Emotional family history is the emotional and relational patterns inherited and/or learned from your parents and grandparents, which may have been passed down to you. It includes:
1. nature: predisposition to certain emotional & mental health problems or traits (i.e. depression, anxiety, addictions)
2. nurture: learned patterns of how to manage emotions in relationships (i.e. “It’s not ok to be angry” or “When there is conflict it’s best to leave the situation”).
WHY is emotional family history important?
Just like physical health history, country of birth, or personal history of ancestors, we can learn valuable information about ourselves by looking at the emotional patterns we have inherited or learned from our families. The awareness of positive as well as negative traits and patterns that have been passed down to us allows us to understand ourselves better, to be more aware of our emotional vulnerabilities, and to take responsibility for our emotional lives. Like puzzle pieces, the more pieces you have in place, the more clearly you can see the picture of where you came from emotionally. Frequently, clients will fear that doing emotional family history is somehow “not honoring” their parents and grandparents, but in my own experience I have found that the more emotional puzzle pieces I have about my parents and grandparents, the more I am able to empathize with their struggles and honor their lives.
HOW & WHERE do you find emotional family history information?
F – Feedback from “Outsiders”
“Outsiders” are anyone who did not grow up in your family. Spouse’s, in-laws’, friend’s, neighbor’s observations about the idiosyncrasies of your family are worth considering. As you grow up in your family, it’s easy to think that your family’s way of managing emotions is the norm because it’s all that you know. Some examples of observations are “Why does your family seem to yell at each other over every little thing?” or “Your family seems to handle conflict really well. I really like how everyone can have differing opinions and it’s O.K.” or “Why don’t you or your siblings, tell your dad how you feel about the way he talks to your mom?”
A – Ask Hard Questions
Be willing to ask the hard questions and get more curious about family relationship patterns. “Why did Grandma and Grandpa divorce in their 70′s? ” or “When did Uncle Joe and Aunt Betty stop talking to each other?” “How did Grandpa manage to remain so kind and loving even after he returned from the war?” Notice positive and difficult trends among family members. Are there family members who’ve exhibited incredible capacity for forgiveness, or tolerance of differences, or emotional resilience after traumatic experiences? Are there signs of unresolved trauma, addictions, abuse, divorces, infidelity, suicide or other problems that many families don’t openly talk about?
M – Mental Health Histories
Just as health histories are important source of information for you, mental health history of your family can also empower you to be educated, to know what symptoms to watch for, and to get help if those symptoms arise in your own life, and in the lives of your children. Mental health history allows you to be proactive and take preventative measures. Is there a history of depression, anxiety, personality disorders, substance abuse, physical or sexual abuse? Here’s an example of how mental health history is important. A new mom struggles to understand why she feels hopeless and worthless and has feelings of wanting to abandon her baby. Her mother discloses AFTER her daughter is diagnosed with postpartum depression, that she, too, suffered from postpartum depression after 3 out of her 4 deliveries. Had she shared that information with her daughter prior to her daughter’s diagnosis, they could have been more proactive in education and treatment.
I – Identify Emotional Rules
Each family has a unique way of being, managing emotions, and getting our emotional needs met. While some of these rules are explicit (i.e. “Men are always right”, “We don’t talk about feelings”, “We wear our feelings on our sleeve”, “Never admit that you’re wrong”, “It’s ok to cry when you’re physically hurt, but not emotionally hurt”), many are implicit and we follow the rules without conscious awareness. Ask yourself, “What messages did I receive about happiness, sadness, anger, fear?” and “How did my parents manage each of these emotions in themselves?” “How did my family respond when I have expressed each of these emotions?” If you were raised with parents who were sensitive to your emotions and needs, then you will likely have healthier emotional rules to live by.
L – Life Scripts
Similar to a movie script, we learn who our “character” is (the smart one, or the pretty one, or the lazy one) and how to respond in certain relational situations (i.e. when someone says you did a great job on a project at work, you are supposed to point out all of the flaws in your presentation and discount the compliment). We also live by scripts regarding our physical body, money, intelligence, worth, future, gender role, intimate relationships, sexuality, and family life. Just like emotional rules, many of the scripts you live by are implicit and never stated directly. For example, if your parents never discuss sex with you, you may be living by a script that sex is bad or wrong.
Y – Your Own Experiences
Examine and reflect on your own experiences in your family – the positive and the painful. Take the emotional family history information you receive from others and check it against your own experience in your family. Ask yourself, “Does this fit with my experiences?” The beauty of becoming aware of your emotional history is now you are free to sift through the information, keep the positive emotional patterns, and be proactive in changing the patterns that you don’t want to pass on to your family. Knowledge allows you to take responsibility for your current and future emotional life. Example: if your family has anger management issues and you find yourself screaming at your family, take anger management classes.
Self & relationship expert Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW is wife of 22 years and mother of 4, a performing songwriter, a licensed psychotherapist, a popular media contributor, and director of Wasatch Family Therapy. Watch Julie on KSL TV’s Studio 5, and read her national advice columns on Psych Central. Follow Julie on Facebook & Twitter.