Does Your Family Have a Collective Trauma Worth Healing?

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.

intergenerational picture

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.

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Bearing Witness

Sometimes your task is just to bear witness. And it can bring all of your humanity to the surface. Bearing witness is not necessarily a neutral task. It can be a deeply emotional, heart wrenching but necessary role. It can be absolutely vital to the person(s) or situation you are called to witness. And the question becomes – are you up to it? Are you up to all it asks of you?

candle in people circleIn our Worldview Intelligence Personal Leadership program one of the models we use is the drama triangle. We use it to help participants understand the patterns and roles in drama – our own or others – through how we tell our stories.

It is easy to get caught up in drama – our own or someone else’s. There is some pleasure in the telling of the story, in trading power for sympathy. It is especially easy to get caught up in someone else’s drama with the often mistaken belief that we can rescue them from their own stories, rescue them from themselves. There is something insidious about drama that has people wanting to engage the story, the gossip, the inside scoop of it, to offer advice and solve problems rather than to sit patiently for what wants and needs to unfold. It can be hard to remember that their story is not ours to tell.

I sometimes notice I have to stop myself from embroiling myself in another’s drama, stop the words “how can I help?” from spilling out of my mouth. It is very appealing to imagine ourselves as a “prince” riding in on a white stallion to save the day.

However, you cannot rescue people from themselves and you cannot save them from their own journeys. No matter how hard you try. It is not yours to do. If this is not yours to do, then what is – aside from your own healing journey?

Sometimes it is to hold the space, to bear witness. If the journey you hold space for is intense and heartbreaking, it can be heart wrenching to be a witness. It requires all of who you are to be present. This can seem like no action to someone who desperately wants you to intervene and yet it is sometimes the only action that is possible.

To witness another person into being. To hold the space for that healing journey. These are gifts beyond measure that would be lost if you are not up to the task of bearing witness, not up to the task of listening, or holding space, not up to the task of keeping yourself out of a story that is not yours to live or to tell.

Don’t go looking for it, but when it arrives, notice and appreciate the deep gift of bearing witness. Allow yourself to be heart broken too. Bring compassion to your listening. And, notice the person you bear witness to is not the only recipient of the gift of bearing witness.

Who Are You At Your Most Powerful?

It is easy to get lost in the smallness of a day, an incident, a word from someone that hits at the core of your insecurity. The story that rattles around inside the mind, told by the “itty-bitty-shitty” committee, is one that often reinforces helplessness. It is only a “true” story because you tell it over and over again.

What I want to know is, who are you at your most powerful? When have you experienced your most powerful moments? What was alive for you then? What is the story you tell about those moments? They are not accidental. They are your soul qualities peeking through the morass of shadow accumulated over a life time of hiding the most precious things about who you are.

Maybe you are sensing it is time to shake it off, although this is not often an easy journey. There are so many habitual patterns that have developed over time without your noticing that need to be identified and shifted. Some people will attack you. Some will abandon you. Because they will no longer recognize you or know how to interact with you. They will want you to be the same. But you stay the same at your own peril. The soul wants to be illuminated and it requires you to grow. When we do not respond at the first gentle nudgings, they become more persistent and louder.

Flowers growing in the rocksIn my own soul journey this showed up in the form of a difficult job loss decades ago and my first marriage crumbling at the same time – largely due to my own unawareness and not knowing how to act in conscious ways. Just as I was congratulating myself for how far I had come, I stepped into an even more challenging relationship that shook me to the core of my being. And it invited me to step into one of the most powerful aspects of my journey – the journey to openheartedness, embracing the stranger in me – who is no stranger at all but the most powerful aspects of my being.

Even with the intensity of that journey, staying on this path, embracing my most powerful self, is a pattern of forgetting and remembering. It is a noticing each time a shift seems to be taking place in my energetic field however subtle. And it is a reminder to self to be in the practices which keep me strong and to not let the “itty-bitty-shitty” committee take precedence every time I step off the path or forget. To engage self-compassion and self-curiosity.

One way to remember who you are when you are at your most powerful, is to invite an image in your mind’s eye of what you look like, what is around you and what you feel like in those moments. It can be an image from your day to day lived life or it can be the image that emerges as you invite it. Images and symbolism are powerful and your spirit will offer to you that which is most meaningful in any given time. Trust what shows up. The image is not always the same. It shifts and changes as the journey shifts and changes. For me, my power animals and spirit guides are never far away, even as some of the other symbolism changes.

adimirkush_ButterlyThese days, when I invite this question of who am I at my most powerful, I see an image of a woman – me – with powerful posture, in a long flowing dress, levitating slightly off the ground, surrounded by a ring of fire with fire breathing dragons protecting my boundaries and my arms raised by my sides to receive that which the universe wants to bring me. The fire breathing dragons do not isolate me or keep out that which is intended to flow to me but they do create a barrier and warning to anything which would seek to harm me or diminish my power. In my wakeful moments – during the day or at night and especially in the morning – I call that image to me and remember who I am at my most powerful.

dragonformWhat is your image? Call it to you now and know it is also who you are. You can choose it every single time.

The Truth Wants to Be Known

Stories of separated families, secret adoptions, long lost relatives have always caught my attention, even before I found out such a secret in my family when I was 46 years old – that I had been adopted. For a long time, the forces seemed to have lined up to keep it secret from me. But the clues were there all along. My birth certificate revealing where I was born – different than what I believed but I thought the administrators had made a mistake. There were no stories of my birth. I had recollections of my birth grandmother and sister, although I did not know they were my relatives. I thought they were friends of the family. Eventually it was a phone conversation between my two sisters and a curious bystander, a family friend who took to the internet as he listened, to proactively pursue a truth that wanted to be known.

I have read accounts of adoptions, twins mixed up at birth and more, and always, always events conspire even across great distances to enact chance meetings, new revelations of information, someone who can no longer stay quiet about what they know.

It happened again this week. My sister (who I met in 2008) arrived from British Columbia for a memorial for her father (my birth father) who died last fall. When his obituary was published in the paper, a long-lost cousin – the daughter of my birth father’s brother – contacted my sister. This cousin and her sister live here in the Halifax area. And she put my sister in touch with a great aunt (sister to my birth grandfather) who is now 88 years old and lives an hour away from me.

Sisters and Cousins Meeting for the First Time

Lots of excited visits and conversations. And different endings to stories. When I wrote Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness, my sisters and I had been under the impression that our grandfather had died derelict as an alcoholic on the streets of Halifax. None of us knew what had happened to him. But our cousins – also his granddaughters – did know what happened to him – a story in and of itself that I might share one day. He did not die derelict on the streets of Halifax. Somehow he ended up in Northwood Manor, a leg had been amputated, I assume he sobered up, he was a model and favourite resident who spoke often about his loving family.

This story has been, is being, re-written. Like so many. As more truth shows up. Truth that wants to be known. And there are still mysteries to be unravelled in this crazy family, for sure. Especially about my birth mother’s side of the family.

My sister and I went to visit our great-aunt who is gifted in similar ways to us, participates in spiritual and meditation circles and paints. She paints many things but one painting in particular is very striking and one of a kind amongst her collection – a picture of a medicine woman, rising up from a big cat, a leopard. Painted directly on the wall in her basement at exactly the same time very similar artwork was being channelled for me for a tattoo and the cover of my book. And my great-aunt did not even know I existed.

It is not only in spiritual matters that the truth wants to be known. I have experienced it happening over and over again in work situations. People try to hide things, be secretive or are out of alignment with their own integrity or the integrity of an initiative. It is discovered or revealed in one way or another because the truth wants to be known and forces will continually offer ways to make it so if we have the eyes and the will to see.

Are you holding your sadness as a treasured possession?

 

5-of-cups-legacy-of-the-divine2Every now and then a question shows up that captures attention as if it was lit up in flashing lights. This happened to me the other morning as I pulled my usual three tarot cards from the Legacy of the Divine deck (my favourite) to help me imagine what the story of my day could be like. One of the cards I pulled was the 5 of cups. Not necessarily a favourite, I decided to open the interpretation book to see what jumped out at me.

Why do you sometimes cradle your sadness like treasured possessions? Are you afraid that the power of your heart will shatter it and force you to leave the safety of the shadowy misery you cling to?

Sadness as a treasured possession? Shadowy misery? Crap! And wham! Both at the same time.

A while ago I wrote about what is real and what is illusion. And I’ve written about my passive aggressive relationship with the law of attraction. And about limiting beliefs.

The journey of life has a way of dishing up illusion so we imagine we are in a different place than we are. It also has a way of waking us up to reality. Like these questions.

I feel the tremulousness of these moments in my life. Partner I love deeply who lives in another country. Re-imagining our work and our businesses. Feeling the pull of life, co-parenting, scheduling. Desiring ease and not always experiencing it. Am I cradling sadness as a treasured possession? Is it part of how I define my story? It is not what I want to hear, to believe is true in this moment but there it is right in front of me.

Am I clinging to shadowy misery? Am I allowing this to define and shape the story of my life in this present moment?

What to do about it?

  1. Allow the recognition of the response evoked by the questions. Yes, there is truth there. Still. After many years of journey.
  2. Invoke compassion for myself. It is a journey. It is not right or wrong or too long. No self-recrimination, just awareness.
  3. Journal to surface and release the patterns so deeply entrenched in my being that sometimes I fear they will never be fully released and most times now I can recognize as part of the unfolding journey – the journey to openheartedness.
  4. Meditate on the vibration I am aspiring to, to let it permeate my physical and soul essence to continue to attract my dreams.
  5. Take concrete steps, even if small, to show – myself, creator, the universe – that the dream I hold is the direction in which I am moving.

I share this because I know I am not the only one cradling sadness and clinging to shadowy misery. If this resonates, know you are not alone and follow the steps.

For Who’s Benefit Are You Telling Your Story?

When I first came back from Gold Lake, Colorado, after spending a day and a half on the land, in a mystical experience that took place outside of my normal understanding of time, I had to integrate this spiritual experience with the regular, ongoing experiences of my physical existence, of my life journey.

Gold Lake 004

My sanctuary site at Gold Lake, 2009

One of the ways of doing this was through sharing the story of my experience with others. There were a few people who knew I was embarking on that sojourn. Some, not all, also knew that prior to going I already had experiences with non-physical guardians and guides. I had been learning to connect with my guides in healing work. And I could, when asked, help other people connect with their own guides, learn to access them and to work with them in their own journeys. I was not, am not, the messenger as much as the connector.

Story at workWhen I arrived home, I began to share the story of what happened at Gold Lake with people, tuning into what they wanted to hear. For some, to hear I went to Gold Lake and came home again was enough. For others, to hear the high level overview was enough. And for some, they wanted full details of as many moments as I could offer. And it was surprising at times who wanted what. It was discernible by the questions they asked and the attentiveness of their listening.

Slide1It was important for me to discern why I might be telling the story to any given individual. Was I telling the story because of my own need to share it, to understand it, to integrate it? Or was I telling the story because for some reason, the other person needed to hear it? If it was just about me, I would have babbled on to anyone in hearing distance all the time. But I had enough people willing to hear and witness my story, I did not need to visit it on people unwilling or unable to hear. And it is a sacred story to be shared in the right moments. Stories hold “medicine” and healing for others when they are ready to hear them so it is a gift to also share experiences, which is what I am relearning now as I have hesitated to share more of the mystical/spiritual stories in my blog. One friend, who wanted to hear the whole story, at the end shook his head and said, “Well, whatever happened, it is clear it was real to you.” It was real to me, although I cannot tell you how many times I have asked myself the question, “Is this real or am I making it up?”

This realization was part of why I wrote my memoir: Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness – not just to share the spiritual journey but to share my own ambivalence with my spiritual journey and the on again off again nature of my relationship with it. And it is also the story of grief, resilience, perseverance and joy – of embracing all the strangeness of who I thought I was (or think I am) and the vulnerability that comes from openheartedness. The stories of being fired from a job, marrying and divorcing, not once but twice, finding out later in life I was adopted, becoming the health care advocate for both my parents and my mother’s journey with dementia, in long term care and her eventual death in 2012.

Life is full of the bitter-sweetness of discovery – sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and more often both at the same time. We are not in bliss the whole time, neither are we in grief or sorrow the whole time, if we choose. When we meet life with the expansiveness of the soul journey lens, our stories become healing for us and others who are inspired by how we meet the path that rises up to greet us.

Why Do I Have To Be The One Who _________?

Why do I have to be the one who ________?

Have you ever found yourself asking this question as you have struggled to sort out a difficult relationship? You know. One of those relationships when you have felt like you are on the receiving end of inappropriate behaviour on someone else’s part? When you have felt like someone else is projecting their issues onto you? When you have just wanted THEM to do their part, apologize, figure it out, leave you alone?

I have been in this place more often than I care to remember. And I encounter it often in training and coaching situations. Why do I have to be the one to “fix” this? Why do I have to be the one who reaches out? Why do I have to be the one to forgive? Why do I have to be the one who takes the lead on this? I am not at fault here!

bandaged heartEven in times when I felt I had made enormous strides, I was sometimes challenged on playing the victim role. Ugh! There is nothing pretty or powerful about that. Nothing. Once, when I asked this question, the energy healer I was working with challenged me with a good hearty, joyful laugh. “Because,” she said. “When you do this, you win.” Resignedly, reluctantly, I did the work – MY work. Because she was right.

It is simple really. When you do the work you need to do in your own journey – which for me I have named the Journey to Openheartedness – you win. Always. Inevitably. This is not winning like winning and losing. This is winning like peace in your soul. Winning like stepping into your strength and power, not because of someone else, but because it is the right thing for you. Winning like clarity of who you are, what you stand for, what you will stand in your life.

Palms holding a beet shaped like a heart

Palms holding a beet shaped like a heart

And what you learn sorting out one tough relationship is translatable to all your relationships. When you sort it out with yourself, you stand differently in every context, not just the one you sorted it out in. You begin to discern more often more quickly what is yours to do and what belongs to someone else. You leave them to do whatever they choose with their stuff – hang onto it, release it – it is not your business what they do or don’t do – and you focus on what is yours to do.

It sounds simple when I write it or say it. It can be. Honestly, though, it is can also be an intense, intentional journey over a long period of years. While it could be true (and the Law of Attraction would say it is true) that you could shift everything literally overnight, that is not my experience, nor the experience of people I know. As one of my coaches said to me, you can do the energetic, non-physical work in an instant. But then you need to ground it in physical experience, shifting patterns that you have taken years or even a life time to grow. It is an invitation to stay in your journey, despite setbacks, despite not seeing progress, despite experiencing the same patterns over and over again. Until the day it shifts. When you notice something has changed. Sometimes when other people have noticed something has changed.

You can continue to give away your power by stubbornly holding onto the notion that someone else needs to do the work – and it is hard to pry away that thought (I know) – or you can step into the fullness of who you are – one step at a time, embrace all that shows up, give thanks for the person and the learning, acknowledge and own your own growth. After awhile, the difficult situations do diminish, you stop focusing on other people and what they do or do not do and you simply focus on what is present and alive for you, in any given moment.

CA red dress Day 1It is worth it. I tell you that from my own open hearted healing journey. I wouldn’t have it any other way – now.