Do you carry a free-floating sense of guilt that you replay to yourself whenever you make a false move? Some of us lay into ourselves at any opportunity, whether because long ago we were blamed for something we did or didn’t do, or due to some long-ago event that lives on in a far corner of our psyche.
It was one such moment that started me on this blog. After a minor kitchen mix-up, a voice inside my head muttered: “You’ve messed up again. You ALWAYS mess up!” Wow! Wait a minute! This was not dropping the ball in the final minutes of the Super Bowl or crashing my car into a tree! Yet I suddenly realized I’d said those words to myself many times before, reinforcing the message that I’d failed again.
While psychologists tell us that many of our emotional hang-ups come from childhood, Mark Wolynn takes it a step further. He includes three generations of family in It Didn’t Start With You: How inherited family trauma shapes who we are and how to end the cycle. Offering profiles from his work with clients as well as new findings in neuroscience, he tells us that if we want to free ourselves from self-accusations and judgments we may need to go back two or three generations to find the source. “Tragedies varying in type and intensity—such as abandonment, suicide, and war, or the early death of a child, parent, or sibling—can send shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next,” he writes. “Recent developments in the fields of cellular biology, neurobiology, epigenetics, and developmental psychology underscore the importance of exploring at least three generations of family history in order to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma and suffering that repeat.”
It didn’t take me long to find some truth in this. My habitual feeling that I must often be wrong could well be related to the fact that my mother was orphaned at age two and raised by an unloving grandmother with five adult children, who claimed to be her mother and treated her like a cast-off problem she was stuck with. Mother knew for a fact that she had no right to be there!
Wolynn recommends that we look for clues to past family trauma in key words or expressions we use or refuse to say, which he calls “our core language, the buried language of our worries and fears.” Even though such words seem to be our own, he explains, they could have been planted long ago. In fact, whether spoken or unspoken, these emotionally charged words may have become part of our DNA. Understanding where they came from can help us unravel why we feel guilty, depressed, or plagued by nameless suffering. “Our core language insists on being heard,” he affirms. “When we follow where it leads and hear its story, it has the power to defuse our deepest fears.”
In order to work our story out and someday be free of it (and hopefully free our own children as well), we need to take whatever words have seemed unspeakable or unthinkable, and practice feeling them consciously. They will lead us to the hidden trauma in our family’s past. And once we know the original traumatic story, we can try to visualize what happened, imagining how the event played out as if we were there.
Unfortunately, since we are designed to avoid pain, Wolynn points out that we often trivialize family trauma in order to bear it. The danger is that it becomes more powerful when it is never discussed, and will end by haunting all family members, perhaps in different ways, until they can break the cycle and heal.
In order to discover what is hidden and release what has become fixed, Wolynn invites us to ask pertinent questions and become detectives of our family history. What’s more, he says that even without knowing your family history you can explore this process by asking yourself such questions as, What is my core complaint? What are the words I can’t bear to say, or other family members can’t bear to hear? What words describe my pain?
New discoveries in neuroscience and embryology detailed in this book are of special interest. For example, it turns out that when we visualize an activity, the visual cortex lights up as if we were actually doing it. And he cites psychiatrist Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, in which Doidge points out that “plastic change, caused by our experience, travels deep into the brain and even into our genes, molding them as well,” adding that, “When a gene is turned on, it makes a new protein that alters the structure and function of the cell,” influenced by what we do and what we think.
Wolynn also points to the work of Dr. Dawson Church, who says in his book The Genie in Your Genes, that focusing on positive thoughts, emotions and prayers (which he calls internal epigenetic interventions), can positively affect our health. “Filling our minds with positive images of wellbeing can produce an epigenetic environment that reinforces the healing process.” Church highly recommends meditation because when we meditate, we are “bulking up the portions of our brains that produce happiness.”
These and other neuroscience discoveries assure us that when we consciously confront and digest past trauma, the brain can grow a new network of synapses that can heal our feelings of abandonment, shame, rage or rejection. Wolynn also offers good news for those who have suffered much: “The traumas we inherit or experience firsthand can not only create a legacy of distress, but also forge a legacy of strength and resilience that can be felt for generations to come.”