By Ronald Anderson and Karen Carnabucci

This article builds on our earlier overview of the Family Systems Constellations Approach of Hellinger and others and notes further similarities and differences between it and psychodrama, offering a case example as illustration. We contrast the two most widely used experiential methods, psychodrama and Systemic Constellation Work, by working with one client on the same issue in each of the modalities, conducted two hours apart. Using psychodrama first, Karen works with the client’s conscious perception of her problem with her mother, “working from the periphery to the center,” expressing real feelings for the first time, reaching breakthroughs in understanding, and ending in role-training, using her new perceptions. In the Systemic Constellation Work, Ron skips past the periphery, probing the unconscious workings of her “soul,” tapping into the roots of the issue she had just worked through in psychodrama, allowing the family soul of Constellation work to move the action on its own, spontaneously, between herself and her mother, healing not only her individual pain, but the family pain that generated the issue in the first place. Seemingly, it brings an even deeper reconciliation.

The Psychodrama

Our core group of trainees in our Midwest Training Series had been exposed to the basic tenets of classic psychodrama and Systemic Family Constellation Work for five months, having multiple opportunities to work as protagonists, auxiliaries, representatives and audience members prior to this session. We proposed a module to explore one person’s issue initially in psychodrama, then later the same day, in Systemic Constellation Work, to demonstrate the differences and similarities of each modality.

A warm-up was developed to include elements from both methodologies. Because ancestors are so important in Constellation work – as well as in the family of origin themes that are commonly addressed in psychodrama – we began with general discussion about group members’ ancestors, and the influences of their legacies prior to each member’s own lifetime.

Karen, as director, asked the trainees to mill about the stage so that bodily experience could expand and amplify their cognitive and verbal recollections. As they walked, they were instructed to choose an ancestor, known or unknown, and role reverse with them (a psychodrama technique), then find a place in the stage where this ancestor was drawn to intuitively (a Constellation technique). When every person had taken the role of an ancestor and found his or her place on stage, the director interviewed each one.

Sandra, who would be chosen subsequently as protagonist, was one of the first to introduce herself, as Claude, her maternal grandfather. After all group members had spoken in role reversal, they were once again asked to mill, returning to their own roles. Group members who wanted to be protagonist for the session were then asked to come into the center of the circle to announce their desire to work.

Only two, Sandra and Marianne, stepped forward. The training group chose Sandra, likely because she had been the most serious and quiet member of the group during the past four months, and the group was eager to learn more about her, likely more than being attracted by the story told by her in her role as her grandfather.

After group members returned to their seats, Sandra, an addictions counselor in a hospital-based treatment program, participated in a “walk and talk” warm-up, telling director Karen about a current issue that concerned her: the good and the bad inside her she had “obtained” somehow from her mother. Sandra had grown up as a “preacher’s kid” in a small Midwestern community. And as the minister’s third daughter, Sandra remembered being admonished severely by her mother to always act on her best behavior. Sandra acknowledged her mother has since mellowed, but during Sandra’s formative years, the rule-bound mother heavily influenced her perspective and behavior. She acknowledged that she has been feeling “bothered” by her mother’s past actions and parental directives.

Sandra picked Kathy to play her mother. Role-reversing with Kathy as her mother, Sandra self-presented a stiff woman, giving constant directives to her third daughter. Back in the auxiliary role, Kathy repeated the endless list of “shoulds.” The director, Karen, helped tease out the most influential messages given by Sandra’s mother from the early years:

“Don’t get out of line!”
“Be quiet.”
“Act like a lady!”
“Don’t show any spirit!”

With tears forming in her eyes, Sandra, in her adult role, identified the final message, “Don’t act overbearing!” Sandra labeled this statement as the strongest and most shaming message, which she then expanded upon in soliloquy, attributing it to having inhibited any sense of spontaneity, womanly sexuality or sense of selfhood in her adult years.

Other auxiliaries were chosen to stand in a single line behind the mother, each one instructed to represent one of the mother-messages. Sandra, stepping into the child role, again connected to tears, identifying both pain and anger, allowing herself to experience each of the old messages.

Stepping back into her adult role, Sandra spoke to her mother, telling her how much her apparent disapproval had inhibited her development as a young person and was now continuing to inhibit her social and work roles as an adult. “I hold myself back,” she said, “I go to professional events, and I’m quiet. I don’t speak up. I’m afraid to talk to people unless I know them really well!”
Sandra recalled how she was often compared to her older sister Beth, who was quiet and obedient. “I’m not Beth!” she asserted firmly. “I’m nothing like her. I’m spirited! I want to try new things, have new experiences! Yes, I drank, but I never got into trouble. I was always responsible!”

Karen directed the auxiliary playing mother to move to the back of the line of messages, as the drama then explored her relationship to each message.

Eve spoke the first message. “You need to be more quiet! You’re way too noisy!” She kept it up, intensifying the tone, and expanding on the idea, following the director’s call for her to do so.

Another group member was asked to double the protagonist as a supportive role, and she began saying, “Noooo.” First the double spoke lightly, then more strongly, “NO!”

Sandra stood stiffly, with her hands in her pockets, was encouraged by the director to remove her hands, and to allow herself more freedom to express herself, not only verbally but also physically by swinging her arms gently to loosen her body stance. Sandra’s double now stepped closer to the mother, saying “No!” again. Sandra was invited to experiment to stomping her feet, her arms swinging as she continued, now echoing her double, “No,” first softly, then with more firmness. Both Sandra and her double now resonated with a cadence of “No! No! NO! NO!”

With her newfound helper, Sandra continued to speak more forcibly, and easily, to each of the next four auxiliary mother-messages, reclaiming her own self, dispatching each message carrier to a different part of the room. However, with the final message, the one she defined most shaming, she began to struggle again.

“You don’t understand me,” Sandra pleaded. “I was a good kid. I was responsible. I was learning, and I was having fun. I even rode a motorcycle!”

The auxiliary-mother-message then responded, “How dare you get out of line and be disobedient!” It was a perfect improvised expansion. “Do you have any idea what it was like for me to be a teenager?” Richard said, in the mother’s voice.

Sandra was quickly role reversed into her mother. “What about being a teenager?” the auxiliary asked in Sandra’s role.

“It wasn’t easy,” Sandra found herself saying as her mother. “My father drank. Everyone looked at our family, wagging their tongues. I decided when I had my own family, I wouldn’t let us be embarrassed!” It was as though Sandra was suddenly making sense of why it had been that way. It had less to do with her, and more to do with her mother, and how she was brought up, always focusing on what others might think, even about ordinary behaviors. With this realization, Sandra could play her own role even more forcibly.
Back in her own role, Sandra spoke to her mother’s strongest admonition. “I WAS a good kid!” she exclaimed. With the echoes of her double, she was able to speak back to this message, even wagging her finger at the end of her nose, in the way children will do when they’re disobedient. She and her double then added a “nah, nah…nah, nah, nah!” The auxiliary playing the spirit-crushing role tried another few rebuttals, but as Sandra increased her forcefulness, he finally gave up in a show of exasperation.

The original mother auxiliary was returned to the front of the line. Sandra was given an opportunity to role reverse, with an instruction to show how she had wished her mother to be.

“I’m sorry that I stifled you,” Sandra told herself from her mother’s role. “You can go ahead and experiment, you can have fun-there’s really nothing wrong with that.” Then, “I didn’t realize I affected you that way. I’m sorry.” Then, back in her own role, she received the reparative messages, after which both women hugged.

Group members were invited to shrug off their roles and directed by Karen to stand shoulder to shoulder in a new line in a different area of the room. Sandra was invited to face each group member and ask, “Can you love me and accept me just as I am?” Each person, one by one, answered these questions in the affirmative, giving Sandra hugs and warm messages.

Then, when the hugs concluded, Sandra was asked to attempt one spirit-filled action she saw as disobedient, yet without being harmful to herself or others. She decided she wanted to run around the room, and adjoining rooms, whooping and laughing loudly, and waving her hands-an activity she had enjoyed with her siblings as a child. After much laughter, she and her group members returned to their chairs for sharing.

The Constellation

A few hours later, Sandra had taken lunch and enjoyed quiet time. She reported feeling much more energy and was experiencing feeling a greater connection to the training group. Although she had participated in the psychodrama in the morning, she was still motivated to address the same issue with a Systemic Family Constellation, as planned. Ron cautioned that since we had no experience to draw on from doing Constellation work after a psychodrama, we had no way of knowing whether it would have a good or bad effect on her. Sandra thought about that very little; she was ready to go again.

Ron reminded her and the group that Constellation work tends to look for another, more unconscious, basis for the difficulties Sandra experienced with her mother in her growing-up years. He suggested her mother may have had blocks that inhibited the free flow of love that a mother has naturally for her child, factors having nothing to do with Sandra. We, of course, had already learned in psychodrama her mother’s embarrassment about her own family of origin contributed to her behavior. Ron asked Sandra if she were open to find out what the other factors might be as well. She said she was, saying it earnestly.
Ron told her since this was Constellation work, he needed to know a few more details about her heritage. His questions focused on both her mother’s side and father’s side of the family, going back as far as memory permitted, namely combat experiences and other possible traumas, prior deep loves, affairs or divorces, abortions, stillbirths, miscarriages or child losses – factors that could impact on the free flow of love through the generations.

She recalled her paternal uncle’s combat experience in World War II, which left him with severe “shell shock,” and her maternal uncle who was killed the same war, leaving her grandmother forever grieving, and the drinking of her maternal grandfather. Then Sandra recalled one fact she had almost forgotten. She became tearful even before she could speak, surprised at her own reaction. Her mother had lost a female child in stillbirth or shortly after birth. The child would have been between Sandra and her next older sister. She related that her sister and she had visited the gravestone some years ago, which they found read, “Baby Girl.” She remembered the baby sister’s name was Ruth. Ron guessed that Sandra’s tears had some relevance to what had been worked on earlier, and now wondered if this family trauma had a connection with her mother’s stance towards her. Ron decided to test it out.

Sandra chose group members to represent her mother, herself, and Baby Girl Ruth. Ron instructed her to set each representative on the stage according to the Constellation work criterion, taking each by the shoulders from behind, and placing them, not according to perception or any construct in Sandra’s mind but rather by the intuition of the moment, moving them about the stage, until she finds the location that “feels” right.

Sandra placed her mother first, again choosing Kathy. She moved the person representing herself perpendicular to her mother on her mother’s right, so she could be close to her mother, but at a right angle, having her mother always in her vision. Then she placed Baby Girl Ruth in front of her mother, beneath her mother’s vision at the moment, with Baby Girl Ruth immediately falling to the floor in a sitting position, her legs stretched beneath her. Being at a right angle to her mother, the representative for Sandra could see Baby Girl Ruth in front of her as well, but it was obvious that the energy in the room, without any sounds made, were more between Baby Girl Ruth and the mother.

Sandra was asked to find a chair where she could sit and most easily observe what was transpiring with the representatives.

Then we waited to observe what would take place. The representatives were reminded that they were to be aware of any strong feelings, whether emotions or insistent thoughts, bodily sensations, or strong urges moving within them. Unlike psychodrama, the trainees on stage are reminded that there is no sculpturing, improvisation or role development; they are only to go with what emerges from within.

Baby Girl Ruth had already responded to the urge to fall to a sitting position. Next the mother’s body became more rigid, and she closed her eyes. Baby Girl Ruth looked longingly up, with a sense of wonderment towards her mother. The representative for Sandra looked anxious, and scared, and looked alternately between her mother and Baby Girl. There was silence.

Ron noted out loud the importance to Sandra, both sitting in the audience next to each other, of her mother’s eyes being closed. “Do you have any stories or memories of her having grieved for Baby Girl?” Ron asked.

“No, I – I have the sense she didn’t – really grieve that much.”

Ron asked the representative for the mother to open her eyes, and look. After some resistance, she did so, shaking as she looked down and met her Baby Girl’s gaze up at her. The representative for Sandra looked very expectant, and her nervousness increased. After a difficult silence, the mother slowly bent to Baby Girl Ruth and touched her, with Baby Girl Ruth tentatively putting her hand on her mother. Then, a step at a time, the mother got to her knees, and stroked Baby Girl Ruth, tears in her eyes now forming.

The representative for Sandra appeared to want to join in, but she looked unsure of herself. When the mother suddenly cried out, Sandra’s representative got down on her knees to put one hand to comfort her mother, and the other hand to touch Baby Girl Ruth. Baby Girl Ruth was the most passive of the three, but she seemed to want to melt into the arms of the mother and Sandra.

Ron asked the mother to try saying the following words: “I see you now.”

“I see you now.”

Ron has her add, “So now I will grieve for you…”

“I now will grieve for you.” Baby Girl Ruth now runs her hands over her mother’s face.

Ron has the mother tell Baby Girl Ruth, “I am your mother, and you are my child, and from now on I will always carry you in my heart…” The representative repeats this message.

The audience can tell from the way the representatives say the line whether the message resonates with what is deep within them, an accurate doubling of what is in their soul. But the director asks her to make sure, how it feels for her to say that.
“Very good.”

Ron then asks Baby Girl how it feels to hear her say that, and she says “Good” as well. Ron lastly asks the representative for Sandra how she feels, and she responds, “GREAT!” Sandra, sitting in the audience, smiles broadly.

When the feelings subside, Ron sits next to Sandra in the audience and tells her that he suspects there may have been others burdens on her mother, besides the stillbirth, and asks again about the tragedies happening in her mother’s family. Sandra relates additional memories and as a result a mother and father for Sandra’s mother are chosen, and Ron suggests that Sandra place them intuitively on stage.

The grandmother, placed behind the mother, moves with abruptness once in place, leaning heavily on Sandra’s mother, her representative practically falling atop her daughter. The representative for grandfather paces with seeming hostility in the background. Looking at Sandra in the audience, Ron notes that his suspicion is confirmed, but there is not enough time now to explore the situation and what has been observed is plenty for Sandra to absorb. The representatives for the grandparents are dismissed from the stage.

Ron then asks the three on stage – Baby Girl Ruth, mother, and the representative for Sandra – to stand. They do so, spontaneously hugging each other.

Ron then asks Sandra sitting in the audience how many brothers and sisters she has.

“I have four,” she says.

Ron has her choose four people from the audience to represent her brothers and sisters. Ron directs Sandra to line each sibling according to age, from oldest to youngest, in front of her mother, then add Baby Girl Ruth ahead of her in line. Ron dismisses the representative for Sandra, and has Sandra herself get in line and look around to see the lineup of her siblings. He asks how it feels.

“Weird!” Sandra says.

Ron asks the brother who is the oldest in the family to say, “I’m the first.” The brother’s representative repeats the line. Ron asks the sister next to say, “I’m the second.” She does. Ron then has Baby Girl Ruth say, “I’m the third.” She does. Ron has Sandra say, “I’m the fourth…” She pauses, stumbling, saying, “I’ve always been the third!”

Ron pulls Sandra out of the line and has her look directly at Baby Girl Ruth. Sandra immediately sobs. They automatically embrace in tears.

Ron has Sandra say, “I’ve missed you.”

Sandra says, strongly, with tears, “I’ve really missed you!” Still embracing, he asks Sandra to tell her, “From now on, you belong.”

Choking up, sobbing, she says, “From now on, you belong!”

Ron has her add, “…As my older sister.”

“As my next older sister.”
Ron then has Sandra get back in line, and the siblings go through the line up once more: “I’m the first.” “I’m the second.” “I’m the third,” Baby Girl says. “I’m the fourth,” Sandra says, smiling through her tears now, wiping her eyes. “Wow!”

“I’m the fifth,” another says. “I’m the sixth,” the last one says.

Ron asks the mother look at all her children. Sandra, from her place in line, is flooded, overwhelmed with love and appreciation for her mother. She impulsively jumps out of line, and reaches out to embrace her mother. “I’m sorry! I’m soooo sorry!”

Ron tells her to add, “Now I understand…”

“Now I understand,” Sandra repeats. “I want to help you, mother!”

Ron asks her to say, instead, “Now we can help each other, and grieve together for Baby Girl.”

The director explains to the group that when the young take responsibility for comforting their elders, the spontaneous flow of love from one generation to the other can be disrupted. “Look how the grandmother had burdened the mother by insisting she take care of her, and how that probably added to the mother’s inability to let her love flow as freely down to Sandra.

The director had Sandra look at the full line of siblings with their mother again, before drawing the session to a close, so she could concretely picture of the revised order. At the end, Ron dismissed the representatives, and we all sat in the circle of silence to take it all in, meditatively. There is no sharing in Constellation work, as there is the concern that analysis or discussion could interfere with the integrative process of the new image. Because the client mostly watches, outside the action, it is believed there is not as much self-disclosure, so the sitting in silence being enough to bring the group back together.

Observations: The Comparison

There is much to contrast between the two methodologies, but what stands out from these two sessions are the following four major differences:

1. Drama of perceptual reality versus drama of unconscious reality.

Most psychodrama sessions begin with the client’s perceptual reality. In Sandra’s psychodrama, she created a scene in which her highly restrictive mother did not accept her natural spontaneity and personality – her perception of her relationship with her mother. The role playing and deepening expansion of roles by auxiliaries carried the drama into areas still below the surface, and Sandra was able to do and say what she was prevented from doing and saying in “real life.”

Constellation work examines an abstract reality. A facilitator, after learning the client’s issue, inquires about the client’s intergenerational history to learn what past events might influence the present issue, as Ron did with Sandra. Then, ancestors related to those events are chosen and brought on stage, placed by the client in relation to each other before her or she has a chance to think what configuration makes sense.

In Sandra’s Constellation, the representative for Sandra experienced fear, as her mother was shut down with pain. Baby Girl Ruth felt only wonderment. Energies can become intensely focused on some other representative, or there are mutual abreactions to each other, as when Sandra’s representative and her mother both reached for Baby Girl Ruth, and each other, crying. What happens then is a movement toward resolution on an unconscious level, the “family soul” inside containing a spontaneous movement toward resolution and peace.

Knowing both modalities, a therapist theoretically could begin on the consciousness continuum at a concrete level, working towards openness to unconscious work. If Sandra had not been ready for Constellation work, the session could have started as it did, psychodramatically, in an encounter with her mother, going through the shaming messages, could have ended with a summary soliloquy. Then an interview of her family history at that point could have brought her mother’s stillbirth to light, and the subsequent abstract placement of mother, Baby Girl Ruth, and Sandra could have moved the drama into the unconscious soul movement we saw in the second session.

2. Auxiliary work though role development process versus representative work through information emerging from within and from the configuration.

In Karen’s direction of Sandra’s psychodrama, it was important for Kathy, the auxiliary Sandra chose for her mother, to learn how to play the role. A role-reversal not only warms Sandra for the encounter, but also warms the auxiliary to play her role – as well as the additional mother-message auxiliaries. By the time Richard went one-on-one with the protagonist, playing the most devastating aspect of the mother’s messages, the flow of the drama had given him a sense of who her mother was beyond the role-playing of simple messages. He could, in fact, role-create, bringing the drama to a new depth. When Karen saw that Richard’s improvisation hit home in the protagonist, she could role-reverse Sandra to her mother to expand it further and deeper. Role-reversal could bring the dramatization to where Sandra could see the issue belonged to her mother, as much as her. And the strength of her assertive response could be justified.

In Constellation work, a representative is not likely to get much of the personality of the person but rather more likely about how they feel physically or emotionally. In psychodrama you feel into a characterization through role-playing; in Playback Theatre you feel into the story-teller, and community of actors. In Constellation work the characterization may be experienced as feeling into you.

What if Karen had had Sandra set up two representatives – one for herself and one for her mother intuitively at the beginning of her session with Sandra? Then, after watching what happened, had Sandra step in as herself? Would the drama have gone deeper, faster?

3. Doubling versus resonance

In the psychodrama, a double was chosen to stand with Sandra as a support, voicing the feelings Sandra was blocking out, helping her to break through inhibitions and to express what had not been expressed before. With the double’s help, Sandra found her emotional breakthrough: her catharsis, speaking on her own behalf to her mother for the first time.

In a Constellation, emotions are expressed by the representatives, and the only doubling is a doubling of the soul by the facilitator. Note how Ron as facilitator asks the representatives to make specific statements. The facilitator listens to the voice of the representative for a resonance in the body cavity. If there is none, the facilitator will search for another statement; sometimes the facilitator will ask the representative to rework the line until it resonates. These are statements that go to the heart of the matter, with both economy and precision, expressing what is already there, making it all the more emphatic.

“I see you now. And now I will grieve for you…”

4. The locus nascendi in one’s lifetime versus in one’s ancestry.

In classical psychodrama we are taught to go to the origin of the issue in the life of the protagonist. In Constellation work, the source of the issue is frequently in the intergenerational past, in a trauma from a previous generation, or other distractions from the natural flow of love through parents to their children as one generation flows to the next. In Sandra’s family history, her mother’s emotional rigidity to grieving Baby Girl, prior to Sandra’s birth, made her mother less available to Sandra.


These modalities have different histories. J. L. Moreno was the great innovator of his time with the development of group psychotherapy and psychodrama. Shortly after Moreno’s death, Bert Hellinger began his work and finally become the great synthesizer, drawing not only from Moreno but also from many of the great psychotherapists, while including the field of physics, notably Rupert Sheldrake and his ideas about morphic resonance, and the indigenous peoples’ tradition of ancestor reverence.

We believe psychodramatists need not make a decision between psychodrama and Systemic Constellation Work. Rather, the two modalities compliment each other. As we see here, the psychodrama worked with Sandra’s conscious issue, and the outcome was exhilarating for her. The psychodrama helped Sandra separate herself from her mother, reveling in excitement for the first time about being her own person. The Constellation helped her and her mother come back together and heal their relationship while also bringing a sense of belonging to her entire family-without taking away from her separateness.

About the authors

Ron Anderson, LPC, CADCIII, TEP, is a board-certified trainer, educator and practitioner of psychodrama, sociometry and group psychotherapy. He trained at St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington, D.C., and with Carl Hollander at the Hollander Institute, in Denver, Colo., and has worked with many populations and in many treatment settings throughout the years. He combines an interesting mix of Psychodrama, Systemic Family Constellation, and other experiential modalities with clients in his private practice at New Prospects Counseling Center in Milwaukee, Wis., and in his training sessions.

Karen Carnabucci, MSS, LCSW, TEP, is a board-certified trainer, educator and practitioner of psychodrama, sociometry and group psychotherapy. She has trained with Zerka Moreno, Kate Hudgins and Gerald Tremblay and at the Holwell Centre for Psychodrama, Barnstable, England. She is in private practice at Lake House Health & Learning Center, Racine, Wis., where she uses and teaches a broad range of holistic and experiential modalities, including psychodrama, family sculpture, guided imagery and sand tray and now is introducing Systemic Constellation Work.

Both are faculty members for the Midwest Training Series based at Lake House Health & Learning Center, Racine, Wis. To contact Ron,; to contact Karen, write or call (262) 633-2645. Her Web site is
Case study – Family Constellation

Case study – Family Constellation