When my grandmother died in the hospital, she had lost all her teeth and her hair was gone due to her chemotherapy. She had a good sense of humor and made jokes about looking like an orangutan. The doctor had told her long before that either her lungs or her liver would get her and in the end it was the lungs as her cancer had spread from her lungs all over her body. On the day she died, I remember walking away from the hospital after visiting her one final time and thinking to myself, “Grandma, your body is broken, but your spirit is about to fly free!” She was an alcoholic who at one point would hide the bottles around the house and through her life she had been a chain smoker. My grandfather had some issues with anger and enabling and made a lot of money in lumber. This was on my mother’s side, and my mom carried the emotional baggage from her issues with her parents.
On my father’s side, they were stoic, guarded and emotionally shut down. My father’s ancestor was one of the last confederate soldiers to walk out of the battle of Atlanta when General Sherman burned it to the ground, and my father told the story of how the men folk said he came back a war hero and the women folk said he came back a broken man: true Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They had no idea of any mental health treatment at that time, so this emotional brokenness was passed down from father to son and ever since then and possibly before. The men in my father’s family were emotionally shut down, guarded and stoic. They were from Pensacola Florida and they worked hard, made good choices with money and externally did well, but they were controlling and rigid and emotional intimacy was not an option. My father told stories of how his parents sent him off to summer camp all summer every summer and sent him off to boarding school in high school so they wouldn’t have to deal with him as a teenager.
Both of my parents were great people in their own ways. They had good intentions and loved their family and friends the best they knew how, but both had their own emotional wounds that impacted our family, and as I reflect on how all these issues have impacted my life, I can clearly see how the issues of shame, anger, addiction and isolation in my family tree have impacted me and my siblings and have been the emotional issues I have had to work on my whole life. I am deeply grateful for the healing process and continue every day to work to free my life from the legacy of emotional suffering on both sides of my family and embrace the gifts in this legacy as I continue to step into the wholeness of my essential Self to the best of my ability.
In a similar manner, your emotional issues are embedded in the history of your family tree as well. When you transform the problems and emotional breakdowns in your life, you are healing your family tree and you are breaking the cycles of suffering passed down through your family lineage. It can be helpful to step back and look at the big picture of your path of growth in life and learn to understand and embrace the legacy of the emotional suffering and find the joy in your family tree.
If you want to begin to heal the family legacy of suffering and dysfunctional character traits passed on to you, it can be helpful to self reflect on the issues of dysfunction in your life and how this relates to the emotional baggage you learned from not only your parents, but in your grandparents and in the stories of your family tree which will likely reflect similar issues of dysfunction. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
You are responsible for your issues, and your parents, grandparents and ancestors are not to blame for your issues because you have made the choices to perpetuate whatever problems and character defects you learned from your parents and ancestors. However, part of the healing process is doing your best to understand your personal issues and the legacy of dysfunction and emotional suffering in your family tree so you can address these problems and transform your character defects and your family legacy in your healing and growth process.
As a counselor, I work with many families as well as individuals in the healing process where we often consider these family patterns. Here’s a few steps in healing your family tree that might be helpful in thinking about this family healing process.
Understand your family patterns of conflict and the shared history of trauma that all the members in your family have due to this common history. Everyone is impacted and each person may react to this shared history of trauma differently and develop different problems in relation to this trauma.
- Be careful of scapegoating and the blame game. Redefine the problem as how we blame each other. The blame game is the problem because however you define who the victim is and who the perpetrator is in your personal and family story these roles often switch. In family conflict, everyone is blaming each other on some level and thereby contributes to the problem. At one moment, a person could be the perpetrator and another moment they could be the victim or rescuer, so these roles constantly shift.
- Own responsibility for how you blame or play the victim and for your participation and your role in the family pattern of conflict and take accountability for how you blame yourself or others or have had poor boundaries in the family patterns of conflict. Blaming yourself is not accountability; it is just part of the shame that perpetuates the family dysfunction. Taking responsibility is owning your character defects and making positive change while appreciating the basic goodness of your humanity.
- Apologize for how you have blamed others or played the victim in your family and commit to change. Take the time to learn the skills of respectful communication and conflict resolution and learn to address conflict and resolve problems without the patterns of intimidation, manipulation and control.
Practice these steps and you will likely experience growth and a positive shift in your relationships with family members. You will never regret any effort you give to your own healing process and you can actually improve the quality of your life and your relationships. You can do this.