Your Family's Past is More Important Than You Think
Have you ever suspected that your ancestors were influencing your life in unexplainable ways?
That particular stories or behaviors didn't originate from you, but instead trickled down to you through generations?
I've often felt this way. Long before I started writing my memoir about family history, I wondered how the lives of past generations might be shaping my own.
When I was first diagnosed with depression, I looked to past generations for clues about where the mental illness had started. Obviously illnesses can be passed down through genetics. But what about less tangible things like memories, phobias and traumas? Recent studies have suggested that these, too, can be "inherited" from our ancestors.
I just read a fascinating book on the topic: It Didn't Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are, And How to End the Cycle. Author Mark Wolynn cites recent epigenetic studies to make a compelling case about the influence past generations have on our lives.
I asked Mark a few questions about his book and his work. His responses are italicized below.
Q&A with Author Mark Wolynn
How did you enter this field?
About twenty years ago, I began working with cases that couldn’t be explained in the context of my clients’ life experiences. I discovered that many people expressed deep elements of traumas that weren’t experienced by them directly. Instead, the traumas had originated with their parents or grandparents. One woman, for example, carried a feeling that she deserved to die, when she did nothing in her life to warrant feeling that way. When we pulled back the curtain and looked at her family history, we discovered that it was her grandmother—not her—who felt that she deserved to die for taking another’s life while driving drunk.
Have there been any new developments in epigenetics since you finished the book?
The newest studies are included in the paperback edition of my book, which will be released April 2017. In one such study published in 2016, Isabel Mansuy and her colleagues, from the Brain Institute at the University of Zurich, were able to show that trauma symptoms could be reversed when the mice experienced living in a positive, low-stress environment as adults. Not only did the mice’s behaviors improve, they also experienced changes in DNA methylation, which prevented symptoms from being transmitted to the next generation.
The process you’ve mapped out in your book places a special importance on language. Why is that such an intrinsic part of the healing process?
I’ve discovered that when a trauma happens, clues are left behind, clues in the form of emotionally charged words and sentences, clues that form a breadcrumb trail that, when we learn how to follow it, can lead us back to a traumatic event in our family history—traumas that we may have biologically inherited from our parents and grandparents. When we know how to uncover this unconscious trauma language—what I call core language—and link it to the original traumas, it’s like finding the missing piece of the puzzle that allows the whole picture to come into view, and gives us the context that explains why we feel the way we feel. In the book, I ask questions designed to pull out this unconscious language, and help the reader connect the dots in his or her family history.
How can people get to the root of family traumas that are shrouded in secrecy? What do you recommend to people who can’t get clear answers about their family’s past?
If we were adopted, or our parents are deceased, or they insist on keeping the events of the past tightly sealed, we can still extrapolate what occurred in our family history. We just need to explore our core language. The quality of that language, along with our idiosyncratic symptoms and the repeated traumas that occur in our life, can give us more than a glimpse of what might have happened in our family history. I’ve seen again and again how trauma is encrypted in our core language as well as in our unexplained symptoms. In the case I mentioned above, the woman who felt she deserved to die allowed her idiosyncratic language to lead her back to her grandmother’s trauma.
Do you have a stance on repressed memories or falsely-recovered memories?
I’ve seen a great harm come from false memory syndrome. If our parents’ trauma, as we’re now learning, can imprint the precursor egg and sperm cells we develop from, how can we know precisely from where our memories arise? We may carry a memory of trauma, but can we be absolutely certain that the trauma originated with us? We need to consider the possibility that the trauma may have originated with our parents or grandparents, and we’ve merely inherited the biological residue.
Get It Didn't Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are, And How to End the Cycle on Amazon, or read more about Mark's work and his upcoming workshops at Family Constellation Institute.
Have you experienced past generations influencing your own life, in good ways or bad? Share your story in the comments section.