Written by therapist Marissa Halstead
Most all of us grow up in the context of a family unit. This family unit teaches us how to be in the world and helps shape our values, character, and interests. Unfortunately, oftentimes our families teach us really unhealthy patterns of behavior that get passed on through the generations. Some call these toxic patterns a generational curse, but for the sake of this blog, I will use the language of intergenerational trauma.
What is Intergenerational Trauma?
Some families seem to have years of the same difficulties that get passed down through the generations. This might manifest itself as generations of alcoholism, mental illness, or even patterns of abuse. People might come in with knowledge of more obvious patterns like this, but feel lost when it comes to deeper struggles. Mark Wolynn, author of It Didn’t Start With You states, “What I’ve learned from my own experience, training, and clinical practice is that the answer may not lie within our own story as much as in the stories of our parents, grandparents, and even great grandparents.” Family trauma feels like a web that we get trapped in with no way out. Feeling trapped, we learn to deny and/or minimize its effects on our lives. How we learn to cope with family trauma can have consequences for generations.
Who is Affected?
While anyone can be shaped by intergenerational trauma, it especially touches those who are from more marginalized communities. Families who have experienced war, violence, discrimination, and/or those in lower socioeconomic classes tend to have more noticeable experiences. For example, intergenerational trauma was very apparent for Jewish people who survived the Holocaust and those who descended from them.
Pain is often inherited down from the generations if it is not dealt with or processed. Trauma gets passed on through the very cells in our bodies and through how we are raised in our homes. The negative effects on individuals in these families can range from poor sleep, heart disease, and other disorders all the way to anxiety, depression, and suicidality.
You might be asking yourself, “Is it even possible to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma?” Thankfully the answer is yes, though it is an ongoing process. You can find a way to live with your story instead of pushing it down. Being in tune with your body is extremely important so that you can take better care of yourself; to take care of yourself means that you need to know what your needs are.
If intergenerational trauma resonates with you, you are not alone. There is a long line of people who are just like you, but maybe they did not have the access or ability to address it. Therapy is a great way to gain insight so that you can heal parts of your story (and your family’s story). I would love to help you discover new ways to relate to your pain so that you can live a more fulfilling life.