Confronting Your Family History
Updated: Dec 28, 2021
"Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it." Have you heard this quote, or some version of it? Do you believe it is true?
Usually we hear this quote in the context of politics or history. In our race to move forward, we often forget to study what the past can teach us. The same is true with our own personal family history.
It can be painful to revisit the past, especially when we have suffered from childhood trauma. Even if the trauma wasn't extreme, like child abuse, many other events in our past may have lasting impacts on our present that we are not even aware of. For example...
Confusing feelings around our parents' divorce
Feeling as though love was conditional on accomplishments and behavior
Pressure to be perfect or to conform to an expected family role, like the peacemaker or the black sheep
Dealing with a parent's mental health issues or addictions
Feeling unseen, unheard, or unimportant in the family
These childhood frameworks, and many others, can stay with us our whole lives if they are not addressed. They can keep us stuck in unsatisfying jobs, unhappy relationships, and harmful patterns of trying to distract ourselves to escape from our current lives.
Common blocks to digging up the past
Looking at family history is often uncomfortable, which is in itself a reason so many of us avoid it. But there are other reasons as well. We may feel guilty about admitting that our parents hurt us or let us down. Weren't they just doing their best? We may feel like we are whining or living in the past instead of moving on, like the world tells us to. Or we may feel like looking at childhood pain is just a cop-out; didn't other people have it much worse, and they turned out just fine?
It's true that we are responsible for our own healing, but it's important to remember that if we have suffered childhood trauma, emotional neglect or any form of abuse, there are lasting impacts to the developing brain. Yes, you made adult choices that helped create your present reality and blocked your growth, but were you making those choices with the same degree of emotional stability and wisdom as someone who didn't suffer the same level of trauma as you did? In other words, were your choices always really choices?
The comparison game is a very dangerous one when it comes to confronting family history. You are only looking at your own past and how it affected you. There is no right or wrong in how you feel about your childhood, even if a sibling had a different experience or relatives created a different narrative within the same family.
Tips for confronting your family history
I find writing about family and personal history to be very helpful in processing painful emotions that are rooted in the past. Here's how to get started.
Find out what you can about your parents and grandparents. Did they live through war? Struggle with addictions? Survive abuse? This is not to justify or condone their behavior, it is only for the purposes of knowing the history and what may have been passed down to you.
On your own or with professional guidance, write out a memory from your childhood that causes you distress when you think about it. Maybe it's when you felt embarrassed at school or on the field. Maybe it's a memory of your parents fighting. Maybe it's a moment of rejection. It doesn't have to be a novel. Just start writing whatever comes to mind, and then ask yourself: what help did you get around this issue? Did the grownups in your life comfort you? Tell you to snap out of it or that it was none of your business? Did they give you ice cream? Writing about a single event can lead to more memories, so proceed carefully if you are feeling too overwhelmed.
Stay with your feelings. How did this event, or events like it, make you feel? Where do you feel that feeling in your body right now as you recall and write about the event? What can you do to support yourself as you feel these feelings? Do you need to cry? Can you see any links between this event and a belief you now hold, or a problem you now struggle with? Notice if you are being impatient or angry with yourself, or telling yourself you are being stupid to even look at this. Where does that voice come from?
Talk to someone, like a supportive friend, partner, or professional counselor or therapist - someone who can be a compassionate witness to what you are feeling. If you don't have anyone to talk to, or you aren't yet ready to share, that is fine. You have just been your own witness and that is all your inner child really wants. That being said, I do recommend having someone help you process childhood pain. It needs to be seen and felt, but a good therapist will also help you see how past trauma could be affecting your current decision-making.
Keep writing. Free-form journaling about your past history can help you by shining a light on the past; don't censor yourself, just get it down on paper. You are already carrying it within you, so you are not making anything new happen. Nor are you betraying anyone by writing out who and what hurt you in the past.
Need a nudge? You can find journaling prompts around childhood trauma online or in videos such as those created by Patrick Teahan, LICSW, that may help guide you.
Stay curious about your past. It is the most important determinant of your present.