“Whatever we have taken from them, the founding story of our lives, imposed on us by a mother and father who in turn inherited a faulty script from their own parents, isn’t even ours.” – Derren Brown in Happy
There is an element of your shame that is not yours. It was drip-fed down through the lines across time and space and centuries until it landed in your psyche, to be owned and healed so that it does not continue to travel down the pathways of psychological inheritance. You can see this as a burden – why me? – or you can embrace it as one of the gifts of the highly sensitives, for it is into the vessel-heart of the most sensitive child in a family constellation that the scripts and stories are most likely to be poured. What we inherit can, indeed, be experienced as a burden until we recognize that embedded inside the inheritance is the gold of learning and becoming.
Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung intuited what intergenerational trauma workers and the field of epigenitics is now discovering decades ago when he wrote, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parent.”. (If you’re a parent, please read the footnote at the end of the article.) As children and now adults we carry on the legacy of certain stories, unresolved trauma, and patterns that were left unlived and unattended in our ancestral lineage. As very young people, we agree to unconscious contracts, often pre-verbally, that silently say things to our parents like, “I will be the receptacle for your pain. I will take responsibility for your unhappiness.”
This is especially true between same-sex parent-child dyads: between father and son and mother and daughter. Birth order also affects the degree to which the child absorbs the unlived lives and unresolved pain of their parent; the firstborn will almost always shoulder more of the burden, or if you are the only sex amongst your siblings you will likely carry the lion’s share of your same-sex parent’s unresolved pain and trauma.
The shame and guilt stories that are passed down unconsciously, pumped through the umbilical cord or transferred through the arteries of silent withdrawal, can sound like:
Core guilt: It’s always my fault.
Core shame: I’m deficient, wrong, or broken and I’ll never be good enough.
Core experience: I AM my mother’s/father’s pain.
At some point in the healing journey, you begin to realize that there is an aspect of your pain that is not yours, that the shame you wear like an extra skin can be peeled off and handed back to the rightful owner. At some point, you come to awareness that the “icky” feeling that accompanies shame is your mother’s ick that she absorbed from her mother and her mother the same, back through countless generations until it circle back around, lands in your pores and becomes a part of you. Dani Shapiro describes this beautifully in her book, Devotion, as she writes about a series of therapy sessions she had with her mother to try to repair their very painful and fractured relationship:
“It wasn’t long before he [the therapist] took my side. I hadn’t anticipated this. I know they’re not supposed to take sides, but he did. Irene, you’re not listening to Dani. Excuse me. Excuse me, Irene. Irene! Rather than feeling vindicated, I felt guilty. It seemed cruel, and my fault, somehow. My relationship with my mother had always brought into question any sense I had about myself as a good and decent person. Surely I was poisoning the psychiatrist.”
I am responsible for my mother’s well-being. If she’s in pain, it’s my fault. Her badness becomes my badness, and when I’m in her presence I lose all sense that I am a good person.
Mother’s unclaimed shame projects onto daughter until she believes, especially in her mother’s presence, in her fundamental badness. If we could see this visually depicted we might see the mother’s shame like a character – almost like a second soul – that floats across the room and lands in the daughter’s body. It’s the poltergeist of shame transference, absorbed over time until it feels like it’s a part of you.
Except that it’s not a part of you. When you begin to see that it’s not yours, you can hand it back, even if the person who projected it onto you is no longer living or in your life. Because these contracts and agreements live in the subtle layers, in the fascia of skin and psyche, they’re best released imaginally and through ritual. If you’re ready to release the legacy of an intergenerational story that isn’t yours…
This contract like a scroll inscribed with the soul agreements, faint like hieroglyphics, written in an ancient tongue long before you were born.
Imagine, that you can lay this scroll down now in the field between the two of you – whoever it is that you’ve absorbed.
Imagine the place where you will send it – into water or soil, sun or moon, trees or caves – is some sacred place where the wild grasses will overgrow or sea creature will make it their home.
Imagine that you can send your grief there, too: the grief of the child who still longs for a parent who can meet your pain and hold you through it. There is room in this sacred site for your tears, the river of tears you’ve shed for the one who transferred their burden onto you. You can release it now. It’s time to let it go.
Note: If you’re a parent reading this, please know that it is not humanly possible to be fully resolved and healed before you have children. I have come to the conclusion that this must be part of the plan: we can take responsibility and heal as much as we can before we have children but they will also carry some of our unlived life and our unresolved pain. If it was meant to be otherwise, we wouldn’t have children until we were fifty years old, and even then we would still be doing our inner work!
This hit home. Especially the part about trying to heal before having children.
I’ve definitely been anxious about having kids because I feel like I need to be completely healed before we do so I don’t pass on the generations of anxiety I have within me. It terrifies me to pass on anxiety like it’s not fair to my children because I know how hard it is for me.
My husband is ready but I didn’t know if I’ll ever be healed in time. This definitely helps although I still feel badly about passing it on. I don’t want to wait forever either and know I can’t be completely healed in a year or two (even though I’d like to be!)
You will likely pass on some of it but you’ll also model what it looks like to meet it with compassion and be on a healing path. Some of the greatest learning for my sons has been around seeing my husband and I work through our stuck places.
In work that I am currently doing to understand my own story I have recently come to see that, for a very long time, I was carrying on my father’s struggles as my own. I appreciate reading this article and seeing the universality of this. I had seen it in Christian scripture’s references to “the Sins of the father” being passed generation to generation.
Yes, what we see clearly we can lay down. I hope you’ve been able to lay down some of your father’s struggles.
I feel a lot of remorse about the emotional damage I caused my children when I was so young and un-conscious. But each generation is responsible for healing itself. We live in an imperfect world. Still, it’s hard to let go of the regret when you’re conscious enough to see the truth, but not quite conscious enough to make complete peace with it. Getting there though.
One of the most healing things we can do as parents is to express remorse, apologize, allow our children to express their hurt and anger, and ask for forgiveness. We’re not meant to be perfect parents; that’s impossible. We’re meant to keep growing as best we can and modeling what it looks like to mess up and make amends (again and again).
I want to echo this. I am one of those children you mention – my Mom passed on a lot of her pain to us (and me, the oldest sensitive daughter). When she apologized, something really did shift between us, it was the beginning of the repair, not just between us but within the broader family constellation. That acknowledgement on her part, acceptance of having done damage, and being able to speak openly about what happened made such a difference and helped me shift from resentment to compassion for her. I highly suggest apologizing!
Beautiful to hear, Jen. Thank you so much for sharing.
Is it the most sensitive child who gets to have the burden of healing the intergenerational trauma, or is it the most conscious child? Because my (older) sister is very sensitive, in the sense that she suffers mentally/psychologically/emotionally, but she does not seem to be conscious of the bigger picture of inter generational trauma and family dynamics and spirituality (the way I do). She is more adapt to the mainstream idea of “I’m just broken”. I’ve often wondered why there is this difference between us.
Great question. I would say it’s the most sensitive and perhaps also the most conscious. And sometimes (quite often, actually) we can’t answer the mysterious ways the universe works, especially in the realm of psychology and healing :).
Hi Ceci/Sheryl, having had a very emotionally traumatic early childhood due to my mother’s own – unacknowledged and unresolved – wounds, I can say that for me an apology or a sense of remorse would have gone such a long way towards helping me find peace/closure. When I say unacknowledged I mean that my mother in much later years has given me some glimpses into her own childhood and what could only have been a very traumatic experience for her yet she doesn’t see how this impacted her behaviour at all and in fact only disclosed these things in the sense of ‘shit happens, get over it’ after reading about other people’s experiences in the newspaper. However, what I have always struggled with is her inability to take ownership for her behaviour in my early years – my mother has never apologised for it and in fact it is a taboo subject within our family. Any attempts to discuss our childhoods with her has been met with defensiveness and accusations of “children only remember the bad things” i.e. we are ungrateful. In fact, on an intellectual level I often try to remember the good things that my mother did for me during my childhood particularly in the latter half of it when her emotional/mental health improved (or at least when she stopped lashing out) Through therapy and learning about Attachment Theory I have been able to make the connection between my relationship anxiety and my relationship with my mother. I have also had to accept that my mother will never accept responsibility for her behaviour back then. I guess my point Ceci is that if you have expressed remorse and apologised to your children then that is worth more than gold – as Sheryl says, no parent is perfect. Sending you lots of peace xx
Beautiful, compassionate, and wise response, Bernadette. Thank you.
I’ll share a dream I had last night. I was just thinking, even before seeing your article, that it is related to with a dimension of me symbolized by my mother that I am in time to let go.
I share because the metaphors can bring some insight for other people about this topic and its process.
And if anyone would like to share their insights, I welcome.
“Last night I dreamed about my mother leaving on a bus.
She was going to a station from where she would travel to a distant place where she would stay for good. It was the last time I was seeing her. I was to say goodbye at the bus stop but I was so sad that in the last minute I decided to take the bus till the station, because I needed to stay the longer I could with her, with her love and affection. Somehow I felt guilty for letting her leave.
Inside the bus, I didn’t have a ticket and I was worried the ticket man would enter the bus, check on me and give me a fine (as really happened a few weeks ago with me). But I only had a 50 euro note. And I was’t sure the ticket machine would give me the change, but anyway I put it in the machine to only after try to read the instruction to see if I would receive the change.
Then I listened to the should of coins falling. The macine gave me the change, all in coins of 1 euro and less, and I realized it wasn’t the full change, just part of it. I felt that I had lost the value of my money, I felt cheated by the machine, it wasn’t fair. But there was nothing I could do at the moment, I couldn’t take care of it because I was in the middle of other thin (my mother leaving).
During all these procedure, instead of staying those last minutes close to my mother enjoying her presence, I was worried and afraid to receive a reprimand by the ticket men (by the way, the name of this person in Italy, where I live, is “controllore”, because “controllare” also means “to check”). In other word I was afraid of being caught at fault.”
It is a long path of recognizing what no longer serves me, that I can say “no, I don’t want this in my life”. But it is hard and it is sad, the dream tells it. I think it is even harder because all of it was given with so much love, from place of love and care.
Other dreams have preceded this one. However hard and sad, It seems I am in the way.
ArKH I’m really glad you shared this, I honestly haven’t been able to find anyone who kinda gets what I’ve been feeling like.
I’m my mothers only child and like you said, I love her to pieces and we were each other’s everything, but I get easily frustrated/annoyed with her and whenever I start feeling that way, its quickly followed by guilt. I often feel like a bad daughter and I’m gonna regret the times I felt any negative emotion towards her and wish that I spent more time with her
It’s probably unrealistic to expect parents, esp of my parents’ generation, to acknowledge their unconscious behavior. Most people are in denial for a reason; facing the truth would be devastating for them. Also, non-HSPs see the world differently. Group therapy is where I got the most healing. But I did start setting better boundaries with my mom towards the end of her life, and it worked!
You’re so right, Sheryl, about showing your kids how to mess up and make amends. Trying to be perfect is a real killer.
Make sure you read Bernadette’s response above! It’s beautifully wise.
This comes at a great time for me. My engagement has been one of the most difficult seasons of my life. My dad and I don’t see eye to eye on most things, and this has become even more apparent while discussing what sort of ceremony I would like to have. He expects me to follow certain religious traditions, and I don’t believe in them. After the conversation I felt disapproved of, rejected, and carried shame about who I am and what I believe, which has been a long-standing issue between us. My dad would like me to be a certain way, and that’s just not who I am, and I’ve always felt like my individuality isn’t honored or respected unless it fits within the boundaries of what he believes.
I’ve noticed that a lot of the guilt and shame was passed down to me from my mother, as well as the idea to put others before me in all scenarios, and if I don’t do this, I’m selfish and responsible for their pain. When I acknowledge their needs and feelings but the same respect isn’t extended to me, I can’t help but feel completely deflated and insignificant. Like a powerless child at the mercy of her parents, even at my age.
I’m seeing now that the wedding transition can be a power dance between an adult child (I’m 26) and a parent–where the child wants independence and equal respect, and the parent feels a sense of insecurity that their child is no longer under their wing. It’s a very painful process, and I feel that I will have to be the one to compromise–because they’re in pain and I’m responsible for it.
Except that you’re not responsible for their pain at all. If they were able to connect to their grief about letting go of their little girl that underlies their need to impose control it might be a softer experience for everyone. But I know that’s a tall order for most people. Much more on this in “The Conscious Bride.”
Yes, I agree completely. But I don’t think he’ll be able to do this, since he can’t see what’s so obvious to me and those on the outside: it’s a gesture of control since he feels he’s losing his influence. It’s been painful for me because my ideas and feelings haven’t been given consideration, and his take precedence. I’ll take a peek in the Conscious Bride and see what you have to say on it.
I’m so glad the post hit home, and thank you for sharing your struggles. They’re so common, so know that you’re not alone.
Love your posts every week. As a HSP, and late bloomer as a father I’ve been working on this issue and like you love the work coming out on epigenetics. It reminds me of what Malidoma Some says about how our ancestors are rooting for us to be able to heal the wounds that they couldn’t in life. I see so much of my stuff that was passed to me from my father, show up in my son that he never even experienced. What I find useful is at 14 years old, I can talk to my son about it and it helps us both heal.
I love this message from Malidoma Some so much, Steve. Thank you for sharing. There is great healing in the sharing, especially when they’re older. What a gift that he has you as his father.
This resonates so deep in me. I wasn’t aware it was still hidden inside. It was an issue when she was alive. Even did family constellations together with her. And it did bring some relieve, but it never was resolved. She said she was sorry too, but the trust had gone and I never really believed her. She was acting immature, selfish and irresponsible and I felt responsible for her. It often felt like I was the grownup and she was the child. I also felt responsible for her pain, her unhappiness (and her refuge to a mental health centre for a couple of months.)Very much so and I think it began in the womb or at a very young age. I think so because I often panicked without words. My stress was there, but I felt so helpless, so not capable of doing anything to help her. As if what was asked of me, couldn’t be asked because of my age. I was stuck in time. But from an adult point of view, if I had wanted it, I could have helped.
Your ritual helped me today. I was able to let go at least some of the pain, shame and guilt.
I am so grateful for that. Thank you so much Sheryl!♥️
Thank you for sharing your story, and I’m so glad the ritual helped. I encourage you to keep doing it, and stay open to other rituals that come to mind through your imagination.
Thank you for posting this. I have been reading this blog since my engagement, but always lurking in the background without posting anything.
My husband and I are experiencing infertility, and I have a strong suspicion that there is an emotional cause to it. On the outside, my relationship with my parents looks pretty good, but internally, it was such that for a long time, I didn’t even desire marriage or family of my own. I used to think, ‘if this is what family is, then no thanks!’
It wasn’t until I met my husband that family felt comfortable and appealing.
Now we want to have children, but my own childhood is lurking in the back of my mind. I fear that everything from my childhood is going to come back with vengeance, and that I am also going to create the same environment for our children that I was so uncomfortable with. I’m suspicious that this is a sort of emotional infertility, but I don’t know what to do about it.
These are completely normal fears to be struggling with on the conception journey. I encourage you to read through my friend and colleague’s site and contact her if you feel inspired to receive support from a therapist who specializes in the psychological components of conception: http://www.carriedinowcounseling.com