Family Deeds: How Constellation Therapy Treats Transgenerational Trauma

Kudryashka family tree silhouettes for constellation therapy blog postMaybe you’ve had this experience: you’re a child at the dinner table in your childhood home. One of your parents mentions the name of a relative—a father, a sister, a great aunt. The room goes silent and the subject is quickly changed. As Tolstoy famously wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I would add: “All families have secrets, but each secret is unique to that family.”

Family secrets most often involve a person who has shamed kin, or an event, like exile or deportation, abortion, or even murder. The silence surrounding the troubles can feel like safety, but the safety is illusory. What is hidden does not disappear. Through epigenetic research and a deeper psychological understanding of inherited trauma, we have come to understand that “the ghost or ghosts in the room” make their presence felt by presenting within the family as symptoms, physical, mental and spiritual. What is now known is that the pattern of silence and dissociation established at the onset of the original trauma can be passed on to future generations.

Transgenerational trauma is at the heart of my second novel, The Lie of Forgetting. At mid-life, my narrator’s world collapses, and she must piece together her own difficulties as they relate to the hidden trauma of a death in the family that has been forgotten, physically split off, for generations. I have also blogged about this here before in “The Things We Carry: How Our Ancestors’ Traumas May Influence Who We Are.”

In researching this subject, I became aware of the stunning work of family constellation therapist Nikki Mackay with patients suffering from inherited trauma and sought her counsel as a wise guide and tutor, not just as a writer but in my personal life as well.

I hope you will find her answers to my many questions as intriguing and enlightening as I did.

What is family and ancestral constellation therapy?

Who we are in the present moment is knowingly and unknowingly influenced by the energetic field of influence that flows through us from our family and ancestors. Their history lies coiled within us. The untold stories of our ancestors are in our blood.

Family and ancestral constellation is a therapeutic tool that allows the invisible influences from the present and past to be made visible, acknowledged and whole. It allows us as individuals to uncover the hidden historical narrative that we are unconsciously holding. It creates a space for us to bear witness and give place to the trauma before fully and freely moving forward with our own life. It is the key to unlocking the missing parts of who we are.

How would we know if we would benefit from working with a family constellation therapist?

Have you ever wondered why you choose the things you choose? Why you are drawn to the people that you love—even if some of your choices don’t always feel safe for you? We are constantly surrounded by a field of influence made up of not only our family and ancestors but also from the relationships and connections that we have created throughout our life

Oedipus and Antigone for constellation therapy blog postThat connection to the people that you have known and loved stays with you, the cost of the choices you have made stays with you and the influence of the family and ancestors that you come from stays with you. Their memories, the imprint of them, flows through your memories consciously and unconsciously.

That field of influence impacts our belonging and sense of self. It is the heaviness within our heart after a tricky day, it is the emptiness we can feel when we know that something just isn’t quite right, it is the fear that grips us when things change out of the blue and we aren’t in control. It is the unconscious belief that we are not enough.

How is family constellation work different from other forms of therapy?

By working with your own individual historical narrative, the untold or silenced stories that we are each unconsciously holding, you have the opportunity to disentangle the emotional trauma that you are unconsciously entangled with. To literally disentangle yourself from it and shift the influence of it outside of yourself. This therapy allows us to give place, and bear witness, to the trauma and also to liberate ourselves from it. To exist outside of it so that the inherited patterns don’t continue to repeat from one generation to the next.

Group family constellation therapy session for constellation therapy blog postIn setting up a constellation we each enter a version of “trauma time,” where within the created constellation past and present are not separate and we experience them as we are influenced by them. For example, you may wish to explore your relationship with a current partner and find yourself in the field of influence of your great-great-grandmother who is carrying the broken promise of a lost love from a different country.

Is it really true that unresolved, unacknowledged and traumatic events from the past can be unconsciously carried down from generation to generation?  

Yes, it is. In essence, constellation allows for the creation of an energetic map of all of the connections and loyalties, known and unknown, within the field of influence upon us where we can interact with and explore the entangled connections. It is based on the principle of the inter-connectedness of all things so that each person within a family, going back generation upon generation, has an equal place of belonging within that family. When someone in the family is excluded, or there is an event or entanglement that is not seen or acknowledged by the rest, then this has an effect on the family as a whole.

Please talk a bit about the evidence for that, how we know it.

Five generations of slaves for constellation therapy blog postTraumatic events exert a force long after our ancestors have died. Science has shown that trauma can be genetically passed down the generations. Recent research has shown evidence of epigenetic transgenerational transmission of trauma by looking, for example, at the inheritance of holocaust trauma, Native American genocide and trauma within current descendants of the American Civil War. Quantum mind and entangled memory research has also been exploring the use of language and the power of bearing witness and “seeing” an entanglement to begin the process of disentanglement. I am also working on research looking at the efficacy of constellation as a tool for understanding conflict with a view toward disentangling the historical narrative of the trauma from current, intractable, conflict situations.

Can you give an example of a case of someone who has been helped by constellation therapy?

Sharon was a client who had initially participated in a group session focusing on her career and dreams. Her circumstances were complex. Her family, going back several generations, were from Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands located between Britain and France. When we first started working together, she was living in the U.K. in London and was having issues in her working life as well as her relationship with her fiancé. Her relationship with her mother, who lived in the family home in Guernsey, was very close. Her mother’s health was beginning to deteriorate and Sharon made the decision to move back to the family home to care for her. She resigned from the job that she was unhappy in and felt positive about her choice.

However, as her mother’s health deteriorated, so did her relationship with her fiancé. When her mother had to be admitted to a hospice, her fiancé chose that moment to end the relationship. Shortly thereafter, Sharon’s mother passed away. Sharon became withdrawn and isolated in the months that followed. She found it difficult to leave the family home, which she had inherited, and could not contemplate leaving the island. At that point, she contacted me to arrange a series of individual sessions. The obvious place to begin was the exploration of Sharon’s grief around her mother’s death. Although this created a little breathing space for Sharon it became clear that there was more than grief influencing her present situation. When Sharon worked on the connection with her mother, she lost a sense of her own place and identity.

Five generations of Armenian women for constellation therapy blog postBringing in her grandmother and great-grandmother gave some relief to Sharon, particularly her great-grandmother; however, they too were held tightly within Sharon’s place. She had no awareness of herself, only them and the land in Guernsey. I asked Sharon if there had been any lost loves connected with her great-grandmother. She shared that her great-grandmother had been engaged before her marriage to Sharon’s great-grandfather but her fiancé, a young fisherman, had died at sea.

Part of Sharon’s great-grandmother had held on to the promise to wait on the land for him to return. This promise to “be the one who waits” had passed from one generation to the next. It had passed to Sharon and she had been unknowingly holding the promise along with the weight of the grief within the relationship promise between her and her fiancé. Her return to the Island and her mother’s death had triggered the inherited trauma within her and her own relationship. By uncovering and releasing the entanglement, Sharon was able to move forward freely with her life. She chose to stay on the island in the family home as her base but now regularly travels to London for work and has begun to date again.

Do you offer sessions online?  Do you also work with groups?  How does a group session differ from an individual session?

I have a large therapy practice focusing on individual sessions in person and online allowing me to work with clients globally. I also work with groups in Europe and the USA as well as sharing my knowledge with students through constellation learning and supervision.

The creation of a constellation needs to begin with the asking of a specific question. This question sets the intention that establishes the influent field upon the created constellation and the lens through which the constellation is experienced.  Then there is the initial placement of the represented loyalties and emotional entanglements relevant to the question, which creates an energetic “map.” This initial map can either be set up in your mind’s eye or physically created using mats or people in a group-represented constellation. The map you create within the constellation reflects your inner perception of the situation that you wish to explore. The process is the same however you choose to step into it.

References:

Epigenetic transmission of Holocaust Trauma: Can nightmares be inherited? By Natan P.F. Kellermann, AMCHA, Israel

Intergenerational Trauma: Understanding Natives’ Inherited Pain by Mary Annette Pember

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Trauma’s Lingering Effects and the Creative Self

Social alienation for Trauma blogpost

 

Trauma. The word is everywhere these days. And something has happened to it. Something like what happened to the word awesome, once used to describe a profound and reverential experience, one filled with terror, dread or awe. Awesome has become a colloquialism that pops up as both a descriptor, as in, “I just bought an awesome lipstick,” or simply as an exclamation—Awesome! Trauma has also taken a step down from its original connotation. This is not a blog about language, but it’s worth noting that trauma and awe denote significantly profound human experiences and are linked in meaning. The Greek origin of trauma means damage or wound. The Greek origin of awe is áchos, or “pain.”

I’ve written about personal trauma before (see “My Childhood Trauma: What I Learned, What You Need to Know”) and revisiting that experience led me to want to investigate the wider dimensions of trauma and how its impact can extend across generations (see “The Things We Carry: What Our Ancestors Didn’t Tell Us”). Studies on trauma have increased in recent years and researchers in a variety of disciplines are uncovering new evidence of the widespread presence of trauma in at-risk populations. Global events such as war, famine, migration, immigration, fire, flood, widespread disease and terrorism ambush some of us every day. An expanded view of trauma that respects the influence of cultural and historical circumstances on individual lives helps to clarify how vulnerable we are to these larger forces.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung, in his exploration the past’s influence on an individual wrote: “Just as psychological knowledge furthers our understanding of historical material, so, conversely, historical material can throw new light on individual psychological problems.” (The Collected Works, Vol. 5)

Odin or Wotan for trauma blogpostAs early as the beginning of the last century, Jung encouraged psychotherapists not only to study a patient’s personal biography but also to learn about the traditions and cultural influences, past and present, of the patient’s environment. Today we understand that trauma can be “inherited,” passed down through the generations, as if frozen in our psyches and/or bodies, repressed for centuries. Jung believed that repressed trauma or what he called “complexes” affect not only the individual but also the collective culture. He wrote: “…they exist (the archetypes) and function and are born anew with each generation.”

In his somewhat controversial essay, “Wotan,” written in 1936, Jung attempted to understand what was happening in Germany with the rise of Hitler, and the embrace by the populace of a militaristic, jingoistic, fascist leader. As Jung saw it, the god Wotan, or Odin, was an unconscious archetype that had been a latent potential in the German people and arose as a dominant force between the world wars. In Jung’s telling, Wotan-like energy, heroic and victorious, was embraced by the defeated Germans after the First World War – in slogans similar to “Make America Great Again.” Jung wrote: “He (Wotan) is the god of storm and frenzy, the unleasher of passions and the lust of battle; moreover he is a superlative magician and an artist in illusion who is versed in all secrets of an occult nature.”

Jung was discerning a culture possessed by a demon or god, the inherited and repressed inhabitant of the psyche. Repressed archetypes or psychic complexes are consciously forgotten but linger and influence our unconscious behavior. That is, while we may not be aware of certain tendencies within us, they nonetheless may direct our lives.

The Torture of Cuauhtémoc for trauma blogpostTrauma is often repressed. Patricia Michan, a Jungian psychoanalyst in Mexico City and founder of the C. G. Jung Mexican Center, has written and lectured on the inherited trauma she has discovered in some of her contemporary patients. In her essay, “Reiterative Disintegration” in Confronting Cultural Trauma: Jungian Approaches to Understanding and Healing, she writes,“…my focus here is the cultural trauma resulting from the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire by the forces of Hernán Cortés in 1521, through which the indigenous people were abused, subjugated, and plundered. The Spanish conquest left imprinted a deep cultural trauma.” Quoting the Jungian Luigi Zoja, she concludes with him that “the lacerating wounds have remained ‘petrified for centuries.’”

John Hill, a training analyst in Zurich, in his essay “Dreams Don’t Let You Forget” in the aforementioned book, advises “that we consider the devastation that can happen with trauma,” and become aware of “the vigilance that prevents the survivor from experiencing the world as a safe place, and the difficulty the traumatized person has in connecting with his or her true self.”

In working with our own psyches, we might consider the cultural, historic, as well as the personal aspects that contribute to trauma. By stepping back and evaluating whether the core wound has its origins in childhood or reaches further into the past and comes down as a legacy, we can widen our understanding of the suffering and increase the potential for reconciliation. A significant avenue of hope in healing the wounded part is in engaging our creative selves in the process of restoration and reintegration. Having a voice, speaking the unspoken, refusing to carry on the silence of generations moves us out of the place of victimhood and hungry ghosts.

Interviewed about Things We Lost in the Fire, her short story collection which is filled with both gorgeous prose and horrific horror, the Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez has said: “I think my fiction is very Argentinian. And in Argentina there’s something about bodies that is distinct. I spent my childhood in the dictatorship, and what they did with the bodies was to disappear them. This absence of the body is where my ghost stories come from…As much as I wanted to run away from that horror story, it’s in my DNA.”

In our current chaotic and frighteningly turbulent world where new traumas appear to lurk around every corner, might it not be wise to embrace preventive medicine: before trauma can lodge and incubate in our psyches, why not speak the unspoken now? Before repression chases the pain into a hiding place, let’s name what exists—paint it, dance it, sing it, write it, make a poem. There are limits to what can be accomplished through such acts, but the origins of change are mysterious.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



The Things We Carry: How Our Ancestors’ Traumas May Influence Who We Are

Mississippi Mound by John Egan for epigenetics post

 

What if your maverick blood sugar, your obstinate obesity, the asthma that has plagued you throughout your life, or the nightmares from which you wake numb and shaking, are not the result of your own lived experience, but are instead manifestations of hidden or unspoken traumas bequeathed from past generations? What if what happened to your great-grandparents has shaped who you are through a mix of external circumstances and epigenetic expression?

Darwin's finches for epigenetics postIn the old Darwinian understanding of genetic inheritance, evolution was thought to be a gradual process that occurred over eons as a species evolved to adapt to a changed environment. On his trip to the Galapagos Islands in 1835, Darwin observed several species of finches. He speculated that the birds probably originated from the same ancestor finch and wondered what could now account for the slight variation among the birds. He noticed that the beaks of the ground-dwelling nut eaters were uniquely suited for their predominant food source, nuts, while the tree-dwelling insect-eating finches had slightly different beaks. From this observation, he postulated that spontaneous mutation accounted for the difference in finch beaks and that a process of natural selection allowed for the mutant birds to thrive.

In The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance, Nessa Carey, a molecular biologist, writes that our understanding of DNA based on Mendelian and Darwinian principles, and the work of Watson and Crick, cannot sufficiently explain rapid changes in species that occur in a single generation. As she sees it, epigenetics is revolutionizing how we understand biology. Whenever two genetically identical individuals are non-identical in some way we can measure, epigenetics is at play.

Cave of the Painted Hands for epigenetics postTake, for example, identical twins who have the same DNA code. In childhood, they appear to be identical, but as they age and are subject to different environmental and emotional conditions, they may lose their look-alikeness and develop different physical characteristics and medical conditions. Let’s say both twins carry a genetic mutation that predisposes a person to get breast cancer. How do we explain only one twin getting the disease? If DNA were completely responsible for shaping a person, we would expect the twins to be identical in every way, including which heritable diseases they get. This isn’t what necessarily occurs. Epigenetics explains changes in gene activity and expression not dependent on our DNA sequence.

Epigenetics is one way to explain the connection between nature and nurture, or as Carey puts it, “how the environment talks to us and alters us, sometimes forever.” The process of epigenetics changes the chemical modifications surrounding and attaching to our genetic material that in turn changes the way genes are switched on or off without altering the genes themselves.

I was drawn to epigenetics while doing research on transgenerational trauma for my second novel which explores how the hidden or suppressed stories within a family line can shape future generations. In my own life, I couldn’t account for the dread that would sometimes descend on me for no apparent reason. It seemed to me there was something vaster, more amorphous and inexplicable at work than the usual psychological culprits. I needed to understand what it was. I began to wonder if the darkness I carried had its source in the suffering of unknown ancestors whose history of banishment and exile was in my blood.

Epigenetics offered some answers.

Dutch Hunger children for epigenetics postIn a landmark epidemiological study that investigated the effect of famine in pregnant Dutch women during The Hunger Winter, from November 1944 through the spring of 1945, researchers found that a mother’s starvation affected the birth weights of children who had been in the womb during that difficult period. The children of mothers who were malnourished during their first trimester had children with higher rates of obesity in later years. The traumatic stress in the wombs of the Dutch mothers during The Hunger Winter somehow transferred effects to the children, grandchildren and even the great-grandchildren of the original mothers.

In the relatively new field of behavioral epigenetics, Holocaust studies and research have studied the physiological and psychological effects of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other overwhelming emotional experiences such as occur from natural disasters, rape, the loss of a child, or an abusive home situation. Their findings have documented that trauma can affect the expression or suppression of certain genes, not only for the person involved but also for succeeding generations.

1849 slave embarkation canoe for epigenetics postIn a recent talk on NPR, the award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson raises the question of “ancestral memory” in the descendants of Africans slaves who crossed the Atlantic in slave ships under horrific conditions. Could the prevalence of high blood pressure among African-Americans today be an epigenetic response to the trauma experienced by the slaves who survived the voyage from Africa? Woodson speaks of her fear of swimming in large bodies of water, attributing this fear, which she shares with other African-Americans, to a set of behaviors loosely defined as “The Middle Passage Syndrome.”

What about the effects of familial shame, guilt, despair, rage, hopelessness? Can these be passed on to descendants? Evidence points to the affirmative. Silence, concealment, denial, dissociation are ways individuals and families cope with overwhelming experiences. Many of us are raised with the dictums: It’s water under the bridge. The past is the past. Don’t talk about it. Unfortunately, what is unthinkable or unmentionable does not disappear from our psyches. While the horror may be suppressed in the victim and even her offspring, third and fourth generations often feel “haunted” by something they can’t name. Nightmares, depression, anxiety, and somatic metaphors that stand for the initial trauma resurrect the historical suffering in new forms.

Everyone was hungry children's art for epigenetics postIn her book, The Ancestor Syndrome: Transgenerational Psychotherapy and the Hidden Links in the Family Tree, French psychotherapist Anne Ancelin Schützenberger describes a patient she calls “the butterfly chaser.” The case offers a fascinating instance of how ancestral traumas can influence and shape an individual who has no knowledge of them:

“The patient was a geology lover. Every Sunday he went out looking for stones, collecting them and breaking them. He also chased butterflies, caught them and stuffed them in a jar of cyanide before pinning them up.”

Distraught with his life, the man went for counseling. His analyst decided to investigate the man’s family, going back several generations. What the analyst learned was that the patient had a grandfather who nobody mentioned and who was a secret. The doctor convinced the patient to find out more about the grandfather. In doing so, the troubled patient discovered that his mother’s father had done “shameful things.” Among other unlawful deeds, he was suspected of being a bank robber and was sent into forced labor, in French, casser les cailloux, which means, “to break rocks.” Later, the grandfather was executed in the gas chamber. The rock-breaking, butterfly-gassing grandson had known none of this.

Schützenberger continues: “In a certain number of cases, pastimes, hobbies or leisure activities which can derive from family secrets, are surprisingly full of meaning.” Her book was written in 1998, before knowledge of epigenetics, but she writes: “strange behavior, illness or delirium” are often the result of these inherited “ghosts” who are half-buried in our unconscious, like a secret buried alive.

However, we are more than our ghosts, more than the composite of our memories, inherited or otherwise. In The Developing Genome: An Introduction to Behavioral Epigenetics, developmental cognitive neuroscientist David S. Moore cautions against viewing epigenetics as “fetal programming.” Writing about the effects of abusive parenting on subsequent generations, he finds recent research encouraging: “The possibility that these sorts of patterns reflect epigenetic effects is exciting because epigenetic effects are potentially reversible, either through interventions with specific drugs or through treatment programs that provide other experiences.”

Tollund Man for epigenetics postWhat might these other experiences be? To this point, Jungian analyst James Hollis, in his book Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives, asks: “How do we exorcise the haunting of our separate histories? How do we see outside the lens ground for us by fate…?”

His answer aims to inspire creativity. “The difference between us and the mill horse is our capacity for imagination,” he writes, reminding us that our neuroses keep us stuck in old patterns. Our complexes “can only replay the old events, scripts, and moribund outcomes of their origin.”

In suggesting we look to our imaginations as a portal to healing, Hollis leads us back to the ancient arts of ceremony and ritual, and to our in-dwelling creative spirits that remain alive no matter what terrible thing has happened to us. Here might be the way, exclusive of therapy and medication, to re-imagine and remember who we are beyond our traumas. We are our own best shamans, capable of connecting to those divine forces that lie outside our ego’s tunneled and sometimes tortured vision.

Healing trauma involves movement, intrapsychic and literal. If trauma freezes us to a spot in time, a place-memory, and to inherited patterns of behavior, so self-expression in the form of creative ceremony—dancing, singing, sculpting—inspires new energies to flow. Pick up your drum! Dance under the moon! Start a journal. Transformation begins with following your brave heart into the unknown.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”