Family History: Does Knowing Your Ancestors Matter?


Your History Matters

Have you ever wondered about your family history? I learned through my psychotherapy training that trauma can actually be passed down through generations. Why does this matter?

It is entirely possible that part of how you came to be “the way you are” has nothing to do with your life experiences, but has to do with the experiences of your ancestors.

That is wild to think about.  Our natural responses to trauma can take many forms including anxiety, depression, fear, shame, etc.  We can also improve the physical and emotional health of the next generation by breaking these patterns in our own lives.  Whether we like it or not, we are all connected to countless others and influenced by their stories.

As part of my training in graduate school to become a counselor, I made a genogram of my own family. This is basically a picture of my family tree. Many marriage and family therapists use genograms to gain a bigger picture perspective of interpersonal relationships and may go back for multiple generations.

Where Am I From?

A few weeks ago, I rather impulsively purchased a DNA kit from   I should have results in 4-6 weeks. I have several questions that I have wondered for years and my curiosity got the best of me during some late night web surfing.

native american dreamcatcher

In creating my own genogram, I came across many family stories and learned a great deal about the cultures of my family. Unfortunately, I ran into some dead ends and items that did not make sense. For example, I have a great great grandmother who, according to family stories, was a Cherokee Native American. Her family died on the Trail of Tears and a Caucasian family adopted her.

I found a birth certificate for one of her children, and it has her listed as the mother. What was puzzling to me is that she was listed as being from Scotland. If my family stories are correct, she certainly was not Scottish. Perhaps her adoptive parents were Scottish? I wonder why she was not listed as Native American? Was she trying to pass for Scottish? I have so many questions.

Scottish bagpipe

I also have a family history of triple negative breast cancer. This particular type of cancer is three times more likely to be diagnosed in African American women. If you look at me, I am about as Caucasian looking as one can be. I have light skin, freckles, and red hair. I may be completely wrong, but I cannot help wondering if there is African DNA in my family tree. Another burning question, and it might even impact my health. All of these possibilities are fascinating to me.

african mask

Who is My Tribe?

Even if I am 100% Scottish (as one might guess from my looks), I feel it is important to know my history. Once I receive my DNA results, I plan to research those cultures further to fill in the gaps in my own story.  I will post my results as soon as I receive them.  I cannot wait!

Do you think it is important to know the history of your own culture(s)? Why or why not?


Check out Summit Family Therapy in Peoria, IL to learn more about Dr. Courtney Stivers’ professional work. 



About Courtney Stivers, PhD (25 Articles)
Courtney Stivers, PhD, LMFT, is a subject matter expert in Marriage and Family Therapy. Her professional experience includes residential addiction, school-based therapy, community mental health, teaching, research, public speaking, professional consultation, and several administrative roles. She is currently the Executive Director of Summit Family Therapy in Peoria, IL. Please learn more on her practice website,

3 Comments on Family History: Does Knowing Your Ancestors Matter?

  1. i really recommand the published books of Bert Hellinger, a german therapist, who was working especially with this kind of ideas…

  2. Yes, looking at the past can illuminate the present! This happened for me doing a genogram as well….I couldn’t understand my issues with co-dependency because there was no alcoholism in my immediate family or in any of my grandparents….but back a little further and there it was! Suddenly, I had a lot more clarity and compassion for my family members. The alcohol was gone, but the the distorted thinking was still being passed on. I can now recognize it and change those patterns as a gift to my kids. The gift of healthy boundaries. What a legacy! Thank you God!

  3. I think we all look for meaning where we can. Especially if we feel like the events in our lives are inexplicable. So if unearthing family history helps us make sense of things, I’m sure it can be valuable. I am interested in the theory of trauma being passed down generations, as my maternal grandmother experienced exactly the same kind of childhood abuse as me. I always thought it was just coincidence, but after reading Peter Levine’s ‘Waking the Tiger’ recently I have discovered this type of repeated narrative happens often. I look forward to hearing what your DNA tells you!

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