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"The Role of Family Ghosts in Surviving Difficult Times."

It turns out that the questions posed by time (why do I feel so anxious about what happened, while my colleague reacts differently, should I stay or should I go, do I sever ties or maintain them, what is dangerous for me and what offers hope) and the ways in which we respond to these questions are largely shaped by the messages of past generations, which are often perceived unconsciously.

Conscious transmission also occurs — then we speak of continuing traditions or upholding family values. But what we are aware of, we deal with much more easily. The unconscious transmission from ancestors to descendants of a certain set of reactions, behavioral patterns and decision-making methods is called transgenerational transmission. It occurs on a non-verbal level through symbols, images, gestures, intonations, speech patterns, movements, glances, inexplicable manifestations.

Not long ago, transgenerational transmission was attributed to non-genetic forms of inheritance. Now, the genetic contribution to the nature of this phenomenon is also discussed in the context of epigenetic research. Epigenetics studies factors that influence gene expression, which are not related to the DNA nucleotide sequence. These factors include various aspects of the environment. The expression of certain genetically determined traits may occur under the influence of different factors (including psychological or physically traumatic ones). Moreover, this ability to manifest or not manifest in certain situations is recorded at the DNA level and can be inherited.

There are three main mechanisms of epigenetic inheritance: DNA methylation (which usually suppresses gene expression, while demethylation, on the contrary), modification of nuclear proteins, and silencing by small genes. Thus, properties determined by certain genes can manifest fully, partially, or not at all, fundamentally altering a person's characteristics and behavior.

Imagine a sentence in which different words are expressed depending on certain factors. For example:

  • If you're stranded on an island and facing the threat of flooding, it's crucial to descend to the bottom of the boat and (not) wait, but rather, keep moving towards the mainland, doing everything possible to catch the attention of passing ships;
  • if you're stranded on an island and facing the threat of flooding, it's essential to (descend to the bottom of the boat, and) not wait, but to keep moving towards the mainland, doing everything possible to catch the attention of passing ships."

As you can observe, the meaning, responses, and behavioral patterns associated with such inheritance can undergo significant changes.

What we inherit through transgenerational transmission can accompany us throughout our lives or manifest in moments requiring significant decisions (professional, choosing a partner, etc.) or during any extraordinary circumstances (wars, epidemics, political upheavals) that demand instinctive choices. From an evolutionary standpoint, this adaptation was once justified, significantly saving time for subsequent generations, especially when assuming that the world was relatively stable. Perhaps, once it was like that. However, in today's unstable and dynamic world, unconscious patterns are more likely to diminish the ability to make survival and adaptation choices.

Unawareness is the primary trap of transgenerational inheritance. Typically, what gets passed down is not something anyone intended to transmit. On the contrary, it's often something unpleasant or frightening—associated with shame, guilt, danger, or grief—and emotionally charged (repression, suicide, adoption, crimes, mental illnesses, poverty, etc.). It's no coincidence that when discussing transgenerational transmission, we most often hear the word "trauma"—the transmission of traumatic experiences across generations. Such experiences are often accompanied by characteristic unpleasant emotions, the main ones being fear, anger, shame, and feelings of loneliness, alienation, or personal "wrongness." It's precisely these experiences that subsequent generations frequently pick up.

The good news is that we can manage many aspects of these inherited traits by bringing them into our conscious awareness, thereby altering the programmed patterns.

One of my clients sought help regarding her daughter's difficulties at school. Her nine-year-old daughter refused to attend school, fearing that she would be scolded, expelled, or sent to the principal's office. The client spoke with the teachers, but there were no grounds for these fears in the child. The teachers praised her and were pleased with her. The client was very concerned, partly because she had experienced something similar herself throughout her childhood: she feared punishment and felt guilty without any reason. She felt like the neighbors were giving her sideways glances, which was quite distressing. Moreover, even in adulthood (she was nearing forty at the time of the consultation), she often experienced inexplicable guilt and felt like something was wrong with her. The client came from a family with three children; she had an older brother and a younger sister. During therapy, she started having intrusive dreams about a man who would give her sister cake and pick her up. During the course of our sessions, the client decided to talk to her parents and found out that her younger sister had a different biological father. Her mother had a lover. She got pregnant and told her father... The mother's guilt turned out to be a natural pattern of behavior that she transmitted to her daughter.

​​Certainly, the revelation wasn't the issue. Most likely, she heard something and repressed it during childhood. However, she carried her mother's guilt as a behavioral pattern throughout her life and passed it on to her daughter. After the situation became open (fortunately, all family members agreed to openly discuss their past, which wasn't easy; they had to attend family therapy), the family dynamics significantly improved, and the girl, whom the client sought help for, felt much relieved.

In this story, it was possible to grasp the content because there were people to ask. Often, there's nobody to ask and one has to guess or fill in the gaps in reality. Typically, the fourth generation is the most vulnerable in this regard. The first generation experiences some traumatic event and for various reasons (to protect the family, out of shame, or to avoid painful experiences), they suppress their feelings and hide what happened. The second generation, despite the previous generation's attempt to conceal what happened, usually suspects what occurred, understanding clearly that it's something not to be discussed. They don't ask and pass on the information. By the time it reaches the third generation, only fragments of the content remain. However, this generation sometimes still has the opportunity to clarify things with those who experienced it. Sometimes, this happens because the intensity of the traumatic event and the danger associated with its disclosure have diminished by this time. By the fourth generation, the carriers of the experience usually pass away, taking the content with them. The material becomes repressed into the unconscious, and it's in this generation that problems with psychological functioning become most pronounced.

Unconscious and unprocessed fragments of past generations' traumas and horrors are present and significantly impact people, eliciting a myriad of emotions, including guilt, fear, shame, a sense of inadequacy, being born at the wrong time, feeling stuck between worlds, sensations of unfulfilled missions that they must complete to repair, restore, or seek revenge. This occurs in individuals, families, and societies (nations, ethnic groups, etc.).

Researchers consider injustice and ethical violations as key parameters for intergenerational trauma within families and societies. When injustice occurs, trauma is inevitable and it will be passed down from generation to generation until justice is restored.

Ann Stutzberger, author of the book "The Ancestor Syndrome," suggests that in every family there exists a ledger of debts, merits, and injustices. "The laws of invisible loyalty" demand the restoration of justice and repayment of debts. Unpaid debts are passed on to descendants, manifesting in the form of various problems. If one brother deceives another and seizes the inheritance, it will not bring joy to the descendants of both brothers, who will be bound by intricate threads until justice is restored. There is nothing mystical about this; it's simply that the suppressed feelings of guilt and shame of one and the bitterness and resentment of the other, will be all the greater the more they are suppressed and become a transgenerational object devoid of content.

The peculiarity of human experience lies in our inability to conclude it until it takes on a clear form, until we recognize it as something understandable. The particularity of transgenerational trauma lies in the fact that the experience is not verbalized, unnamed, and therefore cannot be lived through, digested. It lacks form. It is not a figure. Yet it is something that is very clearly present. Something that cannot be spoken about and yet cannot be forgotten. Something that insistently demands embodiment, although in most cases it is not consciously recognized. People have a sense of the presence of something absent, something that lacks a clear form, is not a figure that can be dealt with—argued with, lived through, accepted, denied—it's unclear what, but very clearly present. You can't kill Voldemort until he acquires a body.

Perel Vilgovitz refers to this phenomenon as the "vampire complex." She compares these unembodied experiences, passed down from one generation to another, to a vampire that exists but does not reflect in the mirror. It is present and absent simultaneously. Like a vampire, these transgenerational objects drain the energy and interfere with living one's own life, constraining individuals within the box of ancestral trauma. If these boxes remain unopened and unpacked, they affect various aspects of life.

The past year has served as a laboratory for demonstrating various transgenerational reactions. Political cataclysms and wars, as mentioned earlier, actualize transgenerational influences. People find it not only difficult to understand and accept each other's meanings, especially since transgenerational transmission undoubtedly occurs not only at the family and kinship levels but also at the level of groups and entire communities.

At the heart of collective trauma typically lies some real historical event or period (such as a military invasion, a dictatorial regime, or a natural disaster) experienced by a specific group (ethnicity, state). This impacts every member of the group and becomes part of their cultural identity, intertwined with personal experience, largely determining how the group lives. Since injustice and ethical violations are considered key moments in transgenerational inheritance, society's task is to undergo the trauma, correct the injustice, or at least acknowledge it.

Distortions, silence, and falsehoods hinder the experience of collective trauma. In this case, the same transgenerational objects are formed, but their influence on people, due to the scope of "songs and tales," is much more extensive. Then the traumatic experience will continue to be passed on to future generations, repeating itself until psychological processes are completed and justice is restored.

Sometimes, closed loops are formed. For instance, if society fails to cope with certain emotions, such as guilt or shame, it will create situations where such emotions can arise again. If, for whatever reason, confronting these emotions is unbearable, they will be suppressed or compensated for by others until the next attempt. Feelings of shame, for example, may be compensated for by national pride, a "rising from the ashes," or conversely, by humiliation. Unresolved feelings become transgenerational objects and are passed down to future generations (whose reactions, unfortunately, are somewhat programmed), leading to new repetitions until someone decides to confront and acknowledge them.

The only way to combat this is to confront the ghost, bring it into consciousness, acknowledge, experience, and complete the cycle. The transgenerational object must be named and given form. It must be labeled. What cannot be named must be called out and placed in its proper context within personal or communal history. Psychotherapy, art, literature, and history are the main ways to address transgenerational trauma. Additionally, preserving the memory of injustice and, conversely, of people who have been resilient or brave enough to call things by their names is crucial.

Indeed, there is hope that humanity will gradually learn to restore justice and pass on to future generations not only debts but also blessings for their own full lives.
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