Is Your (Familial) History Repeating Itself? Here’s How to Break the Cycle

Stop me if you heard this story before (or read it in Discover Magazine!).

Darwin and Freud walk into a bar. Meanwhile, two alcoholic mice—a mother and her son—are sitting across from them on two bar stools, lapping gin from two thimbles.

The mother mouse looks up and says, “Hey, geniuses, tell me how my son got into this sorry state.”

“Bad inheritance,” says Darwin. “Bad mothering,” says Freud.

For over a hundred years, those two views—nature or nurture, biology or psychology—offered opposing explanations for how behaviors develop and persist, not only within a single individual but across generations.

And then, in 1992, two young scientists following in Freud’s and Darwin’s footsteps actually did walk into a bar. And by the time they walked out, a few beers later, they had begun to forge a revolutionary new synthesis of how life experiences could directly affect your genes—and not only your own life experiences but those of your mother’s, grandmother’s and beyond.

Twenty-plus years of coaching thousands of clients later, boy, can I raise a glass (a magnifying one) to that.

In fact, the more I study people’s history, the more wide-eyed and blown away I am with how I find it repeating. And not simply repeating in movie-like, goofy predictable ways but also repeating in odd, pesky and puzzling ways, leaving me no choice (a lie!) but to step up my sleuthing skills to help not only find the leaks in a person’s lineage but also to fix them.

Leaks? What leaks?

I have watched brilliant children of addicts stay proudly, actively conscious of how much they drink or smoke but, boy oh boy, does their business partner party enough for the both of them. Or I’ve coached many a person who has a penchant for philandering men but who never once connected the dots that perhaps their own father’s frequent fidelity was questionable.

From my perspective, most of us still have to work through the very same issues as our parents and their grandparents. But we don’t tend to realize our plight or understand how special and vital it is to intervene on our own behalf. Why do I think it’s so vital to connect the dots? I believe we need to study our history, not just to avoid our family’s pitfalls but so we can fully understand and honor our lineage by evolving it.

Sure, we can care deeply if cancer or diabetes runs in our family, and we should. But do we care that in our same history, there are siblings who no longer speak, failed marriages and cycles of abuse?

Shouldn’t we?

Behavioral epigenetics

I mean, if we could all get curious as to our own personal role in our family’s evolution, from pawns to participants, what would be possible? Or, better yet, what would truly be foreseeable, predictable and preventable?

According to this new field, behavioral epigenetics, our experiences and those of our forebears are never gone, even if they have been forgotten (or, more likely, never admitted). They become part of us, a molecular residue. The DNA remains the same, but the psychological and behavioral tendencies—good and bad—can be inherited.

Neuroscientists at Emory University in Atlanta taught male mice to fear the smell of cherry blossoms by associating the scent of acetophenone, a chemical that smells like cherries and almonds, with mild foot shocks. Two weeks later, they bred with females. The resulting pups were raised to adulthood having never been exposed to the smell. However, when the critters caught a whiff of it for the first time, they became anxious and fearful.

Wild, right?

They were even born with more cherry-blossom-detecting neurons in their noses and more brain space devoted to cherry-blossom smelling.

So how does this affect you, me and my clients?

The more we recognize that what is happening with us is DIRECTLY linked to our lineage and family history, the more we can understand, know, connect our own dots and change those very patterns that are repeating—whether we want them to or not.

So how do we find those repeating patterns?

Funny you should ask (sorta). Guess it’s only fair that if I’m coming after your inheritance and repetitive history, I air some reruns of my own.

Turns out betrayal runs in my family—and not just your regular, run-of-the-mill disloyalty but dramatic, heart-wrenching, Brutus-like best friend betrayal.

Who knew? Clearly, I didn’t. My dad? Yeah, he knew.

Ironically, the only reason I happened to discover this family story of mine is because I was stuck on repeat myself. I’d say it was around the fourth heartbreak caused by my best friend that I FINALLY got suspicious enough about my own lineage to investigate it. I sat down with my dad and learned the story of my grandmother’s younger brother, Sam (my dad’s uncle)—at least, from my dad’s perspective.

Here’s how the (abridged) story goes.

Sam was a bit of a deadbeat, a baseball player who dropped out of college. My dad’s father, my grandfather, took Sam under his wing, sent him to night school, moved him in with the family, and eventually made him a one-third partner in his accounting firm. Sam was his brother-in-law, after all.

One day, when no one was around, Sam and another employee from the firm came into the office, cleaned out the files and left. They started their own practice, taking 30 to 40 percent of my grandfather’s clients with them. The story goes that perhaps Sam justified his actions by believing that as long as my grandfather’s actual sons (my dad and uncle) were working for the firm, Sam would never be a true owner.

But we’ll never know because no one ever spoke to Sam again.

Needless to say, my grandmother was heartbroken. Her brother’s actions were not only unfathomable, but they were also unforgivable. A few months later, on a flight home from Puerto Rico, my grandmother had a heart attack. She died the next day in the hospital in Bermuda but not before she said, “Sammy did this to me.”

And even though my grandmother smoked a pack a day and her own father died from a heart attack at age 50, it doesn’t matter. This sad, dark, heartbreaking tale was going down in my family history this way.

And here I am. A seemingly smart, hardworking, hyper-trusting person stepping in the same pile of poop over and over again, shocked and heartbroken each and every time a best friend betrays me. I love them. I coach them. I help forward their dreams. I hire them. I even give some of them a piece of my company. And yes, my sister, Beth, is co-founder of the company, my brother-in-law is CEO, and my dad is our attorney. So, similarly, my friends, too, might have felt that they’d never be true owners, so long as my family was embedded in the business.

You can’t make this stuff up!

I was completely clueless that my affinity for these friends, my hiring of them, getting hurt, betrayed and even stolen from by them was my family’s history on repeat.

Until I could see the repeating pattern of mine, own my part in it and learn the right lesson from it, I was going to keep getting dinged for it.

What lesson?

You see, I wasn’t innocent, either. I turn a blind eye to the people I befriend and hire. Each one of these particular friends who I loved and took under my wing were not just hardworking, gifted and dynamic, they were also takers. It was a particular type of person who continued to hurt me: Just like Sam, they were hit-and-runners. They were always going to want to own more and never want to give credit where credit was due. And because I stepped over it, loved their love, used their gifts and hired them DESPITE knowing deep down that they had this trait, I kept getting dinged for it.

I bet you anything that my grandfather also knew exactly who Sam was at his core, and he kept him around anyway.

So luckily it wasn’t heart disease that I got from my family, but my genetics did come with its own set of side effects: heartache and loss.

So how do YOU even begin to predict the probable? Ready?

Here are the steps for how to investigate your lineage and family history. Remember, your family is NOT in trouble. Quite the opposite. They are helping you crack your own code.

1. Write out your version.
First, you are going to write out your version of your family history. Particularly, in any area in your life where you are struggling or, what I’d call, cavity prone. So, for example, if you’re struggling with money, you want to investigate what’s up with your family and money. All of your family. Your parents, their parents. What happened? Did they sell out? Embezzle? Borrow? Give up? Start asking questions to fill in the gaps in your story.

2. Interview your family. Find out about their childhood, life and marriage. Include questions about your grandparents and great-grandparents. Look at aunts and uncles. Search for repeating patterns. Stick to the important areas: love, health, money, career.

3. Interpret the data. What do you want to change? What dark family secrets could you possibly repeat? Be honest where you fall in the family lineage. Are you like Aunt Joan who drinks too much and can’t keep a man? Or are you like Grandpa Jack who resents the world and never finishes anything he starts? Where are you in the lineage? You are in there somewhere.

4. Upgrade your operating system. Once you’ve identified possible pitfalls that come with your lineage and history, you can start making promises to stop a pattern or change an outcome. Make personal laws that honor (not blame!) the emotional and physical DNA that comes from your family’s history.

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Photo credit: Rhone, Unsplash