Bert Hellinger: Heart against hard

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Bert Hellinge
Bert Hellinger was born in Germany in 1925.

How can people humiliate, torture or kill each other without feeling guilty? How can peoples plunder and exterminate each other without remorse? Bert Hellinger, known as the founder of the family constellations, has a theory: they follow their good conscience.

Bert Hellinger pleads for a bad conscience to resolve conflicts

Their good conscience? Their bad conscience, surely he means?

No, the idiosyncratic German psychotherapist really means good conscience. That’s right. According to Hellinger, every person is part of a system: his family (parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, children) or group (people, race, religious community). Such a system has its own collective conscience.

That collective conscience is entirely devoted to the survival of the family or group. In fact, that’s a fundamental law: no one who has ever belonged to this system should be left out. Therefore it makes no distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, something that the personal conscience does.

Everyone has their own place within a family or group, says Hellinger. In a spatial representation, for example, the parents should stand next to each other, behind their children. Circumstances can cause the system to become unbalanced. For example, an adulterous father may initiate a lawsuit in which his wife moves away from him.

The son then takes the place next to the mother, because out of love for her he wants to fill the sudden void left by the father’s betrayal. Brothers and sisters also become distant from each other. It is this ‘solution’ of the son that leads to the fact that the family remains intact and that the father is not left out; it’s actually a way to help the family survive.

family constellation
family constellations, the form of psychotherapy devised by Hellinger

In this way, families become unbalanced. Family members are faced with problems that, according to Hellinger, they can only solve when the family system is back in balance.

These positioning therefore form the basis for the family constellations, the increasingly popular form of psychotherapy devised by Hellinger that removes bottlenecks in the relationships between family members.

When people do something that jeopardizes their role in the family or group, they are most plagued by guilt, according to Hellinger. That guilt is a bad conscience; it sounds the alarm at a time when our position within the system is at stake.

The pain of a bad conscience’, Hellinger writes, ‘makes them do everything they can to change the situation so that they belong again. In this context, innocence is nothing more than the feeling that you are accepted by your group, that you belong. And guilt is the feeling that you’ve lost membership in the group.’

Seen in this way, a violent nation that attacks another nation operates from a good conscience; after all, it keeps the group intact. And that is why Hellinger writes in his new book Heart against hard: Family constellations as an instrument for conflict management: ‘The good conscience is dangerous. All major crimes are carried out in good conscience.’

Thus, under the influence of the voice of ‘good’ conscience, the world is becoming more and more polarized. People see themselves as ‘good’ and label others as ‘bad’. Bert Hellinger: ‘Whoever says: “I am good and the other is bad”, is actually saying that he has more right to belong than someone else. That’s called morality.’

Under the influence of personal conscience, ‘bad’ people are repressed or excluded. But since the collective conscience doesn’t allow anyone or anything to be left out, the “bad” only get stronger, keeping the “good” people more and more in their grip. More and more the ‘good guys’ have to resist the alleged evil.

A futile exercise, according to Hellinger: ‘Every great conflict ultimately comes to nothing, because it is a denial of what is visible, and because it places outside itself that which can only be solved in one’s own soul. It is about an outwardly placed inner conflict.’

That is why Hellinger argues for daring to live with a bad conscience: ‘Progress can only take place with a bad conscience. Those who remain innocent are also limited. Whoever wants to remain innocent remains a child.

Adults become guilty, but that doesn’t make them bad. On the contrary, when they become guilty, they become more human. Their soul becomes wider and more open to other experiences. We must learn to grow beyond our own good conscience.’

Anwar_Sadat
camp david 1979 Anwar_Sadat (Left)

It takes a lot of courage to have a bad conscience towards one’s own group. An impressive example of this courage was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat when he became the first Arab leader to pay an official visit to Israel and address the Knesset in 1977.

He was capable above his own badconscience, but was still murdered in 1981 by people from his own group, who – in Hellinger’s reasoning – could do this with a good conscience.

Is there a solution to this seemingly endless conflict between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ on Earth? Fortunately. Hellinger identifies a third conscience, which he calls the ‘spiritual conscience’. In his words: ‘

The mind is also connected, but with everything, also with the opposite. At that level, there is no longer any question of choosing sides for or against another. The spiritual conscience stands for everything and everyone in the service of peace.’

According to Hellinger, there will only tax peace when everyone is recognized as an equal participant. This will only work if the so-called ‘good’ participants have fathomed the evil and danger of their ‘good’ conscience. Only then can they cross the boundaries of good conscience and make room for those whom they now see as bad.

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