For years I’ve heard about a phenomenon called intergenerational trauma – the idea that the impact of traumatic events can be passed down from one generation to the next.
I have to admit I never believed it was a real thing.
I had only heard about it in very woo-woo circles in San Francisco, and for that reason assumed it was pseudoscience or a metaphor.
Until a friend recommended a book on the topic called It Didn’t Start With You (affiliate link), and I decided to challenge my assumptions and see what it had to offer.
The author Mark Wolynn is the founder and director of the Family Constellation Institute in San Francisco, where he works with people struggling with depression, anxiety, chronic illness, phobias, panic disorders, obsessive thoughts, PTSD, and other debilitating conditions.
It Didn’t Start With You is the distillation of Wolynn’s more than 20 years of experience helping those people find the roots of their symptoms in intergenerational trauma (which he calls “inherited family trauma”), and heal from it.
In this article I’ll summarize the most powerful lessons I learned from the book, told through the lens of my own personal journey. I hope it gives you new insight and new hope in your own journey.
Trigger warning: I’ve never added a trigger warning to anything I’ve published, but this time it is definitely in order. Wolynn asks readers to closely examine their deepest fears and the most traumatic experiences of their lives (and their ancestors’ lives). The rest of this piece touches on suicide, rape, murder, genocide, violence, sexual and psychological abuse, and other acutely traumatic experiences.
A case study of inherited family trauma
What immediately struck me about this book were the stories.
Early on in the book, Wolynn recounts the story of one of his patients, Jesse, as a case study of how intergenerational trauma works.
Jesse hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in more than a year. He had to drop out of college and forfeit his baseball scholarship as a result. Dark shadows around his eyes hinted at his insomnia, while the blankness of his stare suggested something deeper. Though only twenty years of age, he looked ten years older. No doctor was able to give him any hope of a cure.
Jesse had been a star athlete and straight-A student, before inexplicably coming down with the insomnia that derailed his life. Sleep had always come easily for him, until late one night just after his nineteenth birthday, when he awoke with a start at 3:30 am. He was freezing, shivering, unable to get warm no matter how hard he tried. He felt consumed by a strange fear that something awful would happen to him if he let himself fall back asleep. Every time he felt himself drifting off, that fear would jolt him awake.
If I go to sleep, I’ll never wake up.
These words echoed through his mind for hours.
Wolynn listened to the details of Jesse’s struggle, and asked him if he had any relatives who suffered a trauma involving cold, being asleep, or being nineteen.
Jesse revealed that only recently his mother had told him about the tragic death of his father’s older brother, an uncle he never knew he had. Uncle Colin was only nineteen when he froze to death checking power lines in a storm in the Northwest Territories of Canada. His body was eventually found, face down in a blizzard, having lost consciousness from hypothermia. His death was such a tragic loss that the family never spoke his name again.
Now, three decades later, Jesse was unconsciously reliving aspects of the same experience. For Colin, letting go and falling asleep meant death. For Jesse, it felt much the same.
Once Jesse made that connection, he finally had an explanation for what he was experiencing. The process of healing could now begin. Using the tools and techniques detailed in this book, and with Wolynn’s support, he went on to disentangle himself from the impacts of the trauma endured by the uncle he had never met. Knowing the source of his fear, he was able to start putting it to rest. And through that work, he eventually found resolution and relief from his insomnia.
Touching a nerve in my own life
I read this story and several others with extreme skepticism. They seemed far too tidy and convenient. Yet, as I put the book down and started getting ready for bed, I could feel that it had moved something deep within me.
I finished my nightly routine, laid down in bed, and as my thoughts drifted, I suddenly found myself beginning to cry. It was a very different kind of crying than I’ve ever experienced before – from deep in my belly, visceral and guttural, like an animalistic wailing.
Strangest of all, I didn’t feel much emotion to accompany it. Nothing in particular had happened besides reading a book. It was more like a body cry, the tissues in my body releasing something that had been stuck for a long time.
Mesmerized and fascinated by what was happening to me, I jumped out of bed and opened up my journal. I started writing, and soon came to an answer as to why these stories had impacted me so strongly.
I’ve always struggled to understand why I seemed to have many symptoms of trauma, even though nothing in my life history remotely explains it. Unlike so many others, my upbringing was practically idyllic. My parents were always loving and supportive, I never sustained any major injury or accident, nor experienced serious violence or tragedy.
Yet for as long as I can remember, I’ve felt a sense of emptiness or “depersonalization” – the feeling that I am not really here, or that I am only half a person. I’ve always had a sense of not deserving to be here, of having taken someone else’s place.
I knew these feelings of unworthiness had become the source of my ambition. I could see that the drive to prove I was worthy had served me well. But at this point in my life, with a thriving business and family, I was tired of having to prove myself. I wanted to slow down and enjoy the fruits of what I had achieved, but inexplicably found myself unable to rest or relax.
Reading for the first time about the existence of inherited trauma, and how it works, I suddenly saw a new possibility: that I was experiencing the echoes of the traumas of my forebears. And once I drew back that curtain and began to look closely at my family history, I saw that there was more than enough trauma to go around.
I’d spent my life trying to understand the origins of my anxiety, fears, and neurotic worries while looking only at my own life history. Now it dawned on me that maybe these feelings were not my fault or my burden to carry alone.
What is Inherited Family Trauma?
Inherited family trauma begins when the impacts of a traumatic event are too threatening to be resolved in a single generation.
Pain that is too great to be felt by one person becomes submerged until it can find a pathway for expression in their descendants. In this way, we can unconsciously carry the feelings, symptoms, behaviors, and hardships of earlier generations as if they were our own.
Deep-rooted patterns of depression, anxiety, emptiness, terror, dissociation, numbness, disconnection, defeat, or annihilation may come not from our own life history, but from the stories of our parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents and beyond.
Pain doesn’t always dissolve on its own with time. Sometimes it gets amplified as it gets passed from parent to child, fragments of past experience becoming lodged in the family psyche like shards of glass.
The trauma of past generations can and does live on, reaching out from the past to find resolution in the minds and bodies of those living in the present.
Modern therapy and trauma studies have taught us that the psychological and emotional problems we face often come from our past. We’re taught that if we just dig deep enough, we’ll discover their source. But it’s possible that the source goes much further back.
Here are some questions to ask yourself that may indicate this is an avenue worth exploring:
- Do you have symptoms, feelings, or behaviors that are difficult to explain in the context of your life experience?
- Was there a trauma in your family (an early death of a parent, child, or sibling, or an abandonment, murder, crime, or suicide, etc.) that was too terrible, painful, or shameful to talk about?
- Did your parents experience an event so painful that they rarely spoke about it? (Did they lose a newborn baby or miscarry late in a pregnancy? Were they abandoned by a great love or did they lose a parent or a sibling when they were young? Did they feel guilty for causing harm to someone? Did they blame themselves for something?)
If you answered yes to any of these questions, read on.
The Science of Inherited Family Trauma
Wolynn points to recent findings in three fields for support: neuroscience, epigenetics, and the science of language.
In particular, research performed by Dr. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. She is one of the world’s leading experts in PTSD, especially as manifested in Holocaust survivors and their children.
Yehuda’s research has shown that many children of Holocaust survivors with PTSD were born with low cortisol levels, similar to their parents, predisposing them to relive the same PTSD symptoms. As a result, they were more likely to experience a range of psychiatric disorders, such as chronic pain syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, and anxiety.
Yehuda’s work led her to the conclusion that PTSD changes the epigenetic tags that govern how our genes are expressed. Although DNA itself doesn’t change significantly from one generation to the next, epigenetic markers can be shaped by the parents’ life experience as early as conception. She believes that the evolutionary purpose of these epigenetic changes is to prepare us to face the environment and the challenges our parents faced.
Wolynn also draws on the work of pioneering cell biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton. As a Stanford scholar, Lipton demonstrated that signals from the environment could be transmitted through the cell membrane, controlling the behavior and physiology of a cell, which in turn could activate or silence a gene.
Lipton asserts, “The mother’s emotions, such as fear, anger, love, hope among others, can biochemically alter the genetic expression of her offspring.” In other words, chronic or repetitive emotions like anger and fear can imprint a child, preparing or “preprograming” how the child will adapt to its environment.
The potency of these genetic inheritances has been demonstrated most vividly in mice, which share 99% of our genetic makeup. Studies on mice have shown that traumas, such as maternal separation, cause changes in gene expression that can be traced for at least three generations.
In one such study, researchers prevented female mice from nurturing their pups for up to three hours a day during their first two weeks of life. Later in life, those offspring exhibited behaviors similar to what we call depression in humans. And those symptoms seemed to get worse with age.
In one of the most striking studies, a group of mice was trained to fear a cherry blossom-like scent called acetophenone. Each time they were exposed to the smell, they simultaneously received an electric shock. After a while, the shocked mice had a greater number of smell receptors associated with that particular scent and enlarged brain areas devoted to detecting it.
The experience of pain had changed them, but the intriguing part is what happened to their offspring. Both the pups and grandpups of the experimental mice, when exposed to the odor, became jumpy and avoided it. Despite never having experienced the smell themselves, they had inherited the fear response of their predecessors.
Much the same effect has been found in humans, although the long span of generations makes it more challenging to study.
In one study, granddaughters of stressed grandmothers had shorter pregnancies themselves, even when their mothers (the intervening generation) had not been stressed. Gerlinde Metz, senior author of the article, says: “A surprising finding was that mild to moderate stress during pregnancy had a compounding effect across generations. Thus, the effects of stress grew larger with each generation.”
Stepping back for a second, it makes intuitive sense that evolution would have found a way to transmit information about what is needed for survival from one generation to the next. We know that evolution through natural selection takes many, many generations to produce significant change. In that time, a family or even an entire species can easily be wiped out by changes in the environment. Epigenetics allows for far faster adaptation, tweaking the sensitivities and biases of our genes based on the gravest threats, which are often the source of our traumas.
Walking the path for myself
It Didn’t Start With You touches on the science of inherited trauma, but this book isn’t primarily about science. Most of it is presented in the form of a self-guided process with written prompts and journaling exercises designed to surface and resolve the roots of inherited trauma within you, the reader.
As I read his words, I felt the desire to put Wolynn’s ideas to the test. I decided I would work through the writing prompts and experience the process he was describing for myself. The first prompts were about identifying recurring symptoms or complaints in one’s life. Although I could think of many, I decided to focus on one of my longest standing and earliest preoccupations.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a feeling of being in the way or occupying a place meant for someone else. Even on a spatial level, I’ve always felt this need to place myself up against a wall or in a corner of the room, as if taking up more space than I “deserved” would be a cardinal sin. Later on, that visceral feeling was translated into a feeling of not belonging, of not deserving to belong, or being unworthy of things due to this place I had usurped or occupied unfairly.
The strange thing is, there is no experience in my childhood that can explain these feelings. I wasn’t an unwanted or neglected child. I was never told that I didn’t belong or that I wasn’t worthy. Quite the opposite. And yet, I found myself from such a young age trying to make myself and my needs small, as if to avoid being noticed or scrutinized.
I would play by myself and out of sight. I invented worlds in my imagination that allowed me to withdraw to a place where I did belong and my needs were valid. I had developed many coping mechanisms to salve the pain of not feeling wanted or needed, like I was a burden who was “in the way.”
As I got older and became an adult, these deep-seated fears and anxieties turned into a kind of restlessness. I often felt unable to relax, unable to enjoy what I had achieved. I’ve long had this sense that I couldn’t afford to “waste time” – every minute needed to be spent pushing forward and making progress. Any time that wasn’t happening, it felt like I was going backward, losing ground, getting left behind.
In the early years of my career, that restlessness served me, pushing me to work harder than anyone else. But over the last few years as the business took off and I became a father, I began to grapple with the uncomfortable realization that the pace I was moving at wasn’t slowing down in response. I still felt that same relentless sense of urgency driving me to push and push and push.
I began to see that the pressure didn’t come from any external source. It came from within me. I was more comfortable and felt more like myself in that state of near panic. And so I kept it going at all costs, even in the face of accumulating costs in other areas of my life.
I had this experience time and again of striving to reach a goal, but once I had, being inexplicably unable to savor it. I would find myself turning immediately to the next goal, trapped in the inescapable hamster wheel of striving. My work began to feel like a prison as a result, keeping me running toward but always just out of reach of the fruits of my efforts. Life started to get very grey, like everything I was doing was a necessary evil on the way to some shining, glorious promised land. But I never seemed to arrive there.
Meanwhile, I could see negative side effects on every aspect of my life. My health deteriorated as I pushed my body again and again beyond its limits. My friendships suffered as they always took a back seat. My mental health and ability to focus took a hit as I never fully took the time to reset. My time with family wasn’t as rich, as my mind kept getting pulled toward looming problems at work. And my workload only seemed to get bigger as I took on more duties and avoided delegating the ones I already had.
I decided to follow the thread of this recurring preoccupation through the rest of the book to try and find its origin.
The Core Language Approach
Over 20 years of counseling, Mark Wolynn has developed a healing methodology he calls the “Core Language Approach.”
According to Wolynn, fragments of trauma leave clues inside us in the form of emotionally charged words and sentences. These clues can also take the form of nonverbal communication – physical sensations, behaviors, emotions, impulses, and even the symptoms of an illness.
Like gems waiting in our subconscious to be unearthed, they hint at fragments of trauma buried in our psyche waiting to be remembered and explored.
This “core language” can include:
- Intense, urgent, or dramatic words people use to describe their deepest fears.
- Words that are unusual or feel out of context from what the person knows or has experienced.
- Recurring complaints we have about our relationships, our health, our work, and other aspects of life.
- Unexplainable habits or idiosyncratic impulses.
As a therapist, Wolynn interviews his patients and listens for this kind of language. He asks himself and his patients, “What language seems to jump out at you?” And “What language calls out to be noticed?”
Here are examples from some of his patients:
- “I can’t breathe. I can’t get out. I’m going to die.”
- “The world isn’t a safe place. You have to hide who you are. People can hurt you.”
- “I don’t fit in. I feel like I don’t belong. I feel like I’m invisible. Nobody sees me. I feel like I’m observing life, but not in it.”
Our recurring complaints or symptoms may actually be a creative expression leading us to complete, heal, integrate, or separate from something. Like chronic pain telling you to pay attention to a part of the body, psychic pain can be your mind’s attempt to call attention to psychological wounds that need attention. That could include wounds you’ve taken on that never belonged to you in the first place.
Perhaps your symptom is forcing you to take a step you haven’t taken, a step you can no longer ignore. Maybe you are being asked to complete a stage of development that got interrupted by an event in your life. Your pain could be recreating a state of helplessness that serves to bring you close to your parents. Or conversely, maybe it forces growth and independence from them.
Maybe you are being shown that you need to finish a task or follow a path you previously abandoned. Maybe you neglected a personal boundary that can no longer remain overlooked. Or perhaps you’ve ignored a young, fragmented part of yourself that is now coming to the surface.
Your language provides the clues to help you find the answer.
Your deepest fear
If you would like to begin this process for yourself, it begins by answering the question, “What is your worst fear – the worst thing that could ever happen to you?”
Wolynn notes that this fear has probably been with you since you were a small child. You might feel as if you were born with it. Whether actually spoken aloud or pondered quietly, the mere thought of it creates a sense of despair. It usually takes the form of a short, simple sentence in the present or future tense, as if spoken by a child.
As you read the examples below, take note of which ones jump out at you or provoke a reaction:
- “I’m all alone”
- “They reject me”
- “They leave me”
- “I let them down”
- “I’ll lose everything”
- “I’ll fall apart”
- “It’s all my fault”
- “They abandon me”
- “They betray me”
- “They humiliate me”
- “I’ll go crazy”
- “I’ll hurt my child”
- “I’ll lose my family”
- “I’ll lose control”
- “I’ll do something terrible”
- “I’ll hurt someone”
- “I won’t deserve to live”
- “I’ll be hated”
- “I’ll kill myself”
- “They’ll lock me up”
- “They’ll put me away”
- “It’ll never end”
When you hear or say your fear, the words will feel alive inside you, as if they are happening right now or are just about to happen. They often begin with “I” or “They.” The words will often elicit a physical reaction – an anxious or sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach for example.
As I read this list through the lens of my own life experience, the one that jumped out at me with red lights flashing was “I won’t deserve to live.” I had never before said these exact words to myself, but they seemed to somehow encapsulate my view of life in just a few words.
As Wolynn predicted, the words felt extremely dramatic and threatening. They seemed to transcend time and space, as if they had already happened, were happening now, and would happen in the future. I felt the impact of these words like a punch to the gut.
As I began to capture that fear through writing, the tension between a thirst for ambition and a fear of regret appeared strongly as a recurring theme. For years, I’ve had a certain scene play out in my mind as if from a movie: I’m running a race and arrive at the finish line only to find that there is no one there to celebrate with me. I have driven them away by my selfishness, and it is all my fault.
This waking nightmare touches on my fear of not achieving enough, but also of burning so many bridges along the way that it all ends up being for nothing. It triggers my fear of not belonging, and also of taking someone’s place unfairly, since winning a race always means someone else loses.
Wolynn asks readers to dive deeper into surface-level fears, asking repeatedly, “And then what would happen as a result of that?”
I answered that I would be alone at the finish line, with no one to celebrate with or appreciate me, burdened with the guilt and regret that I brought it all on myself. Another level deeper: my ultimate regret would be that I had one precious life, and that I squandered it.
Essentially, my core fear is that I will miss out on the most valuable thing in the world, belonging, because I am so busy chasing it down elsewhere that I miss it right in front of me. And therefore, all the shame and disappointment for all my failings in life would lie squarely on my own shoulders.
And one final level deeper: that my life itself will have been a waste, a mistake, taking up the resources that could have gone to someone else. It will be my fault for existing.
Distilling all of this into the most compact form, here is the sentence I arrived at as my Core Language:
I won’t deserve to live. I won’t deserve to exist. I won’t deserve to belong anywhere. I won’t deserve to be loved. I won’t deserve acceptance and appreciation. I’ll have to live alone forever with endless disappointment and endless regret. I will bring shame on my family through my actions.
It can be terrifying and confronting to even think about your deepest fear. But I had also learned from experience the wisdom in Wolynn’s words: that ignoring the pain actually deepens the pain. His promise that those same words would have the power to release me gave me the courage to keep reading.
Finding the source
The next step in Wolynn’s process is to find the ancestor who the trauma originates with.
Here are some questions he suggests asking yourself in order to do that (take note of any that seem to jump out at you or immediately bring someone to mind):
- Who died early?
- Who left?
- Who was abandoned or isolated or excluded from the family?
- Who was adopted or who gave a child up for adoption?
- Who died in childbirth?
- Who had a stillbirth or an abortion?
- Who committed suicide?
- Who committed a crime?
- Who experienced a significant trauma or suffered a catastrophic event?
- Who lost their home or possessions and had difficulty recovering?
- Who was forgotten or suffered in war?
- Who died in or participated in the Holocaust or another genocide?
- Who was murdered?
- Who murdered someone?
- Who felt responsible for someone’s death or misfortune?
- Who hurt, cheated, or took advantage of someone?
- Who profited from another’s loss?
- Who was wrongly accused of something?
- Who was jailed or institutionalized?
- Who had a physical, emotional, or mental disability?
- Which parent or grandparent had a significant relationship prior to getting married, and what happened?
- Was there anyone else you can think of who was deeply hurt by someone in your family or a family member deeply hurt by another?
Using my core fear as a lens, I began to roam around my family tree looking for a possible source. My mother is passionate about genealogy and has researched both sides of our family extensively going back many generations. But I didn’t have to look too far. Asking my father the question, “Who in our family didn’t feel they deserved to live? Didn’t deserve to exist?” a possible answer sprang quickly to mind: his father John.
When John’s older brother Robert was just 19 years old, he died in a tragic car accident. By all accounts, Robert was the favorite. He was studying medicine with a bright and promising career as a doctor ahead of him, while my grandfather John was a rebel and a misfit often up to no good.
When Robert died, my father told me that John got the message that “It should have been you.” Whether or not his parents meant to convey such a devastating message is unknown. But my grandfather John took away a sense that he didn’t deserve to be here. Feelings of grief and loss must have mixed with shame and regret to form a potent mixture: a relentless drive to prove his worthiness.
And prove it he did. John joined the U.S. Air Force as a young man and climbed the ranks fighting in the Pacific theatre in World War II. He had a talent for golf, and used that skill to befriend high-ranking military officials in the Philippines where he was stationed.
Once the war was over, he parlayed those connections into a series of profitable commercial deals. His entrepreneurial ventures in surplus military equipment, restaurants, and real estate eventually made him a wealthy man, and he lived out his last years playing golf in Southern California as his grandchildren proliferated around him.
I had always identified closely with my grandfather John. His entrepreneurial drive, his world travels, his thirst for adventure – these were all qualities I admired and shared. But it’s possible I also shared his trauma – a feeling that despite all his success, he didn’t deserve it.
Maybe, just maybe, that feeling of occupying a place that was meant for someone else didn’t belong to me. Maybe that information had been passed through my father to me through our epigenetics, our family stories, subconscious language, or some other tacit or explicit means. It’s impossible to know for sure, but the clues left behind by my language and emotions point me in this direction.
Healing our relationship with our parents
Since our parents are the gateway through which any inherited trauma reaches us, Wolynn dedicates a sizable part of the book to closely examining our relationship with them.
As infants, our mother is our world. A separation from her at an early age is experienced as a separation from life. Experiences of emptiness and disconnection, of hopelessness and despair, or a belief that something is terribly wrong with us or with life itself – all of these can emerge from an early separation from our mothers.
Too young to process the trauma, it becomes embedded in our bodies as incoherent feelings or sensations without the story to explain them. To make matters worse, comforting memories of being held, fed, cleaned, or rocked to sleep are often blocked from surfacing. In short, trauma rewires our memories, keeping only those that support our primitive defensive structures.
Wolynn advises that our relationship with our parents cannot be bypassed, no matter how long it takes. He tells the story of meeting his marine sergeant father for 36 weekly lunches before his dad finally opened up, admitting in hushed tones that he had never believed his son loved him. It was only then that the real conversations could begin.
As I read this, I began having a series of phone calls with my parents. We spent hours exploring the intricacies of our family history, comparing stories and investigating clues as to what shaped us. I’m fortunate that they are open and willing to discuss the stories from their past.
I told them about what I was learning, what I had discovered about myself, and perhaps for the first time in my life, asked them about their own past from a place of curiosity. I asked questions that I had never even considered, such as “Did you feel close to and connected to your mother?” and “What did you feel was missing from your childhood?” Their answers gave me so much context and helped me understand my own upbringing more deeply.
An important part of Wolynn’s process is understanding in detail the traumas that your parents experienced. Maybe your mother lost a child before you were born, or gave up a child for adoption, or lost her first love in a car accident. Perhaps her father died when she was young, or her beloved brother or sister.
Fearing such loss again, she might have kept you at arms’ length, not fully imparting the love and connection you so needed as a baby. Experiencing that distance as a small child, maybe you felt she was unavailable, self-absorbed, or withholding. You might have then rejected her, taking her depleted flow of love personally, as if she had somehow made a choice to keep it from you. Cutting off her love can make you feel free at first, but it’s the false freedom of a childhood defense. Ultimately, it will limit your life experience.
Many people find that the emotions, traits, and behaviors of a rejected parent resurface in themselves. Wolynn describes this as a “covert bond” – our secret way of loving them by bringing them back into our lives. Conversely, we can project those disowned behaviors onto the people around us, unconsciously bringing into our lives friends, romantic partners, and business associates who display the very qualities we reject.
Wolynn notes that it’s important not to expect our parents to be any different from who they are. The change we are seeking has to happen in us. You can’t change your parents, but you can change the way you hold them inside you.
Self-sabotage and fear of success
The most direct application of these ideas to my own work has to do with self-sabotage.
I’ve often noticed that in the pursuit of the goals and ambitions that they say are important to them, many people become their own worst enemy. Just as they are poised for a breakthrough, they seem to subconsciously put obstacles in their own way. I’ve always been fascinated by this phenomenon and what causes it.
Which means, I was especially interested in one of the ways that inherited trauma can manifest itself: as a fear of success. Wolynn describes the case of Myrna, which I’ll excerpt below in full (bolded key points are my own):
“Myrna was two when her mother accompanied her father on a business trip to Saudi Arabia and left Myrna in the care of a babysitter for three weeks. During the first week, Myrna clung to the sweater her mother wore on cold nights as she rocked her to sleep. Comforted by the familiar feel and smell, Myrna would curl herself around it and rock herself to sleep. By the second week, Myrna refused to take the sweater when the babysitter offered it. Instead she turned away, crying, and sucked her thumb to fall asleep.
After three weeks away, her mother excitedly hurried through the door to hold her daughter. She was expecting Myrna to run into her arms as she always had before. This time it was different. Myrna barely looked up from her dolls. Startled and confused, Myrna’s mother could not help but notice the sensations of her own body tightening with feelings of rejection. Over the coming days, Myrna’s mother would rationalize the experience, telling herself that Myrna was becoming “a very independent child.”
Unaware of the importance of restoring their delicate bond, Myrna’s mother lost sight of her little girl’s vulnerability and held herself a little distant. The distance continued between them, deepening Myrna’s feelings of aloneness. This distance would spill into Myrna’s life experiences, tainting her ability to feel safe and secure in future relationships. Feelings of abandonment and frustration were expressed in her core language: “Don’t leave me.” “They’ll never come back.” “I’ll be all alone.” “I’m not wanted.” “They don’t get who I am.” “I’m not seen or understood.”
For Myrna, falling in love was a minefield of unpredictability. The vulnerability of needing another person was so terrifying that each time she took another step into her desire, she was met by a deeper level of her fear. Unable to link this conflict to her childhood, she found fault with every man who attempted to love her, often leaving them before they could leave her. By the time she was thirty, Myrna had talked herself out of three potential marriages.
Myrna’s inner conflict played out in her career as well. Each time she accepted a new position, she filled with doubt, fearing inevitable disaster. Something would go terribly wrong. They wouldn’t like her. She wouldn’t be enough. They would distance themselves from her. She wouldn’t trust them. They would betray her. These were the same unspoken feelings Myrna felt with a partner—the same feelings she had never resolved with her mother.”
This possibility is mind-blowing to me: that a 3-week event in Myrna’s earliest years could have such profound lifelong effects on nearly every aspect of her life.
Sometimes, when a beloved member of the family dies early and is perceived not to have completed his or her life, someone later in the family, in silent collusion, can fail to complete something of great importance.
A patient named Richard held the core language of “I never get recognized.” He traced the source of this phrase to his stillborn older brother, who no one ever talked about or mentioned. Out of love for his brother, who wasn’t seen or recognized, Richard moved from job to job being eluded by the recognition he secretly didn’t believe he deserved.
Sometimes we share an unconscious loyalty to ancestors who lived in poverty and had difficulty providing for themselves and their children. Perhaps war, famine, or persecution forced them to leave their homeland and their belongings in order to make a fresh start in another part of the world. If our ancestors experienced great hardship, we can continue their suffering without realizing it, thwarting our attempts to live the abundant life that they would have wanted for us.
In other situations, Wolynn says, people feel a subconscious need to “atone” for their family’s wrongdoings. He tells Loretta’s story, whose core language was “I don’t deserve to have what I get.” Her frustrations as an entrepreneur set her on a path that eventually led her to reexamine her family’s past:
“More than anything, Loretta wanted to own her own business. For thirty years, her ‘sweat and hard labor,’ as she put it, had been lining the pockets of the owners of the companies she worked for. Yet every time an opportunity came her way to start her own venture or to develop one of her own business ideas, she’d balk. ‘Something keeps me from moving forward. It’s as though there’s something lurking beneath the surface that holds me back from taking the next step,’ she said. ‘It’s as though I don’t deserve to have what I get.’
Again, the answer wasn’t far away. In her will, Loretta’s grandmother had left the profitable family farm to Loretta’s father and left nothing to Loretta’s father’s four brothers and sisters. Her father went on to flourish, and his siblings went on to struggle. They all shared a distant relationship after that.
Loretta’s father had gained an unfair advantage over his siblings. As an adult, Loretta, the only child of her father and mother, struggled financially, just as her aunts and uncles had, turning the family switch from “advantage” to “disadvantage.” As though to balance the ill-gotten gains her father received from the grandmother, Loretta unconsciously held herself back from success. Once she realized that she had involuntarily been attempting to balance a wrong with another wrong, she was able to take the risks necessary to become an entrepreneur.”
Success is often confronting. It “exposes” us to more risk, more uncertainty, and potentially, more criticism from others. For these reasons, we sometimes hold back from achievement out of the fear of what it will surface within us. Better to play it safe and hide in obscurity. This is the direct link between the healing of intergenerational trauma (and trauma in general) and people’s ability to realize their most meaningful goals and dreams.
Creating a new image
Given everything we’ve learned, how do we resolve our traumatic inheritance?
Much like recovery from trauma in general, it involves allowing ourselves to be moved by an experience or image strong enough to overshadow the old traumatic emotions and sensations that live inside us. This “image” can include a phrase, a scene, a question, a story, a ritual, a symbol, or a bodily movement directed toward one’s younger self or ancestors.
The important thing is that this healing image is positive, rewarding, meaningful – an image that evokes our sense of curiosity and wonder.
Here are some examples of the images Wolynn’s patients have come up with (take note of any that especially move you):
- “Instead of reliving what happened to you, I promise to live my life fully”
- “What happened to you won’t be in vain”
- “I’ll use what happened as a source of strength”
- “I will honor the life you gave me by doing something good with it”
- “I will do something meaningful and dedicate it to you”
- “I will not leave you out of my heart”
- “I’ll light a candle for you”
- “I will honor you by living fully”
- “I’ll live my life in a loving way”
- “I will make something good come out of this tragedy”
- “Now I understand. It helps to understand.”
These phrases may seem trivial in light of the tragedies you’ve faced. But they are only a starting point; the cornerstone of a new edifice of self-love. They establish an internal reference point of feeling whole, a feeling we can refer back to each time old sensations threaten our stability.
A healing image serves as a portal through which we can revisit the past from a place of safety. By reengaging the areas of the brain that were disengaged during the traumatic event (such as the prefrontal cortex), we can integrate fragments of memory into a new narrative. Like fusing shards of glass into a stained glass window, what was broken and dangerous can be made beautiful.
This approach to healing from trauma is more art than science. We can never know with 100% certainty the exact source and nature of our inherited trauma. Instead, we are using our words and emotions as guideposts to find new stories that bring meaning to our lives.
Healing is inherently an act of creativity and self-expression. Like any creative act, crafting a healing image requires the right timing, the right words, and the right visuals arranged together in the right way. When these elements align, something beautiful is set in motion that we can feel viscerally in the body.
Psychologist Annie Rogers says, “The unconscious insists, repeats, and practically breaks down the door, to be heard. The only way to hear it, to invite it into the room, is to stop imposing something over it—mostly in the form of your own ideas—and listen instead for the unsayable, which is everywhere, in speech, in enactments, in dreams, and in the body.”
Once I started looking for it, I found traces of an unspoken language of unworthiness throughout my family. It colors our stories of the past, our hopes for the future, and the small ways we speak to and interact with each other. But when I began looking deeper, I found something else: the secret language of fear that may have been passed down to me by my grandfather also contains within it a language of love.
Grandpa John spent his life working tirelessly to give us a secure future. He helped his children buy their first homes so that they would all live close together, ensuring we were surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins growing up. He paid for much of his grandchildrens’ college educations, setting us up for successful careers. The financial abundance he created out of his drive to prove himself gave his children and grandchildren the freedom to pursue artistic and entrepreneurial careers, allowing us to share our gifts with so many others.
I’ve discovered a new possibility for my life: that maybe I have the great blessing of being free enough of my own trauma that I can begin to process the trauma that has been passed down through my family. Perhaps my role is to finally excavate the past and rewrite our story so that old demons can be laid to rest. Maybe all the pain of past generations is finally coming to fruition, allowing me to live the abundant life that they sacrificed so much for.
Not only the pain, but also the love of countless generations has been poured into you. No experience is ever wasted. Everything that has happened in our lives and the lives of our ancestors ultimately leads us somewhere meaningful. Both the love and the pain has made us who we are.
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