Dr. Murray Bowen created an amazing tool to help us easily map various tendencies in our families, such as patterns in relationships, violence, health concerns, addiction, and trauma. It is kind of like a family tree, but you use it to map the different aspects of your family. In doing so, patterns are often highlighted.
Start with yourself, siblings, partner and children. From there you grow up – much the way you would with a family tree. It starts by looking something like this
Original Template: https://www.mywordtemplates.org/printables/template399.html
Once you have the foundation of all the people you are going to include, you get to add symbols for aspects you notice such as physical or mental health concerns, addictions, relationship dynamics, violence, trauma etc. You can make up your own symbols, or use the symbols suggested here:
As you can see, you can make it as simple or complicated as you want. The interesting piece comes when you start to track the patterns. For example, you might see your grandfather struggled with working a lot and then your uncle also struggled with this. You might have a number of family members that have asthma and also have struggled with depression in their lives. You might notice there is conflict in relationships that threads throughout a certain area of your family. Perhaps immigration or social unrest (violence) impacts roles and relationships. Perhaps your grandmother played a big role as matriarch in your family and now your auntie or someone else has taken on that role.
Keep in mind, you might need to speak with a few relatives to get the stories of family from a generation or two ago. See if you can have an open mind to see the impact of one person’s experiences on the whole family system. If we step back and see the genogram as a map to a family system (as in Family Systems Therapy), it can open our eyes to how we are all connected through these stories and experiences.
You will likely see changes through the generations. For example, if there was violence in the society or in a relationship in one generation (eg. physical violence) – there might be a different version of violence (eg. verbal violence) in another relationship or a form of coping in close by family members (eg. addiction). This is essentially a clear depiction of intergenerational trauma.
Let’s say grandmother was exposed to violence in war growing up. Perhaps her parents (your great-grandparents) were so stressed by the violence they were verbally violent to each other and the children. Perhaps occasionally something was thrown or someone was hit due to the stress and exposure to violence. Let’s imagine the war was over and the pain of that war (trauma) and violence was so difficult one of the parents turned to alcohol to cope. Your grandmother saw the realities of alcohol and swore to never drink. She herself might have yelled at her own children and been quite strict, but this is what she knew and she never threw anything. Grandmother married a wonderful person, but they ended up struggling with depression and leaning on alcohol during stressful times. They yelled at your grandmother and the kids a lot.
Now we have your father, who was raised in that environment. He has a healthy relationship with alcohol now, although he struggled a bit in his youth. On one or two occasions you saw him intoxicated, but this was rare. He has struggled on and off with depression yet he has found a way to channel his stress into work and fitness, albeit sometimes he does work too much. Your auntie, however, took the brunt of the verbal abuse in the home and had to care for the alcoholic parent. She now has a very strained relationship with alcohol, has depression and struggles to maintain healthy relationships. You notice a significant difference between you and your cousins. One of your cousins also has difficulties with their mood and has not found a healthy intimate relationship. You and your siblings, however, are in healthy stable relationships.
There is no one to blame for the difficulties your cousins have. We may want to blame our auntie or the grandparent who struggled with alcohol – and yet we can’t do so accurately because these difficulties are not really their fault. Instead these difficulties are a result of ongoing, unresolved, unhealed trauma. Can we blame the great-grandparents? Can we blame the leaders who chose to engage in war? Leaders too are human and likely have their own experiences of trauma and healing in their family. Blame isn’t helpful or accurate and it doesn’t help us to untangle the mess.
So what can we do…
I believe we can each do our part to heal one aspect of our family’s generational trauma. It might not be our choice to be born into it, and yet it is – I believe – our responsibility to heal one piece of it. We can become ‘change agents’ in our own families’ stories and see the power of change that can come from such transformations. Take note of the ongoing threads of trauma in your family and take note of the change agents. You might notice how the grandmother in the story I wrote, swore never to throw anything or drink alcohol. She was doing her part to be a change agent and heal one aspect of the trauma she experienced for the next generation.
What is something you can do to become a ‘change agent’ in your family story?