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  • Writer's pictureBrandilyn Hallcroft

From Trauma to Triumph: Understanding and Healing Generational Trauma

Updated: Jun 4

A few years ago, I read a book titled “It Didn't Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle” by Mark Wolynn. This book fascinated me and led me to investigate what my parents experienced as children. I have been studying my ancestry since I was 18 years old, and I used what I have learned about my ancestors to dig deep into the subject. 

The book talks about how our experiences, both beneficial and adverse, shape who we become. However, some experiences leave deeper imprints than others, echoing through generations and affecting the lives of our descendants. This phenomenon, known as generational trauma, is a complex and often overlooked aspect of mental health. 

Trauma to Triumph

What is Generational Trauma?

Generational trauma refers to the transmission of trauma symptoms from one generation to the next. It occurs when the effects of a traumatic event experienced by an individual are passed down to their children, grandchildren, and subsequent generations. This transmission can happen through various channels, including genetics, parenting styles, family dynamics, and cultural beliefs.

In my family, one of the things I learned about a great-great-grandmother who proudly referred to herself as “The Meanest Woman in the South.” It blew my mind to think that someone would be so proud of being a nasty person that she bragged about it. It also helped me understand why there were people in my family who were so angry and depressed. If raised by someone who enjoys being mean, you will not get the affection and love you need to thrive and grow. Instead, you live a life of anger and depression, not knowing why or how to change. It didn’t start with my great-great-grandmother, though; she gave herself that title for a reason. However, she was long gone before I was even born, so that was where the stopping point was for me regarding where the trauma started with my mom’s family.

How Generational Trauma Manifests

Generational trauma can manifest in a myriad of ways, affecting individuals across various domains of life. Some common manifestations include:

  • Emotional and Psychological Symptoms: Anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, shame, low self-esteem, difficulty regulating emotions, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

  • Behavioral Patterns: Substance abuse, self-destructive behaviors, difficulty forming healthy relationships, and social isolation.

  • Physical Health: Chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular problems, and other stress-related illnesses.

  • Intergenerational Patterns: Repetition of unhealthy family dynamics, parenting styles, and relationship patterns.

Interestingly enough, as I mentioned before, depression runs in my family, so does low self-esteem and difficulty regulating emotions. For me I have struggled with these things. I’ve also been self-destructive, worked through substance abuse, difficulty forming healthy relationships, and social isolation. I can form strong friendships, but I don’t make very good choices regarding dating. I don’t date anymore and am genuinely happy flying solo. I know how to form healthy relationships now. However, it's hard to find others who work to heal themselves. I'm happy to guide people to their healing if that is something that they want for themselves. However, it's not my job to fix them; that's personal and up to the individual. I find fulfillment in life by helping others heal rather than in romantic relationships.

Generational Trauma Through the Lens of Renowned Psychologists

Carl Jung:

Collective Unconscious: Jung's concept of the collective unconscious posits that a part of the unconscious mind is shared among all humans, containing memories and archetypes inherited from our ancestors. This idea is closely related to Wolynn's assertion that traumas can be passed down through generations and impact our behaviors and emotions.

Ancestral Influence: Jung believed that the experiences of our ancestors shape our psyche, which aligns with Wolynn's exploration of inherited family trauma and its effects on individual lives.

Source: Jung, Carl. The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9 (Part 1). Princeton University Press, 1981.

Sigmund Freud:

Unconscious Mind: Freud emphasized the importance of the unconscious mind in shaping behavior and thought. Wolynn builds on this by showing how unconscious, inherited traumas influence our present-day lives.

Family Dynamics: Freud's theories on family relationships and their impact on psychological development (e.g., the Oedipus complex) resonate with Wolynn's focus on how unresolved family issues can be passed down and manifest in descendants.

Source: Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by James Strachey. Avon Books, 1965.

B.F. Skinner:

Behaviorism and Conditioning: Skinner's work on behaviorism and operant conditioning emphasizes how behavior is learned and reinforced through interactions with the environment. Wolynn's book, while more focused on the emotional and psychological aspects, acknowledges that behaviors resulting from inherited trauma can be learned and reinforced within family systems.

Observable Behavior: Skinner’s focus on observable behavior complements Wolynn’s approach to identifying and changing behaviors rooted in inherited trauma, even though Wolynn goes beyond behaviorism to include unconscious influences.

Source: Skinner, B.F. About Behaviorism. Vintage Books, 1974.

Carl Rogers:

Person-Centered Therapy: Rogers’ emphasis on empathy, unconditional positive regard, and the therapeutic relationship aligns with Wolynn’s compassionate approach to helping individuals heal from inherited trauma. Wolynn advocates for understanding and honoring the experiences of our ancestors to facilitate healing.

Self-Actualization: Rogers’ belief in the innate drive toward self-actualization and personal growth is echoed in Wolynn’s work, which aims to help individuals overcome the limitations imposed by inherited traumas and achieve greater well-being and fulfillment.

Source: Rogers, Carl. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1961.

Science Behind Generational Trauma

The Science Behind Generational Trauma

Recent advancements in epigenetics have shed light on the mechanisms underlying generational trauma. Epigenetics studies how environmental factors influence gene expression without changing the underlying DNA sequence. Research suggests that traumatic experiences can cause epigenetic changes that may be passed down to future generations. These changes can affect how genes relate to stress response, emotional regulation, and mental health function.

Breaking the Cycle: The Path to Healing

While the effects of generational trauma can be profound, healing is possible. By acknowledging the impact of past traumas and actively seeking support, individuals, and families can break free from the cycle of intergenerational pain. Here are some key steps toward healing:

  • Awareness and Education: Understanding the concept of generational trauma and its potential manifestations is the first step toward healing. Educate yourself about the historical context of your family's experiences and how they may influence your life.

  • Therapy and Counseling: Seeking professional help from therapists or counselors specializing in trauma can provide valuable support and guidance. Therapy can help individuals process their emotions, develop coping mechanisms, and challenge negative beliefs and patterns.

  • Self-Care and Mindfulness: Engaging in self-care practices, such as exercise, meditation, journaling, and time in nature, can help regulate emotions, reduce stress, and promote overall well-being. Mindfulness practices can also help individuals become more aware of their thoughts and feelings, allowing them to respond to triggers more healthily.

  • Family Communication and Healing: Open and honest family communication is crucial for addressing generational trauma. Creating a safe space for sharing experiences, validating emotions, and fostering understanding can help break down the barriers of silence and shame that often surround trauma.

  • Journaling: Journaling can be a powerful tool for processing emotions, gaining insights, and promoting self-discovery. Journals to Healing offers a collection of nine prompt journals designed to guide individuals on their healing journey. These journals cover various topics, including Healing, Shadow Work, Self-Esteem, Gratitude, Forgiveness, Tarot, Grief, Anxiety, and Dream analysis. Each journal prompt is written uniquely to help you find peace and happiness.

Trauma gets passed on until someone consciously works to change the programming. My mom initiated this change by seeking counseling for herself and sending my brother and me to therapy during our upbringing. I have continued this journey, diving even deeper into the process and continuing to work on it, which is why I am so different from many of my family members.

I understand the generational trauma that has affected my life. I don’t blame people from my family for who I am; it’s unfair to them. I’m not a victim of the past; how I was raised is not an excuse for the choices that I make. We all do what we know based on the programming that we get. I live a happy, healthy life now, even though I am still working on growing. I have worked through many of my past mistakes and don’t play a victim to anything. I am also not mean, so things have changed with me.

I still struggle when new traumas come up; there will always be more trauma. Life isn’t always joyful, and you can’t control it. However, you can control how you view things, react to them, and cope. Trauma and healing go hand in hand; if you don’t heal, you pass trauma; if you do, you pass love. By acknowledging and addressing generational trauma, we can break the cycle and create a legacy of healing and love for future generations.


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