How Much Does Your Past Shape Your Future?

Can you be defined by what your ancestors did or who your ancestors were?

This is probably a question that can equally be aimed at psychology students as well as Historians or Family Historians and one that is probably far more advanced than my level of education! Having said that, I do have my own thoughts and views on the subject, as I am sure you all have.

I would say that to a certain degree a lot of what shapes us today is inherited and part of our DNA, but not everything about us, comes from inherited DNA. We also learn from a young age from what we see and what we are surrounded by, a child will learn from a step-father equally as much as from a biological father. What we do learn and discover does not necessarily have to define us, we are all individual and unique and although we learn through both nature and nurture, there is also a certain amount of ‘free spirit’ within all of us. It is that ‘free spirit’ and ability to challenge what we know and what we accept, that makes us all different. The amount of ‘free spirit’ in each and every one of us will be different, even siblings can be vastly different in their make up.

Life experiences also play a big part in shaping who we are today, both good and bad experiences will shape our thought processes, but again they do not have to define who we are today. These life experiences should help us with future decision making, although some people struggle to learn from past experiences. Your current life is, to a large extent, the result of your past actions, choices and experiences, but you don’t have to be defined by them.

Our memories can also cloud our thought processes in both a positive and negative way. When I think about my childhood and the school holidays, for example, all I can remember are gloriously sunny days and playing out every day. The reality is of course that I am only remembering the good bits, we no doubt had just as many awful summers back then as we do today, but my selective memory only picks out the ‘good bits’. Memories can also be heavily influenced by emotions, both good and bad, those emotions then become permanently attached to the memories. Our past shapes the person that we are today for the good and the not so good. How we view our past experiences both consciously and subconsciously will shape how we approach life today.


Therefore, can we be defined by what our ancestors did?

You are not your past, nor are you your ancestors past. Your past does not define your future, but it certainly helps to shape it, either consciously or sub-consciously.

Nobody can predict the future and what it will bring. But, it is important to recognise that the only way you can plan for the future is by drawing on your memories of the past. Whether that includes your ancestral memories and the memories of your ancestors is still up for debate.

I don’t have the answers to the original question, but I would be really interested to hear the thoughts of others, especially those who have real life experiences that they can say have defined their own lives.

My Dad sadly died when I was just 3 years old, I was too young to have any memories of him, do I think it shaped my future? Absolutely, of course it did. It totally changed my life, without me even realising it. I grew up with a completely different life to the one that I could have had. As I have grown older, that thought has filled my head all the time. The ‘what-if’s’ and the moments that I have missed. Has that shaped my future, definitely it has, but so have many other things? We are all a mixture of a lot of things and what happens in our past will definitely be a part of who we are today, but not every part. We are defined and shaped by our past, our present and we also have the power to influence and make changes in the future. So, our past does shape our future, but it doesn’t have to define who we are today.

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23 thoughts on “How Much Does Your Past Shape Your Future?

  1. I see this as the classic nature/nurture debate, and I’d like to offer two different perspectives.

    First, I strongly believe in self-determination and that it is possible to overcome intergenerational trauma. What we learn from our parents, community, and friends is a strong influence in how we see the world but it is not how we must see the world. Call this the dark belly of the “nurture” side of the equation. Conversely, I have researched the hitherto unknown maternal grandfather of a client, a grandfather who died leaving a two year old daughter, whose gentle, sports-loving, intellectual, introverted, disposition and traits were strongly represented in the grandson. The paternal grandfather was another character altogether: brash, confident, a born networker and politician. It was revelatory to uncover the gentle grandfather and to compare the grandson. It makes me consider the “nature” aspect much more today.

    In our cocktail of genetics and upbringing, I choose always to see the positives, and to be grateful for the strong survival instincts which chose us, of all the billion possibilities, to live.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for sharing with me your thoughts Linda. It’s a truly fascinating subject and we can all draw on our families and our own experiences of life to reach our own conclusions. There are definitely many different facets that make us who we are and a lot of these different characteristics are often fighting for the top position in our personality. Depending on different sets of circumstances, can depend on which personality traits are the strongest.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Seen my children growing up in an environment very different from my own upbringing, I strongly believe that the world outside our own family defines who we are more than anything else. I love this quote from Nathanial Hawthorne:

    “Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”

    I agree that our past and our family history plays a certain part in who we are, but I think that the most important thing I did for my children was to plant them in the right place and into thee right soil 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing this wonderful quote Hettie and your own thoughts, I find this such an absorbing and interesting subject. There are so many different influences that can make up the person we are today. I guess on different days and in different situations different strengths in our personalities will rise to the top

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  3. This is exactly why many of us are involved in family history: We believe that the lives of our many ancestors has influenced the generations after them (in terms of both nature and nurture). We believe that knowing something of our ancestors’ lives can continue to positively inform descendants yet to come. We take pains to discover and preserve these stories so that future generations can gain inspiration or extract lessons from those who have gone before them.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. For a good portion of my life I seemed to favor Britain/England and Norway. Funny thing is, as far as my thoughts about family ancestry, I was looking at Ireland and England. I am a huge history buff.

    Up until a month ago (after DNA testing) I didn’t know for sure what I ancestry was. I did dna in order to find my father. I found him (he has died) and was surprised to find out he was 100% Norwegian!

    I am 55% Scandinavian with most predominantly, Norway. My fathers side didn’t leave Norway until the early 1800s.

    I swear I knew this somewhere deep inside. I’ve spent years watching videos of trains going through Norway.

    The other parts of me are Britain and Ireland, That along with some other things I found, make me think we as animals, still have our instincts intact.

    Great article. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow that is such a powerful story and full of emotions that connect directly with your inner most feelings. I am a firm believer in ancestral memory, that de-ja-vue moment where you visit somewhere and believe you’ve been there before, although to your knowledge, you know that you haven’t. Your connection to Norway was no co-incidence it was born from an inner consciousness that is buried deep within you. Thank you so much for sharing this with me Christine

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Nurture vs nature – always thought nurture was stronger until my sister has proven to my family that nature is strong as she has many tendencies that her bio-dad did despite her not seeing him since she was 2 (she did meet him as an adult on 2-occasions in her late 30’s). Sometimes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Great article as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Becky, I think the balance between the two will be different for each family and each set of circumstances. I would say that it can even change as a child becomes an adult themselves. It is a fascinating subject to discuss.


  6. This is a topic I’ve wrestled with for many years — since long before getting the genealogy bug. Is there a point to it all, or, as a person once said (and I’m forgetting right now just who that was), is history just one damn thing after another?

    Alongside that’s, and putting aside the theological aspects for the moment, there is the scientific notion of chaos and complexity theory — the notion that history is non-linear and that small events may give rise to much bigger consequences.

    This also gets back to your earlier question of a couple months ago — are you a genealogist or a family historian? As for me, I’ve taken more of the family historian path that the past is prologue to our future and that the more we know about our past the better we can understand our present and predict our future. DNA is important for sure, but it is only one component of the overall picture. Yes, it does tell me to a great extent who I am, but it doesn’t explain a whole lot of how my parents came from Kentucky and Missouri to meet up twenty-five years later in Long Beach, California, get married, and create me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Gregory for sharing with me your thoughts on the subject. It’s definitely a much bigger topic than I can talk about here, my blog barely scratches the surface, but I am intrigued in theories of ancestral memory as well and inherited memory, is that even possible? Fascinating topic. I definitely agree with you that a greater understanding of your past gives you a better understanding and perspective of who you are today. The DAN apsect is also a whole topic in it’s own right, I’m a great believer that Nature (biological) and Nurture (step-parenting/adoption etc) are both equal and both play a vital part in making us who we are today. Absolutely fascinating and I would love to study things like this in more detail.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. My parents were very involved within our community and my upbringing as the youngest of 4 and the only girl, with parents who encouraged me to experiment with electronics showed me that taking male dominated classes that eventually led me to a job where I was the only female was ok. I had originally wanted to be a nurse like my grandmother, then a librarian since I loved the research when I had to do a term paper but my brother suggested that I take drafting classes in high school for a possible future in engineering, so I did. I have also been involved in the community and can’t really cook as my mother and my grandmother before me and my daughter after me. But we can all do various crafts. So far I haven’t found a lot from previous generations other than a love for music that had definitely been passed down.
    Today I encourage my grandkids to try out different things and do what they enjoy, not necessarily what is expected of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing with me your own experiences form your own childhood. We have always encouraged our children to try new things and experiences, both played musical instruments for a number of years, but ended up dropping them in their late teens. They were always encouraged to experiment and participate, with the hope that they will find something that captures their imagination. At 31 and 28 they are still enjoying trying out different activities and sports and returning to some from their own childhood.


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