What is the impact of generational trauma? How do we count the emotional cost of generational trauma?

This photograph from Sydney Sims says it all. We spend our lives trying to paste on a smile to cover up the hole at the heart of our existence—a hole that has no obvious source.

And because it has no obvious source, we blame ourselves.

The cost of generational trauma

When I was growing up, both my parents were around. I could see they were doing what they thought was best for me. Yet, I always felt abandoned—and I presumed that was due to my own ingratitude.

I spent most of my life feeling abandoned for two reasons. Firstly, because I was emotionally abandoned. My parents were physically present but emotionally absent due to their own childhood issues.

Secondly, because I was carrying my parents’ unprocessed feelings of abandonment in my own DNA—thanks to epigenetic inheritance.

Understanding the cost of generational trauma helps us identify trauma in our family trees—which is a reflection of the trauma that we carry inside.

Understanding the cost of generational trauma helps us identify trauma in our family trees—which is a reflection of the trauma that we’re carrying inside.

Generational trauma has several major impacts.

1. Abandonment

Abandonment is the shock a child feels at the emotional absence of a parent. Although physical separation is painful, emotional absence (which always accompanies physical separation) is worse.

Implication: a child can experience abandonment in the presence of both parents, making it very hard to identify.

2. Emotional shame

This is the emotional scarring that occurs from being born outside of marriage (traditionally a very shameful event) or from being a child whose parents divorced or separated. I call this unconscious shame.

Financial failures or public scandals/humiliations can also be sources of emotional shame.

3. Sexual shame

I separate sexual shame from common-or-garden emotional shame because the former is the most toxic form of shame. This is shame arising from sexually inspired divorces, affairs and sex scandals.

Sexual shame has been pounded into us for generations through Bible verses like Matthew 5:32: “I tell you not to divorce your wife unless she has committed some terrible sexual sin.”

As the quote from Matthew 5:32 shows, socially transgressive sexual behaviour has long been the most shameful thing a person can do. This makes it particularly prone to epigenetic inheritance.

4. Grief

Grief is the experience of a significant energy leaving our being. It’s not necessarily a loved one—abusers have reported feeling grief at the passing of their abuser.

Grief is a natural experience that, although unwanted, we should engage with and allow the healing process to run its course.

Generational trauma arises when someone goes into denial about a death. The loss is so severe they can’t allow themselves to recognise the death and grieve appropriately. The unprocessed grief energy is then handed down epigenetically.

I have no specific experience of grief (inherited or otherwise). If you suspect you’re dealing with unprocessed grief, I recommend you find some grief-specific resources or a specialist grief counsellor.

5. Shock

I’m using the term ‘shock’ here to cover the horrors of war or any other emotional shock that one of our ancestors experienced but couldn’t process at the time. This includes the shock from abuse in all its forms (physical, emotional or sexual) as well as neglect. This sense of shock is closely linked to disbelief and denial—see below.

Shock acts as a form of paralysis, which is triggered whenever some reminder of the original traumatic situation occurs. In the face of abuse, the victim becomes physically and emotionally numb, unable to do anything other than wait for the situation (and the paralysis) to pass.

This is related to our fight or flight response, except we go into a third state, freeze. In my experience this is related to disturbances in the production of adrenaline. Because of the inability to process the situation—emotional paralysis—not enough adrenaline is produced to induce a healthy fight or flight response.

Speaking at the 2021 Intergenerational Trauma Conference, Peter McBride noted that with trauma, our fight or flight response is always engaged. This state of constant psychological arousal creates constant anxiety.

I don’t have any examples of ‘shell shock’ in my family, yet all forms of generational trauma work in fundamentally similar ways. Shocks cause a split between the physical and psychological aspects of our being, whereby our psyche isn’t fully present in our body. This split becomes embedded as a psychological dissonance, i.e. trauma.

This is known as depersonalisation disorder and has many forms and degrees of severity.

6. Denial

Denial is another element common to all generational trauma.

In fact, it’s the original cause of the trauma—the inability to process a shocking experience in the exact moment it happens. In emotionally repressed patriarchal societies, our ability to handle shocks is greatly reduced because our feminine, emotional side is itself traumatized.

It’s like the three monkeys—‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’. We can’t accept something bad is happening to us. Hello, denial.

On the back of the denial, other emotions—abandonment, shame, grief—pile up. When we inherit these emotions, we also inherit the denial that originally locked them into place.

7. Low self-worth

Abandonment, emotional shame, and (particularly) sexual shame contribute to feelings of low self-worth.

Often, one traumatic event will kick off a whole slew of downstream traumatic experiences. For instance, my grandmother’s affair in 1932 shattered my family and emotionally crippled my mother.

From this single event my mother experienced every single one of the forms of trauma listed here. As she was unable to process them in her own lifetime, I acquired them all through generational trauma.

8. Arrested development

Significant levels of generational trauma can impact our key child development processes (also known as ‘developmental tasks’), causing arrested development.

The Medical Dictionary defines ‘developmental tasks’ as:

Fundamental achievements that must be accomplished at each stage of life, arising at or near critical stages in the maturation of an individual; successful attainment leads to a healthy self-image and success with later tasks. Failure to achieve developmental tasks at one stage leads to unhappiness in the individual, disapproval of society, and difficulty in accomplishing later developmental tasks.

These processes include the mother-child and father-child processes that significantly shape our life experience. These are known in Freudian psychoanalysis as the ‘oral’ and ‘anal’ development phases. In psychology they are known as the first and second circuits and are crucial to healthy mind-body development.

9. Energetic disturbances

At the lowest levels of our being, generational trauma contributes to depression, low energy and a sense of not being able to get a grip on life. These energetic disturbances are both psychological and physical in nature. Traumatized energy can become stuck in our body—what psychoanalysis terms ‘bound energy’.

All these contribute to the fundamental separation from self at the core of patriarchal societies—what I term the mother wound. The cost of generational trauma is great—yet it can also be a gateway to great healing.

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

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