Inspirational Articles

How Well Do You Know Your Family?

How Well Do You Know Your Family?

by Michelle DesRoches

April is finally here – and for our Spiritual Psychotherapy students, that means the Genogram Assignment is due! If you don’t know what a genogram is, think of it as a family tree with all the trimmings. This is THE assignment that they will still be talking about 10 years from now. I remember when I was a student and embarked on this project: I was excited and looked forward to learning more about my family. Little did I know, I would uncover some truths that were both surprising and upsetting. Having said that, my life has made more sense as a result. I uncovered from whom I received my best and worst traits. In fact, I recall listing all the qualities I had gotten from each of my parents and then tried to come up with a list of qualities I had developed despite them. I was humbled to see that everything I thought of as uniquely mine had come from them. I also came to see them as human beings, with parents and siblings of their own and then I was able to appreciate who they were.

In the past few weeks I’ve talked to many students about both the overwhelming task of getting their family histories on paper and the range of emotions this stirs up. Diving into family histories can be difficult without adequate support. Support may come in the form of a therapist, friend or family member. One student reported that she was glad she wasn’t on this journey alone and had her classmates to lean on. It is always remarkable to me how moving and triggering this assignment can be. Here is a sample of what our students have said about this process:

“I now have more compassion for myself and my family.”

“Doing it was emotionally in-depth process...stressful.”

“It made me question a lot of my perceptions of what I thought I knew.”

“Some secrets are still secrets...they are held very tightly.”

“I see my parents in a different light. It’s easier to understand them because I saw where they came from.”

The exercise is an opportunity for students to integrate all the theory they have been taught and apply it to their own lived experience. By recognizing parents and grandparents as flawed human beings who were once children themselves, they are called to grow up and adjust their expectations to reflect new adult-to-adult relationships.

Creating a genogram is a worthwhile experience, regardless of whether or not you are studying psychotherapy. Normally you would begin with a basic family tree, which includes birth and death dates, marriages and children.And then the fun begins! To really get to know your family, book some time with your family historians – the ones who remember everything and love to talk. Ask for details about the stories that have become legendary as well as those that are in the family vault. Like a good reporter, always protect your sources and be prepared to offer up some personal information of your own as collateral. As for secrets, you may or may not succeed in unlocking the vault, but you’ll know when you’ve hit it! Sometimes the questions they refuse to answer provide you with the most information.

What you’re looking for are patterns, behaviours and belief systems that have been passed down through generations. You may even work backwards by examining all the things about yourself that defy explanation. Who else in your family tree shares these quirks and what was their story?

Family plays an important role in our development, as does the family history that existed before we were even on the scene. Our ancestors’ beliefs and attitudes have trickled down and influenced those who came after. Whether your lineage comes from wealth, poverty, religion, war, abuse, addiction, and regardless of culture or nationality, you will uncover the patterns and where you fit into the family puzzle. You may think of yourself as the rebel who is breaking free, but likely your biggest battle will be against yourself, as you get a handle on how those patterns are already ingrained in you, despite your best ideals to the contrary.

In other words, we can’t escape our families. It’s that simple. We are all by-products of our lineage. Our task as adults is to celebrate our roots, be mindful and vigilant of the traps our ancestors may have fallen into and add our own influence into the family DNA, knowing that in years to come, we will likely be the subject of examination for future generations.

For tips on how to get started, Google ‘genogram’ and you’ll find what you need, or better still, come join us in the Spiritual Psychotherapy Program for the full experience!


Michelle DesRoches, B.A., is a Senior Spiritual Psychotherapist, Case Supervisor, facilitator for the Total Self, Spiritual Psychotherapy, Group Psychotherapy Programs and Intensives. She is the College’s Counselling Clinic Coordinator and a graduate of the Spiritual/Body Psychotherapy and Spiritual Director Programs. Michelle has a private practice in Toronto and runs psychotherapy groups.

Check out Transformational Arts College’s Spiritual Psychotherapy Training Program detailed on-line or contact us for an information package or to schedule a personal tour and interview. Please join us for our upcoming complimentary Open House .