Legacy Trauma; Not All Your Burdens Belong To You
“The very physiology of our nervous system is created in interactions with the nervous systems of other people from the moment that we’re conceived. Since the nervous system affects and is connected to every other organ in the body, it also happens on a biological level throughout the body, including all the cells and all the organs and all the systems, and so on. Therefore, it’s not even possible to talk about trauma purely in individual terms.”
-Gabor Maté, MD
Most people carry burdens from the past, but what if some burdens weren’t yours to begin with? What if some of them belonged to someone else who came before you in your generational line?
This brings me to the concept of Legacy Trauma:
Transmission of extreme feelings and beliefs between generations (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2020).
Examples of this include learned messaging such as “it is not safe to trust anyone”, or “we shouldn’t talk about anything vulnerable”. It could be a chronic feeling state such as ‘’I’ve always been anxious, my mom and grandmother were anxious too”, or a shared habit or behavior, “we always joke when we are scared” (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2020).
The origins of legacy trauma may go back multiple generations. If this is the case, legacy trauma can become disconnected from the original story. Yet the same feelings and beliefs may continue to be passed on from one generation to the next (Sinko, 2017). I think it is likely that we all have ancestors who have had to face difficult and traumatic circumstances in their lives (war, famine, severe abuse, systemic oppression etc.). It makes sense how such traumatic and difficult circumstances could have a profound effect on the person’s emotional, behavioral, cognitive, social, and physical functioning.
So how is it possible that something that happened a long time ago to someone else could still be affecting you today?
The concept of epigenetics may give us some answers regarding this. According to epigenetics research, it is the process by which trauma is transferred across generations through the genes of a traumatized person (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2020). It is possible that trauma can become a genetic modifier that is passed on and expressed behaviorally under triggering conditions (Bouse, 2021), however, often seems to be out of proportion to what is actually happening in the moment.
As an example, you may be feeling anxiety, fear, or other strong emotions which don’t make sense to you based on your lived experiences or personal beliefs. Since there might not be a personal story to attach to what you are experiencing, you may feel like the energy of the strong belief or feeling doesn’t belong to you. This may cause you to label yourself defective in some way – What is wrong with me? My life is going ok, why am I feeling this way?
Therapy through the Internal Family Systems (IFS) lens can be helpful in exploring whether some parts of you may carry legacy trauma from generations past.
Curious about your personal legacy trauma? You can start by asking yourself the following questions (Sinko, 2017):
Does the severity of my symptoms fit with my life experiences?
Do my symptoms make sense to me?
Do I feel like the energy belongs to me and me alone?
When did I start to believe this? (If the answer is “always”, keep an ear out for a legacy burden).
Find out more information about Trauma Therapy, including legacy trauma.
Bouse, K. (2021). Transgenerational Colonialism: Wounding, Healing and the Reconstruction of Collective and Personal Identity. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield.
Maté, G. (2020), Collective Trauma and Spirituality. Hübl, T. Healing Collective Trauma – a process for integrating our intergenerational and cultural wounds, 70. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc.
Schwartz, R. C. & Sweezy, M., et al. (2020). Internal Family Systems Therapy, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Sinko, A. (2017), Legacy Burdens. Sweezy, M. & Ziskind, E. Innovations and Elaborations in Internal Family Systems Therapy, 1st Edition. New York, NY: Routledge.