Whose Past Is In Your Present?

inter-generational traumaI frequently come across examples of how unprocessed feelings associated with a distressing event or circumstances are passed down through the generations causing pain and confusion long after the actual trauma is over. Often, we might be unaware that we have been (usually unwittingly) handed a negative experience of the world and that a thread from someone else’s narrative is running through our own life story. How can psychotherapy help?
Trauma can take many forms. Some of the most common include:

  • the death of someone close to us
  • serious illness
  • abandonment
  • abuse (sexual, physical, emotional and neglect)
  • natural disaster
  • war

In particular, one or more of the above will commonly appear in the stories of people seeking help with relationship difficulties and problematic anxiety or anger. What is often surprising, however, is that sometimes the traumatic experiences have occurred in the generations that came before the person who is sitting in the consulting room.
Contemporary cultural norms (e.g. ‘stiff upper lip’) and accepted family assumptions as to how to be in the world (e.g. ‘don’t talk about difficult feelings of anger and sadness’) may mean that the person who has undergone a traumatic experience has been unable to make sense of their feelings or have them acknowledged by another human being as both valid and understandable. Associated feelings of guilt, fear and shame can then become so unbearable that they are unconsciously handed on to others in the family – usually the younger generation. The person who receives these unprocessed feelings might be completely disconnected from the actual traumatic experience – may not even know that it has occurred – but is frequently left with puzzling responses to other people and to circumstances which seem out of proportion to what is happening in their own lives right now.
As well as asking you about your own life experiences, I will also be interested in hearing about major events in the lives of your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles – and how these events were handled in your family and / or community. Sometimes, the key to changing the way you respond to your own feelings lies in the stories of unfinished business from previous generations.  Psychotherapy and counselling might involve bringing these experiences into awareness and talking about them together. Once you have a clearer idea as to what you are dealing with, you can start to disentangle the influence of both your own and other people’s pasts from how you see yourself and your chosen approach to the present.
If you live or work within reach of Brighton and Hove and my approach to psychotherapy and counselling interests you, please contact me via email or telephone 07585 910742 for more information and to arrange an initial consultation.
Copyright: Caroline Clarke, UKCP Registered Psychotherapist and Counsellor in Brighton and Hove, UK
Image courtesy of panuruangjan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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