What Is Intergenerational Trauma?
I feel like intergenerational trauma can be described much like genetics. Intergenerational trauma is the patterns, behaviors, thoughts, and beliefs passed down from generation to generation. Much like genetics, these are traits that are predetermined before our birth and something that we are given no choice in inheriting. Think of intergenerational trauma also like culture. It's an element that your family adopted at some point and influences habits down the familial line.
For example, say that your grandparents endured:
Poverty, war, patriarchy, racism, oppression, sexism, immigration, domestic violence
These types of traumas influence the way your grandparents raised your parent. Domestic violence may have been the norm, but now your parent's witness of this trauma leads to an untreated mental illness. Immigration trauma may have led your grandparents to instill the 'hard work' methodology, but that pressure may have led your parent to repress anger. Because of your grandparent's trauma, your parent may have endured:
Physical abuse and punishment, untreated mental illness, repressed anger, substance use
Now, it comes to you. Because of the intergenerational trauma that is still unhealed, you may have had to endure the impact of your parent's familial trauma. Your parent's substance use may have led to attachment injuries. Their repressed anger or untreated mental illness may have led to negative self-worth or your mental health concerns. Because of your parent's trauma that was passed onto them, you may endure:
Perfectionism, negative self-worth, codependency, anxiety/depression, attachment injuries
The list goes on and on. I'm sure the intergenerational trauma did not even start with your grandparents. It may be trauma embedded from your ancestors. Either way, we already can comprehend that what is not healed remains. This statement could not be more true especially for intergenerational trauma.
Breaking The Cycle
It can be an almost impossible task, but I'm sure if you're reading this blog you have an interest in breaking the chains of intergenerational trauma. Just the fact that you have awareness is inherently healing for this pattern. Even though you could not choose whether the trauma was passed down to you or not, you can choose to heal it. This work will break this way of life for your family and generations to come.
What does it look like to break the cycle? Let's take an example from modern-day movies. If you've seen the movie Encanto (like everyone else has now!), you'll understand this reference. Mirabel in the movie Encanto is a prime example of a cycle breaker. Mirabel Madrigal is the only child in her family to not have been gifted a magical power. This power is usually passed down from generation to generation (just like intergenerational trauma).
The family's matriarch, Abuela Alma, will stop at nothing to ensure the family's gifts are strong and passed down. This isolates Mirabel who does not share in the family's gift. Abuela is fearful that Mirabel's lack of power will negatively affect the family and lead them to lose their home just like she did in her youth. Abuela is carrying the trauma of losing her home and, in turn, is passing her intergenerational trauma to Mirabel in the form of criticism and emotional neglect. In the end, Mirabel teaches the Madrigal family the power of their bond in using love, compromise, and forgiveness instead of judgment, criticism, and pressure.
How Does Mirabel Break the Cycle?
We can all take a lesson or two from Mirabel. Instead of living with the unhealed trauma of being the least favorite Madrigal of her Abuela's, Mirabel instead recognizes that communicating with her family and specifically her Abuela is worth a try. From this openness, she learns of Abuela's story who in turn recognizes the hurt she has caused Mirabel and the family. While Abuela gave an apology that realistically none of us will probably ever get, we can still learn some tips from her about breaking the cycle. Here are a few to try from Elizabeth Dixon, LISW-CP:
Open up a conversation with your family about their lived experiences.
Notice any embedded patterns, attitudes, or narratives from your family that you continue to portray.
Seek support from a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. Talk about your trauma and your story. It helps to work through the hurt, pain, or abuse from the past with someone supportive.
Cultivate a sense of empathy and compassion for your family and the struggles they endured. Despite their flaws, many of our ancestors worked hard so that we could have a better life. This, too, should be celebrated and embraced.
Recreate a new narrative that you want your children to embody and believe about their family, themselves and the world. Recreate your own self-worth that isn't reliant on others' feelings about you.
E. Dixon (2021). Breaking the Chains of Generational Trauma. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-flourishing-family/202107/breaking-the-chains-generational-trauma