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Inheriting Family Trauma

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

Here’s some good news for today. Your problems might not actually be your problems.

Not all the negative energy keeping you stuck is yours. Those health problems, crazy thoughts, negative beliefs, repeating patterns, and totally bizarre out-of-the-blue crashes of your nicely laid-out life plan might not even be your mess. You might be living out someone else’s issues. You might be trying to solve someone else’s problems.

Traditional medicine and psychotherapy have generally focused on discovering the cause for your issues and your problems. If your foot hurts then you did something to it. If you have anger issues then something in your past is the cause. If you are having suicidal thoughts then there must be a reason in your body or your brain that we can pin it on. This makes sense.

Woman holding ankle in pain

The problem is that this view of cause/effect is too narrow to encompass the reality that current clinical practice is uncovering. What we are finding over and over again is that your back pain could be the result of something that happened to your grandfather, your great-grandmother, or even an aunt you never knew existed. Unresolved issues of past generations can pop up as current conditions in descendants alive now. There is an increasing body of literature that supports the idea that trauma happens not just to people, but to families. This trauma becomes patterns or events that repeat themselves over the course of generations.

“He [German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger] has observed that traumatic events...can exert a powerful influence over us, leaving an imprint on our entire family system for generations. These imprints then become the family blueprint as family members unconsciously repeat the suffering of the past.” Mark Wolynn

The stories that come out of this type of clinical work are fascinating. Mark Wolynn, author of It Didn’t Start With You has many stories of clients who have come to him with seemingly inexplicable symptoms that could be traced back to family trauma. One is of a teenager, Jesse, who at the age of 18 was suddenly struck with chronic insomnia. Through his work with Wolynn, Jesse connected his condition to an uncle he didn’t even know about who froze to death at the age of 18. Releasing his connection to his uncle, Jesse was able to recover and return to a normal life. Bizarre? Yes. Unique? Apparently, not at all.

There are hundreds of stories of people who have recovered from physical, mental, and emotional conditions after discovering a connection to past family events. Many include descendants of Holocaust survivors. It has been shown that the children and grandchildren of survivors have physiological and psychological indicators of trauma even though they never experienced it themselves. Patients may experience strange dreams, suicidal thoughts, extreme fears, or claustrophobia that can be tracked back to family members who died in the Holocaust. Natalia O’Sullivan and Nicola Graydon, authors of The Ancestral Continuum, have worked with family members two or three generations removed from tragedies such as the Armenian genocide and Spanish Civil War and found that these descendants also carry physical and mental trauma from events they never participated in.

Family events that can cause generational trauma can be large-scale events such as war, colonization, slavery, or genocide. It can also include smaller family-level tragedies such as death, family separations, addictions, and financial ruin. Even seemingly mundane events such as disappointment in business or a family fight could become an issue that is left for later generations to deal with. Anything in the family that remains unresolved or hidden could show up again later in the family tree. Mark Wolynn writes, “Sometimes pain submerges until it can find a pathway for expression or resolution. That expression is often found in the generations that follow and can resurface as symptoms that are difficult to explain.” This could be the reason why so many families of Holocaust victims have extreme symptoms, as survivors rarely spoke about the horrors they endured.

Old black and white portraits

When the manifestation of family trauma does show up in later generations, it is difficult to find a reason for it since the physiological or psychological root of the problem does not reside in the person who has the symptoms. Family trauma can show up as pain, violence, health problems, mental issues, psychological disorders, broken relationships, financial failures, self-destructive patterns, and more. Sometimes the symptoms clearly reflect the trauma of the past. Wolynn writes of a woman who dealt with claustrophobia and the feeling that she would die if she couldn’t get away from people stuck in a small room. These symptoms clearly reflect the experience of her grandparents and aunt dying in the gas chamber at Auschwitz. At other times the original trauma and the later symptoms don’t exactly match up. Another story from Wolynn is about a woman who was over three hundred pounds. Through their work, they discovered that she was carrying her grandmother’s trauma when she had two difficult births that resulted in mentally handicapped sons. As unrelated as the symptoms and the original story sounds, the resolution of the issues came by first identifying the connection to original trauma in the past.

“We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies.” Shirley Abbott

There seem to be a number of ways family trauma can be passed on. Scientific research has delved into cellular biology, neurobiology, and epigenetics to explain how various markers of trauma can be passed in our DNA. Leaders in developmental psychology are now recognizing that at least three generations of family history need to be examined to fully understand how trauma can be passed through our language and our stories. Another angle comes from traditional healers, shamans, and holistic therapists who work on a more spiritual level to explain how descendants become invested in the unfinished business of their ancestors. Working with family issues myself, I have been learning how the energy of past traumas can be passed through generations even after the story of what happened has been long forgotten. All of these causes for the transfer of family trauma really deserve a blog post of their own, so I will delve into them deeper at a later point.

Not every negative event, symptom, or pattern in your life is the result of family trauma. However, Mark Wolynn writes, “When our attempts at success seem to collide with roadblocks and dead ends, exploring family history can be an important direction to pursue. Unresolved traumatic events in our families can hinder how success flows to us and how well we are able to receive it.” So when you keep repeating self-defeating patterns over and over again and can’t seem to break through them, when your disease or condition doesn’t seem to have any particular physical cause, or when your symptoms can’t be tied to any personal experience of trauma, then you should start considering a connection with your family’s past. If the problem didn’t start with you, then you won’t be able to fix it by looking at your own life. You are going to have to go back to the original issue in order to find resolution for yourself and your family.

Pictures of older family members

This brings up the question, how does one go about resolving a trauma that isn’t theirs, particularly if original recipients of the trauma are dead? This gets into some really fascinating work being done around the world. The solutions are as varied as the traditions they spring from. Native and traditional healers are using shamanic work to reconnect people with their ancestors with memorials and traditional celebrations such as Day of Dead. Psychologists are working with symbolic restitution for past wrongs, mapping family trees, restoring relationships with lost family members, and more. One of my favorite techniques is Mark Wolynn’s mapping of your core language which gives you clues to point you toward the original family trauma (another topic that will become its own post in the near future) along with visualization techniques to send that energy back to the original owner. Over the past few years I have used a combination of muscle testing and EFT to identify and clear old family history. More recently I have been working on following energy pathways in the body to go far back through family lines and uncover long-forgotten family traumas. Using Reiki I can release that energy from the whole family. The strength of this method is that it works even in cases of adoption or separation from your family of origin and requires little, if any, discussion to accomplish.

“Your ancestors have passed on to you much more than your physical attributes. The important facets of their lives, their successes, failures and temperaments are also reflected in you. You are bound to them through powerful psychic forces, even if you know nothing about them. Their experiences subtly shape your life.” David Furlong, Healing Your Family Patterns

This aspect of healing working is particularly exciting for me because it offers a possible explanation for so many of the otherwise inexplicable symptoms and diseases of our modern world. What if we aren’t just dealing with our own health and mental problems but also the health and mental problems of our ancestors? What if our minds and bodies are carrying the traumatic load of multiple generations? Maybe all the stuff we are dealing with isn’t actually ours. Even more exciting, maybe we have been handed the problems of the past because we are the ones able to put them to rest. What if we are the generation to finally put the pieces together and heal ourselves and our ancestors? What if we are the generation who can heal the old old trauma so that our kids can grow up unencumbered by old family history?

If you are interested in this topic, the books and authors mentioned above are all good places to begin. I’ll continue to add to the resource list as I continue my own research (I have a number of books on order right now!). Mark Wolynn’s website is a great source of information as well as his book It Didn’t Start With You. If you prefer the more mystical, spiritual side of things The Ancestral Continuum is a fascinating place to begin. If you’d like to explore this from an energy standpoint, contact me and we can talk. I don’t know anyone else pursuing this particular form of energy work right now, so if you know of someone, please send me their information.

Keep your eyes open for more on this topic coming up in the next few weeks. There is much more to explore in the world of family energy. Subscribe below if you don’t want to miss any updates!

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