of powerlessness, in effect this is simply not true in the present moment. Even though she may, out of survival strategies and habit attempt to defer to me as the facilitator, to make me the authority, I undermine the whole endeavour if I agree to this. And so, by constantly and persistently aspiring to remain as purely phenomenological as I can, I am able to stay relatively free of unhelpfully assumed powerfulness. Sharing one’s observations in the constellations process if necessary is one thing, interpreting what one sees is another, and it is useful to keep clear about the difference.
Betrayal: Trauma is a betrayal of trust, in others and in oneself and in life, and since survival strategies are based on illusions, delusions, fantasies, lies and secrets, the facilitator needs to stay scrupulously in touch with here and now reality and truth. The facilitator must always be truthful and honest with the client. Within the self, the primary splitting of the psyche is in itself a betrayed of the self. Quite often I see in the trauma constellations process, when two parts of the self begin to come into contact, that mistrust and a sense of betrayal arise, often with one part admitting to the other “I don’t trust you.” However, this statement of truth then increases trust. As the one has had the courage to say this to the other, immediately the other becomes more trusting of the one. This to me now seems a truth that I trust, that is: telling the truth builds trust. Trust cannot be rushed or manufactured.
In our view trauma then is endemic not exotic. If we include in our professional thinking the notion of symbiotic trauma and transgenerational trauma entanglement we can see that probably all of us carry unresolved trauma, but have very good survival strategies. As professionals, if we want to understand and work with our clients’ trauma we have to be clear about our own. However, if we avoid the topic of trauma as professionals (as we have historically, and in my view still do to an extent today), we are as vulnerable as our clients to trauma restimulation, retreating into our own survival strategies whenever our clients’ trauma surfaces.
The more serious psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, psychosis, bi-polar, that are so often puzzling as to their aetiology can be understood as having their roots in traumas that originated several generations back, and have exacerbated over time to a point where the connection to the original event is obscured (Ruppert, 2008). If we maintain a professional approach that doesn’t hold a multigenerational perspective and rarely ask about the client’s family several generations back, it is easy to understand why we tend to look to chemical imbalances, DNA and genetic disorders, and neurological disorders as sole causes, rather than exploring the potential connection with trauma.
I hope I have been able to give a reasonable account of what I consider important and valuable work, and how much I see the tradition of Gestalt making a contribution. Ruppert’s work is evolving and there is much to do, many questions still to be asked and considered. The work of Constellations is growing up, and in my view has a considerable contribution to make as an invaluable means to access the unconscious.
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 Edited by myself
 As opposed to the post trauma symptomatology generally referred to.
 In order to keep this article a suitable length I am not going to go into the many side issues involved, such as the reversal of victim and perpetrator where the child becomes the perpetrator and the abusing parent the maligned victim, or the whole feminist issue that Herman addresses (1992).
 All that follows also applies of course to the ICD.
 There are of course reasons for this, not least of which is how is one to access pre-verbal pre-cognitive memory trauma.
 Extremely high blood pressure that threatens the heart for example.
 Dissociation and psychological splitting are not new concepts of course (cp Freud and Janet), but in my view Ruppert makes a substantial contribution by providing a coherent theory based on such earlier work.
 Even in ‘trauma of loss’ in a sense extreme grief is an experience we are unsure we will be able to survive.
 This is a further re-defining of the term ‘resistance’.
 In my work I see how common this is, how frequently it comes up, particularly with caesarean birth.
 It is now established knowledge within the field of neuroscience that, quite apart from the emotional benefit of bonding, at the beginning of life the child is unable to regulate his internal metabolic processes and relies on the mother’s regulatory processes through the resonance and regulation provided by the limbic brain system. This means that without sufficient connection with an adult (whose regulatory system is established) the child literally will die. (Lewis, Amini and Lannon, 2001, and McGilchrist, 2010)
 This may be a major cause of post-natal depression.
 Another discussion, beyond the scope of this paper, is the relationship between transference (and counter-transference, projection, projective identification etc) and the constellations process.Are they in fact the same phenomenon interpreted differently? Do they have the same origins?
 I work very successfully with this method in the one-to-one session as well.
 Verbal communication.
 For a full account of Ruppert’s ideas about symbiosis and autonomy see his latest book, Symbiosis and Autonomy: Symbiotic Trauma and Love Beyond Entanglements (2012).
 This maintains a situation where the client retains authority over her therapy.
 Gestalt field theory theoretically includes a multi-generational perspective, however in practice generally I don’t think this is in current thinking.
 There is now scientific credence given to the fact that trauma alters the epigenetics (the DNA expression) which over a few generations can actually alter the DNA.
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