You may have heard the concept that if someone experiences trauma, like extreme poverty or abuse, the negative effects can reverberate through future generations. This idea is explored in the field of epigenetics, which is the study of genes becoming modified not physically, but by how they are expressed, manifesting in what can be called intergenerational trauma.
This is currently being studied, but data suggests that trauma can be inherited as a result of epigenetic modification. It’s essentially the pattern of a previous experience expressing itself genetically in a direct descent, and it could be affecting any of us, in some small way. Vienna Pharaon, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Founder of MindfulMFT, is an expert who wholeheartedly agrees with this theory.
Vienna says, “When the people who came before us don’t deal with their pain, it does, without question, become ours.” She explains that this happens through observation, experience, direct or indirect criticism, or expectations set upon us—we absorb it. One example is parents who attempt to live vicariously through their children, creating pressure to live out success where they have previously failed. Another is women who have been abused encouraging submissive behavior in their own daughters’ romantic relationships.
Vienna tells us that these are the stories that matter. “They give context to where the belief systems were created, how they’ve lingered, and how they get passed from a space of fear instead of empowerment. If we don’t question the things that we observe or the things we are told, we often find ourselves living out a story that has not healed.” While it may seem grim at first, like you have no control over what experiences before you may shape who you are, Vienna gives us hope for healing.
“Facing our trauma, pain, and wounding is necessary. When we find a way to honor our pain and then integrate it, we allow for the healing to go in every direction,” Vienna explains. This means we may be carrying trauma of ancestors who only knew poverty, or war, or extreme racism that is still so clearly felt and experienced today.
If any of these hit close to home with you or someone higher up in your family tree, it might be a catalyst for your own emotional exploration and healing. Vienna refers to this as doing the work. “We question and get curious about why we react the way we do, believe what we believe, or find ourselves in certain patterns over and over again. When we start to face ourselves, we give ourselves and others an opportunity to heal.” While seeking the help of a professional is always encouraged, this is effective work you can begin to do yourself.
The idea that we can inherit trauma should not be terrifying, but empowering. To take care of yourself and future generations, Vienna suggests practicing self-awareness and relational awareness. “Be a forever student. Become an observer of your own thoughts. Remain curious. Listen.”
Journaling and practicing mindfulness are great ways to bring your thinking into a hyper-observant state, but Vienna is also launching an online course on January 8 called Get the Love You Want. It’s designed to awaken self-awareness and explore patterns, boundaries, conflict, sex, and intimacy, while teaching valuable tools to break the chain of intergenerational damage and heal trauma.