Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


"My Ancestors Wore Chains": Navigating Ancestral Trauma

How do we acknowledge historical traumas in our work with clients?

Key points

  • Trauma that is passed down from generation to generation is known as "ancestral trauma."
  • Many therapy clients, especially people of color, may be unknowingly grappling with ancestral trauma.
  • Ancestral trauma can manifest as shame, guilt, or confusion.
  • Therapists should aim to be cognizant of ancestral trauma, be sensitive to how it may manifest in clients, and work to promote resilience.

For too long we have borne your chains without thinking of shaking them off, but any authority which is not founded on virtue and humanity, and which only tends to subject one's fellow man to slavery, must come to an end, and that end is yours. —Toussaint Louverture’s Letter to the General Assembly (1792)

As a therapist, when I hear statements from clients that are reminiscent of passed on ancestral trauma, I have to make space and take time to reflect and dig into the root of these comments. Most of the time, they are not clearly recognized by the client as an intergenerational trauma that has been passed on. Hardly anyone ever says, "Here is an ancestral trauma I am dealing with." Instead, these traumas are typically in the form of a message or story, a memory of brandishment, or a moment of shame.

For example, I will never forget when my father yelled at me: "S’ac nan pied-w Lyrica? Retire sa. Kounya." ("What’s on your foot, Lyrica? Take that off. Now.")

I was 9 years old and was wearing a brand new anklet I had purchased. My mom had told me that my Haitian dad might not like it, but I didn’t care. All my friends were wearing anklets and they looked incredibly cool to me.

My father saw this bracelet on my ankle and his reaction was worse than I imagined. It was the kind of yelling that attacks your spirit: “My ancestors had to wear chains on their feet. Do you understand what they went through? To be free? We are still fighting for this. My daughter will not wear chains on her feet. Retire’l.”

I spent a lot of time, in many communities, feeling like I wasn't "Black enough," "Haitian enough," or "white enough." But this experience with my father, albeit small, taught me that no matter how light I was or how much I straightened my hair that day, that I was Black and Haitian and my family’s ancestral trauma shaped aspects of my life.

I still wore the anklets when he wasn’t looking for a few years. But the trauma that ran through his voice hit me hard. To this day, when I see anklets, I’m reminded of the shackles I have heard about from history lessons and seen in museums and felt in my nightmares. Now, I don’t even think about buying or wearing them anymore.

This kind of trauma can continue to pass on for generations and generations. There is no way I can look at my child’s body and keep from telling them about the shackles in our ancestry. I am reminded of the disapproval of my father. Of the fighting of my ancestors. The experience is not gone because Black people are no longer forced into physical chain shackles. I am reminded of it when I experience mistreatment in white spaces and paces and when I see public lynchings on social media. These are lingering metaphorical shackles.

As therapists, it's important to consider this in our work with clients—and remember that we may have to search in psychotherapy sessions for these moments. As a clinician, I was not trained to hear these kinds of anecdotes around ancestral trauma. Few (if any) therapeutic modalities prepare clinicians for this.

In my practice, something that I think is no big deal may be ridden with scars for a Black or Brown client. As clinicians, we have to ask ourselves: Am I bypassing particular aspects of an ancestral or racial trauma? How do I create awareness for these passed-on stories that are still alive in patients? If the trauma impacts gene expression (epigenetics), then can resilience impact the expression of genes, too? How do we reframe this epigenetic trauma into an epigenetic resilience that allows our clients to rest easy?

Many people have historical traumas living within them, many of which have epigenetically impacted them. These traumas may appear in the vision people have of themselves, the dinner conversations they have, their style choices, and the way their DNA is expressed. Therapists have to be attuned to the historical traumas of our clients in order to guide healing towards resilience.

More from Lyrica Fils-Aimé LCSW-R, RPT-S
More from Psychology Today