Psychologist logo
Children, young people and families

Family trees, selfies and our search for identity

Paula Nicolson looks at developing identities in the 21st century.

28 September 2018

Some time ago, I became interested in why long-dead family members appear to spark emotional responses in so many people. Would the same information have that effect on me? I had the opportunity to find an answer to this when I eventually left my full-time university post. This process of exploring my family history deepened my fascination and I began to understand the emotional triggers apparent on those popular television shows. I wanted to know more. True to habit I turned the methods used to explore aspects of the lives of others towards generating data about myself and my origins – a scary undertaking. So, using a range of documents, conversations, photographs, family myths or stories, memories and texts, I planned to expand my knowledge and understanding of the psychosocial and historical/temporal experiences of my own ancestors.

This look to the past informs our sense of identity and our place in contemporary culture, geographical and historical space, in several ways. Firstly, we can interconnect in a reflective way with material from archival databases, word-of-mouth family stories, photographs and other sources. Secondly, family histories can link with our ongoing psychological 'project of the self', including the relationship between the 'selfie' and family photos of old. Thirdly and perhaps most crucially, it is worth considering that these family history narratives might have a therapeutic benefit with potential to influence our wellbeing.

Of course, for social scientists, and psychologists in particular, focusing on our self, or our identity, is neither new nor exclusive to those exploring their roots. It is integral to how we all live our lives in the present. Consider the 21st century enthusiasm for the selfie and personal status on sites such as FaceBook or Instagram. Posting our status to the outside world reflects varying degrees of confidence in our own narrative of selfhood. Who hasn't wanted friends to know you are out enjoying a particular nightspot, have grown orchids in your hothouse or are on a walking tour of the Scottish Highlands? Who hasn't sneaked a glance at a photo self-portrait? Attention to how often others 'like' what you are doing, how you look, where you are doing it and who is doing it with you, is apparently integral to personal satisfaction as well as the ongoing story we construct about who we really are. And in this way our ancestors are similarly integral – whoever they turn out to be. As we construct ourselves in order to make sense of our lives, we may also construct our family histories to make sense of our identities. We make sense of ourselves by what is around us and how it responds to us. But does discovering more about our backgrounds and family networks actually develop the narrative? Does this add substantively to our self-awareness and understanding?

Expanding knowledge

The pursuit of family history has become relatively easy (which partly explains its popularity). We can become involved in our past simply sitting at our computers and checking public records. We begin to appreciate that ancestors had names, addresses, employment, husbands, wives, children, lodgers… these people were real, whether or not we had ever heard them featured in family stories. Each one of them is part of how, and perhaps why, we are here today. Their lives shaped ours. These poignant, emotional connections lie behind the tears that flow when ancestors' lives are revealed on celebrity genealogy television shows. But does the identity of our dead predecessors – who they were, where they lived and died and what they did with their lives – really influence our own sense of who we are? That is where psychology comes in, and some answers are already available within social and developmental research and theory.

I had a relatively sparse and partial understanding of my own family until I began to put some of the fragments I discovered during my formal search together in my mind. My parents were each aged 40 when I was born; my father, being the youngest of five children and my mother the tenth child of eleven others. This limited my personal experience of older generations because they had mostly died by the time I was able to interact meaningfully with adults. So, for instance, the youngest of my first cousins is 13 years older than me and another first cousin died in 2017 when she was almost 101. This distance in age, and to an extent status, denied me first-hand awareness of my origins.

When I read the social historian Alison Light's book (Common People: The History of an English Family), where she gives an account of seeking her own family origins, I felt a rush of jealousy. Light had been able to talk to people with key knowledge of her family's past, and she herself had been immersed in the geographical places where they had lived and worked. What was particularly interesting for me was that she was able to draw a link between her ancestors and English working-class culture and history through developing her understanding of their lives.

Subsequently Antonia Bifulco's analysis of three generations of a Polish family teases out the psychological consequences of war, hostile occupation and peace across history and cultural change upon individuals' identity, attachment and resilience. These works both demonstrated to me how family history enables all of us to learn from the past, realising greater emotional depth in that project than we might imagine possible. We can learn about ourselves in an intimate and emotional way, but we are also able to learn about the socio-historical-political conditions of our ancestors that draw links to a wider understanding of history and our own psychology.  

Erikson and Bowlby

The psychological histories of two well-known psychologists reinforces these points. Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst, provided an overarching explanation of how the complex relationships between culture, geography and biology all contribute towards the development of our identity. Erik Erikson's life, and resulting model of psychosocial development, exemplifies the same multidisciplinary content that saturates all of our lives and influences our interests as psychologists. Erikson studied and practised in Europe before moving to the United States. His life and interest in identity was a product of his own family background. His mother was a Jewish woman from Denmark estranged from her Jewish husband some months before Erik had been conceived, so that the only information Erik had ever had about the identity of his biological father was that he was Danish but not Jewish. On confirmation of her pregnancy, Erikson's mother moved to Germany and later married a Jewish paediatrician, Theodor Homburger. Homburger adopted Erik, who always used Homburger as his middle name. Much later when Erikson moved to the United States, he married and converted to Christianity. His interests in identity, culture and biology are unsurprising.

One of the drivers of my family history quest came through attending a seminar at the Tavistock Clinic in London to celebrate the life of John Bowlby. What lingered in my mind was how the young John Bowlby's interest in attachment must have come directly from his personal experience. Bowlby's family history contained many examples of separation and loss. His parents had led largely independent lives, reflecting their own expectations based on their own family backgrounds. Bowlby's mother and siblings lived mostly in Scotland. His mother left the childcare to nursery staff and nannies. When his first loving nursemaid left his parents' employ, and his care was taken over by a nanny, in line with the predominant upper-class culture, there was concern not to 'spoil' him. He later wrote that this apparent withdrawal of affection had left a lifelong emotional scar. His father, a surgeon, lived and worked in London, so that when his mother visited her husband she was away from the children and the nannies for months at a time. Bowlby's paternal grandfather had been killed in action when Bowlby's own father was five. This must have influenced his father's maintenance of an emotional distance from his children and possibly from his wife. While Bowlby's father may not have focused overtly on his own early loss, it was something that intrigued Bowlby himself. Bowlby also believed that intergenerational behavioural and emotional patterns might have significance beyond immediate face-to-face relationships.

In my view, both Erikson and Bowlby identified connections between disturbed family backgrounds and how these are translated psychologically and emotionally across generations that had never physically known each other. Would they have settled on their research and clinical concerns without this in their family tree?

The project of the 'self'

A strong motive for our absorption in genealogy is that discoveries are part of the ongoing project of the 'self' – gaining, developing and understanding a sense of who we are.

This mission occurs because the self is not simply a passive or a fixed entity but continues to be shaped by our interactions and interpretations of the environment, the influence of other people and institutions. Does this indicate that knowledge of our ancestors might also be part of this interaction?

As individuals, we act to promote our self, developing a story, or narrative, of who we are, who we have been and who we plan to become. The psychological mechanism that enables this is reflexivity – thinking specifically and, as we might see it, objectively about our self in such a way as to 'hold conversations' with ourselves while working out our place in a variety of everyday and longer-term contexts. This ongoing conversation potentially reaches into our genetic and social family pasts to identify our place within our psychosocial, historical, cultural and political worlds.

Our self, or identity, forms the basis of how we interact with our social and physical environments, and psychological development is the consequence. We, as active and responsive social agents, continue to make sense of who we are over time. This means that as we process and reflect upon ongoing information about our biological, psychosocial and wider life contexts, we manage the story we tell ourselves of who we are, and attempt to project it to those around us. This reflexive project of the self then consists of actively sustaining coherent, albeit continuously revised, biographical narratives. Thus, as we gain more experience and understanding of our social, intellectual and physical/embodied capacities, our discursive consciousness of self-identity evolves. As a result, knowledge and understanding of our ancestors may become integrated into and contribute to our conscious, or unconscious, sense of self-identity.

In our digital era, the selfie is one way in which people sustain and revise these biographical narratives. The selfie might sometimes (perhaps unconsciously) be self-abusive, and there is evidence that some young women in particular use it as a means of gaining approval for their physical self. Much of the contemporary research literature on the selfie focuses upon this aspect. There is also evidence that genealogical searches might also be employed to enhance social status, claiming descent from royalty or other famous or infamous individuals (witness how delighted Danny Dyer was on Who Do You Think You Are? to discover he is related to two kings of England). However, the family search might equally be disappointing or even disruptive for those of us who discover humdrum or even unpleasant family roots. Each of us will bestow a value judgement on the genealogical and the social media data we discover and the responses we obtain. While the selfie and other forms of social media that document our lives, bodies and behaviours provide self-generated narratives to add to the quest for an authentic self, genealogical information does not, although we may also edit the data to fit our desired model of who we are.  

So the selfie and the family tree are arguably different pathways to similar ends. Just as the selfie provides a self-portrait, possibly airbrushed, in the context of a person's temporal and geographical spaces, social networks and physical appearance, the genealogical project equally locates us in time, space, social status and physicality. They are both contemporary projects of the self – who we really think we are, aspire to be and construct ourselves through the prism of how others act, exist and have existed around us. Through looking at our family origins we can now extend the project of the self and take in historical, cultural and biological evidence to enhance the narrative.

Some reasons to be careful

As a social and critical psychologist, I am deeply aware of pernicious uses of family origins in eugenics, explicit in the views of Francis Galton (Charles Darwin's cousin): that genius is passed on through family and the 'genetic stock' of a society can be improved by only letting the better-looking, intelligent or generally 'fit' people breed. In the 1930s the Nazis put this into practice through forced marriage between 'typical' Aryans, and the murder of those who did not fit this model. Investigation of our ancestors will include inquiry into ethnic and racial origins as central to our identities, and most commercial online genealogical databases provide opportunities for DNA analysis, particularly focusing upon ethnic and geographical origins.

Ethnicity and race do seem to be of interest for most of us concerned with identity. There have been examples in the popular press of people who believed they were from one ethnic group who then discovered that they were not, with further instances of those who knowingly claimed false ethnic origins, which have caused resentment and confusion. One of the first people I worked with clinically, many years ago now, was a Polish devout Catholic woman who was depressed, experiencing psychotic episodes that left her unable to cope. Anya (as I shall call her) was educated in a convent, where she had lived through the Nazi invasion and occupation of her country only to learn many years later that the people she had believed were her parents had actually rescued her, a Jewish child, following the murder of her biological parents. Anya never really recovered from this shock – it challenged everything she had believed herself to be. Anya's case is an extreme example invoking symptoms of post-traumatic stress. However, for all of us, investigating who we are is a delicate, difficult and potentially problematic practice. Awareness of political and culturally sensitive issues frequently falls away in the face of what we see of ourselves when we focus on our family histories.


Psychologically, family history research offers the reflective space to think about our own behaviour, personality and expectations based upon those who went before. Physically we often attribute our appearance and personality to specific family members; but more than that, our health status and potential risks bear some relation to our family's past. On occasion, what we learn about some forbears can be upsetting or uplifting – all families have some secrets and it takes no time at all to trace Victorian ancestors, where so much about normal human life had to be concealed but much was also recorded. So, for example, I discovered that my paternal grandparents had not been able to marry. My grandmother previously had been in an abusive relationship that had taken several years to dissolve. The divorce papers were available to read but no subsequent marriage to my grandfather had been registered.

We can become angry on our family's behalf if we learn of their disadvantaged hard lives, discover the death of a young person during war or through disease caused through poverty and infant deaths through epidemics and poor health care. We might learn of enduring unhappy and violent marriages or crimes committed against or by one of our predecessors. These often provoke tears on popular television shows. There are of course tales of happiness and success in most family trees too. But is the same true for selfies? How far do we achieve a sense of who we really are when we examine the airbrushed images? Looking back over previous selfies, what do we discover about those we are holding close? Have they remained part of our lives? I've little doubt that some of these pictures make us draw breath too.

- Paula Nicolson is Emeritus Professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of Genealogy, Psychology and Identity: Tales from a Family Tree (2017, Routledge)
[email protected]

See also 'Half the world away – Family identity and emotional geography', 'Reporting your dream self', 'Lost and found: In translation', and [online exclusive] 'From mothers to matriarchs'. 

Key sources

Bifulco, A. (2017). Identity, attachment and resilience: Exploring three generations of a Polish family. London: Routledge.
Erikson, E.H. (1994). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.
Light, A. (2014). Common people: The history of an English family. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Reavey, P. & Brown, S.D. (2006). Transforming past agency and action in the present. Theory and Psychology, 16(2), 179–202.
Warfield, K. (2014). Making selfies/making self: Digital subjectivities in the selfie. KORA: Kwantlen Open Resource Access. 
Young, M. & Wilmott, P. (2013). Family and kinship in East London. London: Routledge.
Zerubavel, E. (2011). Ancestors and relatives: Genealogy, identity, and community. Oxford: Oxford University Press.