Family constellation therapy: Is your granny’s emotional baggage ruining your life?

Yes, say fans of a new therapy that traces our issues with everything from relationships to money back to our ancestors. Jo Macfarlane joins a ‘strangely moving’ workshop to find out what’s lurking in her genes

Standing in front of me, in a light-filled room in Croydon, is a woman I’ve never met before who is channelling the spirit of my father. She has never met my dad, nor does she know anything about him. He is also very much alive, and totally oblivious, some 500 miles away. Welcome to family constellation therapy: a form of psychological healing based on the idea that our pain and grief are inherited from our ancestors. Traumatic events that occurred even several generations previously – from the death of a baby to loneliness – are believed to haunt our psyches and are repeated, in cycles of negative behaviour, further down the family tree. Such unresolved problems can affect everything from health and self-esteem to friendships and careers.

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Identifying these skeletons in the family closet can prove transformational, its supporters say. Sometimes called ‘ancestral healing’, it was developed in Germany by psychotherapist Bert Hellinger in the 1990s and, although there are 30,000 practitioners in its home nation, it is still little-known in the UK. But that may be set to change. It was recently thrust to international attention when it was reported that the Duchess of Sussex had taught Harry about ancestral healing to help him resolve generations of ‘genetic pain’. Meghan is said to have been introduced to the idea by her mother, former yoga teacher and therapist Doria Ragland. Harry recently told Dax Shepard, the host of the Armchair Expert podcast, ‘When it comes to parenting, if I’ve experienced some form of pain or suffering because of the pain… that perhaps my father or my parents had suffered, I’m going to make sure I break that cycle so that I don’t pass it on.’

Meghan and Doria
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There is scientific evidence to back the idea of trauma becoming imprinted on our DNA and manifesting in successive generations. One study showed mice trained to avoid the smell of cherry blossom passed that aversion on to their grandchildren (who had never come into contact with it). Inherited trauma has also been studied in the descendants of holocaust survivors and prisoners of war. Today there are a number of constellation therapists in the UK. One is Janet C Love, a trained psychologist who has been practising in London for 16 years, and has agreed to let me attend a workshop. Her clients have a range of problems they want to address, from relationships which don’t work out, grief and loneliness to simply feeling discombobulated.

Janet explains, ‘We inherit blue eyes, but in the same way we also inherit anxiety or confidence problems or an inability to commit to relationships.’ The key is that, in understanding where our problems come from, and identifying that our relatives may have experienced the same feelings, we can as Harry says – ‘break the cycle’ and move on.

Ahead of my group session, Janet wants to understand my family background. In Zoom sessions, I plot my ‘sociogram’ – a family tree dating back to my great-grandparents, which also contains details of notable events.

Telling Janet I have issues with self-belief I’d like to address, she identifies an interesting pattern on my father’s side. He was sent to boarding school aged nine by his parents, having been told (wrongly) he was dyslexic. His parents had both been born abroad to British emigrant parents, and sent back to the UK in the aftermath of the First World War to go to school and be brought up by relatives.

‘There’s a lot of being sent away in your family,’ Janet says. ‘And if a young boy feels his intellectual abilities aren’t being mirrored back by his parents, he won’t feel comfortable in his own skin. You’ve inherited how your father must have felt when he was sent away to school.’ Turning to my mother’s side, Janet notes my grandmother lost her own mother to cancer when she was seven. ‘As the eldest daughter, she will have inherited a lot of responsibility. She may have wondered at an early age whether her voice was valid.’

On a suburban road in Croydon I join Janet’s group workshop. The seven participants are all female, most in our 40s, with complicated ancestral histories involving childhood abuse, arranged marriages, children orphaned and sent away. Stories stretch back to Pakistan, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the aftermath of the Second World War. The trauma is raw and real. Each of us is invited to take part in our own constellation. This involves plotting out our family trees on a whiteboard while Janet identifies flashpoints for emotional trauma. The next step is to choose individuals from the group as ‘representatives’ for family members past and present.

And this is where it gets weird. First you invite someone to be your relative – alive or dead. Placing your hands on the chosen individual’s shoulders, you are prompted to think of this relation with your eyes closed. In connecting with their energy, the representative ‘channels’ that person – speaking and moving according to their thoughts and feelings – from that point onwards. Some do this effortlessly, easily ‘inhabiting’ another persona: one is driven to lie down, another voices intense rage by roaring. It’s role-play on steroids: uncomfortable for those unfamiliar with it.

I am variously chosen to be a 13-year-old boy, a dead father (where I’m told to lie on the floor), and twice represent someone’s mother. Once, as one of the ‘mothers’, I feel a strong urge to kneel and remain silent. It’s hard not to feel the weight of responsibility towards those whose ‘constellation’ is being acted out – what if you get it really wrong?

One woman openly weeps at the revelation – which emerges via this role play – that her father must have felt just as alone as she does now. There is a real sense of unburdening. When it comes to my turn, Janet plots my immediate family tree on the whiteboard and I choose representatives to be my ‘father’, ‘mother’ and two ‘sisters’, and someone to be me. We have to make these choices instinctively. I choose a warm, friendly woman I like to be my mother, for example. My dad ends up a random pick – in a room of women, no one feels right. A woman close to my age represents me.

Then I watch in silence as these strangers use only their instincts to do or say whatever they feel compelled to. The results are mixed. My ‘father’ makes domineering statements about how he ‘keeps this family afloat’ – not in keeping with my father’s character at all. Most of it doesn’t ring true. That’s OK – the point is to see things from a different angle. In truth, it’s strangely moving to witness.

I’m told it’s not just what happens in the workshops which matters. Apparently it can cause a subtle shift in the universe. One client, says Janet, received an unexpected call from her sister, who she hadn’t spoken to for 12 years.

I’m still waiting for my message from the universe. But as soon as I can, I’ll be giving my dad the biggest hug.