I have been pondering recently on the issue of safety and the feedback coming from some people that constellation work isn’t safe or they don’t feel safe working with certain facilitators. What does ‘safety’ mean in this context? Is it that they don’t feel held or contained by the leader? Are they afraid of the powerful emotions that may be expressed by representatives? Or are they afraid of facing painful feelings in themselves or a call to action that may just be too difficult for them to take?

If, as constellation facilitators we simply empathise with someone as they sit next to us and tell their story, are we trying to make them feel safe? Are we helping them move forward or are we helping them to stay justified in maintaining their story, blaming others for their plight and unable to take the necessary next step in life?

Many forms of psychotherapy have been accredited now and there are requirements to be met by all practitioners. How free are those practitioners to operate from their intuition in the moment? To what extent do they act from a place of safety for themselves – not touching a client who so desperately needs to be touched, not challenging too strongly, not encouraging the expression of rage for fear of litigation or clients making complaints.

In order to work effectively with a client ourselves and help them go to the edge of their feeling of safety, we need to be able to go there ourselves. If we feel unsafe, for sure our client or trainee will too. We can’t really take a client to places we haven’t been to ourselves. 

The difficulty is most of us operate within a culture that has gone berserk in trying to keep everyone safe. Intervention in childbirth is mostly coming from a fear of litigation rather than attuning to the needs of the mothers who themselves mostly feel fearful and powerless and don’t trust their own bodies to give birth naturally. Playgrounds and other public spaces for children have become clinical in their need for safety. Where do children go these days to take risks, to develop confidence in their physical abilities, to experience excitement and adventure? Sitting in their bedrooms at home in front of a screen? Is this the extent of our current ability to educate our children to believe in their own potential?  In trying to keep our children safe, we put our own anxiety on to them and they see the world as an unsafe place and sadly these will be the very people who do find themselves in dangerous situations, because they have no trust in their own instincts to be able to detect danger. 

The other side of this is that many of us think that other people need saving, but can we really save someone from their fate? Can we stop someone doing what they want or feel compelled to do? 

For me a more useful question might be: do I feel safe enough to allow myself to feel unsafe? What is required? Is it really ‘the other’ I’m afraid of or feel unsafe with? Or is it myself? 

When pondering these kinds of questions I often find it helpful to visit the animal world. What do animals do when they feel afraid? What do they do if they feel unsafe? They freeze, they play dead, they run away or they fight. Most of us have lost touch with these basic bodily instincts and responses to stress or danger. We don’t allow ourselves to cry, to run away, to fight or to shake. Freezing or dissociation seem to be our only options. We are so out of touch with the other survival mechanisms we become afraid of them even when they do kick in. 

So what can we do as facilitators or trainers? A priority for me is to continue with our personal development, pushing our own boundaries around safety and taking risks; finding good supervision; asking for help when we need it. When offering trainings or workshops, I think the container of clear guidelines around time, venue, money etc. do promote safety in the initial stages but following this, most important is to be in our own authority without becoming authoritarian or submissive and to be able to take all kinds of feedback without being reactive.

The ability to offer containment comes from our own early attachment style. Were we contained by our parents in our early years? If not, have we experienced containment since, from a therapist or other kind of healing practitioner? Winnicott’s writings about this are very helpful. In ‘The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment’ he talks about the parent’s ‘going on being’ i.e. attuning to the needs of the infant/toddler as they begin to take their first steps away from the parent figure, returning for safety whenever they need to. In other words, not restricting them but at the same time offering safe boundaries when needed, being around and available without being intrusive. This way the child begins to learn about taking risks, finding adventure, moving out into the world at their own pace.

So for me, safety and containment are constant companions and you cannot have one without the other. If I feel contained, I will be able to experiment with feeling ‘unsafe’ from time to time, knowing that the world will not collapse around me if I do. 

Barbara Morgan

(This blog post also appears on Barbara’s own website