How Do We Carry Secrets Before Our Lifetimes?

Freudian ideas like penis envy, the Oedipus complex, and castration anxiety do not have much support from present day scholars. These ideas are now mostly pop culture sprinkles on an ice cream cone dipped in entertainment. Don’t let these psychosexual terms fool you though; Sigmund Freud will forever be one of the most influential thinkers in the field of psychology. What I take away most from Freud’s pioneering is the power of unconscious forces. From an early Freudian perspective, human instinct was key to understanding unconscious forces. Put more simply, libido and aggression were thought to motivate our behavior. In my opinion, unconscious forces can extend beyond primal urges and include elements of life that lie closer to human consciousness.

Moving to more modern perspectives, intergenerational trauma is a relatively new concept, but one that I believe brings clarity. I think this term is best explained by example. The patriarch of a family may suffer from an untreated severe mental health disorder which leads him to engage in harmful behaviors toward his son. This son, having endured years of psychological abuse, now has his own family but has not been able to release himself from the suffering he endured. As a result, he begins to exhibit many of the same behaviors as the patriarch. Then, the trauma transmits through another generation, and his own children begin exhibiting similar behaviors. Untreated trauma in a parent can be transmitted through the child via the attachment bond and messaging about self, the world, safety, and danger.

A common distressing experience is anxiety that comes from out of the blue. Said another way, anxiety that is unconsciously motivated. The amygdala, the structure in your brain that acts as a smoke detector, accounts for most of that anxiety. Evolution helps us understand that the amygdala aids in human survival; it alerts us to danger before we consciously can recognize a threat. However, similar to a real life smoke detector, the amygdala can be overactive. Your amygdala learns based on experience and how your family functions is often a large part of your experience. When a parent responds to a situation based on past trauma, it often sends the message of fear to a child. That child (and their amygdala) then learns to respond to similar situations with fear. Therefore, it follows that children can develop fear responses even without being directly connected to a traumatic event. This brain functioning could carry over into adulthood and lead to fear responses in seemingly nonthreatening situations. Hypothetically, what if a traumatic event happened before a child’s birth and is kept a secret but still creates rippling effects in their life? Can we call that trauma an unconscious force? If an early experience of trauma within the family is being repressed by a family member and there are resulting anxious and/or depressive symptoms, can we call that trauma an unconscious force?

Let’s zoom out to acknowledge the impact of widespread trauma on communities and ethnic groups. As a Jewish person, the Holocaust comes to mind as an example. It has been well documented that over 6 million Jews died, but we will never be able to truly quantify the number of people who were impacted by this mass genocide. As survivors returned home and the millions of deaths were mourned, trauma transmitted through generations. How could it not? And what if it still is? Such profound suffering is not released easily and I can imagine generations 3 or 4 times removed continuing to be impacted by its rippling effects. If the great, great, granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor is experiencing distress related to intergenerational trauma, can we call that trauma an unconscious force? Especially if said person does not recognize the trauma, being that it happened far before her lifetime.

In my own clinical practice, I use another modern perspective, Internal Family Systems (IFS) theory, to work with intergenerational trauma. You may have read about parts work in Jonathan Van Ness’s memoir (a more positive example of how popular culture impacts the spread of information). Parts work, a more informal term for IFS, brings concreteness to intergenerational trauma by helping clients identify and heal from what the model refers to as “legacy burdens.” Two main pillars of IFS are Self and externalization. Self is at the core of every human, representing core wisdom and innate leadership. Separate from Self are parts, which function to either protect or hold pain. So, uncomfortable emotions like anxiety and anger are parts, not Self (externalization #1) and the pain held by parts (burdens) is brought on by external factors (externalization #2). Having a part that holds a legacy burden does not have to define you or lead your internal family. This part is just one part and this part is not Self.

It’s easy to start assigning blame when discussing any kind of family difficulty. But, developing insight is more about strengthening your compassion for yourself and for other people. Once you have clarity, you begin to hold parts of yourself differently and hopefully show yourself some grace as you heal. There are so many elements of life that are out of our control but we are in control of how we heal. Perhaps by healing parts of ourselves, we can interrupt the transmission of intergenerational trauma.

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