Monday, June 27, 2016

The Lasting Shadows of Inherited Family Trauma

In my early adulthood, as I diligently started the process of healing from past trauma, I became increasingly aware that, no matter how hard I tried, in my own personal work in therapy, personal growth workshops and spiritual practices, some issues persisted and never seemed to be fully cleared. I found myself wondering, could it be that some issues were bigger than me, greater than just psychological challenges and perhaps even issues that were passed down from past generations?

From my own studies and work as a body psychotherapist, I was aware that when any of us undergo a traumatic experience, the entire experience, including the memory of the experience, fragments into shattered parts, much like the way a windshield shatters upon impact. Trauma can be likened to a wrecker ball that crashes through the fabric of our lives, leaving words, memories, images, feelings, impulses and body sensations, broken into disconnected jigsaw puzzle pieces. We lose touch with many of the puzzle pieces, yet they remain stored in our unconscious.

An article I read recently on, "It Didn't Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are," noted that "emerging trends in psychotherapy are now beginning to point beyond the traumas of an individual to include traumatic events in the family and social history as part of the whole picture." Different kinds of tragedy, of different intensities, from the loss of a parent or a child to illness, an accident or violence, to suicide, extreme poverty or war, can send "shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next." It may take going back three generations to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma and suffering that repeat.

This context became important for me many years ago when I went to a therapist to explore issues arising in the breakdown of my former marriage. It was powerful to discover that an unaddressed piece of my father's history showed up in my own marriage. I did not even know how complete the parallel was until I brought my parents to therapy the one and only time they agreed to join me, and learned that my father's dark shadow exactly mirrored the dark shadow my then husband was revealing that challenged, and ultimately broke, our marriage. In essence, I was being asked to face and address the very issue my father had never truly faced, and instead had hidden away in the family unconscious.

It was quite shocking to discover first hand, that the unhealed trauma and the unresolved pain of past generations can come to haunt future generations. If we want to avoid passing pain and difficulty on to future generations, we must work hard on healing and clearing both our own pain and past pain. I learned of Bert Hellinger's Family Constellations work, where the healing takes place in the transgenerational energy field, and found this approach very helpful for addressing the dark shadows that felt bigger than just my own psychological work could impact.

Recognizing that when trauma exists in the transgenerational family energy field, we inherit this family trauma whether we want it or not. Intimate relationships--be they romantic relationships or relationships between parents and children, often provide a fertile ground for our transgenerational triggers to be struck...bringing the inherited family trauma to light. I see this frequently when working with couples and with families in my therapy practice.

For example, one couple, who felt they really had a soul mate connection, struggled greatly at the personality level due to core wounds that triggered deep developmental needs in both partners. One of the partners became extremely anxious as intimacy built due to a history of loss and attachments issues. This partner came from a family where his needs for object constancy as a very young child went unmet. As a result, he transferred his need for object constancy onto his partner, who felt controlled by his overbearing actions towards her. The female partner, on the other hand, came from a family where she did not feel loved. Her mother outrightly told her that she had not been wanted. Her father was a manipulative womanizer, who was mean to both the woman partner and her mother. She had a deep need to be loved that was as intense as her male partner's need for object constancy. Sadly, due to her family wound, she would overlook stalking, controlling and mean behaviors out of fear of loss of her partner's love. And sadly, due to his family wounding, the male partner could not give the female partner the space she needed to introspect, grow, heal and self-define. To truly understand the intensity of each partner's heart wounds and the impact of these heart wounds on present behavior, looking into the stories of both partners' parents and grandparents was necessary.

Creating a bigger context within which to understand and do healing work is essential to transform unhealthy dynamics in the here and now, and to allow people to break out of family trauma patterns and transform transgenerational energy wounds that were passed down from prior generations. When we are able to understand our biggest obstacles in the light of inherited family trauma, and to work through these issues at a body level, we can truly heal not only self and relationships in the here and now, but also prevent inherited family trauma energy and patterns to carry on in future generations.