Doesn’t every family have some degree of trauma in it; that perhaps ranges from somewhat mild to severe? This is a question I’ve been reflecting on these last few weeks for a variety of reasons, including wondering how a family experiences trauma individually and collectively and how, when it makes sense, a family can engage healing in its system?
When a family experiences the same trauma circumstances – an event or a long-standing relationship where trauma has been inflicted – each member of that family experiences the trauma differently. When removed from the trauma, the trauma lives on in each of us, in our cellular memory, in our minds and imaginations, continuing to affect each of us, each in our own way and collectively too. There is some shared aspect of the trauma, but the way we each remember our experience will have its own flavour, its own story, its own influence. What this looks and feels like can depend on your role in the family, in and with the trauma, your age and other factors too.
The family system that is interested in healing can explore the impact of trauma as they collectively experienced some element of it. That part can feel easy because it seems like everyone is in agreement. However, it becomes more challenging for family members to completely coalesce around the impact on any one individual because the experiences differ. Each family member needs healing for the full family system to heal; but the validation, acknowledgement or healing they each need is likely different.
We each have different assumptions and expectations of what we need to heal and what we think others need to heal. We may think we need certain things – acknowledgements, validations – from other members of the family. And whether or not they arrive – or when – might not be according to our own sense of timing.
Individually, it can be hard to identify and hard to express our hopes, expectations and experiences. What, in your own mind, feels like a straightforward ask, can seem less so when it is said out loud. The support and validation you are looking for might not arrive if your own experience contradicts someone else’s interpretation because of their own experience, their own story or their own trauma or if they remember your role differently.
What can we do when this happens? Notice your responses or your impulses. For me, when I encounter this, it makes me want to retreat – which is a reflex to “safety”, which is not necessarily safe or helpful for healing. In the noticing, I can make an intentional decision about what I want to do next and I can choose to communicate this with my family members.
Relationships are hard. And, to be clear, not all family relationships need to be or should be maintained. Sometimes the best healing opportunity is to cut off some family ties, as there is no hope for real healing in them. Having said that, for family relationships that are worth maintaining, even they have moments when they are harder than we expect, harder than we want them to be, harder than we hope. They are not all just sunshine, connection and laughs around the dinner table. They are also hard truths we may not want to hear.
Many, if not most, families are not skilled enough to know how to navigate family healing well. Most of us didn’t learn it growing up. There were no role models to look to. There are always some families who seem to know how to love and support each other no matter what. And there are some families so full of challenges and damage that no one seems to know how to navigate the individual and collective hurts. These families are more likely to fall apart, to stop talking to each other, to embody the pain and perhaps pass it on through intergenerational trauma.
What holds a family together in its healing? A few key things we have been learning:
- Valuing self and valuing others too, so one is not meant to always be subservient to the other.
- Valuing the family relationships enough to do the work required. Being willing to prioritize the relationships but not to the point of not addressing the trauma or other family challenges that show up. Avoidance only drives the emotions underground and, when they surface in their own ways, they tend to be even more destructive.
- Give precedence to listening even as you want to be heard. Listen for understanding with compassion and curiosity, not for how to debate someone else’s experience or even your own. Be willing to listen, really listen, even when it’s hard.
- Discern when to lean in and when to lean back. Learn to discern what needs to happen, be explored or discussed in the presence of others and what can be done on your own.
- Be willing to drop a point of discussion with someone once you have heard it so you can digest it later if need be or take it to your own healing space.
- Be willing to step back from being right, from insisting on being heard if that will not help in the moment. Be able to give space without backing away.
- Find the language to stay focused on what is most important without lashing out in attack when you don’t like what you hear or can’t figure out how to make sense of it or are simply frustrated. Let it go rather than rehash it over and over again when it no longer serves. Come to terms and to peace with it.
- Then, learn how to stay in relationship when the conversation is over. Learn how to apologize when it is deserved and even occasionally when you don’t think it is deserved. It might be the very thing that breaks an impasse and allows you all to get to a new level of healing with each other.
- Hold space with and for each other, when you are together and apart.
- Learn you can hang together through the tough stuff because it all matters.
These conversations hurt my heart. They also heal my heart. Without them, we would lose some of the core soul in our family constellation and it helps us love each other and be together better, if we focus on the love and healing, if we allow it.
And, bonus, if we pause to dig into the healing now, we heal back and forth along the lineages and that is worth it too. It’s powerful work. What are the family relationships and what family trauma is worth healing enough for you to stay in, stick with it and work it through?
Note: I am not a therapist. This is written from my heart, my experiences and my observations and reflections in my own families and in conversations with many others about this topic.