An Interview with Maria in Wellbeing Magazine Issue 158

WellBeing Magazine

Although many people may feel little connection to their ancestors, according to Sydney-based Family Constellations therapist Maria Dolenc the departed exhort a huge influence on us.

“We are part of our ancestors,” she says. “My mother’s and grandfather’s genes are in me.”

Family Constellation Therapy is an innovative method of healing family dynamics. It was developed by Bert Hellinger, a German psychologist and former priest, in the 1990s while working as a family therapist. It is now being practised throughout Europe, America and Asia and also in Australia.

Family Constellation work can be experienced one-on-one with a therapist but is particularly effective when done in a group. One person’s issue is the focus of a session and other attendees are asked to represent different members of that person’s family. This therapy works at an extraordinary energetic level. Workshop participants who have never met one another before find themselves experiencing the emotions of the family members they have been asked to represent.

Bert Hellinger believes there is a natural order within family systems. Every member has an equal right to belong to the whole and has a rightful place, which ensures that the family is healthy and that love flows freely between them.

Slovenian-born Maria Dolenc is one of eight children but never felt as though she was connected to her mother or belonged in her family. Her mother was one of nine children and, at the age of three, had been given away to her aunt. According to Hellinger, if somebody in a previous generation has been given away as a child, then often in a later generation a person will not feel part of the family.

Dolenc always felt angry with her grandmother for giving her mother away. But in Dolenc’s Family Constellation session the representative of her grandmother said, regarding giving her three-year-old daughter away, “Times are difficult. I am doing what I believe is best for this girl.”

“I would have kept that story that she was terrible but, since then, I feel more loving towards my grandmother,” Dolenc confides. “I no longer see my mother as a victim and now I do feel a sense of belonging to my family.”

Sometimes, events that occurred several generations before a person was born are not acknowledged or accepted by the family. So the individual takes on the family burden of guilt and shame, which can result in mental or physical illness, addictive behaviour or relationship difficulties.

Family Constellations work gives people the chance to decide to not carry this onus any longer. “We are training now to be the best ancestors,” Dolenc says. “I can respect what happened, leave behind what doesn’t belong to me, take the goodness which was there and honour the lives from which I came.”

Interviewed by Ros Burton

Abundance is something we all want and talk about. What is it?

Abundance IS who we are. It is how we value ourselves, and how much we appreciate both who we are and what we have.

If one focuses on external validation and comparison, then we will always be empty and in a state of ‘less then’ or ‘better then’. If we get stuck in the pattern of believing ‘more is better’, then we are in scarcity, the opposite of abundance.

Some approaches from wisdom, deeper insights and from the Ego (spiritual Ego) believe that we deserve what we want or desire. I think this is a trap which we all fall into from time to time. We need to be aware of what we ‘swallow’ from others, and need toidentify Abundance for ourselves.

Abundance means that you are enough. If we feel we need something external to make us enough, we will suffer and long for that external something.

There is a difference in wanting to be the best person we can be,and wanting something external that we believe will make us better people.

There is nothing wrong with owning material items, but if we allow them to define us, we feel empty, and may try to make up for the lack of real feelings by craving superficial intensity. Adding external things to make us feel good or better will not work — we are substituting external glitter for our essential nature. This could also be called ‘Self Betrayal’.

Abundance is an attitude. To experience Abundance, we need to focus on discovering who we really are.

We are enough — our own essential nature will draw to us exactly what we need, and not what our ego wants. Our lifestyle and culture can make this difficult to understand. When we open a newspaper,turn on the television or surf the internet, we are bombarded with messages that promise ‘If you buy me then you will be happy’, and because we all have a ‘lazy mind’ we often don’t ask the important questions that would lead us to understand that buying an item will not lead to lasting happiness.

In our culture the mass media (in particular television and in the internet) and consumerism are the opium of the people. They distract us from our deep passions, and continue to distract us with advertisements for more and more things to purchase — stopping us from asking the deeper question about who we are and what we need. They will not tell us to ask these questions of ourself.

Abundance is Within. If you are still looking for Abundance outside yourself (better job, more money, a better house, car or better relationship) you are still trapped in in the addictive circle of’not enough’. Abundance is being grateful for what we already have. It is also found in how we share our good fortune with others in a way that is of real benefit, and does not just result in making us feel better or important.

Look around, too many of us are stressed, overworked and pulled in a thousand directions. Emptiness is everywhere. Despite how much we have it is never enough. For example, when we have finally acquired one car, it is not long before we feel a need for two. When we have a small home we are soon unhappy as it is not large enough. When we make $15,000 we want $30,000 and on and on it goes.

On some level we know that something is wrong with this model of material Abundance, but from an early age we have been trained by society to accumulate as much money, power, beauty, material acquisitions and prestige as we can manage to became ‘Somebody’. This is a trap. As we identify more and more with our achievements, we lose connection with who we really are. Instead of knowing we are ‘somebody’, we end up feeling a ‘nobody’.

Abundance is at the root of our desire, our search and our struggle of becoming. It does not reside in new clothes, relationship, career or success. We have all tried that route and we know that it doesn’t lead to too much more than a fleeting moment of happiness.

Abundance is within us, all we have to do is abandon our search and our addiction to wanting more.

What would happen if we let go and stopped the striving and acted from the deep silent force within? I am not suggesting that goals and dreams be eliminated — they add spice to life, but depending on them for our happiness creates suffering.

Without touching the spiritual part of ourselves, we end up feeling empty and wanting. Realising that our goals and dreams are only part of our life, a transformation starts.

This transformation is not activated by escaping life and retiring to a convent or monastery, but by being more fully in the world NOW. By doing so, everyday events such as cooking, gardening, playing with our children or going for walk become as important as any decision we may make in our business world. By letting go of our addiction of ‘more is best’, we rediscover a life that is truly worth living, a life lived NOW, a life filled with one beautiful moment after another.


Suggested further reading: To Have or To Be, Erich Fromm (Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005)

People who live with addictions or destructive behaviours

I am writing this article for GANZ community newsletter to share perceptions  over the years in working with people who live with addictions or destructive behaviours, such as D&A, food  disorders ,work, sexual addictions etc.

At various times I will refer to the “addict” and what I mean here is that aspect of self that is out of control, wants to harm themselves (consciously or unconsciously) and has an ongoing sense of feeling “flawed”.

During the past ten years at South pacific private ( SPP) a Sydney based treatment centre for addictions, disorders, anxiety and depression, my work as primary therapist and family therapist has intensely involved working with people, both clients and families who are experiencing addiction, depression and other complex emotional issues. My orientation in therapy is Gestalt therapy, however, I work with other modalities also, depending on personality and the way of the individual involved. I am a faculty member of GPTS where my work  also  involves facilitating workshops. I am also really passionate about Family/Structural constellations . Over this time, and working with a diverse population of people, I have become very aware of a similar underlying pattern emerging with those who struggle with D&A  and other addictive destructive behaviours: Shame seems to be one feeling often seen in the circle of awareness; the more people ‘use’, the more shame they feel, leading then to further the need to medicate even more painful and shameful feelings.

Addiction can be defined as a state in which an organism (i.e. a human person)  engages in compulsive behaviour, where there is loss of control and where ultimately there is now no choice about ‘not using’ or behaving compulsively…..

For a couple of years now I have also become interested in ‘Attachment Theory’, which strongly suggests that when a child does not feel ‘bonding’, or good enough attachment with the primary caregiver,( usually meaning mother, for various reasons according to – Bowlby). The child needs to come up with their own solution for the need to be met. That solution may at a  later stage in life, become a barrier,  or not serve the person well,  and can, and often does, influence that person towards addictive or destructive processes.  When infants are not emotionally or otherwise safe (therefore in distress) they are at the mercy of those distressed ‘states’. Ultimately they learn to invest a great amount of energy in reorganising their lives in order to feel safe and secure.. In otherwords they learn to ‘cope’ or ‘control’  their lives as a way of keeping self safe.

Usually what we see when working with an ‘addict’, is only  the tip of the iceberg and underneath is huge pain, fear, loss and shame feelings. Drugs of various sorts become medicine for the lost self.Often I encourage people to attend 12 step meetings as they may feel a belonging and attachment with other, similarly struggling souls; and at an early stage it may and often can help the addicted person to see themselves as ‘sick’, or with a ‘condition’ instead of ‘bad’ or totally flawed person, which often they feel and believe.  In other words they learn they are not their disease, there is more to them than their addiction, this is important to learn to separate. People often however address only symptoms and not deepen the looking to discover core issues.  Alcohol and drugs may start as medicine, medication for dealing with unpleasant experiences, feelings and a means for relief from the pain. Drugs can be used to replace interpersonal relationships, which those with addictions often do not handle well.  Addictions complicate and add burden to the already complex area of relating. Working at the treatment centre and in my own one to one therapy work and in groups I focus on interpersonal relationships; encouraging people to invite family members to attend family week/meetings and together deal with unresolved, unfinished business.

Addiction is a coping strategy, a creative adjustment that enables addicts to tolerate stressful experiences,eg. interpersonal or interactive, such as attending job interviews, social contact or facing unpleasant feelings or thoughts/memories  which are painful in some way. Usually it is only when the addicted person stops using that is possible to experience that which is being ‘pushed away’ through the addictive actions.

The addicted person has an exclusive primary relationship with drugs, making other relationships secondary. They will need to explore how the avoidance occurs in contact with self, others and environment.

In working with addiction, i use lots of role playing to facilitate awareness into what is not usually seen…eg self destructive behaviours/patterns, being able to connect the drinking self vs child self, who longs for painless freedom and also the adult self. Processes of role play/dialogues and Family constellations/structural constellations are a powerful means of facilitating seeing ‘what is’  (Paradoxical theory of change.).. as though for the first time. Often healing  commences from this seeing. For example, craving the drugs, alcohol, food,  whatever and in that looking, being able to see also consequences of these  actions. And in that space of allowing, alongside whatever is there, the  “healthy adult” can then enter the process in support of care, forgiveness and understanding.

The “addict” does not have  compassion at all for their own pain; the addict part of self is indulging, out of control and more often deep disapproval of the self, not feeling the capacity to be present.

Recovery involves  ‘staying with’ the feelings of what was previously  medicated out of awareness; then exploring what it is that addiction really   offers.

Each human being has their  own complex web of pattern within and   acts them out in relationships. Being able to see what is really occurring   without judgement and comparisons facilitates healing. The shame and ‘fear of  being’, as response to painful and abusive life experiences, and the   behaviours that this must lead to in order to maintain control, can never lead to healing. When the cycle of addiction and self loathing are acted out without awareness  the cycle can never be changed.

We live in a world which constantly affirms  outward seeking: consumerism, alcohol, television , games, etc etc. Those addictions may not have the same   level of destructive consequences, however the underlying process is the same,   looking for solutions of worth  outside self to medicate, numb the feelings of  discomfort and inability to simply BE who we are.  It is important to have socio/cultural framework for the behaviours.  Working to bring in love,   compassion and the process of Being in Life..

Perhaps this  article may encourage more people to share their experiences in working with D&A and  other addictions.

Diagnosis: Gestalt views pro and con, written for GATLA

When I am thinking to write and present a lecture on Diagnosis and whether is useful in Gestalt or not I felt excited and anxious…The dilemma for me is to be copying someone else and do lots of research or more talk about my own experiences working in this field for 15 years now…

My work consist mainly at treatment center (psychiatric private hospital) and working with addiction, eating disorders, personality disorders, relationships issues etc…

I have been thinking to cancel the clinical practicum group and go on more experimental level, however I decided to give it a go and see what I learn from it…

I want to be authentic and let you know that I must be “schizophrenic” , constantly in two minds.. I have been really resistant to use any”labels” or diagnostic approach when I start working as Gestalt therapist at Spp and had struggled for few years about diagnosis vs Just staying with “what is” and being very critical about people who use the labels.. However working at treatment center and with multi disciplinary team I slowly very slowly felt something in me realized that there is a certain flavor with some people entering the treatment centre.

One of the sessions I learned was when young women came to treatment Psychiatrists and Doctors and some of the team members labeled her as Personality disorder client…She was in my group ..I remember being realy resistant and telling them that she was OK –nothing wrong with her…It took two weeks , lots of my patience before I started seeing that what they saw was something that I was unwilling to see. It was an awakening ..And what the diagnoses gives me now is a framework to work with people…I found I can work more efficiently and sensitive. So , is diagnosis useful in Gestalt therapy?…Yes , very much so. However it can be very unhelpful if one use them to label or “boxed” clients in…

Diagnosis is useful and necessary as it gives the therapist framework to work with…It informs the therapist of the client-s complex personality structure.. Diagnosis like any form of meaning is not correct or absolute, on the contrary its is constructed.

Page 408

First whenever possible I begin clinical interaction by centering and bracketing so that when I am with the client I can allow obvious to impress me…What do I see , hear, what is the quality of contact, how am I affected.

Does the patient takes initiative or I am irrelevant to them. Therapist needs to be aware of how he is affected and his reaction for its diagnostic value, and therapist needs to take responsibility for their own reaction.

When I am working with client I don’t focus or think about diagnosis or theory . However I have that in the back of my mind…It is not putting people into boxes or dividing them into good/bad sick/healthy ect.

When working with Borderline clients I need to know and understand to what extend they are disordered so I can work more creatively and holistically with them.. I found with Borderline clients in a group setting and one to one setting the need to be more sensitive and not as challenging as with other clients. They have a more fragile “sense of self” and sometimes quite vindictive if therapist trigger their wounds.

The current DSM IV states that Borderline personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationship, self image, effects and control over impulses requiring at least five of these nine criteria.

  1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
  2. Unstable and intense interpersonal relationship characterized by alternation between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
  3. Identity disturbance: persistent and markedly disturbed , distorted or unstable self-image or sense of self.
  4. Impulsiveness in tow self-damaging areas: substance abuse, spending, sex, binge eating , reckless driving.
  5. Recurrent suicidal threats, behavior, or self mutilation.
  6. Affective instability due to marked reactivity or mood.
  7. Chronic feeling of emptiness.
  8. Inappropriate intense anger or lack of control of anger.
  9. Transient stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms. (Yallom) on borderline personality page 399 . The theory and practice in group psychotherapy

Note..It has been shown in research and from personal experience that many people diagnosed with PD are survivors of abuse,neglect and traumatic childhood experiences.

Research evidence indicates that borderline patients highly value their group therapy experience-often more then individual therapy experience. In one to one setting they are often not able to hide or not being seen, where in a group setting they may be able to hide behind others (due to extreme anxiety)…However it is known that its also very challenging for most of the Borderline clients to be in the group. .Each client need to be assessed individually and separately.

Borderline personality client often splits the team or therapists in unconscious way of borderline system of splitting and getting other people to fight their intrapsychic battles in an interpersonal field. I personally saw that often in our MDS meetings.

The danger using only Gestalt therapy with Borderline clients is that lots of meaningless talk that is disguised as meaningful. This is a common weakness with beginning therapists. The client will gain “awareness” but nothing changes. And it can lead to more fragmentation, regression, decomposition. For example, if primitive rage is stirred up before the client self-support system is strengthened, he or she may need to act out, go crazy make calls to therapist etc .but will not be able to assimilate and integrate. The borderline client will engage in lot of talk and emotionality. There need to be firm boundaries establish …

It is totally different work with narcissistic client. Description.

The popular image that is called to mind when the word narcissism or narcissist is used is a picture of a thoroughly self-centered, self-loving person who, with an inflated sense of self ruthlessly pursues his or her own selfish needs without care about other people. To some extent this picture is supported by the description in the DSM III. The following are taken from the DSM III description of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder( Ref.pp.178-179/

  • A. Grandiose sense of self-importance or uniqueness.
  • B.Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, or ideal love.
  • C. Exhibitionism: the person requires constant attention and admiration.
  • D. Cool indifference or marked feelings of rage, inferiority, shame, humiliation, in response to criticism, indifference of other, or defeat.
  • E .At least two of the following:
    • 1.Entitlement:expectation of special favors without assuming reciprocal responsibilities.
    • 2.Interpersona exploitive ness: taking advantage of other to indulge own desires of for self aggrandizement, disregard for the personal integrity and right of others.
    • 3.Reletionship that characteristically alternate between the extremes of over idealization and evaluation.
    • 4. Lack of empathy, inability to recognize how others feel, e.g. unable to appreciate the distress of someone who is seriously ill.(Gary M. Yontef)

It is obvious that narcissistic client is self centered…but not centered on his or her “true self”. The true self is of the organism-environment field . As Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (p.235)say:

Healthy self-functioning is not self-centered, but self-other centered. Healthy awareness is not awareness of oneself, but of others and self.

Narcissists are confluent and field dependent. They are very dependent on the opinion of others. The inflated self-image of the inflated narcissists helps them avoid the shameful experience of being depleted and deflated. Under the surface, narcissistic clients are very different and insecure… We are all narcissistic to same degree and need admiration from people around us, however narcissistic personality disorder is basically a sever form of the narcissism of everyday life.. as a personality structure it is more deeply and strongly crystallized and thus more rigid, then other…

To work with narcissists therapy need to focus on the relationship and working with how the person relate and over period of time facilitating and assisting the client with empathy for others…one main challenge for narcissist is not having empty or compassion for other people..

The narcissistic client has a lot of shame , and use something external to give themselves a feeling of safety, and self-warmth.. I talked mostly here of narcissistic personality and borderline personality. it is obvious , however there are other dis-orders that could be explored and understand..

For us Gestalt therapists is important to understand the clients personality structure in order to work with them in a wholistic and healing way…The challenge is how to use “labels” and not being rigid about them…It comes to my mind Carl Jung quote: Learn your theory well, but put them aside when you touch the miracle of human being…… Most important for me in Gestalt therapy is to understand the individual client and treat each client individually.Good therapy is an art based on clear phenomenologically based awareness and dialogue and any suggestions based on group date such as diagnosis are only suggestive and giving a frame for the therapist…


In my opinion to work effectively and wholisticly with clients therapist must have clear boundaries and right intention…Without minimal diagnostic sorting no psychotherapy can be considered professional or competent… Therapist must have awareness of client’s self functions,and be able to best support and guide client to his best possible health and wellbeing.

Therapist discriminates between good support and challenging the client with the patterns that are working against them. Most important for client and therapist is to be in a related manner as we only grow and change in presence of the “other”. Therapist needs to be “bracketing” his own understanding about the diagnosis and holding this awareness with great caution and sensitivity…as all clients including us therapists are very sensitive about being labelled or put into boxes…In my opinion the diagnosis is really important to understand and in the course of session one needs to put that aside and be with client in a supportive , open and loving way.