Mark Wolynn is the author of the fascinating new book It Didn't Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. As director of the Family Constellation Institute and the Hellinger Institute of Northern California, he specializes in working with depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, fears, panic disorders, self-injury, chronic pain and persistent symptoms and conditions.
Wolynn, who is also a published poet, lectures and leads workshops at medical and teaching centers as diverse as the University of Pittsburgh, the Western Psychiatric Institute, Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, New York Open Center, Omega Institute and California Institute of Integral Studies. He talked to me about the mystery of inherited trauma, and the innovative tools he uses to help people heal from psychological pain that did not start with them.
Mark Matousek: Many of your readers will be surprised to learn that trauma can be inherited from relatives we’ve never met.
Mark Wolynn: Many of us walk around with trauma symptoms we can’t explain. Whether sudden onset or chronic, we have anxieties, depressions or obsessive thoughts we’ve never gotten to the bottom of. We never think to connect our personal issue to what’s happened to our parents or grandparents. We’re now learning that traumas experienced by previous generations can be biologically inherited and I think that’s surprising for many people.
It’s typically traumas that have been ignored or have never been resolved that create problems. The ones no one talks about. The good news is that once we make these links, we can then break the cycle. The bad news is, if we don’t make the links, we move forward with something we never quite get to the source of.
MM: How can people know if the trauma they are experiencing is inherited? What are some of the signs?
MW: One of the most obvious signs is that we can experience a sudden onset of anxiety or fear when we hit a certain age or reach a certain milestone. It’s as though there’s an ancestral alarm clock inside us that starts ringing. For example, I once worked with a woman who became consumed with anxiety as soon as she became a mother. She didn’t have anxiety before that, but as a new mother, she did. When I asked her some of the questions I outline in my book, she told me that she carried a terrible fear of harming her baby.
I asked her if anyone in her family had ever harmed a baby and after giving this some thought, she said, “When my grandmother was a young mother, she lit a candle that caught the curtains on fire. The fire spread throughout the house, she couldn’t get her newborn out and the baby died. Our family has never been allowed to talk about it.” And in that moment, she made the link that she had inherited her grandmother’s experience in her body, allowing us to take the steps to help her heal.
There are also cases where we are born with inherited traumas. We might have a life-long depression that feels like ours but isn’t ours. We never think to unpack it. We never think to separate it from us. Biologically, when trauma takes place in a family, it can affect the genes for generations.
MM: How do we begin to break the cycle?
MW: First, we make the link connecting our issue to its root—often to a trauma in our family history. Next, we need to have an experience powerful enough to override the old trauma response that lives in so many of us. Then we practice the new feelings of this experience. The idea is to steal traction away from the highly efficient trauma cycle that keeps us in a state of suffering, and engage other areas of the brain. In the book, I teach how to do this in a new way—so that new neural pathways get laid down in the brain, so our brains can change.
MM: I’m interested in the issue of inherited stories. Do you work with the narrative people tell themselves about who they come from, who they are, and what they can expect for themselves?
MW: I listen for the story beneath the story using my Core Language Approach. The emotionally charged words people use to describe their fears and symptoms are like a breadcrumb trail that can lead us back to traumatic events in their family history. I once worked with a twenty-four-year-old woman who cut her arms, legs, and abdomen so deeply she’d often have to be rushed to the hospital because she’d lose enormous amounts of blood.
I asked her what she thought about right before she cut and she said, “I deserve to die.” I’m looking at this young woman, whose life has just begun and wondering what she could have done to feel that way. I asked her if she had hurt someone or if she left someone and he committed suicide. She said, “Nothing like that.” But I recognized two stories: both a woman injuring herself and a woman who felt she deserved to die.
Her childhood and her relationship with her parents seemed to be happy and uneventful. Then we dug deeper into the family story. Her grandparents on her father’s side were in a car and grandma—an alcoholic—was driving drunk with grandpa in the passenger seat. Grandma hit a telephone pole and grandpa went through the windshield. He was lacerated from the glass and bled out before an ambulance could arrive. In the moment of her telling me that story, the link was understandable. She’d connected to her grandfather through the cutting and bleeding. At the same time, she appeared to be punishing herself for what her grandmother had done. It was the grandmother who felt that she deserved to die.
That was family history no one would talk about. Her dad was only twelve when the accident happened. He never forgave his mother who continued drinking and was dead by the time he was twenty. My client couldn’t talk to her father about the story so it became something she acted out both viscerally and physically through her language and actions.
MM: And once she made that connection, did the trauma shift?
MW: Yes, she stopped cutting. I actually asked her to bring her father into the session and I had her sit to the side and watch me work with him. He was able to access the emotions that had been missing for him, love for his father and his mother and come to a place of understanding. This only happened when we were able to talk through the history that set up his mother’s alcoholism.
Often, it’s a traumatic event that stands in the way of our relationship with our parents. Instead of feeling that what they did to us was personal, we can look at their history, and see the traumas that explain why they may have been distant or drank or were cold towards us.
MM: It seems to me that as we make these links with our parents and our grandparents, it increases our compassion for them in the process. Is that your experience?
MW: That’s exactly right. If we can make the link and then look at the trauma that affected their behavior, we gain an understanding, and that leads us to compassion. Compassion widens that lens to give us that connection or peace we’ve been missing.
MM: But compassion is different than rationalization. If a blind man steps on your foot it still hurts, so understanding where our parents were coming from doesn’t mean denying our own pain.
MW: No, it doesn’t deny pain or excuse the behavior, but in the new understanding, we get to the point of being able to say, “It wasn’t personal.”
MM: How do you get into the embodied experience of recognizing the pain in trauma and releasing it?
MW: I use a number of tools. I’ll tell you a story about a 60-year-old woman old with a lifetime of depression who moved from having a closed heart to deep compassion in only one session. She’d been married multiple times and left a mess of broken relationships around her. When I asked her what happened in her family, she told me the story she knew quite well.
Her mother had a baby a year before she was born. While breastfeeding, her mother fell asleep, rolled over and suffocated the baby. Unable to cope with the trauma, her mother and father decided to have another baby right away, and quickly got pregnant to ease their pain. That trauma, however, deeply affected the new pregnancy. Her mother probably felt like a horrible person who didn’t deserve to be a mother. She probably also carried an unconscious fear of harming or even killing the new baby.
So my client is gestating in the womb of a mother who was conflicted between wanting her and being afraid she would hurt her. These elements would have affected the mother’s ability to attune to the baby inside her, which created a break in the bond between my client and her mother. As a result, my client never had a good relationship with her mother, describing her as cold, aloof, and distant.
And that’s the way it stayed for 60 years, until I had her stand on a pair of foam rubber footprints as her mother whose name was Evelyn. I said, “Evelyn, you have your daughter here sitting in the chair in front of you.” Then I reached over and put a pair of very small baby footprints on the floor, and all Evelyn could do was stare down at the baby’s footprints. “Evelyn,” I said, “Can you see your daughter in the chair?”
She said, “No, I can’t.” In that moment, my client had a visceral experience of feeling what her mother must have felt. “I can’t see my daughter, all I can see is that baby and I feel so horrible and guilty.” As soon as she stepped off the footprints, she grabbed her purse and started running out of the office. “Where are you going?” I asked. “I have to get home,” she said. My mother’s eighty-five-years-old. There’s not a lot of time left and I never told her ‘I love you.’”
MM: That’s powerful —
MW: The client, standing there as her mother, could finally feel that it was never personal. Her mother’s full attention had been consumed by the guilt and grief of accidentally killing her baby. So of course, feeling her mother as cold, aloof and distant would be my client’s experience. Her new understanding spawned her compassion. It didn’t deny her pain but it gave her a context for understanding it and then a deeper context for finding feelings she had never unearthed. That created both her desire to be loved by her mother and her desire to love her mother.
MM: So you break the chain and sequence of events, and you break the bondage to that past trauma.
MW: Correct. My desire when somebody walks into my office or the workshop I’m leading is to get them out of the trance of the story they’ve been carrying—often for a very long time. But in the trance of our story, we haven’t gone to the deepest layers. The deeper layers are when we can see what happened behind the behavior of our parents and other family members. When we can go into their story, we can see that the image that we’ve been holding onto is incomplete because an essential piece of the truth has been missing. It’s not that our mother didn’t love us, it’s that our mother couldn’t love us. It’s not that our father didn’t want us, it’s that he couldn’t be present.
Again, widening the lens shows us that the images we carry can be self-limiting. These images actually create a blueprint for how our life will continue. They’re very effective, because we get more of what we believe we’re going to get. But when we can start to look in a deeper way, we see that traumas are stories we need to explore. What we reject in our parents can resurface in us, in our lives. So if anything can immunize us from repeating the patterns of the past, it’s healing our relationship with them.
MM: And if they’re dead, we can still heal that relationship?
MW: Yes, and I describe in my book how we can heal with our parents when they’ve passed away. There are many tools to do this. Lighting a candle, placing a photo behind the bed and saying a certain sentence. Having a conversation, hearing a conversation. In fact, some of the new science now tells us when we visualize an action or a conversation, the same regions of the brain, the same neurons, become activated as though we’re actually living it.
MM: And what does a person do if he or she doesn’t know anything about the biological parents, doesn’t know the family stories, yet has inherited certain traumas?
MW: That’s a good question. The trauma story lives in our body language and in our verbal language. In my book, I teach clients to become detectives of their family history and how to construct a Core Language Map. I ask certain questions in a certain way, and when we connect enough of the dots, a story will come into view. So even if we haven’t heard the story, we can pretty much surmise what happened. If some behavior isn’t locatable in our early childhood or in the stories we know, it probably relates to a story that lives in our family history. I always find that if we ignore the past, it can come back to haunt us. If we explore it, we don’t have to repeat it. We can break these destructive patterns.