The Psychological Impact of Genealogy: Emotional Connections to Ancestry

UPDATED April 2024

Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC

Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC

Senior Contributing Editor

Genealogy, tracing one’s family lineage and history, is a fascinating field of study that can serve many purposes. What was once a practice that involved decades of meticulous record-keeping and passing information down to newer generations has evolved into a process with expedited access to familial records. Today, we’re much more easily able to gather information about our family history through online resources and DNA testing. 

Genealogists use primary resources like oral interviews and historical and family records to obtain information about a family’s history. Additionally, by using genetic analysis, they can demonstrate a family’s kinship and recorded ancestry.

While this access to genealogical information has great benefits, there’s much to unpack when seeking this information. Through online ancestry discovery services and DNA collection platforms like 23andme, consumers have made familial connections they would otherwise not have access to. This journey unlocks the potential to learn more about previously unknown relatives and even meet them if desired. 

However, genealogical research can stir up complex emotions. Taking a deep dive into family studies can have profound psychological impacts on individuals, which we will continue to explore in this article.

Sense of Identity and Belonging

Connecting to past generations in your family lineage can stir up powerful feelings and a sense of identity. Learning about family history can deepen your understanding of belonging to something greater than yourself [1]. 

A family line evolves to adapt to their living conditions, impacting subsequent generations. For example, agricultural families and farm workers may pass their occupation on to their children or grandchildren and the work ethic, physical strength, and hardiness required for agricultural labor.

Furthermore, genealogy can also help individuals better understand themselves and their place within the larger family context. By exploring family relationships, individuals can better understand their personality traits and tendencies and how their family history may have shaped these characteristics.

Emotional Attachment to Ancestors

It might seem odd to feel attached to someone you’ve never met. Maybe you hear a story about your great-great-grandparents’ struggles during a famine, and you immediately feel a deep sense of empathy—one that feels more intense than your typical empathy response when someone shares about a personal struggle.

Learning about ancestors’ triumphs, tragedies, and experiences can evoke strong emotional responses [2]. Individuals may feel a sense of admiration or even pride in their ancestors, leading to a deeper emotional connection to them.

Understanding Family Patterns and Traits

Exploring family history through genealogy can illuminate patterns of behavior and traits that run in the family, which can validate your personal experiences and behaviors.

Conversely, learning about a shared personality trait in a previous generation could cause additional stress. For example, suppose you knew multiple generations shared a negative trait, like narcissism or anger outbursts. In that case, you may feel it’s pointless to address these issues in yourself or with your children because having these traits is inevitable. Similarly, after being adopted during infancy, learning about or even meeting your biological parents can cause a whirlwind of emotions as you consider making connections to your biological roots.

Genealogy can also provide valuable insights into family history and uncover hidden stories about ancestors and their relationships. Uncovering family secrets or identifying long-lost relatives is possible. Genealogy can also reveal family migration and settlement patterns, helping to understand how significant historical events shaped family relationships.

Additionally, by learning more about family history and ancestral connections, individuals can build stronger relationships with living family members and create a more profound sense of family unity.

Healing and Closure

For some people, delving into genealogy can be a way to heal from past traumas or unresolved family issues. Understanding the context of familial struggles or hardships can provide a sense of closure and acceptance.

Connection to Cultural Heritage

Another significant use of genealogy is its potential for tracing family traditions and beliefs. Genealogy can provide valuable insights into the cultural and religious practices of one’s ancestors and how these traditions have been passed down through generations. Learning about lost or forgotten traditions offers a way to embrace the connection to one’s cultural roots.

Genealogical studies can help someone learn more about the following in their family’s culture:

  • Family customs, shared values, and beliefs 
  • Religious traditions and practices, such as how their ancestors celebrated holidays or practiced their faith
  • What languages were spoken 
  • When, why, and how family members migrated and where they settled
  • What cooking styles did family members follow

Ultimately, genealogy offers a pathway for individuals to explore and understand their place within the broader tapestry of their family history and heritage.

Emotional Challenges and Discoveries

Alongside positive emotions, genealogy can also bring about emotional challenges. Discovering unexpected or unsettling information about ancestors, such as criminal records or family secrets, can be emotionally distressing. 

Unearthing an adoption or traumatic death somewhere in your lineage is potentially life-changing. You may be sifting through historical records and feel like you “aren’t who you thought” regarding a cultural or ethnic group. Someone may learn they were born into a family where infidelity or incestual relations occurred.

Genealogical findings that challenge family beliefs can be upsetting to some people. While it’s possible to understand, forgive, and integrate such findings into one’s identity over time, not everyone is capable. Others may harbor resentment and a sense of betrayal despite not having met many of their ancestors.

Reflection

As individuals uncover the stories and experiences of their ancestors through genealogy, the impact can be profound, evoking a range of emotions. These experiences can range from pride and admiration to sadness and deep empathy. 

Pursuing in-depth genealogical exploration is not a decision to take lightly. First, carefully consider what you want to learn by researching your family’s past. Do you want to make connections with living distant relatives? Do you want to enhance your understanding of your heritage and culture? 

As you proceed, consider discussing your intentions with supportive family members. Feeling grounded in your current life with your established support system is valuable as you encounter potentially earth-shattering revelations. You may need time to process new information to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Chances are, you find helpful and affirming information; however, some family information can be challenging to digest [3]. 

Regardless of the type of knowledge you gain from genealogy, remember that it does not change who you are as a person. Emotional connections to ancestry are diverse and complex; therapeutic or social support may be helpful when navigating such discoveries.

References

  1. Chapter 4 COMMUNICATIONS/ HUMANISTIC FAMILY THERAPY BACKGROUND AND LEADING FIGURE. (2010). https://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/35409_Chapter4.pdf
  2. Chapter 4 COMMUNICATIONS/ HUMANISTIC FAMILY THERAPY BACKGROUND AND LEADING FIGURE. (2010). https://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/35409_Chapter4.pdf
  3. MS-HPEd, D. R. T., PhD. (2018, June 6). Genealogy testing: Prepare for the emotional reaction. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/genealogy-testing-prepare-for-the-emotional-reaction-2018060613990