When we think of trauma, we think of something that happens in the present. Perhaps someone witnesses a murder or is the victim of a home invasion. Or perhaps someone grows up with an alcoholic parent or has experienced sexual violence.
However, there’s also something called “generational trauma” that can cause just as much damage as something that happens in the present. These are things like intergenerational poverty from being part of a marginalized group, being subject to racism or misogyny, or other things that were passed down through family lines for generations.
Because of this, if you identify with a marginalized group or have ancestors who did, you might be dealing with generational trauma. Here are five tips on how to heal if you have been affected by your past:
1. You Are Not Alone
While every survivor’s journey is different, many of us share in the experience of generational trauma. “Mother Culture,” as Daniel Quinn calls it in his phenomenal book Ishmael, carries significant judgment and prejudice with her, resulting from generations of people feeding into it. For example, when it comes to sexual violence, you have likely heard the same Cultural Script spouted throughout your life. It’s on TV shows, in movies, and across news media and publications. No one even has to teach you these things because it permeates the entire cultural reality.
This is where the first reaction when someone speaks out about sexual assault, the common reaction is #1 disbelief and #2 questioning the victim. Accusations like “perhaps you misunderstood” or “what were you wearing” or “why were you drunk” cause further trauma (secondary trauma), but regardless of how far we’ve come in recent years (with things like #MeToo), people still follow this tired old cultural script because it’s what Mother Culture tells us to say.
Generations of raped and abused women have been silenced, and women today feel that in their everyday lives. Since I’m a white woman, I can’t personally speak to issues of racism, but I’ve read that it’s very similar with how people of color are treated every day. Black people, often unconsciously, carry the horrors of slavery—because the remnants still run deep in our cultural script. So much so, that white supremacy shockingly is on the rise once again.
These are but two examples of generational trauma.
There are many organizations and communities that can help you find support. Here are a few to get you started:
- Amnesty International
- Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum
- Black Lives Matter
- The Black Women’s Blueprint
- The Brown Boi Project
- The Colored Girls Collective
- Empowering Neighborhoods and Communities (ENCORE)
- The Indigenous People’s Health Board
- National Black Justice Center
- National Center for American Indian Health
- National Hispanic Health Foundation
- National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center
- National Network of Abortion Funds
- National Native American Health Organization
- National Asian and Pacific Islander American Women’s Forum
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN)
2. Tell Your Story
If you are dealing with generational trauma, it’s helpful to learn about the histories and legacy of your culture and/or ancestry. This will help you contextualize the trauma your family members and ancestors may have experienced and connect you with a greater sense of community.
The internet can certainly be a heap of toxicity, but it’s also a place where people with similar experiences can find one another, creating a virtual community and reinforcing that you are not alone. Find them through hashtags on Twitter or Facebook Groups. MeetUp for in-person event, and good old Google to find ever more places to connect.
The past is the past, and although it’s best left there, we cannot escape generational trauma; but we can learn to deal with it. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how others perceive your ancestors. It only matters how you perceive them and how you deal with the trauma that has been passed down through your family.
Others may shame you for your cultural/ethnic background, and those are people you most certainly do not want in your life. Cut them out without mercy and use it as a source of strength and inspiration. Use it as a reminder to stay true to yourself and your family, no matter how others treat you.
Your heritage and culture are a part of you, and they don’t have to be something that holds you back. In fact, they can be something that empowers you to live your best life and change the world for the better!
3. Honor Your Ancestors
It’s important to honor your ancestors and the sacrifices they made, whether based in racism or misogyny or something else. You can do this by keeping their stories alive!
In the case of ancestry based in cultures outside of the USA (or wherever you live), learn their language if you can and celebrate their holidays. This will help you feel connected to your past, empowering you to move forward with a greater sense of pride in who you are.
In regard to feminist advances against misogyny and the toxic patriarchy, learn about women whose sacrifices resulted in what we as women have today. Whether that’s being able to get a higher education or even a job—scores of women blazed the trail that led us to our current stance in society.
Although there is a long way to go in terms of both misogyny and racism, let’s honor the efforts and sacrifices of those who came before us while we step forward into the future and continue the fight for equality and respect.
4. Talk About Trauma
If you are struggling to cope with the trauma you’ve experienced—whether in the present or generational—it’s helpful to find a safe place to talk about it. You can do this in a few ways:
- Talk with a close friend or family member. Let them know that you are struggling and that you need their support. Let them know that you appreciate their patience and understanding. –
- Talk to a therapist. If talking to someone close to you is too difficult, or if you want to find a way to process your emotions, a therapy session can help you find a safe space to talk about your trauma. Although this is more challenging after Covid, since many therapists are overloaded with new clients, there are other resources like RAINN and those mentioned above.
- Keep a journal. Journaling is a great way to find a safe space to talk about your trauma. You can write about your thoughts and feelings without having to worry about letting them out in front of others. If writing isn’t your thing, try painting, drawing, or taking photographs. This can be a great way to visualize your emotions and process them in a safe way.
- Take up a hobby like knitting or drawing that allows your hands to move while you talk about your trauma, even if you talk to yourself about it. Often speaking it out loud and naming your emotions, along with self-soothing techniques, can work wonders.
5. Develop Self-Care Rituals
One of the best ways to deal with generational trauma is to practice self-care. We so often focus on helping others that we forget to take care of ourselves. It’s important to take time out of your day to do something that makes you feel good.
Here are a few ideas:
- Get a massage. You can even ask your friends and family to donate to you and then split the money between you and a local charity.
- Get a facial. This is particularly good if you are feeling stressed.
- Meditate. Meditation is a great way to find your inner peace and relax. There are lots of apps and tutorials online that can walk you through it.
- Read a book. Reading is a great way to unwind at the end of the day and escape into a new world for a little while.
- Find a hobby, as mentioned above. Try something new to shake up your normal routine. – Journal. Let out your emotions in a safe place.
- Try some DBT or CBT techniques, which are great tools for emotional regulation and working through trauma. My favorite DBT tool is Radical Acceptance, and my favorite self-care exercise is “If You Could Do Anything…“
The important thing is to process your trauma. Holding those emotions in can cause them to build up and become too much to handle. It can contribute to the trauma, as trauma is cumulative. Open up and face those demons.
While it may seem like generational trauma is too big a problem to tackle, remember that you’re not alone. There are many others who are dealing with the same thing, and there are many ways to heal. Remember these tips and get help if necessary. You don’t have to deal with generational trauma on your own.
Take care of yourself, and know that it’s possible to heal from this trauma.
May you find peace.