Passing the Baton: Acknowledging Transgenerational Narratives (and what to do with them)
Photo by Rod Long from Unsplash.com
“If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it – usually to those closest to us: our family, and, invariably, the most vulnerable, our children” – Fr. Richard Rohr
Diving deeper into my own inner-work – the work of reconnecting with the parts of myself that I’ve distanced myself from or protected myself against – I’ve come to realise how subtle, nuanced and insidious these patterns are. They show up in almost every way I relate to myself and others in the world around me.
What is unnamable and overwhelming is passed onto those we are closest to. Our loved ones carry what we cannot. We do the same.
What is clear to me, and after speaking to many, is that if we are to meet the challenges of the 21st Century, we must start to unpack the outdated narratives and patterns that contributed to us being in this place. We must walk with curiousity, compassion and courage.
For many years, as a teenager I remember my internal world butting up against the narrative I thought to be true about what it meant to be a man. But I didn’t like football, I didn’t enjoy going to the bar, having drinks and talking about ‘chicks.’
There is nothing wrong with living like this, but sold as the only way a ‘man should be’ in our society causes an overwhelming inner-conflict.
I became more and more aware of how emotionally-disconnecting and isolating the condemning of my vulnerabilities was. It was also becoming obvious that these notions didn’t need to be true simply because they were told to be, and were up-kept by a vast majority of men I witnessed in the world around me.
We can and we must free ourselves from them, expand the box and re-write what these narratives mean for us. We must.
What is Transgenerational trauma (or, narrative-binding)?
Transgenerational trauma (or, more broadly, narrative-binding) is not new. It is more real and alive for me right now though, as I grapple with our responsibilities as a generation.
The concept of transgenerational or integenerational trauma become apparent and originated in the decades after World War II. Studies had started to prove that children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors showed certain symptoms of trauma. Their nightmares, emotional and behavioural challenges showed that the original trauma of the grandparent or parent had been transferred, from the past, into the present.
This is due to these trauma being alive in their parents and grandparents and therefore effecting the child-rearing style and environment of the children.
In Lost in Transmittion: Studies of Trauma Across Generations, M. Gerard Fromm explores the idea that “what human beings cannot contain of their experiences – what have been traumatically overwhelming, unbearable, unthinkable – falls out of social discourse, but very often on to and into the next generation as an affective sensitivity or chaotic urgency.”
The ‘We’ is in the ‘Me.’
Whilst some of these narratives are deeply personal, to our own internal map of the world, based on our family system and biographical data; many are also shared across a generation. There is vertical transference and also horizontal transference.
Our resilience as individuals, and a species lies in our ability to belonging to and band together. We weave narratives together, to create shared-meaning, to bind and to co-exist. We’re incredible in this way!
However, these narratives must have timestamps attached to them. In the same way that as individuals, as the world around us inevitably morphs and evolves over time, so too must we develop psychologically and emotionally. As a collective, we must learn the are of ‘updating our software’ so-to-speak.
This process starts inside ourselves as individuals. Whilst these narratives might be held in our family system, or our culture more broadly, they show up for us, within our own experience. They are as much yours as they are ours.
Passing the Baton.
By this point I feel we are on the same page: we are all carrying narratives and stories from the past. Whether it be threads of patriarchal conditioning, ambiguous-anxiety passed through generational trauma, or many other forms of holding. It’s normal, human, messy and beautiful – gee we’re such intelligent beings oriented towards connection!
We all also carry the responsibility to bring these into question. To at first acknowledge them, then to re-write them. We must do this for ourselves, to free ourselves from stories that are not ours to carry. We must also do this for our human family, to re-write and re-weave a cultural narrative that is more nourishing to the wholeness of who we are.
In doing this we not only get to experience the lightness in our own lifetime, the hope is that we pass the baton to the generations to come having done what we knew we must. Of course, we will always gift some ’stuff’ to the next generation to work through – it’d be boring without it, wouldn’t it? But, let’s hope we can pass them something that has been at least acknowledged and brought to light.
Doing the work.
I don’t have answers, but I will share some ideas, some perspectives from experience. Know that even having read this far into this piece is – in my opinion – the work itself. The work of peeling back the layers, being curious about the basis on which we are crafting our own lives, and our lives together.
These patterns are no one’s fault. They are fate. I have spent many hours sitting in the heaviness of believing that “I made a mistake,” and therefore feeling shameful or condemning myself. I’ve also spent just about an equal amount of time blaming others, and carrying a sense of being small, disempowered or taken out of the driver’s seat in my life.
It’s not your fault and it’s not anybody else’s. It’s fate, and it’s a gift to know this.
From this place of compassion, we can then start to be curious about what it is we are holding. This might be through a self-reflective practice, working with a therapist, or any number of self-inquiry practices.
With the knowing that this is not yours or anybody else’s fault, what is here?
We don’t know what we don’t know, and so working with somebody or crafting relationships of accountability is crucial here. Someone who has permission to ‘call you in’ (not ‘out’) and hold you accountable to this curiousity is a great gift for this.
Yes, again! As things arise and as we start to uncover the many ways in which we have been touched by stories that are not ours, it is easy to take it personally. I was always told,
“take things seriously, but not personally.”
As in any meditation, and this is why a meditation practice is so brilliant in cultivating these mental states; acknowledge all that arises whole-heartedly, but hold it lightly – not too close.
It takes courage to even begin this journey home, but of course if nothing changes, nothing changes. Here is where we are required to listen to a good dose of Brenè Brown, acknowledge where our comfort is, then play with the edge.
This might mean having conversations that need to be had, consciously crafting new habits, working with that psychotherapist or seeking support when you need along the way.
The courage to take the work beyond the knowing, and into the doing. Then comes the great un-becoming and re-becoming.
Often on the other side of comfort, once we have danced with courage, is often a deeper sense of connection. This may be with ourselves as we know ourselves to be truly, or with others as we’ve leant into deeper intimacy and vulnerability.
Once we’ve met what is no longer ours to hold, let it move through and taken the courageous leap into what might be on the other side a new sense of what it means to be our true selves emerges.
A deeper knowing, a stronger foundation of beliefs and frameworks that you’ve chosen!
This can be a lot to acknowledge and sit with. Yes, it can feel like a never-ending rabbit hole. This is why compassion is so important.
We’re always balancing the great paradoxes right. The notion that “there is always more work to do,” and the one that says “there is nothing to be done.”
So tread lightly, don’t take it personally but take it seriously. It’s not a reflection of you, none of this is actually YOU. We are uncovering that bit by bit, again.
If we are to evolve as a species to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we must do this work. If we are to experience a life of TRUE freedom, free from stories that are not ours to carry, we must do this work. If we are to gift the generations to come with at least stories that have been acknowledged and brought to light, we must walk this path.
What resonated with you in this piece? What’s still ringing inside you and stuck in some way? Let me know, as well as any thoughts or comments on the topic!
Also published on Medium.