Therapist Natalie Berthold on the Hidden
Dynamics That Shape Our Lives
We’ve been having a blast in Positano this summer soaking up every element of Italian culture. And at the center of all the pasta-fueled festivities, is la famiglia. Whether we’re Italian or not, most of us have experienced the beauty in the saying “blood is thicker than water.” The kind of unconditional love and loyalty we share with our families can bring an amazing sense of belonging, acceptance and happiness.
However, just as there’s a shadow side in every person, there’s also one in every family—and it typically runs generations deep. No matter how strong, capable and well-intentioned our ancestors, their troubled histories can surface as dysfunctional patterns in our own lives today—addiction, financial struggle, lack of support, relationship issues— stopping us from living out our fullest potential.
These deeply-rooted dynamics can be difficult to uncover, which is why I’m excited to introduce you all to Natalie Berthold, a Family Constellation Therapist. Natalie’s chosen modality is one of the most powerful tools available for creating awareness around these hidden parts of our psyches. Read our fascinating interview below to learn how FCT might help you let go of old family patterns, and honor your ancestors by becoming a shining success.
Let’s start with your story. Why did you choose the path of working specifically with Family Constellation Therapy?
I was a professor, teaching engineering in Argentina. At the time, I’d been struggling with bulimia for 15 years—since I was 12 years old. I considered myself somewhat conscious and aware and I had tried every modality under the sun—hypnotherapy and regular therapy…everything you could imagine to release myself from this bulimia. I really couldn’t. It felt like a spell, this compelling energy. Someone recommended that I try Family Constellation Therapy when I was out in Argentina, because at the time it was really big in Europe, Central America and South America. After that first session, it was like a light bulb went off and I understood my eating disorder on a level that I never understood it before, and I let it go. After 15 years of binging and purging a dozen times a day, I never did it again. It had so much power and magnitude for me, I felt like it saved my life and I wanted to help other people. So I immediately started training down there and then continued my studies in the United States. That’s what took me on this path.
What is Family Constellation Therapy and how does it work?
I’ve been doing this work for almost 10 years and I still have a hard time articulating what it is. That’s part of why I love it—our brains want to understand how everything works, but it’s still a mystery to me to some extent. To give you some background, the method was developed by a man named Bert Hellinger. He was down in South Africa trying to convert the Zulu tribes to Catholicism. Then he realized, “These are the happiest people on Earth, instead of converting them, we need to learn from them.” So he studied their ways of life and organized what he found into what we call “orders of love,” and created this therapy out of it. What’s cool about the therapy is it’s actually very phenomenological and experiential. Every single person that comes to constellation therapy says, “Oh, that’s not at all what I had in mind.” Part of it is the name is misleading—people think that there’s astrology involved and there’s not. Constellation just refers to a way to organize things. Our family system has its own soul and its own way of organization—just like cells and animals and organisms organize themselves. If someone comes to the therapy, it’s usually because they’re struggling with something over and over and over again. The theory is that we can handle and manage our own stuff, but so many of us are actually carrying unresolved traumas and patterns and issues from our ancestors, including our parents. Compounded with our own stuff, this is where the addictions set in, the sabotage, the not getting ahead in life, not doing well with relationships, finances, health, etc. The therapy lets us identify what’s ours and what’s not.
Talk to us about your work with women entrepreneurs. How do these dynamics show up in their businesses?
I find that the women entrepreneurs I work with fall into a few different categories. Some of them feel like they’re never enough. I have a handful of clients who make $100 grand a month—and it will just never be enough for them. I have clients who are constantly sabotaging their business. They’re not showing up for important events or interviews. Maybe they start to be seen and they close up. Maybe they’re just not making any money and they can’t pay their rent. Maybe their career is getting in the way of family and relationships. Usually it’s a result of some sort of family patterning that they’re following. I’ll give you an example around visibility issues—that’s one of the biggest ones. I live in New York City, where a lot of people are of Jewish heritage and in their family system, they were persecuted and killed just for the way they look and their religion. That doesn’t go away. So now you have a woman generations later, who is trying to be seen in her business—and it’s all about visibility right now on the Internet— but she’s going to hide from it because on a cellular level being seen equates to death, murder, starvation or abuse. Another example of a dynamic that I personally fell under is rape. I was entangled and merged with an aunt who suffered a tragic fate and I was terrified to be seen. Not only by men, but in my business and in my body. It was contributing to the bulimia and to struggling financially. So if I look at women whose businesses aren’t going well and they’ve done all the things on paper where they’re going to the business coach and they’re doing the networking, there’s usually an underlying issue and once it’s released, they’re free to move forward and do well in their businesses. Women entrepreneurs are actually one of the biggest clientele that I’m working with right now and it’s so rewarding because if their businesses start doing well, they’re really honoring their ancestors. The tendency is to hold ourselves back, because we don’t want to surpass those before us.
What is that really about, not wanting to surpass our ancestors?
You know that expression, “Love is blind”? This work really highlights that. One of the reasons that we follow patterns is out of love and out of loyalty for our family system. We don’t want to surpass them because we don’t want to be outcasts. One of the biggest human needs is the need to belong. In my family, we grew up pretty poor, so if I were all of a sudden rich, I would be the black sheep. Or if everyone in your family system is single, then all of a sudden you had a dream relationship, it’d be the same thing. On a tribal level, coming back to the Zulu, it means getting kicked out of the tribe, which equates to death. What the work brings out is that if you’re not getting what you want in terms of love, health, relationships and finances, it’s probably because on a deeper level that’s actually less important than death, which is what we feel on a soul level if we’re very different from our family.
Most of the women in the Divine Living community are already on a personal development path. We’re open to taking a deep look at ourselves and yet, we can be so totally blindsided by what we discover in FCT. Why are these dynamics so hidden to us?
I think we’re just too close to it. It’s too subconscious. It’s too biological. It’s too survival. It’s too incredulous at times. It’s often my most indignant clients who swear that they’ll never follow in their parents’ footsteps who are the exact ones that do. Often, it’s the exact same pattern and other times it’s the same pattern with a different mask. I’ll have the client who says, “My parents were alcoholics and I would never ever, ever, ever be an alcoholic”—but they have a cocaine problem or a food addiction. I have clients who were adopted and they are obviously really angry at their parents for giving them up, but they’ve had a few abortions. There’s no judgment here, but they’ve also given up children in their own way. It happens all the time. Sometimes it’s too painful to look at. Sometimes it’s too close to look at. Sometimes it’s just hard to see ourselves accurately. Often it doesn’t make sense. Why would we take on negative patterns? Why would we carry our ancestors’ burdens? If we’re thinking about it mentally and logically, it doesn’t make sense, but on a soul level, it makes perfect sense.
You come from a scientific background and yet this is a very spiritual realm—how do those two come together in your work?
I like to think that part of my gift in this work is that I have both sides of the brain. I have the very math and science part. And I was always intuitive, but I didn’t want to do anything too “woo woo” in life because I’m very practical, grounded and mathematical. This therapy lets me use both sides. Through my textbook training, I’ve learned about hundreds of dynamics that can affect us—all the different potential links between behaviors and patterns. There are hundreds of things I always carry in my back pocket. But then when I work with people I treat each person individually because everyone is affected differently by their family system. I get information from their family and ancestry in their field. I pray to their ancestors and family and to my own ancestors and family and use my own intuition.
Tell us a bit more about your process. What’s a session like with you?
If it’s a one-on-one session, it’s all about you. Half of the time we’re talking about where you are stuck in life, and then I will ask some family dynamic questions that are coming up for me, and then there’s an experiential, phenomenological part of it. People will set up an image of their family system, and this image represents their internal struggles. We reorganize it, because as I mentioned, cells in our systems work in a certain organization and a certain morphic field. This new internal image is what you walk forward with. Then I also do group sessions and how that works is there are 10 strangers in the room and you set someone up for mom, someone for dad, grandma and whoever else. It’s not acting, role-playing or any of that, but they start representing these people to show us the internal image that’s affecting the issue that the client is coming to the table with. Again, we rearrange it and set up a new internal image for them to work with.
Let’s talk about parents. Do you find that women take on more from their mothers, and men from their fathers?
Definitely, there is more of a link with the same-sex parent. Sons tend to follow their father’s family system and daughters follow their mother’s, but in general, there’s always more stuff with the mom because she carried us. In your first three years of life, your bond with your mom is so important, whether you’re a male or female, that I would say most of it goes back to mom. For example, a lot of men are single because of their relationship with their mother. They might be too loyal to her or too connected to her. Maybe she’s been single her whole life, and they’ve stood in for her partner energetically, and then they experience women as too needy because they don’t have the capacity to take on another woman’s needs, even if she’s not needy at all. Or they’re so loyal to their mom they can’t commit to another woman. So with men if it’s relationships, I typically look at the mom, but if it’s business and finances, I would want to look at the guy’s relationship with his dad. It just goes to show you that there are some standards in constellation work, but also everyone is an individual.
Bringing it back to women entrepreneurs, do money issues typically stem from the mother or the father?
I would say in business it depends. Up until recently most women were stay-at-home moms and the men were the breadwinners. So the current generation of women experiences a few things. Some of our mothers were resentful of having to be stay-at-home moms. They had artistic sides or entrepreneurial sides or careers, and then they got married and had kids and had to cut that part of themselves off. Then other women experience that because their fathers were never around, they have an association of money with absence or making up for lost time. We’re so multi-faceted that usually it’s more than one dynamic. It could be that you don’t want to surpass mom, but then there’s also stuff with dad, and then your great-grandparents were in World War II and their businesses got stolen. So out of guilt, you don’t want to have a successful business, so you can be entangled with a perpetrator, the victims, your mom, your dad, your grandparents.
Fascinating. Overcoming all of that, how do you help people become more confident in charging and earning the money they desire?
When I work with people around money and business, a lot of times they’ve seen a business coach and they’ve been given a formulaic approach to raising their rates. The problem is everyone has a set price that their soul is comfortable with—sort of how we have a set weight that we can deviate from 5 or 10 pounds, but not much more than that. I work energetically to find that price, and then we push the envelope a little bit, and then you get acclimated to that price, and then we push the envelope a little bit. When a client comes to me and says, “I want to make $100 grand a month,” but the people in their family are broke, I’m like, “There’s no way unless we work your way up slowly.” Sometimes an entrepreneur will come to me and say, “I’m doing a launch, my goal is to make $150,000 for the launch.” So I put the launch in the field and I say, “Hey, the launch is not going to make $150k because your soul is not on board with this number—this number actually is terrifying to you, but a number that is not terrifying to you that’s a little bit of a stretch is $30 grand. Would you be willing to work on $30 grand?” If the client says, “No you’re wrong —I’m going to make the $150 grand,” well they typically don’t, because if they’re terrified of that number, they’re not going to attract that number. So I work with people to find that sweet spot for them and help them go from what their soul is comfortable with, to slowly expanding it so that they can become successful without it being scary or a shock to their family system—which is what happens when we just triple our rates overnight or come up with an arbitrary big number.
How long does it typically take to transform these deeply-rooted patterns?
We’re all snowflakes and we all react to healing differently based on a few things: our soul’s readiness, what’s at stake, how strong the bond is. Love and loyalty and belonging actually trump releasing patterns for some people—especially when I find clients in a really progressed illness. Illness is often deep, deep love and loyalty. Even when they realize it, they’d rather stay ill out of love and loyalty than get better. For me, my initial constellation was so immediate, it was right then and there. I would say that with 95% of my clients it ranges from an immediate shift to six months. It can take two years to completely unfold. I think of it as integration and this beautiful red carpet unfolding, and sometimes it takes time, but what I notice and what my clients notice is one day we’re riding the subway and we’re like, “Wow, I’m not dealing with that pattern anymore.” Most people email me within a day or two and go, “Oh, my gosh! The ball has started rolling.” Or I’ll hear something like, “Right after our session, my dad called out of blue and said, ‘Hey, just so you know, I’d really like you to be happy…’ and it released this and that.” So immediately something has shifted. Often it’s the rock in front of the boulder that got moved. People say it’s like 10 years of therapy in one session.
So for you as the therapist, there’s not a lot of maintenance required after someone lets go?
Exactly. I think it’s awesome. People joke that it’s not a good business strategy for me, but I’m so fulfilled by it. To me, something is not working with the healing modality if you are holding the person’s hand forever. I have tons of new clients every week, but I may never see them again. Then I have some clients who just really like to check in. But if someone is coming to me excessively, I have to cut them off and I say, “Listen, the goal is to empower you to move forward. I feel as if you aren’t taking responsibility for yourself,” because while there’s an aspect of temporarily looking behind you—at your ancestors and parents and seeing where things went awry—you need to turn around and move forward.
To wrap things up, how would you define true power of this modality?
I think the main power is knowledge. So many people go, “Oh my gosh! I had no idea that I was following that!” In that knowledge, there’s freedom and mobility. We no longer need to carry what isn’t ours and we can let it go. I constantly remind myself and my clients that our ancestors experienced what they did so that we could have more freedom, and if we join them in their struggles, it’s like everything they went through wasn’t worth it. We have to take advantage of this freedom—it’s the best way to honor them.
Learn more about Family Constellation Therapy
& book your session with Natalie at Natalieberthold