Psychoanalysis is often about turning our ghosts into ancestors, even for patients who have not lost loved ones to death. We are often haunted by important relationships from the past that influence us unconsciously in the present. As we work them through, they go from haunting us to becoming simply part of our history.
~Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science
I spoke on a panel once with a famous new age author/guru in leather pants and she said that the problem with women is that we don’t “speak from our power,” but from a place of victimization. As if the traumas forced upon us could be shaken off with a steady voice- as if we had actual power to speak from.
~Jessica Valenti, Sex Object
Welcome to my new educational essay series On Ancestral Trauma & Internalized Misogyny. Over the next four weeks I’ll be talking about Ancestral, Inter-generational, and Cultural Relational trauma and their various intersections. It is a chance for us to explore how the past – both recent and millennia old – impacts us today, specifically how trauma has been passed on through the generations, particularly mother to daughter, and become curious about how we can begin to process and dislodge these generations old traumas and woundings.
First I believe it is important to start with defining what exactly I am talking about. These are my own definitions, and while there are other therapists who would agree with these definitions and who use this same language, others may re-categorize and re-name the different types of trauma. I don’t think there is only one way to define these things, however so that we are on the same page, so to speak, I will share the definitions of the terms I will be using, as I use and define them.
Even though other therapists, psychologists, and psychological researchers may use different terminology it is universally agreed that there are traumas that come from our ancestral past, those of our own personal lived experience, and those that are from the culture we live in. This series will be focusing on all three, from a historical perspective. You’ll begin to understand what I mean over the next few weeks.
I define Ancestral Trauma as the biological trauma passed down to us from our blood relatives. This shows up in our DNA and cellular memory. The field of epigenetics broke ground in the reality that trauma is literally passed down through our bloodlines. It has been found that both DNA contributors – as in both the egg and the sperm – can pass on DNA “trauma markers”. It is currently unknown how far back (or rather how far forward) these markers are passed. Current research has only been able to look at three generations worth of data. However my own suspicions (and I’m not alone in these) is that these markers go back as far as any unprocessed was first experienced, so in theory this could literally go back thousands of years.
It is important to note that these trauma markers or “mutable” or changeable – in other words when we process our own traumas and those of our ancestors, these markers “switch off” and then are not available to pass on to the next generations genetically.
This is the trauma that is passed on through our family of origin (so for those who are adopted, this is what has been passed on to you by your adopted family as opposed to those in your direct bloodline). This type of trauma is inflicted through action, inaction, and language. There are certain family “habits” or idiosyncrasies that we can see “passed down.” For example, both my sister and I have our mother’s laugh. We also both tend to have her drunken sailor’s mouth.
Not all things passed on inter-generationally are traumatic.
However, we can also look at child abuse as an inter-generational trauma, as more often then not if a parent physically abuses their own children they were also abused as a child. Neglect is the same way. This of course is not always true – which is to say it is possible to also break this cycle of trauma.
We can begin to see these sorts of idiosyncrasies, be they traumatic or relatively benign, when we look at our family trees and see where divorce, known abuse, child loss, early death, etc show up. Also examining our own actual language – the words we use and the the words we don’t – to see different ways this is passed on.
The key to inter-generational trauma, is that while it is part of our lived experience (for example abuse), it is also not originally or wholly ours, which is an important aspect to remember.
Cultural Relational Trauma (CRT)
This trauma is what in inflicted on us by our culture, or in our meta-socialization. It is how our culture encourages us to “Other” those who are not exactly like us. I believe this is where racism, misogyny, ablism, homophobia, classism, etc all stems from. In some ways CRT is from our families of origin also, however the messages come from beyond those who cared (or were supposed to care) for us. It is the messages we receive from the media, from our neighbors, from our religion, from our laws. It is a more wide spread, and therefore more insidious, message that we internalize.
This trauma is also something of our lived experience, but also not ours. It can be unraveled and dislodged, just as lived experience and ancestral traumas can be processed and moved out of our bodies.
This, in a nutshell, is our hatred of women as women ourselves. Men can be misogynists, but they can’t have internalized misogyny. When we internalize the messaging of our culture and or family of origin, it is messages about ourselves that we are internalizing.
Internalized misogyny shows up in the ways we judge other women and also the way, as women, we judge ourselves. It is the holding ourselves and others to essentially mythological beauty standards presented by our culture. It is the way we judge other mothers and their parenting, and yet do not offer support for mothers to be “better” parents. It is the way we shame other women, and ourselves, for being too much this and not enough that.
Internalized misogyny is the way we unconsciously do the dirty work of our culture – it is how we are complicit in and how we perpetuate the subjugation of women. It is also part of our ancestral and inter-generational trauma, as well as our cultural relational trauma.
It too is learned, and I firmly believe what can be learned can also be unlearned.
All of these different traumas influence and impact us. Sometimes consciously and mostly unconsciously. These traumas are part of our “Shadow Self” and when we bring them into the light, examine them, and begin to understand them, we are able to then begin to make conscious choices about not passing them on to future generations.
I talk more about all of this in the 10-minute video below.
This essay is the first in a four part series I have written exploring ancestral, inter-generational, and cultural relational traumas and internalized misogyny. I hope you find it helpful and informative.
This essay series is also to introduce the themes we will be exploring in the spring circle I facilitate: Unleashing Ourselves: Processing Ancestral Trauma & Dislodging Internalized Misogyny. We begin April 1. You can learn more here.
To read the other essays in the series, go to the links below
Defining Ancestral & Intergenerational Traumas and Internalized Misogyny (this essay)