Author Judith Fein emotional genealogy

Author Judith Fein writes about emotional genealogy

Today, I’m particularly pleased to present a guest post by Judith Fein and her concept of emotional genealogy.

When I gave my first talk about the power of Emotional Genealogy, I wondered if anyone would be able to connect to what I was speaking about. To my surprise, audience members asked questions for over an hour, and then they continued with personal questions for another half an hour.

You may be wondering what Emotional Genealogy is. Briefly, it involves examining how the behaviors of our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents influenced who we are and how we are in the world. And it doesn’t matter if we knew them or not. We carry their legacy and act out the repetitive pattern of their life scripts.

Ghost Ranch Emotional Genealogy

Ghost Ranch Red Rock Cliffs; Photo credit

With a blend of curiosity and uncertainty, I put out the word a few months ago that my husband and I would be giving an Emotional Genealogy workshop and arranged for it to take place at the Ghost Ranch Retreat Center.

Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, is infused with magic. The ochre-red-magenta cliffs form an ever-changing backdrop as the sun dances around, chasing shadows, darting behind cotton-puff clouds.

Georgia O’Keeffe called Ghost Ranch home, and the trees, rocks, and mountains in her paintings still stand today, waiting for her to come back and paint some more.

Ancestral people began living in the area 9,000 years ago, and 500 archeological sites attest to their brief and longer sojourns on the land. It was this ancestral depth of the ranch that inspired me to choose it as the place to lead the first Emotional Genealogy workshop.

All that was required of participants was a willingness to look backwards, forwards, and inside. And radical honesty. They didn’t have to say nice things that they thought were expected of them. They would be family for the weekend, in a safe, welcoming place.

Participants came from all over the mainland U.S., Hawaii, and Canada. They came with secrets, questions, dark, unexplored areas in their lives. They came with courage, humor, honesty, confusion, humility. They came like flashlights that unflinchingly looked to the past to better understand the present.

emotional genealogy eys of ancestors

“And eyes—sad, sexy, secretive, haunted, arrogant, tender—stared out from photos, beckoning and challenging us to learn what was behind them.”

Each was told to bring an object or photo from an ancestor. And a common shrine was built. A watch, rings, and jewelry seemed to vibrate with the energy of those who once wore them. And eyes—sad, sexy, secretive, haunted, arrogant, tender—stared out from photos, beckoning and challenging us to learn what was behind them.

As each person held an object, and spoke about it, it was like Proust’s madeleine. It took them back to memories, smells, sounds, tastes of growing up with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles. It provides a safe physical bridge to cross over to the past.

Everyone was asked to bring a camera—in most cases, it was the camera in a cell phone. They took photos of physical traits that linked them back to those who came before them.

Each of the participants was different—in age, talents, accomplishments, religion, and personal history. But there was a startling commonality that bound everyone.

One of the threads that ran through so many lives was shame. Not for what they had done, but for what their parents, grandparents, and other ancestors had done. It was as though what their forebears did had somehow become their story, and they felt implicated—as they though they had done it, or inherited it, or would pass it on.

Another theme was lack of maternal love: mothers who were unwilling or unable to provide physical and emotional security, affection, solace, and caring because of their own limitations, blind spots, mental illness, or emotional genealogy. In some cases, the cruel hand of fate removed a mother through death.

A third thread was absence: adults who were physically there, but emotionally remote or not present. Or who sent their children away to orphanages, boarding school, foster families, or to live with other family members.

There were shared stories of violence, emotional and physical trauma, drug or alcohol abuse, lying, secrets, scathing words, denial.

The goal was not to dwell on problems, but to look at what each of us inherited emotionally, and how we can transform that inheritance, release it, or release our fear of it in order to live fuller, more satisfying lives. We had to separate our own story from the story of those who came before us. Their mistakes were not ours. We had to swing open the closet door and look fearlessly at the skeletons that were rattling around in there. And then we had to close the door. There was forgiveness, self-forgiveness, commitment to make better, freer choices.

Before we undertook this exploration, we used cornmeal to ask permission of the land and our ancestors. At the end of the exploration, after we laughed, and sighed, and felt release, we used cornmeal again to thank the land and our ancestors, for allowing us to do such important work for us and for the generations that follow us.

The field of behavioral epigenetics suggests that behavior patterns are actually passed down in our genes. As our lives progress, something turns those genes on….and, presumably, something can turn them off.

To me, is the best, most welcome turn-off in the world!

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Judith Fein, an award-winning international travel journalist, speaker, and workshop leader, wrote about her own Emotional Genealogy in her wonderful book, The Spoon from Minkowitz. You can read more about Emotional Genealogy at   Judith’s website is

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