From 'Life Sentences' to 'Sentences for Life'


| ‘Life Sentences’

As a result of relationships, events and experiences in the past, we embody, enact and bring into the present unconscious patterns, hidden loyalties and secret promises. These deep inner decisions and coping mechanisms become unspoken commitments and entanglements, keeping us stuck, unconsciously loyal to people, patterns, events and systems in which we have belonged. What’s not spoken out goes within and gets transmitted, becoming hidden language that limits our lives, our relationships and our work.

These powerful inner statements influence our behaviours, our actions and relationships and we can think of them as ‘life sentences’ as they can remain potent for life. Their power is however diminished by bringing them into more conscious awareness and giving them voice. This is one of the advantages of constellations in which the hidden sentences can be spoken, adjusted and expressed in a new way that opens the heart, body and mind to lasting change.

For example someone who has internalised a judgment over their birth family, something like this: “My parents/family were not good enough for me. I would have done a better job. I don’t belong there. I’ll do it better…” may find that these inner ‘life sentences’ repeat in other relationship systems and contexts later in their life.

‘Life sentences’ like these for example:
In Life:     “I am the special one, better than you….”
In Love:    “This relationship is not enough for me, I will always look for better….”
In Leadership: “My boss is not a good enough leader for me. I will keep moving on….”

This kind of deeply unconscious inner language, once identified and expressed, can become a source of insight and transformation. The limiting dynamics soften and resolve when the internalised ‘life sentences’ are identified, articulated and then balanced. The balancing language honours the original person, event or difficulty and articulates the hidden loyalty and is often heard in systemic coaching and constellation workshops. The words open up possibilities for resolution that touch the heart, align the mind and release fresh embodied energy. These balancing sentences invite a return to flow in life, relationships and work and so can be thought of as ‘sentences for life‘.     Please scroll down for more on this topic.

| ‘Sentences for Life’

The balancing words – ‘sentences for life’ – provide a way of expressing the primary emotions and softening the unspoken loyalties and judgments while simultaneously catalysing an inner alignment with deeper truths and possibilities. They are often touching and express privately what has never been said or is not possible to say face-to-face.

The sentence sequences acknowledge, illuminate and separate. They go on to identify resources, responsibilities and new paths to resolution. There are many examples of these ‘sentences for life’ throughout the articles on this website.

In the examples given above the balancing ‘sentences for life’ may be along these lines:

In Life:      “I am unique and also the 2nd daughter of my mother and my father. Behind me and them are millions. This is where I come from. This is my place.”
In Love:    “I love with deep respect for the complexities of relationship systems. I am learning to be truly present in my relationship.”
In Leadership: “I bring what I have in service of the purpose of the organisational system.” And “I know that belonging in professional systems is temporary. So I will lead and leave in a way that enables those who follow me to flourish.”

These are generic examples only and will be different for each individual and context. 

Working with sentences

It’s the job of the system-orientated practitioner to see beyond the symptom, into the underlying relationship system dynamics. To identify the inner ‘life sentence’ that is holding back or limiting the potential to live, love or lead fully.

By working backwards to the source of the dynamic, the original sentence can be spoken out loud so that it and the dynamics that emerged from it come into the light. This approach, acknowledging what is, forms the basis for any movement forward; it carries no judgment but serves to reveal, acknowledge and honour the source of the dynamic that creates the difficulty.

Then, working forwards, sentences that belong to each expression of the journey of the dynamic can be spoken and these move the individual and the system into a more useful path that is strengthening and resourcing. The individual is slowly released and can then express and embody their ‘Sentence for Life’, living fully.

Whilst you may hear some familiar sentence patterns in constellations there is no ‘approved list’ of words. Rather they emerge from the field as people stand in it and work with it. This requires a capacity in the facilitator to be distant and objective whilst being present and close at the same time. This clairsentient practice allows the most useful sentences to emerge and be spoken.

With all that in mind, there are, broadly speaking, 10 categories of sentences that naturally emerge, or are useful to offer in constellations.

In brief these are as follows (though not necessarily offered or used in this specific order):
1.  Acknowledge what is, just as it truly is
2.  Name a dynamic connected to the organising principles of systems
3.  Amplify or ‘turn up the heat’ on a particular dynamic in order to confirm or clarify it
4.  Separate what has been wrongly joined or to join what has been wrongly separated
5.  Disentangle by taking, and/or returning, responsibility or guilt
6.  Make a request (for time, resources, permission or separation)
7.  Name and change the pattern
8.  Open up other possibilities and/or prepare for action
9.  Embed a resolution by vocalising it
10. Offer a ‘forward anchor’

“All you have to do is write one true sentence.
Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Ernest Hemingway

For more on the creation and application of sentences in coaching please explore John Whittington’s book Systemic Coaching & Constellations published in 3rd edition in April 2020. Teaching on the expression of ‘life sentences’ and the application of ‘sentences for life’ in coaching forms part of the training journey that Coaching Constellations offers.

To attend one of John’s quarterly public workshops please click here.

Links and resources

This is a ‘pop-up page’ about sentences that goes into a little more detail than is possible within the main articles.

For all the articles on this site, please see this page.

For further reading with a systemic perspective please see the ‘Further Reading’ page, here.