In the same way, you’ve inherited your mother’s brown eyes and your grandfather’s black curly hair, generation's worth of trauma can just as easily be passed down. Generational trauma, also known as intergenerational trauma, refers to the impact of a traumatic experience on not only one generation but the subsequent ones as well. Any traumatic event that causes deep distress can be passed down from one generation to the next, through learned behaviours, genetics, and other biological, social, and psychological pathways. So, the scope of damage caused by, for example, slavery, residential schools, or colonization is not truly understood and so cannot be fully processed until generations later, as the inherited trauma repeats and reveals itself in unhealthy behaviours and difficult interpersonal interactions.
Let's unpack this. Let’s say your grandfather lived to experience the India-Pakistan partition. Travelling on foot for weeks on end, fatigued, hungry, in pain while at the same time trying to cope with the loss of the family members that didn’t make it. Traumatic experiences like these translate into dealing with life-long mental health challenges which can be passed down to younger generations. If your grandfather was never given the chance to properly grieve his losses, his PTSD from the partition could become characterized by a terrible temper leaving your mother walking on eggshells to avoid triggering a hurricane of anger. The tendency to be passive, non-confrontational and silent could have become ingrained within your mother, influencing the way she parents you. The unexpected ways that generational trauma shows up in our lives - such as trust issues, emotional detachment, poor coping strategies, and overprotection of loved ones, make it that much more difficult to diagnose and treat.
Healing an emotional wound, especially one that was never yours to begin with, can be difficult and overwhelming. The way we understand our trauma - that is, if we are even able to recognize and acknowledge it in the first place - severely influences the way we navigate ourselves out of it.
Here are 5 ways to begin carving your way out of deep-rooted generational trauma as a healing path for both you and your descendants.
1. Finding the Source of your Trauma
Unpacking generational trauma might require a little bit of digging. Uncovering the ingrained behaviours, beliefs, and patterns that exist within you and your family allows you to be more conscious of your current tendencies - which represent the outcome of generational trauma; the behavioural manifestation. By exploring your family history and talking with your relatives, you’ll be able to connect your past history to your present reality - unveiling the cause. This level of awareness will encourage you to think, believe and act differently than what you were once taught.
2. Acknowledging and Accepting your Trauma
Claiming your lineages’ trauma requires resilience. This is not to say that you should embrace the trauma, but rather accept that you’ve been bleeding your ancestor’s wounds. It can be both confusing and terrifying - acknowledging the horrific experiences our relatives lived through, and the lasting effects they have on us today. Seeing the reality for what it is, may seem unsettling at the beginning, but once we’ve made ourselves comfortable with what’s going on around us, we can navigate ourselves out of it that much better.
3. Allowing your Relationships to Change
While unravelling the fabric of your trauma, it’s likely you’ll discover certain knots or sticking points connected to some of your closest relationships. Oftentimes, generational trauma is associated with family members that are unknowingly feeding into the cycle, for example through emotional blackmail or possessiveness. While it may not be obvious now, setting boundaries and changing the parameters of interaction with them has the potential to benefit both you and your relationship with them. But to be clear - this is much easier said than done. Ignoring the destruction someone has caused us can be ridiculously easy when coupled with the love we feel for them. When the time comes for our relationships to end or grow in a different direction, we have to allow that change to happen. Once we give ourselves permission to untie these knots, we’ll come to realize that the most restraining relationship might have been the one with yourself.
4. Practicing Self Care
When I say self-care, I don’t just mean putting on a new rose-scented face mask. Journaling, breathwork, and gratitude walks are just some ways you can ground yourself amidst a storm of change, growth, and healing. When the foundations we’ve been living on our entire lives become unstable, our grip on life can feel a little shaky. Investing downtime for yourself will ensure you stay in the eye of this storm, maintaining the peace you deserve. By incorporating gratitude practices into your self-care time, your outlook on life will broaden enough to soak up both the negative and positive experiences evenly.
5. Allowing Yourself to Grieve
When peeling back the layers of trauma, you’ll find yourself ‘grieving the gap’ between what you received and what you needed. Acknowledging this gap can evoke some of our ugliest feelings, or in other words, the ones we’ve been subconsciously suppressing. Feeling through what comes your way is essential to moving forward from them because when we grieve, we feel, and when we feel, we heal. Resisting this process is like keeping out eager Girl Scouts, they’ll only ring the doorbell more. Make it a point to welcome these feelings, otherwise, we’re holding onto something that’s asking to leave.
You don’t have to face your trauma all alone. By finding a culturally responsive therapist, you’re able to skip the part where you constantly explain aspects of your background and culture. This will allow you to reserve all your time and energy into working with tools and techniques your therapist provides you with, ensuring you break the trauma cycle - once and for all.