When we consider inheritance we usually think of money, property or sentimental keepsakes. But we know from research that even before our birth we are influenced by the mental, emotional and behavioural patterns of our mother, the family around us and those who came before – even if our parents are not the ones who raised us. This phenomenon is known as psychological inheritance and family historians can uncover their family’s inheritance. Where there is a negative legacy family historians can provide living relatives information they might need to break free of a toxic inheritance.
Psychological inheritance (also known as emotional genealogy) refers to inherited traits, reactions, patterns of behaviour and our take on life. They are passed down through the genes and persist over time, and we carry them with us, from situation to situation.
The traits unwittingly handed down our family lineage can be positive or negative. For example, even if we were nurtured in a toxic fashion, we might still be endowed with optimism, gratitude, a love of nature, resilience, intelligence, talent, kindness, a spirit for adventure, humour, the ability to forgive and the capacity to love. On the other hand, we might have inherited patterns of anger, trauma, cruelty, avoidance, violence, fear or dissociation, even if our family environment is supportive and warm. If these negative traits are not acknowledged and addressed, we run the risk of passing these on to future generations, through our genes.
How Does Psychological Inheritance Happen?
We are becoming increasingly aware that diet and chemicals in our environment can influence our genes; these influences are known as epigenetic changes. However, recent studies show that in addition to physical toxins, abuse, neglect, addiction and other severe stress can result in more than toxic memories. Health and medical journalist and author Dan Hurley explains:
Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioural tendencies are inherited.
Why Does It Matter?
If negative experience is not transformed into something healthy and positive, the symptoms of that experience are transmitted to the next generation – and the next. In his book, It Didn’t Start with You, award-winning psychologist Mark Wolynn tells us that the source of unexplained depression, anxiety, fears, phobias, obsessive thoughts and certain physical symptoms can be traced back to genetics. Some scientists refer to such symptoms as secondary post-traumatic stress disorder. There is a growing body of evidence that we inherit (and pass on) the negative feelings of our family of origin.
But there’s good news: the cycle can be broken.
Rather than turning away from it, seeking out our psychological inheritance gives us the opportunity to make sense of the generational dysfunction in our family – and, every family has something. This is where genealogy plays such an important role. By uncovering the source of the pain or anxiety we carry, we can consider what was passed to us – and what we would like our own legacy to be. We can begin to heal the wounds of the past to build a healthier, happier future.
In short, whatever we inherit, we can strive to:
- move forward, as best we can, in whatever our circumstances
- embrace positive living
- choose to be with people who bring out our best selves
- understand not only our ancestors but ourselves and our children, too
- break the cycle of destructive inherited family patterns
In my book “Who Do I Think You Were?’ A Victorians Inheritance’ I turn toward various psychological theories in an effort to shed light on my grandfather Walter’s emotional inheritance. As I examined family records in the process of writing this book, I was starkly reminded of our ancestor’s imperative to find a way of meeting their basic need for food, water, warmth and rest, independent of their family and community.
For Walter, this was not the curse some might see it as, because it enabled his liberation. Despite the psychological inheritance he had received, his parents and community taught him the skills he would need to get by in adult life. As children, Walter and his peers knew they were needed. They understood their chores, foraging, fishing and earnings contributed meaningfully to the well-being of their family. As difficult as living with an alcoholic mother was, Walter’s competencies and resilience grew; and with this knowledge and assurance, he was able to strike out on his own, to build a new life for himself from scratch, beyond what he had inherited.
As I look forward through the generations, I glimpse each one striving for a higher tier as described by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, no longer settling for simply being physically secure, but seeking inner growth and a greater sense of self.
Today, many of us live comfortably. Fewer of us need to use all our time and energy to sustain life. Perhaps now we have the opportunity and awareness to explore and understand our past, acknowledge and lay to rest dysfunctional inheritance, and celebrate any bounty we have received.
Next time, we’ll be looking at how the experiences summarised in this article can impact on future generations Teasing Out Your Family’s Psychological Inheritance. If you would like to know more about what I discovered, click the link Your two FREE chapters are waiting at the bottom of this page.
I hope you found this article informative, and perhaps you have been inspired to investigate your own genetic inheritance. If you’re interested in learning more about how trauma can be passed down genetically from generation to generation, click here to watch Professor Isabelle Mansuy from ETH Zurich and University of Zurich speak on the new field of epigenetics.
We cannot know our ancestors’ psychological inheritance, but using current theories we can examine the records available to us and speculate in an informed way. We can honour those who came before and acknowledge what they endured so we could live.
The good news for my grandfather Walter and his siblings is good news for all of us: our psychological inheritance need not define how we live out our lives. We can become more aware, and learn to live positively, thrive and pass on a different legacy to our children and grandchildren.
I hope this article has given you some ideas about where to start in your own exploration of the psychological inheritance in your family. Our inheritance is as unique as our ancestors and their experiences.
The next article Family Historians – Teasing out Psychological Inheritance is here.
Follow up article
About A Victorian’s Inheritance
Anxiety. Addiction. Depression.
We associate these words with the challenges of modern life.
Rarely do we consider how these conditions shaped past generations.
Using archival sources, testimonies, and her grandfather Walter Parker’s experiences, the author not only paints a vivid picture of life in an English Victorian village. She also draws upon psychological theory to explore the lives of her working-class ancestors.
What did your forebears inherit from their parents?
Which psychological characteristics did your ancestors hand down?
A Victorian’s Inheritance can help you find answers.
To read some of A Victorian’s Inheritance go here and click on Your first two chapters are waiting (at the bottom of the page).
Who Do I Think You Were? A Victorian’s Inheritance by Helen Parker-Drabble is an accessible exploration of the life, times and psychological inheritance of Walter Parker, a Victorian working-class youth growing up at the Tank Yard in the English village of Thorney, on the 11th Duke of Bedford’s forgotten estate.
This is not the story of just one man, but of an era. The information and theories introduced in this book can help connect us to our ancestors. They can inspire us to be more mindful of the psychological legacy we leave behind.
About the Author
Helen Parker-Drabble is a counsellor by profession and a genealogist and family historian by experience. According to the online Cambridge dictionary, one of the definitions of therapy is it is a ‘treatment that helps someone feel better or grow stronger’. So as a geneatherapist, I aim to explore mental health, mental illness, and psychology through different eras, in the hope that by exploring what impacted our ancestors we help the present generation.
Helen is also a life-long explorer of social history and weaver of factual family tales, with a Diploma in counselling. Fascinated by psychological theory and the stories we develop to make sense of ourselves and our family, Helen’s original quest was to understand her Victorian grandfather, Walter Parker, born in 1885 in Upwell on the Norfolk/Cambridgeshire border.
Family history doesn’t survive unless it’s in print, which is why Helen set out to write an engaging and accessible biography that would not only explore working-class Victorian life in an English village but could motivate and encourage other family historians struggling to pass on what they have painstakingly discovered. The result, in part, is an exploration of transgenerational legacy of loss, trauma, anxiety and depression.