I frequently turn to different social media outlets to provide myself with thought-provoking content and inspiration. Recently, I came across a quote that said, “Pain travels through families until someone is ready to feel it.” Reading this instantly sent my thought train onto various different tracks! If this quote shines true, how does the pain transfer? Is it consciously or unconsciously done? Does it have to be passed down? How do we heal if the pain has been given to us? I’d like to explore some of these tracks with you through lenses of intergenerational trauma and healing, ultimately encouraging readers to engage with these ideas donning compassion, curiosity, and presence.
What is trauma?
Let’s start by exploring trauma’s definition and typical circumstances that are likely to produce trauma responses in individuals and families. The U.S. Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes individual trauma as the result of “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” As this definition states, trauma can be an isolated event that continues to cause harm within an individual long after the event has occurred. Trauma can also result from a string of smaller harmful moments in an individual’s life, which leads to long-lasting stress responses experienced by the individual.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) lists examples of experiences that might be traumatic:
- Physical, sexual, or psychological abuse and neglect (including trafficking)
- Natural and technological disasters or terrorism
- Family or community violence
- Sudden or violent loss of a loved one
- Substance use disorder (personal or familial)
- Refugee and war experiences (including torture)
- Serious accidents or life-threatening illness
- Military family-related stressors (e.g., deployment, parental loss or injury)
Distress for the individual
Whether any one individual prefers to think of their experiences as traumatic or wishes not to, what’s most important to consider reading onward is that pain and fear can cause stress responses or repeated behavior(s), which can result in distress for the individual and/or those close to the individual. What’s even more important to note is that the harm you experienced was not your fault and it was not deserved. As we begin to look at where intergenerational trauma comes from, I encourage you to self-validate in any way that feels safe for you. We do not have to forgive those who hurt us if it doesn’t feel safe to do so. If pain has been created within us as a result of the harm we endured, I invite you to be gentle with yourself at the very least as we explore how pain can follow us.
Implicit vs explicit
When it comes to pain being passed down, one of the first things that came to my mind was the concept of implicit vs. explicit memory along with social learning theory. Explicit memory is the kind of information stored in the brain that one recalls consciously. Implicit memory is the kind of information one accesses without having to consciously access it. One classic example of implicit memory is the phrase “It’s like riding a bike – you never forget!” As infants (before we learn language to explicitly categorize our world), we “absorb” a fair amount of information implicitly, that is, without knowing we are absorbing and making sense of things in a certain way. Social learning theory adds to this, emphasizing the fact that we learn based on social cues in our environments as we grow and define our world.
Let us now look at an example tied to intergenerational trauma to explore the learning of pain and stress responses. If John Doe grew up in a home with family violence, one of John Doe’s unconsciously learned stress responses might be anger in situations where anger may not be productive. In John Doe’s own home, he might stub his toe and react violently in anger with feelings of unfairness and hurt bubbling up within him. John Doe’s son, John Doe Jr., might witness his father reacting to injury in this way and unconsciously absorb the idea that injury justifies anger. In John Doe Jr.’s case, he might grow up reacting to situations with anger when he is hurt either emotionally or physically. And the cycle continues. This kind of learned behavior can occur with many things like addiction, fear of rejection, and more.
As mentioned before, when we absorb some of this environmental trauma, it is not our fault. It can feel really unfair that something we learned before we even knew we were learning could cause disruptions in our lives. Does it have to be passed down? No. If it does, you CAN heal through inner restructuring. The intention isn’t to bog ourselves down with our ancestors’ pain along with our own unique experiences of pain. The intention is to bring clarity to learned behaviors, own the ways in which we have consciously or unconsciously kept them going, and actively work on acknowledging the pain for what it is and where it comes from. This kind of acknowledgment can help lessen the tendency to say things like, “Why am I this way? I must just be flawed!” No matter what the learned pain is, we intend to understand it so that we can see it for what it is, reminding ourselves that it does not define us.
The work it takes
One of the most effective ways to understand and manage intergenerational pain, I’ve found, is through what many like to call “inner child work” or “parts work”. Through these methods, we are able to differentiate the person from the problem and seek to understand from a safe and objective space. With our previous example, John Doe Jr. can learn to identify that when his anger is activated, it is coming from a distinct part of him who has learned that response. He can tell himself “this anger response is coming from a part of me who felt hurt and didn’t know what else to do in the past.” Pairing this with an understanding of intergenerational trauma, can help John Doe Jr. in rewriting his story and improving his relationship to anger – a natural emotion that chimes in when things feel unfair. He can soothe his inner child by bringing awareness to the response and acknowledging the feelings involved. Every child wishes to feel heard, validated and understood. Children also desire to be guided with wisdom and care. Why not do this for ourselves through positive self-talk, challenging beliefs, and “reparenting” the self?
Start your journey
Starting the journey of understanding intergenerational trauma can be heavy and overwhelming. If you don’t know where to start, seek out a therapist and explore common themes you see when examining pain across generations. A genogram (family map) can help you to visualize this. Other sources I would suggest are the following books: It Didn’t Start with You – How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn and Homecoming: Reclaiming and Healing Your Inner Child by John Bradshaw.
Pain can pass through families. Understanding the pain that cycles onward can breed empathy and healing when felt with a sense of presence and curiosity. It does not have to continue. If it does continue in small and unintended ways, simply acknowledging the concept of intergenerational trauma can help spur conversations with those closest to you. This can foster repair and forgiveness. How you wish to move forward with pain is an opportunity to set yourself free and/or offer care when there has been resistance and judgement in the past. Your story is yours. We sometimes need help (and practice) with some of the fine print we missed, erasing what doesn’t work, and re-writing what we want to see. I have faith in you that you are capable and worthy of feeling and growing. If feeling through pain causes more distress, please lean into therapy and any relevant support groups that can lift you up as you explore. Happy healing to you, to those who have felt with you on your journey, and to those who stand strongly with you as pillars of support.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.