In It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, author and Director of The Family Constellation Institute, Mark Wolynn builds on the work of leading experts in post-traumatic stress, including Mount Sinai School of Medicine neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score.
It Didn’t Start with You offers a pragmatic and prescriptive guide to his method, the Core Language Approach. Diagnostic self-inventories provide a way to uncover the fears and anxieties conveyed through everyday words, behaviors, and physical symptoms. Techniques for developing a genogram or extended family tree create a map of experiences going back through the generations. And visualization, active imagination, and direct dialogue create pathways to reconnection, integration, and reclaiming life and health.
Unconsciously, we relive our mother’s anxiety. We repeat our father’s disappointments. We replicate the failed relationships of our parents and grandparents. Just as we inherit our eye color and blood type, we also inherit the residue from traumatic events that have taken place in our family. Illness, depression, anxiety, unhappy relationships, and financial challenges can all be forms of this unconscious inheritance.
Inherited Family Trauma
The latest scientific research, now making headlines, also tells us that the effects of trauma can pass from one generation to the next. This “bequest” is what’s known as inherited family trauma, and emerging evidence suggests that it is a very real phenomenon. Pain does not always dissolve on its own or diminish with time. Even if the person who suffered the original trauma has died, even if his or her story lies submerged in years of silence, fragments of life experience, memory, and body sensation can live on, as if reaching out from the past to find resolution in the minds and bodies of those living in the present.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past. —William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
When we try to resist feeling something painful, we often protract the very pain we’re trying to avoid. Doing so is a prescription for continued suffering. There’s also something about the action of searching that blocks us from what we seek. The constant looking outside of ourselves can keep us from knowing when we hit the target. Something valuable can be going on inside us, but if we’re not tuning in, we can miss it.
“The great teachers know. The truly great ones don’t care whether you believe in their teachings or not. They present a truth, then leave you with yourself to discover your own truth.”
The Importance of Language
In many ways, healing from trauma is akin to creating a poem. Both require the right timing, the right words, and the right image. When these elements align, something meaningful is set into motion that can be felt in the body. To heal, our pacing must be in tune. If we arrive too quickly at an image, it might not take root. If the words that comfort us arrive too early, we might not be ready to take them in. If the words aren’t precise, we might not hear them or resonate with them at all.
The core language approach
Using specific questions, I help people discover the root cause behind the physical and emotional symptoms that keep them mired. Uncovering the right language not only exposes the trauma, it also unveils the tools and images needed for healing. In using this method, I’ve witnessed deep-rooted patterns of depression, anxiety, and emptiness shift in a flash of insight.
The vehicle for this journey is language, the buried language of our worries and fears. It’s likely that this language has lived inside us our whole lives. It may have originated with our parents, or even generations ago with our great-grandparents. Our core language insists on being heard. When we follow where it leads and hear its story, it has the power to defuse our deepest fears.
Our core language insists on being heard. When we follow where it leads and hear its story, it has the power to defuse our deepest fears.
During a traumatic incident, our thought processes become scattered and disorganized in such a way that we no longer recognize the memories as belonging to the original event. Instead, fragments of memory, dispersed as images, body sensations, and words, are stored in our unconscious and can become activated later by anything even remotely reminiscent of the original experience. Once they are triggered, it is as if an invisible rewind button has been pressed, causing us to reenact aspects of the original trauma in our day-to-day lives. Unconsciously, we could find ourselves reacting to certain people, events, or situations in old, familiar ways that echo the past.
An Unexpected Family Inheritance
When those in our family have experienced unbearable traumas or have suffered with immense guilt or grief, the feelings can be overwhelming and can escalate beyond what they can manage or resolve. It’s human nature: when pain is too great, people tend to avoid it. Yet when we block the feelings, we unknowingly stunt the necessary healing process that can lead us to a natural release.
Sometimes pain submerges until it can find a pathway for expression or resolution. That expression is often found in the generations that follow and can resurface as symptoms that are difficult to explain.
The Family Body
The history you share with your family begins before you are even conceived. In your earliest biological form, as an unfertilized egg, you already share a cellular environment with your mother and grandmother. When your grandmother was five months pregnant with your mother, the precursor cell of the egg you developed from was already present in your mother’s ovaries.
This means that before your mother was even born, your mother, your grandmother, and the earliest traces of you were all in the same body—three generations sharing the same biological environment.1 This isn’t a new idea: embryology textbooks have told us as much for more than a century. Your inception can be similarly traced in your paternal line. The precursor cells of the sperm you developed from were present in your father when he was a fetus in his mother’s womb.
The Family Mind
To put it simply, we receive aspects of our grandmother’s mothering through our own mother. The traumas our grandmother endured, her pains and sorrows, her difficulties in her childhood or with our grandfather, the losses of those she loved who died early—these filter, to some degree, into the mothering she gave to our mother. If we look back another generation, the same would likely be true about the mothering our grandmother received.
The particulars of the events that shaped their lives may be obscured from our vision, but nevertheless, the impact of those particulars can be deeply felt. It’s not only what we inherit from our parents but also how they were parented that influences how we relate to a partner, how we relate to ourselves, and how we nurture our children. For better or worse, parents tend to pass on the parenting that they themselves received.
“These patterns appear to be hardwired into the brain, and begin to be formed before we’re even born. How our mother bonds with us in the womb is instrumental in the development of our neural circuitry.”
Most of us carry at least some residue from our family history. However, many intangibles also enter into the equation and can influence how deeply entrenched family traumas remain. These intangibles include self-awareness, the ability to self-soothe, and having a powerful internal healing experience.
The Core Language Approach
Core language helps us “declare” the memories that have gone “undeclared,” enabling us to piece together the events and experiences that could not be integrated or even remembered. When enough of these pieces are gathered in our consciousness, we begin to form a story that deepens our understanding of what might have happened to us or to our family members.
We begin to make sense of memories, emotions, and sensations that may have been haunting us our entire lives. Once we locate their origin in the past, in our trauma or in a family trauma, we can stop living them as though they belong in the present. And though not every fear, anxiety, or repetitive thought can be explained by a traumatic event in the family, certain experiences can be more fully understood when we decipher our core language.
The unconscious insists, repeats, and practically breaks down the door, to be heard.—Annie Rogers, The Unsayable
Declarative memory, also called explicit or narrative memory, is the ability to consciously recall facts or events. This type of memory depends on language to organize, categorize, and store information and experiences that will later become retrievable memories. It’s like a book we can pull off the shelf when we need to refer to a story from the past. When we can put events into words, we can recall them as a part of our history.
Nondeclarative memory, also called implicit, sensorimotor, or procedural memory, operates without conscious recall. It allows us to automatically retrieve what we’ve already learned without having to relearn the steps. When we ride a bicycle, for example, we don’t think about the sequence of events required to make it move forward. The memory of riding a bicycle is so ingrained in us that we just hop on and pedal without breaking the process down into steps. These kinds of memories are not always easy to describe in words.
Core language is even revealed in the way we’ve disconnected from our bodies, and from the core of ourselves. Essentially, it’s the fallout from trauma that has occurred in our early childhood or family history.
The Core Language Map
Unresolved traumas from our family history spill into successive generations, blending into our emotions, reactions, and choices in ways we never think to question. We assume these experiences originate with us. With their true source out of sight, we’re often unable to differentiate what is ours from what is not.
Following our core language map can bring us face-to-face with family members who live like ghosts, unseen and ignored. Some have been long buried. Some have been rejected or forgotten. Others have gone through ordeals so traumatic, it’s too painful to think about what they must have endured. Once we find them, they are set free and we are set free.
The Four Unconscious Themes
- We have merged with a parent.
- We have rejected a parent.
- We have experienced a break in the early bond with our mother.
- We have identified with a member of our family
1. Did You Merge with the Feelings, Behaviors, or Experience of a Parent?
When we merge with a parent, we unconsciously share an aspect, often a negative aspect, of that parent’s life experience. We repeat or relive certain situations or circumstances without making the very link that can set us free.
When a child takes on a parent’s burden—whether consciously or unconsciously—he or she misses out on the experience of being given to, and can have difficulty receiving from relationships later in life. A child who takes care of a parent often forges a lifelong pattern of overextension and creates a blueprint for habitually feeling overwhelmed. By attempting to share or carry our parent’s burden, we continue the family suffering and block the flow of life force that is available to us and to the generations that follow us.
2. Have You Judged, Blamed, Rejected, or Cut Yourself Off from a Parent?
Broken relationships often stem from painful events in our family history and can repeat for generations until we summon the courage to let go of our judging minds, open our constricted hearts, and regard our parents and other family members with the light of compassion. Only by doing so can we resolve the pain that prevents us from wholly embracing our lives.
When we reject our parents, we can’t see the ways in which we’re similar. The behaviors become disowned in us and are often projected onto the people around us. Conversely, we can attract friends, romantic partners, or business associates who display the very behaviors we reject, allowing us myriad opportunities to recognize and heal the dynamic.
Not only can a difficult relationship with our parents affect our physical health, our early relationship with our mother in particular can serve as a template from which our later relationships are forged.
3. Did You Experience an Interruption in the Early Bond with Your Mother?
If you’re estranged from your parents, or they are deceased, you may never know the answer to these questions, especially if you were very young when the break occurred. Early interruptions in general can be difficult to discern, because the brain is not equipped to retrieve our experiences in those first few years of life. The hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with forming, organizing, and storing memories, has not fully developed its connections to the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that helps us interpret our experiences) until sometime after the age of two.
As a result, the trauma of an early separation would be stored as fragments of physical sensations, images, and emotions, rather than as clear memories that can be pieced into a story. Without the story, the emotions and sensations can be difficult to understand.
“The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences, and Teflon for positive ones.” – neuropsychologist Rick Hanson
4. Are You Unconsciously Identified with a Member of Your Family System Other than Your Parents?
Sometimes, our relationship with our parents is strong and loving, yet we still find ourselves unable to explain the difficult feelings we carry. We often assume that the problem originates inside us, and if we only dig deep enough, we’ll discover its source. Until we uncover the actual triggering event in our family history, we can relive fears and feelings that don’t belong to us—unconscious fragments of a trauma—and we will think they’re ours.
Not all behaviors expressed by us actually originate from us. They can easily belong to family members who came before us. We can merely be carrying the feelings for them or sharing them.
Children who share their parents’ pain generally do so unconsciously. They operate from a blind fantasy that they can save their parents. Instinctively loyal, children often repeat their parents’ sorrows and relive their misfortunes.
There are four steps to constructing your core language map. In each step, you will be given a new tool. Each tool is designed to extract new information. The tools are:
- Your Core Complaint—the core language describing your deepest worry, struggle, or complaint
- Your Core Descriptors—the core language describing your parents
- Your Core Sentence—the core language describing your worst fear
- Your Core Trauma—the event or events in your family that sit behind your core language
The Core Complaint
When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate. —Carl Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self
Core Language as a Compass
Sometimes, the core language of our core complaint is so compelling, it forces us to excavate the family burial grounds for answers. Yet often the family history we seek isn’t readily available. Masked in shame, pushed away in pain, or protected in the form of a family secret, this information is unlikely to be talked about at the dinner table. Sometimes we know the traumatic history behind our issue. We just don’t always make the link to our present experiences.”
The core language of our core complaint can guide us like a compass through generations of unexplained family angst. There, a traumatic event may be waiting to be remembered and explored, so that it can finally be laid to rest.
History is written by the victors, penned by those who remain to tell it.
The emotional charge contained in your core descriptors can function like a barometer to gauge the healing that still needs to take place. Generally, the stronger the negative charge, the clearer the direction for healing. You are looking for words that contain a significant emotional charge.
. . . words, like Nature, half reveal And half conceal the Soul within. —Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H.
It is essential that we make peace with our parents. Doing so not only brings us inner peace, it also allows for harmony to spread into the generations that follow. By softening toward our parents and dropping the story that stands in the way, we are more likely to halt the senseless repetition of generational suffering.
The image you have of your parents can affect the quality of the life you live. The good news is that this inner image, once revealed, can change. You can’t change your parents, but you can change the way you hold them inside you.
The Core Sentence
The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for. —Joseph Campbell, Reflections on the Art of Living
If the core language map is a tool for locating buried treasure, the core sentence is the diamond you find when you get there. A core sentence often invokes feelings and sensations of fear. Just by speaking its words, we can observe a strong physical reaction in our bodies.
Core sentences are like traveling sentences, much like traveling salesmen who knock on door after door until someone lets them in. But the doors they solicit are the psyches of those who follow in a family system. And the invitation to enter is without conscious permission.
We appear to share an unconscious obligation to resolve the tragedies of our families’ past. In an unconscious attempt to heal the family pain, you might share your grandmother’s unresolved grief surrounding the death of her mother or husband or child. Her feeling of “I’ve lost everything” may live inside you as a fear that you too will lose everything.
The Core Trauma
Atrocities . . . refuse to be buried. . . . Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told.—Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
The Bridging Question
One way to get to the underlying trauma is to ask a bridging question. A bridging question can summon forward the family member from whom we have inherited our core sentence. Because our core sentence can originate in a past generation, locating the rightful owner can bring about peace and understanding, not only for us, but for our children as well.
A bridging question is a question that connects the present to the past. Excavating the feelings of your greatest fear can lead you to the person in your family system who had cause to feel the same way you do.
When you ask your bridging questions, you could confront a traumatic event in your family that has never been fully resolved. You could find yourself standing face-to-face with family members who suffered terribly. You could be carrying their fallout.
A genogram is a two-dimensional visual representation of a family tree.
A human being is a part of the whole . . . [though] he experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.—Albert Einstein to Robert S. Marcus, February 12, 1950
All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.