“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!