generational trauma

Generational Trauma: 4 Steps to Unlocking those Hidden Family Feelings

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 257 · Duration: 00:31:53

4 Steps to Unlocking those Hidden Family Feelings

In this podcast, we explore generational sources of self-destructive behavior, how best to understand it, and most importantly, how to heal it. 

Healthy Family Connections, the number one rated family therapy podcast, is sponsored by Neil D Brown, LCSW, and I’m your host, Neil D Brown and I’m here to help you get that enjoyable family you work for every day.

Please remember this podcast is for educational purposes only, it is not a substitute for psychotherapy when you need it.

Today I’m with my podcast co-host Robin Holland. 

Have you ever wondered what drives self-destructive behavior? Maybe it stems from generational trauma. It’s talked about a lot, but what is it really, and more importantly, what can we do about it? We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, Generational Trauma: 4 Steps To Unlocking Those Hidden Family Feelings.

I’ve been working with several families lately struggling with a variety of behavioral, emotional, and relationship problems. Addictions of various kinds from phones to alcohol, chronic anxiety and sleep problems, depression, parent-teen and parent-young adult control battles and alienation, marital discord. 

And as I worked through each of these situations with people, I came to realize that in each situation, clients lacked a compassionate, respectful understanding of who they are, of their personal story. 

There was a strong sense of alienation from themselves and then of course from others. Healing in each case has been a journey of reconnection to self and related to that, a healthy reconnection to others.

  • Old and enduring negative patterns of behavior are related to old thinking and painful experiences and feelings. Not surprisingly, most of the negative thinking is focused on others, but deeper exploration reveals negative feelings and thinking within each person. 
  • In each case, there exists hurt, grief, fear, some form of trauma that leads people to a compensatory behavior that at least temporarily relieves their pain. It could be watching TikTok videos, binge eating, drinking and taking drugs, or declining into a negative emotional state, or several of these. 
  • When individuals, whether we’re talking about children, adolescents, young adults, or older adults, once there is a negative compensatory or adaptive behavior in place, it gets in the way of being able to fully engage and process the experiences in their lives in a healthy way; to feel open, vulnerable and free to connect. 
  • It may have been a reasonable way to manage really difficult circumstances at the time, but the negative story that stemmed from traumatic circumstances continues long after circumstances have changed and it continues to drive self-limiting self-destructive behavior.
  • These painful feelings and experiences come most commonly from our early years, our families of origin, and the communities we grew up in. 
  • For example, let’s look at April who developed a negative self-narrative from growing up with emotionally volatile parents. Her parents had good intentions; they loved and provided for their children, but they got into horrible fights and it was hard to predict when they would be in good or bad moods. April was often scared and became a people pleaser. It was her way of attempting to create some happiness and stability in her emotionally unstable, emotionally unsafe family environment. Now in her 40s, April is still trying to please others without regard for her own needs and feelings. 
  • April had “written” a story as a child, that she was still living as a smart, healthy, and accomplished adult woman. The story she carried around was, “I’m not a truly worthy person, but if I keep the peace, and make everyone happy, there will at least be some periods of calm and goodness and that’s the best I can hope for.” 
  • For April to heal and grow, she needs to rewrite her story. I call it changing her operating system from OS 1 to OS 2.  Her OS 2 could be something like, “I grew up in difficult circumstances and so I get anxious when people are upset. But I know I’m a good mom and partner and if I set limits with my kids and husband, and if I take time for myself, I know they’ll still respect and love me.”  
  • Now let’s look at April’s father.  Let’s say he grew up with a father, April’s grandfather, who worked in a steel mill until it closed down. The only work after that he could find was as a janitor and he went from making a good living with a well-respected job to barely making a living with a low-status job. It hurt his self-esteem and he became depressed and angry and he abused alcohol as a way to cope. April’s father, who witnessed and was often at the receiving end of his father’s anger, resolved to never let himself be in that position and he became very industrious but would get angry when he felt any disrespect. He was sensitive to slights and his temper was easily triggered. April’s mother had her own survival story as well. 
  • Essentially, what we’re saying here is that we need to be aware of the stories we carry around because they become the foundation of our lives; how we think, feel and act. 
  • Once we develop awareness of our stories, then we can choose to see ourselves and our families from a compassionate perspective. One part of the story we can be sure of is that our ancestors endured and survived and the proof of that is that we’re here. They may never have gotten out of survival mode, but they survived and they gave us the gift of being able to move from survival mode to thrival mode. I know, I know, there’s no such word, so I invented it. The point here is that survival skills are very limiting and very different from the skills needed to thrive, and I’m not talking about money.  I’m talking about engaging life with meaning, purpose, and connection. Living with self-awareness and making self-valuing personally relevant choices; loving, learning, and growing all the while. 

Now if we don’t want to squander the opportunity that the gift of survival provides, and of course we don’t, we need to start with:

  1. A compassionate view of ourselves and empathy for what we went through in creating our OS 1.  
  2. Then rewriting our story, our narrative in a way that acknowledges our strengths and allows us to be imperfect, sometimes called “a work in progress”, and be open and vulnerable and we call this our OS 2.  Here we are shifting from survival to thrival skills. 
  3. Next we take a new look at our family history and take a compassionate view of our family of origin and even trace that back to how our ancestors came through difficult times. Sometimes they escaped a war zone, persecution, or famine. They very likely never had a way to talk about it and deal with their traumatic feelings. 
  4. Next we need a way to address these issues, express our compassion, and honor our ancestors. One way is to create rituals. In Latin America, the Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos is an important holiday for honoring ancestors. Your religion may have rituals that honor deceased loved ones.  Yet in addition to those, you can create your own personal rituals for honoring deceased family, friends, and people who had an important role in your life. Rituals allow you not only to honor your departed family and friends, it allows you to grieve and unless we grieve, we will remain unresolved and stuck in our OS 1.

Parents, you won’t be effective at the many challenges in your lives in a state of burnout. So take time for yourselves. Every problem doesn’t need to be fixed today, and you don’t have to be the solution to every problem.  So take care of yourselves.  You need it, you deserve it and YOU’RE WORTH IT.  Bye for now.

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