The Magic Of Your Family Histogram


Back in 2002, when I was doing my fieldwork to obtain my second Masters in Counseling from Columbia University, I learned to do an exercise that shed a TON of light on the patterns in my life.

I had chosen to do my fieldwork at the Roberto Clemente Center, a family-therapy clinic in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. They specialized in serving the Latino immigrant community, which meant that a pre-requisite for joining them was to be bilingual, if not fully multi-cultural. Luckily, I was both. 

It was a phenomenal experience; but one of the most enduring gifts I received there was a thorough education on family therapy and how to do a good family histogram in particular. 

All of us fieldwork counselors had to start by doing our own and presenting it at 'Case Disposition' (the weekly meeting with all of the Psychology and Psychiatry staff at the center.)

The process of drawing my own family histogram was fun; but, most importantly, telling the story contained in it was one of the most eye-opening exercises of my life until then. 

Since then, in my private practice over the past 12 years, when I do a histogram for a client I've confirmed that this elegantly simple paper-and-pencil exercise is powerfully revealing and a great tool in the untangling of subconscious patterns that are not serving my clients.

Why is a family histogram so powerful?

Because when you are able to draw out the connections in between members of your family, the bonds and the tensions in different relationships, AND the passing down of family stories, you begin to clearly see how you are a part of the intricate tapestry of your family, and how deeply they have shaped you and the outcome of your life. 

Your family histogram helps you understand who you are at a deeper level. It helps you pinpoint how certain traits and patterns from ancestors, and from the dynamics in your childhood home show up in your life today.

When I did my histogram, I was able to see for the first time how my maternal grandmother's story (being one of four orphaned siblings from parents who were not married but were passionately in love) impacted her life, then impacted my mother's life, and then mine! I was even able to trace back the origins of some of my patterns back to my great-great-grandmother and how her death shortly after childbirth affected my grandmother's mom.

Fascinating and illuminating stuff!

All of this came full circle when six years later, I studied hypnosis and Neuro-Linguistic Programming and I learned techniques to re-map the subconscious mind so we can more effectively heal the ancestral wounds and stories that got passed down, and rewrite the way in which they impact our lives. 

Lately, I've been falling in love all over again with doing histograms and I want to share with you how to do your own. I'd also be thrilled to do it for you and guide you through the discovery journey. 

Doing your own family histogram

This is essentially a 2-part exercise:

  1. Creating the drawing of your family -- which looks a lot like a family tree
  2. Telling the story of the different relationships and having someone else listen to them.

The two parts are essential. If you just do the drawing, you won't get much insight. If you just talk about the stories, you'll miss clearly seeing the deep patterns and connections.

It definitely helps to have someone with experience in family therapy and family dynamics guide you through the process. But you can also gain some good insight by doing it yourself.

Benefits you can get:

  •  A deeper understanding of your beliefs and assumptions about life
  • Clarity around why you react the way you do in ALL aspects of life: relationships, career, health, money, etc.
  • Insights into where your subconscious patterns and habits come from

Two options to do your histogram:

#1 Have me do it for you and help you extract the deepest insights and patterns

I'm so excited about this that I decided to do a special from now through the end of March:

#2 Do it yourself, with a friend or loved one

The reason you have to do it with someone else is that it is in the telling of the stories and patterns that you'll gain the most insight. You can't do this alone.

The basic steps:

  • Take a large piece of paper or white cardboard. Your mother's side will be on the right half and your fathers side will be on the left.  Write the date at the top of the page. 
  • You will draw either a circle or a square to represent each member of your family. Women are drawn as circles. Men are drawn as squares. 
    • Inside each circle/square write the person's name and their current age. 
    • If they are deceased, draw a diagonal across their circle/square.
  • You will then draw the corresponding lines to connect people and represent their relationship. 
    • Two people who married are connected by a line that looks like this: |______|  The vertical lines come down from their circle/square and the horizontal line connects them.
      • If they got divorced, draw to short diagonal lines that look like this // across the marriage line. So their marriage line will look something like this |___//____|
    • Children from that couple are drawn below the horizontal line representing their marriage. If they had a lot of children you'll need to create enough space between them to fit all of the kids.

The process:

  • The first generation: Start with grandparents: draw the circle (grandmother) and square (grandfather) to represent you father's parents on the left half of your paper. Then draw their marriage line, remember it looks like this |____|. 
    • In the middle of their marriage line, write the year they were married. If they got divorced, write the year they got married on the left of the // divorce symbol and the year they divorced on the right of the symbol (rough approximations are OK for now.)
    • Do the same with your mother's parents on the right side of your paper.
    • You're going to add all of your aunts and uncles underneath them, so be sure to leave enough space between your grandmother and grandfather on each side so as to fit all of their kids (and their spouses) in between them.
  • The second generation: Then draw the circles (mom and aunts) and square (dad and uncles) for your parents and all of their siblings. Be sure to put them in their proper birth order from left to right. 
    • Then add all of the husbands, wives and partners, and connect them with their proper marriage line as you did with your grandparents. 
    • It does get tricky if people were married multiple times, and you may realize that your circles and squares need to get smaller and smaller :)
    • If your parents come from large families, they'll likely be on separate ends of the paper with a bunch of circles and squares in between them. That's OK. Before you connect your parents to each other, keep in mind that in the next step you're going to add all of your cousins, etc. so you'll want your parents' vertical lines to be long enough, so that you leave enough space above the horizontal line to fit all of your cousins. 
  • Your generation:  Now draw all of your cousins, and also draw you and your siblings, who will now be roughly in the middle of the page. 
  • Drawing bonds and tensions:
    • If two people had a particularly strong relationship, draw two lines connecting their respective circle/square. 
    • If two people had a particularly tense or conflict-ridden relationship, draw a jagged or squiggly line connecting their respective circle/square.

Now is the time you look back and start to observe if patterns jump out at you. This is when you need to find someone to tell your histogram story and together ask questions to extract the patterns that got passed down to you..

Again, it's the second step of talking about it that is most important; otherwise, all you have a is a neat-looking family tree.

No doubt doing this with someone who has experience in family therapy can make a difference, because we know what to ask, what to listen for and how to connect the dots. 

If you'd like to do this deep dive into your family history and understand how it is showing up in your life, you can get started here:

When we do this process together, you'll complete a form where I'll ask you a bunch of questions about your basic family structure. From that, I'll draft your histogram and then we'll have a 90-minute appointment where we'll complete it together. 

This is one of the funnest ways of telling, sorting and appreciating your family story and how it molded who you are, both in the ways you're conscious of AND the ways you've been unconscious of, until now.