Did you know that you’ve inherited a lot more from your great-grandmother than her garish tea set? You’re probably storing some of her vintage baggage as well… the emotional kind. In every generation, the child unconsciously carries on a long line of past injuries into future spaces. It only needs to affect one family member, but the remnants can track down through all the decades that follow. And so (unbeknown to us) we lug along this proverbial baggage as we live our lives, which can be heavy work. So what does this mean for our own parenting, and how much of the worry that we carry, actually belongs to our predecessors and not to us?
How is inter-generational trauma passed down?
In the most important of ways our lives have been authored by those who have raised us; and (in turn) by the ones who raised them. Values are the ties that bind generations. The ways our grandparents knew to love was embedded in our parents. This was then ingrained into us in the way we were raised. And now you find yourself parenting in a way that relates to what you experienced, and how you feel about it now. These transmitted values often contain answers to key questions like, “Who am I?”, “Am I safe here?” and “Who can I trust?” And if somewhere in the family chain, there were doubts or rifts in these fundamental values, then they will inevitably be felt down the inter-generational line. These values may have been interrupted by obvious physical trauma like abuse and political violence, but can also be traced back to much more subtle traumas like separations, loss and emotional neglect. The huge barrier here is that often when looking into previous generations, very few of them got any kind of psychological help. Maybe it was frowned upon, unavailable or undervalued.
How are we released from it?
This kind of pain lives deep inside and often goes undetected. It plays out in our dreams, in acting out, in how we talk to each other, in our bodies, in the way we discipline and how we show love. The reason it was transmitted in the first place is that (way back then) it was never named out loud. But there is a silver lining. Your release can come from thinking it through and finally giving it a story. Listening closely to your family’s narrative, understanding their social and historical circumstances and then naming your feelings around all these factors, is the start of this process. Here you begin the journey of understanding why you locate yourself in the world in your particular way. Then comes the hard part – navigating the very difficult terrain of emotionally separating out which parts you want and which parts you don’t. However, this is not necessarily a process of assigning wrong-doing to past family members. It is important to understand that this isn’t a blame game… it’s an understanding game. As hard as it is, this is the stuff that breaks the chain and releases your kids from carrying the hefty load of feeling someone else’s pain.
Now remember that kitschy tea set you inherited; it’s time to decide if you still want to drink from it. And if at the end of the day, you decide that actually, you prefer your tea in a mug, then it may well be time to pack that tea set away (in the baggage it came in) and finally say goodbye to what is no longer to your taste.