“Kathy” has come into therapy to work with a lifelong history of mild anxiety and depression. Through a lens of transgenerational trauma we explore Kathy’s healing process, identifying how one generation’s reactions to a traumatic event were passed on to the next generation. By broadening our lens from the personal to the multi-generational we can experience ourselves as part of a bigger story, a larger whole.
“Healing transgenerational trauma involves the mind, the body, and some detective work to explore your family history. Allow yourself to look across the generations of your family for significant life events and relational patterns. The process of healing involves accessing your innate healing capacity, trusting your experience, and allowing the wisdom of your own process to guide your healing journey.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
How We Heal
According to trauma expert, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, good trauma therapy involves finding “words for experiences that are unspeakable” while listening carefully the accompanying emotional tone and somatic (bodily) experience. Psychotherapy focused on healing transgenerational trauma places your personal life experiences within the context of your larger family history. However, the process of unwinding is functionally similar to healing from any trauma. We attend to the story, make room for emotional expression, and attune to the holding patterns in the body such as tightening the jaw, clenching of fists, or restricting the breath. I often describe the outcome of healing from any form of trauma as regaining a sense of choice about how you live your life now. When the body releases the burdens of trauma we free ourselves to envision a new way of living.
*This story draws from a composite of several patients I have seen. Identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.
In my early work with Kathy we reviewed her life history. This process included discussing significant life events including trauma exposure as well as identifying strengths and resources within Kathy’s life. We also took a broader look at her family history to discuss events that have occurred within her family that may be influential across generations. I develop a genogram which is a detailed family tree that highlights significant events and family dynamics. We now had a visual representation of her history to further explore patterns across generations.
As we talked, Kathy shared with me that parenting her two-year-old daughter is bringing up feelings about her relationship with her mother. She expressed that she has a strained relationship with her mother who she described as critical and cold. She spoke about her parents’ divorce and that her mother’s parents had divorced as well.
As we explored further I learned that Kathy’s mother had a difficult upbringing with an alcoholic father and a distant relationship with her mother. Kathy said that she has a loving relationship with her maternal grandmother but that she saw how her grandmother was stoic and distant. Further exploration revealed that Kathy’s great grandparents were tragically killed in a car accident when Kathy’s mother was only two years old. While there were several significant challenges in Kathy’s family history, there were also plenty of resources including having close relationships with her father, her paternal grandmother, her husband, and her daughter.
Unpacking the Past
Sometimes family stories have been deeply imprinted into our minds by frequent retellings. In other families, trauma stories function more like sworn secrets which have been tightly tucked away or only referred to in whispered voices. In such situations we may feel like detectives making inferences based upon the clues available. Unpacking family legacies can be quite uncomfortable at times; for us or for family members who are invested in the past staying in the past.
As Kathy shared with me stories about her relationship with her mother I learned that she had gone through phases of attempting to change the pattern of distance between her and her mother. She also grieved that they were unable to develop a closer relationship. She identified beliefs of “not being good enough” and feelings that there was something wrong with her.
One particular therapy session provided a profound shift. On this day, I invited her to talk more in depth about her great grandparents’ tragic deaths. She shared that her grandmother had always told her the story as an accounting of events; told in a manner both detached and inexpressive.
As Kathy retold the story she thought of her grandmother as a young mother of a two-year-old. She reflected on her own experience parenting her daughter. She imagined what it might have felt like for her grandmother to be told that her parents had suddenly been killed. Kathy felt a deep sadness well up inside of her. She described feeling her throat tighten and her heart ache.
She grieved for the loss of her great grandparents who she had never met. She wept compassionately for her grandmother who had lost her parents. She described feeling empathy for her mother who, as a young child, lost her grandparents. She imagined her feeling lost and scared as her mother was overcome in her own grief. Unlike the stoic telling of the story she had always heard from her grandmother, she deeply felt this story as it unfolded in the session.
Further work with Kathy allowed us to work with other transgenerational stories; her maternal grandfather’s alcoholism, the pattern of relational conflict and divorces, and her paternal grandfather’s death from cancer. She reflected on both the painful events as well as the strengths her family members had to persevere amidst challenges. Kathy developed an oscillating narrative regarding her family history that acknowledged the ups and downs of her family history; an attribute associated with emotional health and resilience. Over time, Kathy reported feeling less triggered by her daughter and more emotionally available in her relationships.
Healing Transgenerational Trauma
The process of healing transgenerational trauma involves trusting your experience and creating space for your way of processing the information.
Kathy’s expression of grief regarding the story of her great grandparents’ deaths is quite different from anything she had ever witnessed in her grandmother or mother, yet this was essential for her healing journey. As a result of this process, Kathy described a heavy weight and tension releasing from her chest and shoulders. She saw her relationship with her mother in a new light. She shared that a profound understanding took place within her; one that paved way for forgiveness. She said, “It isn’t my fault and it isn’t my mother’s fault. We are both reckoning with a story that is bigger than the two of us.”
- The Neurobiology of Transgenerational Trauma
- Transgenerational Legacies in Parenting
- Resilience and Post Traumatic Growth
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole (Fall, 2016). She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.