We have explored in previous installments of Know Thyself the benefits of connecting with and continually realigning our values, intentions, and goals as well as discovering the strengths and pitfalls of our particular personality traits. By now, a sense of our inner lives and our view of the world is revealing itself. As our self-knowledge grows, so does our need to understand our interconnectedness and how relationships and familial patterns have influenced our lives. Here, in Part 3, we explore the genogram, a technique for mapping relationships and behaviors within our family trees and its potential to help us create more compassion, understanding, and ease in our own lives.
My face flushed with embarrassment — I wasn’t sure what my answer even meant. After months of studying online with a long-admired yoga teacher, I finally got to meet and practice with him in person. Feeling inspired, relaxed, and hazy after one of his yoga practices, I went to say hello. He looked at me, and said, “What is one thing you learned about yourself tonight?”
Ugh! I froze. I had not expected to need a thoughtful comment about my experience. Feeling the pressure, I blurted, “That I hold a tremendous amount of tension in my hands.” He cocked his head and looked at me quizzically. The sinking feeling of embarrassment washed over me as I slinked off wondering what in the hell that even meant.
Many use genograms to try to answer this question. I found genograms through yoga instructor Nikki Myers, a once-struggling addict turned teacher and founder of Yoga for 12-Step Recover (Y12SR), who used the genogram model as a method of personal recovery. Exploring her familial patterns, she discovered that drug, alcohol, and other abuses were not uncommon. She continues to use her personal experience and the power of this tool to illustrate how behaviors — both constructive and destructive — can be modeled, taught, and passed down through generations.
When we know ourselves, we have a greater ability to understand others. We can see how our behaviors overlap with theirs and understand the common thread in our collective, shared humanity. The notion that self-knowledge is the key to all knowledge can be traced back to the 6th century, when sages, philosophers, and scientists looked to the microcosm of the individual self to better understand the macrocosm — the universe we all share. Although simple in theory, Greek philosopher Thales mused, “The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.”
Thales wasn’t kidding. After the embarrassing episode with the long-admired yoga instructor, I pondered my blurted answer well into the next day as we all sat in meditation. My teacher asked us to focus our minds on the noise of the rain. I tried, but more attention-grabbing was the sound of the HVAC system, which always brings me back to a particular memory from childhood. I was three, maybe four, left at a relative’s home overnight and terrified to be away from my mother. I remember lying on the floor and looking up at the ceiling vent. The sound of blowing white noise comforted me like a blanket, and it has ever since. I have even learned to use it as a tool for meditation.
This day, however, the noise caused a sense of dread. A slight panic set in. Should I get up? Should I leave this mental discomfort? Good Lord, please don’t let me be having one of those hysterical burst-into-tears moments you see in the movies. Finally, the bell sounded and we were set free.
I was left with nagging curiosity. Why was I suddenly agitated by the noise of the vent? And while it is true that I do hold a lot of muscular tension in my hands when I practice yoga, drive, or exercise, does that mean anything more, or did I just say the first thing that popped into my head?
The simple answer is that none of us or our experiences exist in a vacuum. Everything, no matter how trivial, is connected and gently shifts our lives in unnoticed ways. Acknowledging the influence of familial relationships, friendships, major and minor life events, disease, addiction, socio-economic status, education, work, and even hobbies can profoundly help us to live with understanding and compassion for ourselves and the world around us.
On the third day of the workshop, a fellow student asked the teacher if there was a particular technique or a type of music he recommended for meditating. “No,” he responded. He then explained how we tend to want a way out of physical and mental discomfort, so we look for technique to distract ourselves. Just sit and see what arises, he said. “Sit in your own shit.” We all laughed at his bluntness and the wisdom of his statement. Mental discomfort is why Thales and other philosophers claim self-knowledge to be difficult. It is hard to look at our patterns and relationships without wanting to squirm or run away.
My teacher was teaching us mindfulness, about our capacity to sit with discomfort, and to watch what happens to our emotions and sensations of our bodies. We all have the power to recognize in a nonreactive, nonjudgmental way our own thought patterns, reactions, and emotions as they happen.
A genogram maps relationships — such as marriages, divorces, and children — that appear in a traditional family tree, as well as additional information between those relationships, including careers, education, disease, addiction, abuse, and emotional statuses. First developed by family therapists Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson in 1985 for use in clinical and therapeutic settings, it has recently become popular as a tool for self-inquiry. Genograms are flexible and can be adjusted to trace a single factor, such as alcoholism, or to highlight multiple factors in a family. The true beauty of this visual tool is its power to reveal previously unnoticed, perhaps even unsought, patterns.
The process is as simple as grabbing a sheet of paper and pencil and creating a symbol key to designate gender, relationships, sexual preferences, attitudes — you name it. Standard symbol keys for genograms are easy to find through a Google search. (If you desire more depth or plan to share your findings, software tools such as Smartdraw or GenoPro also offer free trials and paid plans.)
Charting at least three generations is recommended to establish patterns. Naturally, information on lifestyle and relationships becomes harder to unearth the further back we search. When documenting relationships and patterns — particularly those of abuse or addiction — be mindful that discomfort is likely to arise for yourself or the person from whom you are eliciting information. While this exercise can be very rewarding and therapeutic, consider getting support from a therapist or social worker if you believe you might encounter information that’s challenging to process.
With a healthy sense of self-discovery, I recently sketched out my own genogram. I began with recording the information I already had: Males were noted with a square symbol and females with a circle; then genetic relationships as well as ones formed by adoption, marriage, or partnerships; and finally education, military experience, and health factors, including any known or suspected addictions and abuse. Having had many open conversations with family members in the past, I was able to fill in much of this detail from memory. When creating your own, you may need to search for official records or contact members of your family.
Although I knew much of this information in theory, the genogram powerfully illustrated repetitive patterns in my family. Themes of abandonment (through divorce, institutionalization, and the release of parental rights) and struggles with mental illness (including depression and anxiety disorders) have informed and affected at least three generations. Illuminating these patterns not only gives me a chance to acknowledge the difficulty, suffering, and effects these struggles have caused, but it also allows me to recognize and honor the resilience and triumph in my family’s past.
It is in recognizing the achievements and struggles of our families that we are able to pause and honor our collective history. Behaviors, patterns, and thoughts can be consciously reinforced or let go when we cultivate the habit of recognizing and releasing these details.
In exploring familial relationships, it may be natural to use our discoveries as an excuse for certain behaviors or to lay blame at the feet of others. Instead, consider reflecting on any newly discovered connections with an open mind and observe what arises in your thoughts, as well as any physical reactions. Growth is often slow and messy. Patience, tenacity, and a willingness to get uncomfortable during your quest for self-knowledge will cultivate your power to override conditioned behavior and coping strategies that no longer serve you.
My genogram shows that, at a young age, my mother first lost her mother to institutionalization for mental illness and later to suicide. These traumas undoubtedly informed my mother’s life. Despite growing up in a safe and stable home, I struggle with fears of abandonment later in life. Initially, I attributed this fear to my parent’s divorce and my own failed first marriage. Could it be that the seeds were planted long before those events?
As I ponder my experience with the yoga workshop, I am left to wonder. Perhaps I hold on tight for good reason. What I clung to as a child to comfort myself when away from my mother served me well then and continues to now. However, sometimes — when we listen closely enough — we can hear what is underneath that sense of comfort. My willingness to see and explore gifted me new insight. The patterns and circumstances surrounding loss in my family history have impacted my life in various ways — striving for perfection and a tendency to hold on too tightly are just two of those ways.