As if being transgender or non-binary didn’t generate enough trauma on its own, we might be trying to cope with traumas that didn’t start with us.
In the past few years, The 1619 Project, Tulsa Race Riot, and Black Lives Matter itself have all raised the public’s awareness of intergenerational trauma. Important as those huge historical pressures are, however, they don’t represent all types of intergenerational trauma. Some intergenerational trauma is quite personal, “inherited” from an individual parent, aunt, or grandparent. What happened won’t be in any history book, and it may not even be talked about in the family. So how do you know what you might be carrying and, even more important, how you can resolve it?
Those are the questions behind It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, by Mark Wolynn (Penguin Books, 2016). The first few chapters cover the science underlying the belief that traumas can be inherited. He then begins to recount stories that show how he uses his core language approach to explore the feelings and thoughts and – most importantly – words that the person expresses when they talk about the experience they think might be related to trauma. In one case, a 19-year-old athlete suddenly began having insomnia. He woke up spontaneously and then couldn’t go back to sleep, thinking, “If I go to sleep, I’ll never wake up.” He also talked about feeling like he was “freezing” when he woke. It turned out he had only recently learned of an uncle who, at age 19, froze to death in a storm.
These kinds of stories can sound crazy in our hyper-rational Western society, but many indigenous and other cultures recognize that there are strong connections between people and their ancestors. Why would humans repeat stories that aren’t our own? Basically, for the same reason we reenact our own trauma stories: as an attempt to resolve them and be able to let them go. If the person who originally had the trauma can no longer do that, one of their descendants may literally inherit the job.
Returning to core language, Wolynn describes that as “the intense or urgent words we use to describe our deepest fears.” He notes, “The language is unusual in that it can feel out of context from what we know or what we have experienced. Core language can have the quality of coming from outside us while being experienced inside us.”
About three-quarters of his book focus on series of questions and exercises designed to draw out a person’s core feeling or inner experience and then resolve it. If you’d like to give it a try, consider Written Exercise #2: Ten Questions that Generate Core Language:
- What was taking place in your life when your symptom or problem first appeared?
- What was going on right before it started?
- What age were you when the symptom or problem first appeared?
- Did something traumatic happen to someone in your family at a similar age?
- What exactly happens in the problem?
- What does it feel like in its worst moments?
- What happens right before you feel this way or have the symptom?
- What makes it better or worse?
- What does the problem or symptom keep you from being able to do? What does it force you to do?
- If the feeling or symptom were never to go away, what would be the worst thing that could happen to you?