That which is overwhelming and incomprehensibly painful in our lives does not disappear if left ignored. Our loved ones carry on all that we cannot. Likewise, we have done the same for the generations before us.
The effects of intergenerational trauma on mental health has become an urgent and compelling topic in the world of mental health these days, and in light of current global affairs, this topic feels more relevant than ever. Intergenerational trauma builds on the idea that what has been overwhelming, unbearable or unthinkable in the past falls out of social discourse. Yet very often, this trauma is passed onto the next generation.
The transmission of trauma may be particular to a family suffering a great loss, or it can show up as a shared response to societal trauma.
How do we carry secret stories from before our lifetimes?
The primary task of transmission is to resist disassociating from the family heritage and bring the story into social discourse. When stories of trauma remain as unconscious cues, anxiety is inherited through stories.
We might play out intergenerational trauma in our behavior, character, and relationship patterns. Trauma may reveal itself in mental or physical illness. Working to discover transmission means coming to know and tell a larger narrative of our family, one from the preceding generation. It requires close listening to the stories of our parents and grandparents, with special attention to the social and historical context in which they lived.
As a therapist, I feel that it is important to explore the ways in which our current lives are impacted by the events that our ancestors experienced. This is essential to the development of our values, because these often determine the answers to big questions such as: “Who am I?” and “Who am I to my family?”
As one navigates this precarious terrain of intergenerational transmission, it can feel like a painful process of separation. For many it might become an identity crisis as one breaks an emotional chain of intergenerational trauma. Piercing through the transmission means potentially ending a life defined by past traumas, behavior and belief systems.
Yet in order to break these destructive and painful patterns, we must take up the call to heal.
The child bears the burden of what the parent could not. The child, however, when given the tools and resources, has the choice of whether or not to author his or her own experience like previous generations.
By drawing trauma out of the shadows of generations and into the light, it is possible for past injuries to be healed so that future generations can be freed of the painful and destructive burden.