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What is Your Emotional Genealogy?

Do You Know what Your Emotional Genealogy Is?

Emotional Genealogy is what we have inherited from those who came before us. It is the stories about our ancestors, and what their lives were like. It is the connection we have, with or without our awareness, to our grandparents, great grandparents, great great grandparents…going back two, three, four, five and sometimes more generations. It is the emotional traits that were handed down within our family lineage: the optimism, grit, rage, pain, inaccessibility, kindness, cruelty, avoidance, violence, tenderness, fear. Did it impact us in our lives? Of course it did. As someone recently said, in a very succinct statement, if it is not transformed, it is transmitted.

Many people are intrigued by their origins, but are not interested in archival research about names, dates, and branches in the family tree. Emotional Genealogy is a way to connect to those who came before us.

Others are drawn to archival research, and have discovered names, dates, and salient information about their ancestors, but they have not established an affective relationship with their forebears. Emotional Genealogy is a way for them to connect heart with head.

Why is Emotional Genealogy Important?

Every living thing has origins and ancestors. We are all part of a chain of life. We owe our existence to those who came before us. Simply put, if they hadn’t lived, we would have no life. And yet, most people ignore their antecedents, and have no knowledge of what and who preceded them. A tree cannot ignore its roots, or it will get no nourishment. The same is true for us. We can be nurtured by our roots, even if they weren’t healthy. They may have been toxic, but they also endowed us with intelligence, talents, and positive attributes. We can honor those who came before us, and what they endured so we could have life. It is possible to make sense of the dysfunction in our families, by understanding where they originated and how they were handed down. And by understanding, we can decide not to pass the dysfunction on, and to change our family behavior patterns. And we can get relief from the rootlessness so many of us feel. Finding out where we come from can give roots, solidity, and meaning to our lives. It can also help us to solve the mystery of who we really are.

How Do You Track Your Emotional Genealogy?

You probably recall family stories, or snippets of stories that were told to you. Maybe they seem trivial– a grandfather who played the fiddle, a great grandmother who sold cookies to soldiers. Or they can be painful– an uncle who hanged himself in his early 20’s, a philanderer who abandoned his family, a rage-aholic who was jailed for one of his outbursts. Actually, every detail is important and leads back to where we came from.

In some families, there are no stories at all, and the past is shrouded in mystery. Your mother or father may have stonewalled you when you tried to get information. So what do you do? You can start by talking to the oldest relatives you have, tenderly asking them what they know about the family and the family history. If they are not willing to talk at first, gentle persistence and patience will hopefully pay off. In my experience, it is best to start with easy questions: Who were your friends growing up? What was school like for you? Were your parents educated or self-educated? Once they relax a bit, it is easier to ask deeper questions. There is a certain urgency in talking to older relatives: who knows when they will be gone?

If you are fortunate enough to have living relatives to ask, inquire about the behavior patterns they experienced. Was growing up painful or pleasant for them? Were there any notable achievements in their family, or any aberrant behaviors? Was someone cut out of a will? Was someone cut off from the family for unacceptable behavior? Was a woman forced to give up her baby for adoption? Did someone suffer severe emotional trauma from military service? Did siblings refuse to talk to each other for decades? Did a parent abandon his or her children? Was there a divorce no one wanted to talk about? It is their story, and it is part of our story as well.

If you have no living relatives, or no one who recalls or is willing to discuss family matters, there are other options, like excellent sites available where you can access family information very quickly. In the U.S.A., there are detailed records on the Ellis Island website. You can explore the Family History Center (LDS Church),, or dozens of genealogical and ancestor-oriented websites. In many cases, you will find relatives you didn’t know you had. Or you will find, to your surprise, that your family didn’t come from the town or country you thought they hailed from.

Just because you were told, as a child, that certain relatives were awful, or certain family members were to be avoided doesn’t mean that what you were told is true. Find out for yourself. It’s your life, your search, your exploration.

Tracking your Emotional Genealogy can be exciting, illuminating and very rewarding as you deepen your awareness of how you came to be the way you are and what you were reacting to or avoiding. It can also be fun, and is an adventure like going to a new place when you travel, or re-discovering a place you have been before.

Feelings vs Facts

Many children feel a special connection to a grandparent, an aunt or an uncle. I was one of those children, and perhaps you were too. My grandmother was kind and gentle. To the outside world, she wasn’t special, but to me she was, and because of her caring, she deserves to be remembered. Even if the person is no longer alive, it is worth asking, exploring, deepening that connection to someone who nurtured you. It is also illuminating to find out who your parents, grandparents, and other relatives were before they came into your life. They were young, they had dreams, hopes, ambitions, fears. They made mistakes. They did things that helped others. No matter who they were, by learning about them, we honor them. In many cases, since their death, no one has ever spoken their name. They simply passed into oblivion.

The Treasures Available to You

Do you have family photos, letters, or journals that are in someone’s attic? They are gems, treasures of ancestry that will illuminate the lives of people who may now be gone, and who had an impact on your life. When we go through a difficult time, reading about ancestors who overcame difficulty and disaster can bolster our confidence, and remind us that current problems will recede or pass. It can also help to explain what was handed down from generation to generation, and why some of our relatives behave the way they do.

Roots Trips

Perhaps the most powerful and connecting experience you can have is taking a trip to the place your ancestors came from. It was certainly the case for me. It was not only the trip of a lifetime, but it was the trip of lifetimes---recreating in my mind and heart the landscape, climate, buildings, food, and customs that were part of my ancestors’ lives.

You can, perhaps, find a house where a great grandparent or parent lived. You can walk through cemeteries with tombstones that bear your family’s name. You may meet people who knew your ancestors. You can get first-hand information about traumatic incidents that made your forebears leave their town or city or village. You can smell the air, feel the dirt under your feet, connect viscerally to your origins even is nothing is left of the people who preceded you.

Knowledge in the Bones:

For many people, the trail to the ancestors is fraught with difficulties and obstacles. Perhaps they have been adopted and have no contact with their biological families. Or all the relatives are deceased. Maybe family members absolutely refuse to talk about family history and anything personal. Perhaps the forebears were slaves, and there are no accessible records. Or the few stories that are accessible are contradictory and it is hard or impossible to know what is the truth.

There is another source of information that may be helpful and it comes from inside, rather than outside, the person who is seeking his or her roots. Sometimes, people have a feeling that they are connected to certain people and countries. Perhaps they will never be able to get physical proof or evidence, but strong feelings ARE a form of evidence. Some folks find out after twenty or thirty years that what they felt and suspected was true––that their great great grandparents came from China, Wales, Spain, Lebanon, or Native America. Or that their ancestors practiced a religion to which they have always felt drawn. Intuitive knowledge IS knowledge, and it is a resource to be treasured.

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Judith Fein is the author of the acclaimed book, THE SPOON FROM MINKOWITZ: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands. It’s a funny, compelling, sad, powerful story about Emotional Genealogy. Her website is:

Photos by Paul Ross