Here’s something else for you to add to your list of “Things I wish I learned in school”. The concept of generational trauma, and how it influences your views of the world.
This is a big can of worms we’re opening together today, and I make no attempt to summarise in one article information that has been the subject of countless formal studies, is central to the understanding of trauma healing and is also cloaked in much mystery when looked at through the lenses of ancient cultures. Today, I am offering an introduction.
To simplify the concept grossly, generational trauma refers to pain or dysfunction that is passed down from one generation to the next through learned behaviours.
For example, imagine a child growing up in a home where their parents raised their voices frequently. This leaves a child with one of two choices:
1) Grow loud and develop a big energy that can be heard above the rest.
2) Grow soft and small and decide that one’s voice isn’t worth hearing.
Both of these represent adaptations, neither of them particularly healthy or conducive to building a well-adjusted communication style.
There is rarely a middle ground in such situations.
These adaptations are often departures from the true character of the child, but can have a huge impact, especially when left unexamined. These adaptations, like anything, come with both a shadow and a gift. The first adaptation might see the child become a great performer or influencer, but feel challenged in forming close relationships. The second adaptation might be well connected, intuitive and intellectual, but lack the confidence needed to make exceptional progress professionally.
Another example is the inheritance of generational abuse. A young man came to me wanting to overcome anxiety. It was soon uncovered that his upbringing was violent and unsafe. After working through his own healing and understanding that he was not the cause of the violence, he was able to shift his way of being and open new possibilities for his life. His own healing of the anxiety that previously kept him small inspired introspection in his father, who, it turns out, also endured violence as a child.
One of them adapted by taking on big energy, the other by becoming small.
Both were available to violence, one occupying the archetype of the victim, the other the perpetrator.
This pattern is consistent with the description laid out by trauma specialist and psychotherapist Peter A. Levine, PhD, in his book ‘Waking the Tiger’. He speaks to the idea of one seeking a sense of completion over the traumatic event, which can take the form of a strong declaration to never be like the abuser, in this case the parent, or to repeat the abuse. Though these expressions are very different, they both represent a form of retribution on behalf of the inner child who still exists inside the adult and suffers greatly, whether visible on the outside or not.
Both are in pain.
Both have an inner experience of shame.
Unaware of the dynamics at play here, it is easy for one to label the first behaviour as good and moral and the other as wrong.
In a similar sense, we often judge that the workaholic is a good contributor to society, and the drug addict is a drain on society, while they both suffer from very similar afflictions around feeling inadequate.
Make no mistake, it is never okay or excusable to cause harm to another. And we do not have to keep someone who is harmful to us on a physical or emotional level in our lives. That’s a separate matter.
If we are to refocus our exploration here on the pain rather than the outward expression of the dysfunction, only then can we create the space for compassion and hence true healing for the individual.
That is what I want to put you in touch with today. Regardless of the role(s) you may have taken on in your life as a result of the environment you grew up in.
Once you can see the pain and understand the choices made as a result of it, only then can you see that a different way is possible for you as an individual. A way that feels a little lighter to carry along the path and does not keep you trapped in the limitation of an old pattern that was appropriate given the context you grew up in, but most likely no longer helps you now.
When people make a choice that the pain stops with them, future generations no longer need to carry it implicitly. The idea here is not to become perfect before you enter parenthood, or to shame yourself if you’ve already entered parenthood and can see that your children are taking on some ways of being that you recognise in yourself. It's important to understand that the past could not have been different (to us the logic of Peter Crone--because it wasn't!).
The invitation is to grow your awareness around the personal authority you have to choose your own way (it’s never too late for that). And maybe, just maybe, depending on your personal context, to introduce your children to the same possibility.
There is huge potential available here.
Consider the following as examples…
Changing your relationship with wealth (anyone who was raised with money as a dirty word say “I”).
Shifting how you communicate around feelings and needs.
Disrupting the association you have between performance and your self-worth.
Expanding your capacity to give and receive love and support.
The paths are many and varied and nuanced. And available, even if it might not feel that way right now. Be reminded that the paths of awareness and change are not easy ones to walk; it’s a journey of both grit and grace. It’s a journey of daring to be misunderstood by those dear to you who have not decided to go the same way.
If it hasn’t already, and if it’s meant to be part of your story, life will likely keep inviting you to step onto the path until you are ready. If you are here with me reading this, something tells me you might be... so for that, I honour your courage.
So there you have it. A short introduction to the concept of generational trauma - the inheritance you didn’t ask for but that is inherent to the human experience. The mechanism that is a beautiful reflection of our capacity to adapt to the most difficult circumstances. To be “overcomers”. And also to feel vulnerable and tender around the complexity of our resulting inner worlds.
May this shed some light on not just the shadows that might be holding you back from living as your truest self, but also on the expansive possibilities that might be available to you on the other side of working through some of the dynamics that shape your automatic behaviour today.
Creating a life that you are proud of and get to enjoy, requires awareness. It’s always the first step. From there, you get to start building out your new way.
“People can’t be held accountable for that which they’re oblivious to.”
- Peter Crone
When you know, you get to become intentional, responsible.
To close with some ancient Sufi wisdom, for those whose awareness has been peaked by this summary but doubt the path because it seems unclear… Rumi offers these words:
“When you start to walk on the way, the way appears.”
Sending you much love and support for your courageous journey ahead.
Childhood trauma is a complex and nuanced area of mental health. If you recognise something in this article and feel that you need some support to work through it, please swiftly seek the help of a suitably qualified mental health professional. Coaching is not always the best option as a primary modality to address your current challenges, though it can be a wonderful support. You are welcome to <<get in touch with me>> for recommendations about your situation and the next logical step for you. You are important. Your personal freedom matters. There is a way forward.