Today’s Solutions: February 03, 2023

German therapist Bert Hellinger makes the case for knowing your dark side

Tijn Touber | July/Aug 2006 issue
How can people humiliate, torture or kill each other without feeling guilty? How can members of whole population groups plunder and exterminate one another without remorse? German therapist Bert Hellinger has a theory: They’re actually acting in good conscience.
Heavens no. He can’t mean that.
Yes he does. According to the outspoken author, whose books have been translated into many languages, each individual is part of a system, whether a family (parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, children) or a group (nation, race, religious community). These systems have a collective conscience, which exists only to promote survival and doesn’t distinguish between “good” and “bad” the way an individual conscience does.
And that’s basically good. The reason is that within a family or group, everyone has his or her place, Hellinger believes, and parents belong side by side behind their children. But circumstances can cause that system to become imbalanced. For example, a father who is unfaithful may create a process in which the mother distances herself from her husband. Out of love for her, a son may step in to take part of the father’s role because he wants to fill the sudden gap created by the betrayal in the family. As a result, the son carries the same feelings of guilt his father may have, and distance is created between brothers and sisters. The son’s “solution” enables the family to remain intact; it is a way for the unit to survive. The collective conscience prevents the wrongdoer from being castigated—even if his act violates the individual conscience of each family member.
But this is how families get out of balance. Family members end up faced with problems that, according to Hellinger, can only be solved if that balance is restored. These orientations shape the foundation of the “family constellation,” an increasingly popular school of psychotherapy conceived by Hellinger that attempts to remove bottlenecks in family relationships.
When a constellation member does something that puts his role at risk, he will be plagued by guilt, Hellinger says. That guilt sounds the alarm when the individual’s position within the system is at stake. “The pain of a guilty conscience,” writes Hellinger in his latest book, Der grosse Konflikt (Goldmann Verlag, 2005), currently available only in German, “ensures they do everything they can to change the situation so they can belong again. In this context, innocence is nothing other than a feeling that you’re accepted by your group, that you belong. And guilt is the feeling that you’ve forfeited your membership in the group.”
Seen like this, a violent group of people that attacks another group is operating in good conscience; after all, their actions keep the group intact. Writes Hellinger, “All major abuses are carried out in good conscience.”
According to Hellinger, the world is therefore becoming polarized under the influence of our attempts to operate in service to our conscience. People see themselves as “good” and label others as “bad.” Says the therapist, “Anyone who says, ‘I’m good and the other is bad’ is actually saying that he has more right to belong than someone else. People call that morality.”
Under the influence of the individual’s conscience, “bad” people are pushed away or shut out. But given that the collective conscience won’t allow anyone to be excluded, the “bad” people become stronger until the “good” people are at their mercy. More and more, the so-called “good” people have to fight against alleged evil. This is a disastrous exercise, according to Hellinger. “Every major conflict ultimately fails because it is a denial of what’s real and because it places outside the self that which can be solved only in one’s own soul. It’s about an inner conflict that is externalized, and projected on a situation outside the self.”
That’s why Hellinger urges people to accept their shadow side. “There can only be progress with a guilty conscience. Those who remain innocent, remain limited. Those who wish to remain innocent, remain children. Adults become guilty, but this doesn’t make them bad. On the contrary: If they become guilty, they grow more human. Their souls expand, becoming more open to other experiences. We must learn to outgrow our own good conscience.”
But we need great courage to live with a guilty conscience in our own group. Back in 1977, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat demonstrated an impressive example of such courage as the first Arab leader to pay an official visit to Israel and address the Knesset. He was able to rise above his own dark side, but was murdered in 1981 by members of his group, who, following Hellinger’s reasoning, may have been able to kill him in good conscience.
Is there a solution to this endless conflict between good and bad? Thankfully, Hellinger believes there is. He identifies a third conscience he calls the “spiritual conscience.” In his words, “The spirit is connected as well, but to everything, including its opposite. At that level, it is no longer about choosing sides for or against anyone else. The spiritual conscience stands for everything and everyone in service of peace.”
Hellinger concludes that lasting peace is possible only if everyone is recognized as an equal participant—and that, he says, will happen only when a critical mass of people understands the harmful influences of conscience. Then we will be able to move beyond the inherent limits of pure goodness and embrace everything.
Bert Hellinger: Der grosse Konflikt
Goldmann Verlag, ISBN 3442337348
Only available in German


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