Do you know what kind of traumas run deep through your family line? Let’s talk about what intergenerational trauma is, the choices you have, and how it can end with you.
Trauma can pass through multiple generations completely unseen and is referred to as intergenerational trauma. Some of these traumas have become so embedded within the family structure. That can make it almost impossible for the members to view the world any differently than they’ve been shown. Because of this, trauma cycles can easily continue. However, once you start digging and observing, these traumas can become obvious and hard to ignore.
How Intergenerational Trauma Starts
Children are like sponges, constantly absorbing everything that they see, hear, and experience. They are soaking up newly learned behaviors every day, especially from their caretakers, their first trusted teachers. Children grow up observing certain ways of coping, thinking, or reacting. These observations are “lessons” that are like seeds being planted in their minds. Those seeds are watered through witnessing the repetition of these behaviors or core beliefs from their trusted source. Each generation learns from the one before them, receiving messages about themselves and the world around them. What they do with those messages can either continue, change, or end the cycle of trauma.
Choose Your Reaction to Trauma
We are not able to change our ancestors or any generations before us. However, we do have complete control over how we absorb and transfer this trauma as adults. We can choose to ignore these toxic or unhealthy lessons and continue to repeat them. Or we can choose to change them, potentially into another just as unhealthy form. But we do have one other choice, we can do the hard self-work needed to end the cycle. This allows us to heal both ourselves and potential generations to come. I’m hoping to inspire you to end that cycle, dig up those past seeds and plant newer, healthier ones for yourself.
Even if you are not interested in having children, I hope that you are able to reflect on this cycle to heal yourself and those around you. It’s important to note that when I discuss passing on the trauma or pain, I don’t necessarily mean just to children. There is a chance you might pass it along to yourself, your partner, the people surrounding you, and even your pets. You are reason enough to end the cycle, you are deserving of better, and I hope that you make that choice for yourself.
Remember, we have a choice in how we react to life.
Ignoring Intergenerational Trauma
If we choose to ignore these traumas and pain, they can easily be passed down.
For example, if you grew up in a home where:
- There was abuse, you may continue that cycle of abuse.
- You experienced neglect or even just a lack of love or affection, you may go on to restrict those same basic needs in yourself and others.
- Feelings and emotions were not easily expressed or welcome, you may shut down as your coping mechanism and shut others out.
Another way of passing these traumas along is by selecting partners with these same or similar qualities. It’s easy to associate the relationship with love as it is a dynamic that seems familiar. Read more about why we repeat the past in our relationships on Psychology Today. Making this choice in relationships only continues and intensifies the pain cycle in your life.
Changing the Form of Trauma
Intergenerational traumas can also change form as a way to cope or even overcompensate for the pain passed down. These are situations where the child has grown to take on a different aspect of the trauma or to want something drastically different for themselves. But, they may not be able to change it in the healthiest way possible.
Think about if you grew up in a home where:
- There was abuse, the cycle can be transformed into one of anxiety and belief that the world is not a safe place.
- You did not experience love or attention, you may swing to the opposite side of the pendulum and become overbearing or too involved.
- Feelings and emotions were not easily expressed, you may choose to express in over the top or unhealthy ways and be unable to demonstrate healthy coping skills.
Something to consider: How can these new forms of trauma affect others in your life or the generations to follow?
Placing Blame is Wasted Energy.
Continuing or changing a cycle of trauma does not necessarily make your previous family members “bad people”. It may be hard to extend grace to family members who have hurt you, but let’s entertain some new perspectives. Hurt people hurt people. Could it be possible that they didn’t know any different? That they were raised in the same environment and were never given the resources to know it was possible to be different? They may have been doing the very best with the cards that they were given. It also is entirely possible that they could have been better a better person, but just didn’t have the strength or courage to do the self-work required to make that choice.
You are unable to control anyone else, so why focus on that negative view? Giving them grace and forgiveness is not for them, it’s for you. This only allows more energy for you to put into your own healing and help to end the cycle. It also takes the burden of bearing the full weight and responsibility of pain that is not about you or because of you, it is their pain to carry.
My Personal Struggle
Trust me, I know how hard this is. A part of me fights each word as it comes out. I grew up in a home where my mother was unavailable, dismissive, and would completely shut down, incapable of expressing real emotions. As a child, my brain soaked up these behaviors and not only repeated them in my own life but drove me to seek out both romantic partners and even some friends with these traits.
I interpreted these behaviors as love and was willing to accept that same pain cycle for myself, as it was familiar. It was easy to blame her for much of the abuse that I welcomed into my life through her lack of guidance and love. She didn’t even talk to me after she found out that I was raped as a teenager or abused in my adult years.
Finding Grace and Forgiveness
Finding grace and forgiveness in my heart for her was not an easy task, I still struggle with it on my worst days. I learned a lot about my mother through this process as well, and over time have grown to have grace and forgiveness for her. Her generation was not given the same freedom or resources that we have been given to both admit and heal mental health issues. A lot of times, these were just swept under the rug or hidden behind a mask. The discussion of mental health was not as normalized as it is now, and she did not have anyone in her life to show her any differently. She may not have given me what I needed but that may have been the best that she could do.
I can choose to take on her pain like I did for much of my life or I can choose to voice my own and break free of the cycle. It’s a choice to be available for myself and for my loved ones in the ways she was not capable of. And not to shut everyone out like my natural instinct still is sometimes.
Finding Gratitude in Trauma
I am actually grateful for the pain that I’ve held in not having a mother’s love. Forcing myself to find a way out of that cycle has allowed me to speak what my mother could not speak. To feel was she was afraid to feel. And, therefore, heal what she was incapable of healing.
By continually pushing forward and practicing awareness in my behaviors, that suffering has been transformed into the greatest gift I could ever pass along, endless love. My child will never know a day without love. And yes, you better believe I will be practicing restraint in taking that to the opposite extreme, being overbearing or too involved.
A quote about intergeneration healing that I want to leave with you before I go is by Gemma B. Benton, “Our ancestors knew that healing comes in cycles and circles. One generation carries the pain so that the next can live and heal. One cannot live without the other, each is the other’s hope, meaning, and strength.”
Intergenerational Trauma Can End With You
We can choose to focus on the pain and just keep creating more pain. Or, we can heal ourselves and have the courage to look for hope, meaning, and strength to be different. You do not have to suffer in the ways your family before you chose to suffer. It is possible to take that suffering and turn it into a gift to give yourself, loved ones, and generations to come. You can allow others to live and heal, as you choose to live and heal yourself. Intergenerational trauma can end with you.
Well, friend, you’ve just heard my take on Intergenerational Trauma. This only grazes the surface of this topic and you can expect to hear more about it in the future. Be sure to send me your questions and thoughts to be included in the next post!