Photo of family towerOur knowledge of our family’s history is often limited to the very recent past and the memories of those who are still living. Few of us are lucky enough ever to have been in close communion with great-grandparents, and we are likely to see much less of our grandparents than people did in the past when they lived close to one another all their lives.

If we live near to our relations, we can see all our own potential for craziness and foibles by looking at the mad aunt or eccentric grandfather, but it is far more difficult to see who we are, who we take after, what the predilections are in our family when we don’t have regular contact with other family members. As you discover your ancestors’ stories, you begin to see physical similarities and notice recurring patterns of behaviour. And you may well discover ancestors with whom you feel some special connection.

Finding out about our ancestors’ lives and the struggles they faced will often help us understand why we are the way we are, In due course you may want to make an exhaustive search of your family tree, but looking closely at the history of the most recent two or three generations is sufficient as a starting point: you will soon discover family patterns and recognize inherited personality traits.

If you think you already know quite a lot about your immediate family, check whether what you know is actually true. I first started looking into the life of my grandfather after my cousin showed me the letters he had written to my grandmother from prison. It turned out that what I was told as a child (or thought I had been told) was not quite accurate. When you unearth the truth about an ancestor, rather than the myths, you may well discover surprising and enlightening characters. My experience has been that the more I found out about my grandfather’s life the more fascinating it became and the more I felt emotionally connected with him.

The first steps are simply to find out and record as much as you can about your immediate family, starting with yourself, your par­ents and your grandparents. Making an ancestral notebook is a useful way to begin. Gather the documents and mem­orabilia you already have and get together with  other branches of the family to pool information and share memories. If you want to go deeper and further in your research, check whether anyone else in other branches of your faintly has done it before. Are they still work­ing on it? To find out, register with the various genealogical societies and then explore the many websites that have records accessible to the public.

Everyone must follow the same basic steps in genealogy, what­ever nation or ethnic group they come from, but there are specific websites for different groups. Always be aware of the spelling of your surname and remember that most surnames will have variants. Keep an open mind on spelling, not only with people’s names but with place names too.

If you are adopted you can choose whether to research your adopted family or the family of your birth. If you have a strong spiritual link to your adoptive family, then treat that family as your true ancestral lineage. On the other hand, if you always felt like an outsider with your adoptive family there may be value in finding your birth parents and getting to know as much as possible about them.

Buy a notebook to accompany you on your journey and use it to record all the information you find about your family and its his­tory. Writing everything down in one place will provide the raw data for drawing up a family tree, if you decide to do this, and you will also be able to see familial patterns emerging from the mists of time.

Begin with yourself and the facts as you know them: dates of birth, baptism, marriage and where these events happened; details of the houses you lived in and the schools you attended. Write your own short autobiography, including any significant incidents involving members of your family, but also record any thoughts and feelings that come to mind about other people, such as school friends or neighbours. This will be an interesting record for you in later life, as well as for future generations, and it may also help you identify events and relationships that you would like to explore further. 

Want to learn more about yourself? Read DISCOVERING YOUR PERSONALITY TYPE: Enneagram beginner’s guide

Natalia O’Sullivan is a holistic therapist, psychic and spiritual counsellor who combines modern psychological thinking with ancient wisdom. She has studied psychology and mastered holistic arts. Nicola Graydon is a freelance journalist, broadcaster, writer and editor who has written for The Sunday Times Magazine, The Saturday Telegraph Magazine, The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, The Evening Standard, Eve, Marie Clair and Harpers Bazaar.This article was excerpted from Ancestral Continuum: Unlock the Secrets of Who You Really Are by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. Copyright © 2013 by Nicola Graydon and Natalia O’Sullivan. If you liked this excerpt, buy the book!

image 1: Martinez family; image 2: Tibeau Sebastien (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)