Why Ancestors Matter: Family Constellations and the multigenerational self

From ‘Therapy Today’ Volume 16, issue 3, April 2016


In the aftermath of 9/11, a new word appeared in our everyday vocabulary which referred to the effect of something that happened a long time ago, on the other side of the world, being seen to surface here and now. That word was ‘systemic’, meaning ‘of and pertaining to a system’ (not to be confused with ‘systematic’). We can think of it as a word that pertains to the nature of ‘wholes’, and to how parts and wholes inter-relate. From around the turn of this century, we increasingly heard systemic in various contexts: systemic failures in intelligence, systemic breakdowns in cross-cultural relations, efforts to make aid interventions in the developing world more systemic. We also heard about systemic banking failures and systemic environmental changes. And with this rise of ‘systemic’ awareness, a new type of essential competence has emerged for change agents, leaders, counsellors, coaches and consultants: the ability to sense and consider the interconnectedness and interdependencies of personal, social and organisational groups and systems.

All systems, groups and families – human or otherwise – consist of many elements, connected in a series of continuously changing relationships. Any change in one part of the system will bring a simultaneous change in all other parts. In a departure from our usual mode of cause-and-effect thinking, this view holds that an effect can result from a cause that has arisen simultaneously and invisibly in a completely different part of the system, and is itself the effect of yet another cause. Change for the individual can effectively be brought about by altering the system, while a change in the system can come about by changing the individual.¹

That is not to say that more conventional types of thinking hold no value. Focusing on parts alone has transformed, enriched and contributed hugely to the safety of our lives in, for example, the arena of medical science. However, systemic thinking corrects for the skew of any single perspective. It is the opposite of polemic thinking, in that everything must be included and given a place.

In the world of self-development and therapy the word systemic has been in use for some time. Family therapy has always had a strong systems orientation, reflected in techniques such as the Milan School’s circular questioning, and insights into the relational construction of ‘individual’ issues. These methods, however, worked only with material that was primarily conscious – in other words, what was immediately visible – and often limited the content of ‘systems’ to the people physically present in the consulting room.

In the 1980s, Bert Hellinger (who describes his approach as an applied philosophy) set in motion a hugely creative group process commonly known today as Family Constellations. Originally from Germany and influenced by many years working as a missionary with the Zulu people in Africa and later trainings in psychoanalysis, NLP, TA, Primal Scream and psychodrama, Hellinger took a phenomenological approach to working with family, organisational and institutional systems.

In Hellinger’s phenomenological approach, a complete and previously unseen picture of an issue, dynamic or situation is created by placing the issue in the context of the system within which it exists. Hellinger uses group members to stand in and ‘represent’ the ancestors of the issue holder, and in this way creates a living map of the system under consideration. It will contain its own unique elements, both ancestral (trans-generational and familial) and sociological (cultural and historical). Attention is given to the contexts that shaped our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, and therefore ourselves. His approach relies heavily on working with experiences as they arise and avoids pre-judgements or interpretations. The natural ordering forces of the system are sought out, and the common notion that all information is stored in personal memory is challenged. Concerned with seeing and sensing the whole, the approach never looks at one part of the system exclusively, but at the way all the system’s parts interrelate. Once a map or ‘constellation’ is created, hidden dynamics are revealed, usually in the form of identifications with people from previous generations. Therapeutic techniques are then used to resolve unhelpful identifications and disentangle fates.

Hellinger broke new ground with his inclusion of ancestors as the starting point in the therapeutic process. There is no doubt that the 20 years he spent working with the Zulu people had a profound impact in terms of the importance of ancestors in his work. However, traditional African folklore and healing rituals are not the only ancient tradition to emphasise the trans-generational. Dr Robert Svoboda, an American author and Ayurvedic practitioner, writes extensively about the traditional Hindu practice of Tarpana.² Tarpana, from the Sanskrit word Trpti, is a ritual of gratifying and satisfying ancestors. Additionally, Tarpana rituals work to reduce negative emotional impacts that have accumulated because of our forbears’ activities. Ayurvedic medicine recognises the ‘Law of Seed and Tree’, which holds that influences from parents and grandparents are constitutional, and that we can therefore be trapped in emotional patterns that originate with our ancestors. Tarpana is reparative by nature and creates bonds that are favourable to solidifying the link between generations in a wholesome way. Svoboda likens it to the All Saints tradition, in which the dead are remembered in a respectful and balanced manner. This traditional knowledge is handed down through countless generations and, as always, is difficult to trace back to its origins, but its validity is often confirmed through contemporary academic research.

Alongside anecdotal data, academic research exists that highlights the relevance of systemic understandings. Gregory Clark’s 2014 article ‘Your Ancestors, Your Fate’ makes a convincing case that our overall life chances can be largely predicted not just from our parents’ status but also from our great-great-great grandparents’.³ Citing a study by researchers at Harvard and Berkeley, Clark, himself a professor of economics at UC Davis, explains that genetics plays a surprisingly strong role in traits like the compulsion to strive, the talent to prosper and the ability to overcome failure. His research counters the prevailing belief, held intuitively by many, that modernity and capitalism have eroded the impact of ancestry on a person’s life chances. Through a study of correlating surnames and occupations from the 1600s to today, it demonstrates that where we fall in the social spectrum is largely fated at birth. This is not to say that cultural traits, family economic resources and social networks aren’t important; they are, but, according to these studies, not as important as commonly believed.

The relatively new field of epigenetics, which has recently expanded into behavioural epigenetics, has revealed new findings to show how important ancestral material can be when considering ‘who we are’. The journal Nature Neuroscience published research from the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, in which researchers found that emotions such as fear could be transferred from adult male mice to their male offspring.4 Evidence suggested that the animals ‘inherited’ a memory of their parents’ traumas and, at times, responded as if they were reliving the events. They observed a reaction that was 200% stronger in offspring of traumatised mice compared to control groups, and traced the genetic ‘trauma’ imprint back to the previous generation. The gene showed no change to its DNA coding, but carried epigenetic markings that altered behaviour in the subsequent generation. They concluded that this type of mechanism is an efficient method for parents to ‘inform’ their offspring of specific environmental phenomena or threats before birth.

Dan Hurley’s 2013 paper Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on your Genes looks at a study, again using mice, by Randy Jirtle of Duke University in North Carolina. Encouragingly, Dr Jirtle reminds us that not only are deficits and weaknesses inherited but so are strengths and resiliencies.5 He reminds us rather poetically that ‘like silt on cogs of a finely-tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten’. They become part of our makeup, adhering tenaciously to our genetic scaffolding. This prompts us to the important conclusion that forgetting, ignoring or pretending our trans-generational past didn’t happen is not an option.

When combined with findings from psychological research on family narratives and memory, this research starts to undermine the theory that we are born as ‘blank slates’ on which our personal life experiences write a story, or that we are all born with exactly the same opportunities and inherent outlooks. Fortunately, there are methods such as Family Constellations that, through their various interventions and as change agents themselves, allow us to live well within systemic limitations. Like our great-grandparents’ 1800s clothing, we can wear the effect of their experience exactly as it is, or have it skilfully altered to fit the person we are and the age we live in. In this way, we may attempt to live in the best way we can, given any systemic limitations that are part of our most fundamental nature.

More socially relevant than neuroanatomical and epigenetic research – and more closely connected to the title of this article – is the study of intergenerational family narratives and how they have evolved through the remembered past, the perceived present and the anticipated future. Dr Marshall Duke, a clinical psychologist at Emory, carried out groundbreaking research in response to earlier research which had focused on what caused families to dissipate.6 Through research and clinical trials he set about finding out what counteracts the forces that cause families to break up: what, instead, helps families to stay together, remain strong and develop resilience. In this process he was able to determine what elements support the growth of a robust and resourceful multigenerational self.

Within his psychological research he found one factor that could predict research subjects’ high scores in self-esteem, emotional health, emotional resilience, favourable treatment outcomes, family cohesion and a sense of control in their lives. That crucial factor was having a strong family narrative and knowledge of extended family history. These, in turn, gave rise to seeing oneself in the larger flow of one’s family, feeling connected to something much bigger than oneself, and having a sense of self as extended in time.

Duke and his colleagues created the ‘Do You Know’ Scale (DYK), comprising 20 questions aimed at accessing participants’ knowledge of family history. The questionnaire asks about parents, grandparents, important events in the family’s history and how they were handled – primarily testing knowledge about things the subjects could not have learned first-hand, usually because events occurred before they were born. This meant information would have had to be received via family stories or other indirect means. Importantly, this demonstrates a poignant assertion in terms of the intergenerational self: that events we have not personally experienced add to our self-perception, and the ways we understand the experience of others can change our self-perception. Stories of our family’s past provide powerful frameworks and markers for how we understand our own experiences.7

Duke points out the importance of not confusing causation with correlation. His study shows that a good knowledge of family history correlates with good psychological health. It doesn’t show that if you learn the answers to all the DYK questions, say, by rote, all your problems will disappear and life will be rosy! There are many nuances to the findings: for example, the simple fact that a family sits and listens (and therefore engages intergenerationally) while hearing a story can help build a sense of belonging and continuity.

He did find, however, that the type of narrative or story being told, remembered or passed down the generations in some way is fundamental to the effect it will have. The important stories that help us create family history and identity always imbue a sense of being connected to previous generations – in a good way. Duke called these stories the ‘oscillating narrative’. In this narrative the family had good times and bad times, successes and failures; people got left out and forgotten but then found again; and in some cases, love got lost but restored by pulling together as a family –or by facing painful but healing truths, again, as a family. These types of narratives often have heroes who faced difficult times and made it through, and sometimes that hero is the family itself. The oscillating narrative helps all family members, especially children, to feel special; it evokes a sense of pride and turns ordinary families into one-off entities with their own special and unique stories. The oscillating narrative builds resilience, confidence and a strong multigenerational self.

In contrast, the other two types of narratives – ascending and descending – focus only on what went very well or very badly. Neither has any redemptive capacity, and both create the opposite outcomes for a family to those generated by an oscillating narrative. Often, members of a family with an ascending narrative generate problems for other people, and those with a descending narrative create problems for themselves. In both cases, when family members are faced with life challenges and rough seas in the passage of growing, there is little in these two types of narratives to help.

This may sound like bad news if the only family narratives you can currently access are of the ascending or descending types. However, the outlook is promising. All families possess the three different types of narratives. To make it to where you are today – reading this, for example – your family story must contain episodes of coping with adversity, managing the vicissitudes of life, pivotal historical events, difficult births, untimely deaths and narratives of how the family dealt with various crises. The challenge for some people is accessing an oscillating narrative: co-constructing a healing story, albeit with help, or learning to pay less attention to unhelpful narratives and more to healing ones.

What we know about memory – how it is constructed, recalled and even altered – is paramount to any discussion about family narratives. In the last decade, much has changed in the way we think about memory. According to Lamb-Shapiro (2014) and Fivush, Bohanek and Duke (2012), it was previously thought that memory was fixed and could be accessed again and again in exactly the same construction and form.8 Like information on a hard drive, we could grab it and bring it back. However, the latest research on long-term memory suggests this is not the case. We now know that memories are not fixed, that each time you bring a memory back you change it, and then the new ‘changed’ memory goes back onto the hard drive. This can happen collectively as well as individually.

According to Nancy Chute’s 2014 article ‘Our Brains Rewrite Our Memories, Putting Present In The Past’, ‘the brain updates memories relentlessly, updating the past with new information’.9 In this way, the brain reconfigures memories to make them more relevant and useful in the present. Chute goes on to quote Joel Voss, a professor of neuroscience at Chicago’s Northwestern University, who studies the hippocampus: where autobiographical memory is stored in the human brain. Voss’s study on how our brain re-writes memories, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, comes to precisely the same conclusion as Chute’s research: that when engaging in conversations about the shared past, we can realise that two people who experienced the same event have a completely different memory of it. In light of this, we can see that memories are representations of events rather than veridical copies.

We can forget, recall and even rewrite memory: an important consideration when accessing personal strengths in relation to a family narrative. According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2011, the experience of coping with adversity and dealing with tough times, or knowing family stories that tell of such experiences, help to build our psychological immune system which, of course, is intricately linked with our personal and familial oscillating narrative.10

This brings us back to Burt Hellinger’s ingenious and soulful method of Family Constellations, in which he is able to quickly and effectively reveal family or systemic dynamics through the process of mapping out the system in which the dynamic exists. The work draws on our most basic sense of belonging to a group or system. This is our inheritance from the animal world, still with us in the form of an internal compass that informs us about our belonging – and about when that belonging is threatened. Hellinger’s approach, short-term and solution-focused, pays a great deal of attention to certain patterns and regularities that appear over generations of a family. He observes that groups or systems have certain ordering forces that govern them. When we are in accord with these forces, love flows and group/family/system members thrive. When we are out of alignment with these forces, sometimes called ‘the orders of love’, we can usually see one or more people suffering. Obviously, ancestors and how we remember them are of crucial importance in this approach.

In researching this article, I was struck by how many sources – including (but not exclusively) university psychology, sociology and science departments – appreciated the richness available in paying attention to the systems, stories and contexts of our ancestors: something that Family Constellators have been aware of since the approach was conceived.

When I facilitate Family Constellations, I am certain that my clients are in some way weighed down, stuck or trapped by what Marshal Duke would call a descending or ascending narrative. In the resolving stage of a constellation the client and I are always working toward an oscillating narrative. Invariably, finding an oscillating narrative helps immensely, freeing up the client and also the system.

What I see in my practice is people, including myself, developing the multigenerational self. Indeed, ancestors matter. The new scientific findings in epigenetics and memory, as well as psychological research, all contribute to our ability to find the best embarkation point for this journey. One of the compelling things about Family Constellations is that they cut across cultures, countries, ethnicities, religions and even academic disciplines in a timeless and universal way. It is encouraging to look and listen further afield and find others, in disparate thought-worlds and traditions, arriving at common conclusions about the importance of our family histories.

© John Harris 2014


1. Hemming, J, Ingham, T. An advanced programme in systemic constellations [training manual]. Charney Manor, Oxford: Nowhere Academy and Moving Constellations; 2009.
2. Svoboda, RE. Tarpana (Libations of water, milk etc). Web; undated. Available from http://www.hinduism.co.za/tarpana.htm
3. Clark, G. Your Ancestors, Your Fate. Web; February 2014. Available from http://economics.ucdavis.edu/new-york-times-op-ed-by-gregory-clark
4. Dias BG, Ressler KJ. Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neutral structure in subsequent generations. Nature Neuroscience 2014; 17: 89–96. Available from http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v17/n1/full/nn.3594.html
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8. Lamb-Shapiro J. Promise Land: My journey through America’s self-help culture. New York: Simon & Schuster; 2014.
9. Chute, N. Our brains rewrite our memories, putting present in the past. Web; February 2014. Available from http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/02/04/271527934/our-brains-rewrite-our-memories-putting-present-in-the-past
10. Landro, L. Study finds adversity does make us stronger. Web; October 2010. Available from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303496104575560261828332840

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