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What do you know about your family? Why understanding them will help you understand yourself

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The family you were born in, shaped you. But did you know that, by asking the right questions about your family history –even about your grandparents and their parents- you can find out lots of things about yourself? 

Your family is unique

Even if you can’t stand your parents or siblings at times, and even if you don’t even see them anymore, it’s a plain fact: you’re part of a unique group of people. This group has its own rules, preferences, memories and strange habits. And all of these have made you the person you are now. 

In her book ‘Das bleibt in der Familie’ (‘It stays in the family’), German psychologist and family therapist Sandra Konrad explains why your family history has such an impact on who you are. This impact goes way back: up to your grand grandparents, and their parents. If you’re hurting over things that have happened in your family, let this be of comfort to you: ‘There’s no such thing as an undamaged family,’ according to Konrad. 

A journey into the past

If, however, you want to understand what it is that connects you to your family (or why you want to keep them at a distance), what shaped you, what your parents expected from you and why, and what your sensitivities are, the family therapist recommends you to go on a journey into the past. 

You are the starting point of the journey, and you take it from there. What’s important in your life, what are your values? Which rules caused you to make big decisions (moving, jobs, partners)? What are the things that make your parents proud of you? Do you see any common ground in the way you live your life and one of your parents does or did? Is there something you’re struggling with, and how does this relate to your past and your family? ‘Collect as much information as you can get,’ Konrad writes, ‘because the answers will die with your predecessors.’ 

Your life's assignment 

Once you’re able to determine your family’s values, you’ll find out what they expected of you. Unconsciously, they might have given you an assignment. Perhaps one of your parents wanted you to become something they wanted to be when they were younger, or to fulfill a certain role in the family (the clown, or the responsible one). 

If you find it hard to process all this information, get a piece of paper and draw a family diagram. Note the name of every family member (or draw their pictures, if you like) and add a few sentences about who they are, what they dream of, what their convictions are, what their biggest hardship in life is and their biggest joy. The more you know, the clearlier your idea of your ‘family pattern’ becomes. It might involve tears, possibly even lots of them. But after years of counselling and doing research, Konrad is convinced of it: all the information you have about your family and yourself will help you to grow. 

Sandra Konrad, Das bleibt in der Familie. Von Liebe, Loyalität und uralten Lasten. Piper (2013). 

Text: Dorien Vrieling - Photo: Laura Fuhrmann