Updated: Sep 4
For many years I have been thought that two things are important when trying to understand my difficulties. First, the here and now. How I am now, how do I approach reality, how my feelings and my thoughts are. Secondly, my past. All the things that happened to me, some of them, many, many years ago and how these things affect my current reality. All the experiences, old and new were there to teach me about myself and life, all of them were there to learn from.
But growing up in a country with a violent and turbulent past, I felt there was an undercurrent in all these stories. Something that pushed life and me one way not the other. Something that was somehow beyond my own story. A few years ago I came across a book that truly influenced my journey and changed the way I work with my clients. Written by a French therapist Anne Ancelin Schutzenberger, 'The Ancesor Syndrome’, tells stories of people who uncovered the missing link by looking into their family genograms.
I bet you have seen some of these websites looking to help you to create a genealogical tree of your family for your own interest, to find out who your ancestors were, where they lived and whom are you connected to. However, when thinking about psychological health, you may want to look at your family in a more complex way. What can be important is people- where they lived and how they died. But also things that are less often spoken about. People that were meant to be born and did not have a chance. People who died accidentally or in an unusual way. People who achieved more than anyone thought they would. The ways people related to others, the function they had in their families, the narratives and stories people said about them, their attitude to risk and security. The jobs they chose and why. The habits and traumas. The political situation in the country and the world around the time all these people lived.
To truly understand your point of view and how it came about, it is not enough to see your story. You may want to understand how your parents and grandparents, and maybe their parents too, operated and why. Over last three decades a science called epigenetics has been showing us that our genes are expressed depending on the environment we live in. By extension, the way we function is also transmitted and expressed depending of the environment. For example, a person who is a grandchild of a war veteran is on average more likely to see the world as a more dangerous place than a person whose grandparents have not been participants in a war. This is because the granddad would have experienced an increased, probably long term, level of stress where, whether he survived or not, was dependent of his hyper vigilance. He will then teach his children to be careful and they, your parents, will teach you the same. Because many of these lessons are passed unconsciously, you may find yourself living in the times where there is no military conflict in your part of the world, but still experience an unexplained sense of danger. This in turn will mean that you will not take certain opportunities, or will not make certain decisions. A growing number of research in neuropsychology also confirm Schutzenberger's ideas. Past traumas and family histories will influence future generations. The same goes for depression, PTSD and likely many other mental health issues. Several years ago one american research (later repeated for confirmation) discovered that grandchildren of Holocaust survivors would present with ongoing symptoms of PTSD without a personal history of events that would warrant that set of reactions. The research suggested that the PTSD symptoms were a transmission from their grandparents' unprocessed traumas. This means that we are bonded with past and future generations in the ways that are tighter then ever thought, not only genetically, but also mentally. And this connection is expressed in our genome and in our behaviours. This also means that what happens to us in our own life, if unprocessed and left to be, will affect future generations.
Looking into family history through psychogenealogical lenses can bring some unexpected results and shine some light on your struggles. And as Carl Gustav Jung used to say, what's hidden it the shadow, controls reality.
Mallory E Bowers and Rachel Yehuda, Intergenerational Transmission of Stress in Humans, Neuropsychopharmacology REVIEWS (2016) 41, 232–244; (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4677138/#:~:text=Stress%20effects%20that%20are%20inherited,%2C%20epigenetic%2C%20and%20neuroanatomical%20changes.&text=Parental%20stress%20can%20be%20transmitted,environment%2C%20and%20early%20postnatal%20care.)
Rachel Yehuda, Amy Lehrner, Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of
epigenetic mechanisms, World Psychiatry 2018;17:243–257
Anne Ancelin Schutzenberger, The Ancestor Syndrome. Transgenerational psychotherapy and the hidden links in the family tree. Routledge, London and NY, 2009