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Geneatherapy: Fostering Connection Through History

Exploring one’s family is not an unfamiliar tool used in therapy. Many family systems and interpersonal approaches use a mapping of familial relations as a better way to understand the dynamic within a family system or to understand how those close to you impact you in a positive or negative manner. A common tool used…

May 26, 2020

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Exploring one’s family is not an unfamiliar tool used in therapy. Many family systems and interpersonal approaches use a mapping of familial relations as a better way to understand the dynamic within a family system or to understand how those close to you impact you in a positive or negative manner. A common tool used within these approaches is a genogram, which looks like a family tree, but focuses beyond genetics and explores the interpersonal nature of the relationships within our immediate and extended family.

This does not mean that a more traditional exploration of one’s family tree cannot be a meaningful tool in treatment. Tom Rue (1998) shared some insights on how a variety of individual and family therapists have used genealogical exercises to understand repeated family histories, to solidify one’s self identity, or as an exercise in self-authoring.

Since Rue’s 1998 piece, we have only seen the interest in genealogy and family histories explode: Premium web databases are now available from Ancestry and MyHeritage as not only web services, but apps you can navigate on your phone; A half dozen DNA services are available that provide insights into your family connections and even how much Neanderthal DNA you still have; and we have several reality tv shows that can help you figure out how closely related you are to Beyoncé.

In keeping with the therapeutic approaches shared by Rue, these services appear to be promising happiness through an increased understanding and connection to one’s past.

Professor of Molecular Biology, Nathan Lents, rebuts the recent genealogy trend, focusing heavily on the flaws and accuracy gaps in genealogical research. Indeed, sloppy research makes these types of errors easy, and providing a more accurate narrative is certainly time intensive and requires notable attention and due diligence (Note: This in itself can actually be a fairly effective mindfulness exercise).

Lents also postulates that focusing on your connectivity with distant relatives of more than a few generations ago is essentially meaningless. He goes on to highlight the arguing that we are all connected and should thus get along by pointing to the shared heritage of individual’s like Barack Obama and Dick Cheney is a fallacy and will lead to no meaningful change in the world.

While none of Lents arguments here are inherently incorrect, I believe he is missing the point. Ironically, he actually conveyed the exact point he appeared to miss:

“Now is when I have to come clean and admit that I have enjoyed keeping up with the efforts of my relatives to trace our family tree. I have pictures on my bedroom wall of ancestors that I’ve never met, but whose story I tell.”

Perhaps Lents microbiological roots cause him to focus too much on genetic connection in genealogy to the detriment of the far more important narratives that can come along with genealogical research. Historians within many of the worlds indigenous populations recognize how oral story telling traditions were the anchor of a connected society. Within these societies, narratives communicate cultural beliefs, values, practices, and shared history. Many will also point to the increasing loss of these traditional practices as a significant contributor to the challenges many indigenous cultures experience today.

While familial narratives may not be observed as an anchor of many traditional Caucasian societies, I would argue that this was still a clear practice across in a diverse range of cultures only a generation or two ago. For instance, it is fair to say that the majority our parents and grandparents have a deeper understanding and connection to their immediate and more distant ancestors. A generation ago, this information was maintained by the family, as opposed to algorithms and network connections on Facebook that we seem to rely on these days.

I would also argue that the what we have lost by moving away from storytelling is not the lessons of our past and a deeper understanding of our historical roots, but rather a loss of connection with our immediate family. Being in my 40’s, there is not a whole lot in my day-to-day life that brings forth a deep connection with my mother, my aunts and uncles, or cousins. There are of course a few overlaps. My mother certainly wants to hear what my son is up to at school and we shared a common profession that sometimes contributes to meaningful conversation, but do chats about work, recent my car troubles, or raising hydro bills really result in meaningful conversation and connection between myself and my mother?

One way we can connect is through our history. I began a deep dive into my families genealogical origins a few years ago. My father was in a fight with cancer that he would ultimately lose, and I felt inspired to take the time we had left to learn a little bit more about our shared history. Of particular interest to the two of us was a mystery regarding the origins of the family name and its seeming absence from our country of origin. Exploring that history allowed for many engaging and meaningful conversations, but also spawned a new way for me to feel connected with other family members in a similar manner.

I had a bit of insomnia this morning and decided to explore an ancestry line of my mother’s that I had previously dug too deeply into. After only a few minutes of work, I came across Major General Brown of Fordell who was a significant player in the battle of Inverkeithing (Scotland 1651). It did not end well for Brown of Fordell, but the story of the battle was something I shared over breakfast with my mother only a few hours later. In the absence of this research, we would have undoubtedly discussed the weather, our plans for the week, or meaningless politics. Instead, we had a lively and engaging conversation about our shared history and, through that, built further connection with each other in the here and now.

It is that live and active connection that is meaningful. Our connections to the past are certainly interesting, but these have no real meaning to our current identities and certainly will not change how we act in our day-to-day lives. The increased connection we fostered this morning, however, will foster growth.

When we are children, the connection between ourselves and our parents, good or bad, are everything. As we age, we become increasingly disengaged and disconnected. Our busy lives and the many distractions we face foster movement apart and require legitimate effort to stay connected. We generally put in the time to connect by checking in, sending a Facebook update or text, but we do not really have a meaningful connection the way we have in the past. Exploring shared history, whether it is something we experienced together or only through genetic connection allows us an opportunity to foster those more meaningful connections we had earlier in our lives. It is these connections that are important, not the fact that we are related to Brown of Fordell. Our historical connections are simply an opportunity to connect in the here in now through shared storytelling and meaningful in the moment engagement. In the end, those were the connections we were really seeking all along.



Want to explore your own genealogical history?

Getting started in genealogical research can be challenging and overwhelming. Instead of signing up for expensive ancestry archive services or DNA testing, why not begin by just speaking to your family about their relatives. Use free accounts on Ancestry or Geni to begin a simple family tree based on those you already know. Use this as an opportunity to start conversations about the shared history and memories you already have within your immediate family. After that, take a look at your public library, which likely has a free national database from Ancestry available to you. From that point forward there are many great online and local communities to expand your search and understand what resources are available to you.

Michael Decaire is an Ontario-based psychologist and psychotherapist. He writes on topics of wellness, mental health advocacy, and professional practice.

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