The Legacy of Intergenerational Trauma

At the end of the month, I’m giving a talk at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on Intergenerational Trauma and Unprocessed Grief.


Preparing for the speech has been an opportunity to revisit some of my most cherished resources on intergenerational trauma and healing.


Intergenerational trauma manifests in many ways, but the one I'm going to focus on here are the messages, rules, and media our parts internalize and accept as the norm.


The Burdens we Carry


One of the important pieces of Parts Work is helping our protector parts unburden.


This means we help our protectors free themselves from the burdens they carry that tell them they need to protect us in ABC way or else XYZ will happen to us.


Some examples:

  • I have to finish my degree, or else I won't feel successful, or my parents won't be proud of me.

  • If I don't lose weight, I'll never feel good about my body.

  • If I ask for help, I'll be rejected.

Our protectors have often showed up when we have felt really alone. They worry that without them doing their jobs, we might be harmed, or be more alone, or have to experience an emotion that might overwhelm us.


We want to help our protectors see that we might not be as vulnerable to XYZ as they think, or that there might be other resources, other people, who can help us in a way that feels whole and healing.


The burdens our protectors carry can be obvious, but they can also be quite covert especially if they are deeply rooted, I’m talking beyond our lifetimes.


Legacy Burdens


We call these Legacy Burdens in Parts Work.


Think about the messages or rules you might have received from your family or culture around how things are done, or how you’re supposed to show up.


Fill in the blank:


“In this family we believe…”

“In this family we operate under the assumption that…”


Notice how it feels in your body. Notice if you have parts who accept it as "normal" or "common sense." Notice if you have parts that recoil or shrink or feel trapped.


Notice what the part of you who carries this message imagines will happen if they let go of that thought or expectation.


Let them know you hear them. Give them some comfort. Maybe a belly rub or some soft humming to stimulate the vagus nerve.


Legacy Heirlooms



A person and their parent express affection to a grandparent.

Of course, there are also what I've heard addressed as Legacy Heirlooms or Intergenerational Glimmers. These are the things we treasure as part of our culture, family norms, and upbringing.


What are some of those things for you?


What do you brag about when people ask you about your family or your culture?

What do you look forward to when in community with your people?


Now notice how those things land in your body? Do you feel rooted? What feels possible when you are with this heirloom?




Which is Which?


And of course, it's always possible that our protector parts carry both burdens and heirlooms. Sometimes they are so deeply intertwined we really have to spend some time unlooping each thread until it makes sense.


One question we might ask ourselves when we're confused is: does this legacy item make me feel empowered? Or does it make me feel stuck?


We might also ask ourselves: Does this feel personal or internal? Or does this feel bigger than my body?


Another way I think of it is: Is this an anchor or a chain? An anchor can be grounding, whereas a chain is more immobilizing.


Support is Important


Call in loved ones who you trust. Explore these topics together. Seek to understand where these legacies come from. Who is upholding them? What happens to the family system if they are deconstructed?


These topics can of course bring up a lot of feelings. Be sure to set yourself up with resources for the emotions and somatic experiences that arise.


If you haven't already, subscribe to my e-mail list and I'll send you a FREE Self- and Co-Regulation Cheat Sheet packed full of ideas for supporting your somatic-emotional experience.



Photo by Robert Stokoe

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