Several scientific studies within the last few years suggest that trauma may be passed down in our DNA from generation to generation, and the youngest generation doesn’t even have to experience a traumatic event to feel the effect. They may feel it in their body, their relationships or their personality. Much of the time we make choices, good or bad, based on our past experiences. If this research is proven over time to be true, what if we are making decisions based on a past traumatic experience that we ourselves did not personally go through?

It’s common for us to beat ourselves up and shame ourselves for having anything other than “optimal emotions”. We want to or think we should only be good, or happy or polite all of the time. The truth is, that is not realistic, healthy or balanced. Healing happens when the pain, grief, despair, fear and shame that resided in our ancestors that has now been passed down to us is addressed. We have to realize that also inside of us resides love, life, light, grace, peace, strength, wisdom, courage and beauty. Why do we make this an either-or battle?  We need to integrate the light forces with the dark emotions.

It can help to realize that these dark emotions most likely came from our ancestors, including people we have never met, as well as from our own childhood experiences and possible traumas we may not even remember. All of these experiences become compounded and we adapt for good or for bad and integrate them into our lives simply to survive. How do we know what is ours and what belonged to them? How do we “give them back” to our ancestors?

Let’s take a look at a typical scenario of family systems dynamics being unconsciously transmitted through three generations.

There is an adage in family therapy that states, in simplified terms: 1) what the grandparents experienced, 2) the children will feel and, 3) the grandchildren will act out (behave in certain ways that are loyal to their grandparents).

  1. Grandparents experience: A grandmother, Nancy, is repeatedly physically abused by her husband and eventually leaves him to raise her children on her own.
  2. Children feel: Her children did not witness the domestic violence and were so young when they left that they don’t remember living with their father. Nancy’s youngest child, Mary, experiences emotional energy from the domestic violence dynamics between her mother (Nancy) and her father, which flows into and incubates inside Mary.Mary grows up, gets married to a kind, loving man who is not at all abusive but is a “workaholic,” and has one child, Lisa (Nancy’s granddaughter). Lisa grows up feeling loved and secure due to Mary’s dedication to being a strong, loving mother. Lisa feels less secure with her father due to his working so much, but also she never sees her mother and father engage as a loving husband and wife with each other; they are cordial, but distant. It is clear that Mary becomes a fierce mother who takes charge if she believes Lisa’s father is wrong in his interactions with Lisa.
  3. Grandchildren act out: Lisa grows up and is now unhappily married to her husband. She has three children under 5 years old. Lisa is the grandchild in this scenario—who may now “act out” unresolved trauma from her grandmother. How?Remember the feelings that were incubating inside of Mary all these years? The research points to genetics being affected by the domestic violence trauma Nancy experienced and now Lisa is potentially going to repeat. The actual behavior of domestic violence does not have to repeat from Lisa’s husband to Lisa, but the feelings (incubating inside of her mother and experienced by her grandmother) associated with the domestic violence are repeated. These feelings are being repeated subtly now between Lisa and her husband, as indicated in her stating she is “unhappily married”. What can Lisa do?

It is the goal of therapy to: help clients safely re-experience their unresolved emotional wounds—including their ancestors’ trauma; feel the feelings associated with the wounds/trauma; share those feelings verbally with another person; and practice new behaviors in a loving manner.

Engaging in the four steps listed below will take discipline—and typically guidance from someone experienced in helping others heal past wounds. If we do not, we may have many regrets. If we live a life of regret, we may be engaging in an “invisible loyalty” with an “unconscious umbilical cord” attached to some ancestor that may need to be recognized and honored.

In this particular case, the four steps were worked through in the context of a family constellation. Family constellations is a therapeutic approach designed to help reveal the hidden dynamics in a family or relationship in order to address any stressors impacting these relationships and heal them.

  1. Honor our ancestors—especially including the ones that have been exiled, shunned, excluded or forgotten.
    The women in Lisa’s family are strong, dedicated and defensive toward men. Lisa should honor her grandmother for her strength and dedication. Lisa was eventually able to say the following words and felt strong and motivated after speaking them: “Dear grandmother, because of your strength I am also strong and capable. However, I have chosen a different man than you and I do not need to remain unhappy and leave him as you did my grandfather. Please bless me as I use my strength to join with my husband intimately, rather than be fiercely independent.”
  2. Love and accept the gifts that they gave us—both the dark and the light—and be grateful for the lessons.
    It was revealed later in the constellation that Lisa had started drinking like her grandfather. This “unconscious umbilical cord” revealed that she is part of the problem in her marriage as she gets belligerent when she drinks—this is the “invisible loyalty” to her grandfather.
    At one point in the constellation, a man representing her grandfather emotionally stated, “Dear granddaughter, I wish I could have known you. You are beginning to know me a little through your drinking and your belligerence. That’s enough! You don’t need to know me like that. That was my fate. I will be proud if you can fight the alcohol and love your husband. Not like me—I fought your grandmother and loved the booze. I did love your grandmother, but could not show her. Go create a good life.”
  3. Integrate the lessons/gather those gifts into ourselves by engaging in therapeutic healing methods.
  4. Create our destiny and share our gifts with the next generation, hoping the path along their journey will be a little less bumpy.

Instead of remaining invisibly loyal to our ancestors’ fate, we can do some therapeutic work using experiential therapy (family constellations is one form of this) and give them back what is theirs. They would much rather we take their love that was somehow blocked from getting to us—and that they want us to truly have—rather than take on pain that was their fate.

Once we do this therapeutic work we are free to co-create our future, while remaining present, centered in the moment and lovingly connected to our past and ancestors. Anyone who struggles with illness, depression, anxiety, panic disorders, obsessive thoughts, fears, phobias, guilt, bi-polar disorder, persistent anger, lingering grief, meaninglessness, psychosomatic diseases, asthma, colitis, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, IBS, reproductive health issues, failed relationships, financial difficulties, family violence, addictions, OCD, ADHD, ADD or PTSD can benefit from receiving a family constellation.

Ed Federici, of Mindful Actions, LLC, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with over 30 years of experience as a mental health professional. Nearly 25 of those years have been devoted to the practice of marriage and family therapy—specializing in couples, group and family therapy using a blend of Gestalt, Family Constellations, Transactional Analysis, CBT and MBSR. Connect at 860-402-0394.