Changing Perspectives On The Past: Genogram

Another method for changing your perspective on the past is to draw yourself a genogram. A genogram is nothing more and nothing less than a psychologically informed family tree. You construct a genogram by using symbols to represent your parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, grand parents, etc. going back several generations as you have information. Each family member is represented by their own symbol (males by squares, females by circles), and lines are drawn between each family member to indicate their relationship with the other family members represented. Lines connect spouses, and parents to children. Psychological information is appended to each symbol to indicate what is known about that family member's mental and medical history (so, for instance, if your grandmother was alcoholic, you'd write that down next to her symbol on the genogram. If your great-grandfather was known for having a quick temper and an anger problem, you'd note this next to his symbol).

Families change over time as members are married, divorced and widowed, and as they are born or die. Solid lines are used to connect currently existing marriages, while broken lines are used to connect former marriages. Ex-spouses and deceased family members are all represented, but with their symbol crossed out (to indicate their death). Dates of important events (births, marriages, divorces, deaths) are indicated, and when possible, the cause of death is recorded.

When properly constructed, the genogram presents your family's psychological history in a single graphic image, making it easy to visualize how your family's history (your cultural history writ small) has affected your personal history.

  • Patterns of illness and addiction, or particular temperaments that have been transmitted through the generations tend to leap out at you. It puts your own depression or anxiety into better context when you realize that your grand father, aunt and several cousins deal with the same problems, for instance.
  • Various family traumas can cross the generations by influencing the attitudes that parents in families teach their children, and how they cope. If you're upset at your immigrant parents for not having assimilated enough to your native culture, it may help you to realize how much difficulty they went through to come to a new country. It may help you even more to realize that they may have come not simply for economic opportunity, but to escape persecution in their home lands. Some of your anger, may be related in some way to their own, for example.