Have you ever wondered how your family’s history effects you? Have you ever noticed there are patterns of behaviour across generations? Common occupations? Reoccurring themes of tragedy? Have you ever suspected your family’s ancestry was affecting you but couldn’t quite figure out how or why? Our family of origin determines more than just our genetic material. Patterns of behaviour, ways of thinking, and belief systems also get carried down. Interestingly, science is discovering that emotional issues, such as post traumatic stress, can also be passed along family lines – this occurs partly by our DNA’s influence and by environmental factors. The result of this is that many of us carry the burden of inherited family trauma, stress and pain. Given that these issues didn’t start with us, they can be difficult to deal with.
Mark Wolynn, author of It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and and How To End the Cycle describes this as: “The worst part is that the very thing that holds us back is often invisible to us, keeping us frustrated and confused.”
For example, a grandchild of a world war 2 veterinarian may exhibit post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as fear and panic when they hear helicopters, even if they have never experienced any chronic adversity directly to explain such a response.
Recognising that one’s family of origin plays a pivotal role influencing one’s mental health is not a new concept, however, the approach that Wolynn adds with his detailed scientific research gives provides deeper understandings and solid methods to address problems. Wolynn says: “By developing a relationship with the painful parts of ourselves—parts we have often inherited from our family—we have an opportunity to shift them.”
Nikki Mackay, author of Between the Lines: Healing the Individual & Ancestral Soul with Family Constellation, is another who has done significant work on understanding how the influence of family structures affects individuals. Mackay suggests that in events such as a child is stillborn but is never spoken of or the emotional impact of a parent’s past lover, can play hidden roles in the development of a family system. Moreover, they can cause silent torment to those who come after them but never knew them directly.
How can such mysteries be revealed? And the pain resolved? A great place to start is through the creating of a genogram.
Genograms are a formal method of mapping family systems. They slightly resemble a family tree in appearance, however, they differ in that their focus is on exploring the relationships between members and examining patterns from one generation to the next. Another difference is that genograms encourage looking at and including persons that are not blood-related, however, have a significant place or influence in the family dynamics. For example, in addition to the above examples, a close friend who has frequent contact with the family would be included due to their their enduring bond with members.
The process of drawing up a genogram involves identifying all the known people to be part of the family system for this generation and a few generations back. In some cases, little is known, in others, there is an abundance of information. Either way, the mapping out of how these relationships using a specific set of codes and symbols can bring clarity where there was once confusion. When done in an applied manner and guided by a professional with the specific training to understand the dynamics, the shifts and improvements in the life can be very profound.
When connections and patterns of behaviour in individuals are better understood, negative ones can be broken and positive ones can be reinforced. Rewarding aspects of doing this work can come in “aha” moments whereby people recognise that the shame/guilt/pain/whatever that they may be feeling does not belong to them, rather, they have been loyally carrying it for someone else. When this happens, they are able to honour this, put it back in its rightful place, and obtain a sense of peace. Recognising issues from this broader perspective has a ripple effect – when one person in a family system heals an old wound, anyone else connected benefits too.
If you are interested in mapping out your own genogram and discovering the hidden dynamics that may be influencing your current circumstances, fill out a query form here or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Wolynn, M. (2017). It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are And How To End The Cycle. Penguin Books.
Mackay, N. (2012). Between the Lines: Healing the Individual & Ancestral Soul with Family Constellation. Lanham: John Hunt Publishing.