All of us are a product of biology and culture, nature and nurture, society and family. In fact, family counselors and therapists often use genograms to map out family information and history (suicides, addictions, birth order, religion, sexual orientation, marriages, abuse, diseases, etc.), much of which can be found in genealogical sources like an obituary, oral history, census, letter, journal, or diary.
Of the many types of counseling and therapy out there, did you know there is a specific therapy that uses genealogy? Geneatherapy taps into the emotional side of genealogy, using genealogical sources to move beyond knowledge of a family’s roots to gain an understanding of how, why, and to what extent ancestors have emotionally impacted generations that follow.
The physical side of genealogy manifests itself in gathering family data in order to better treat medical issues, which is why many get DNA tests to discover, uncover, or prove biological ancestors. The emotional side of genealogy goes beyond heredity links and comes down to: Do I simply want knowledge about my ancestors? Or an understanding of them?
A woman studying her family’s genealogy told stories of her closed-off, “mean” grandmother who had never once hugged her. The woman felt a sense of rejection from that relationship to a point of internalizing feelings of her own self-worth. That is, until a 1910 Federal Census changed her mind. In this particular census, there is a column where the number of living children is recorded, and the woman could see that the number of living children recorded for her grandmother was three, which she knew to be her mother and two uncles. What this woman did not know was the information in the next column, which was the number of children her grandmother had actually birthed—11! This woman’s grandmother had 11 children, of whom only three survived.
This was never acknowledged or spoken of in her family. With tears in her eyes, the woman finally understood her grandmother’s heart and instantly changed her whole internal dialogue about her grandmother and herself. She processed enough to conclude that the closed-off part of her grandmother was built over years of loss in order to protect herself. And within that context, the woman could now remember moments with her grandmother as precious and dear. Sure, a census can give valuable information and facts, but it can also heal!
Here are a few resources if you wish to learn more about the emotional side of genealogy:
- “What Is Your Emotional Genealogy?” by Judith Fein in Psychology Today
- “Genealogy as a Tool for Self-Knowledge and Family Therapy,” a blog by counselor Tom Rue
- “Genealogy as Therapy (Geneatherapy),” a blog by Scott Phillips in The Huffington Post
- Genograms: Assessment and Intervention by Monica McGoldrick
If you wish to make a genogram of your family, you can use a free online genogram maker. What experiences like this have you had as you’ve researched your family?
Midwest Genealogy Center