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Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022

Generational Trauma


Placing emotional burdens on others

In relationships, learning to communicate our needs and feelings is one of the most underrated skills in our culture. Many of us have never had the space or learned that our feelings matter or that our needs are important.

In dysfunctional family systems, children are taught that they are responsible for the adults’ emotions and feelings. This may look like performing well in school, being the best baseball player, or being forced to hug or kiss grandparents or other family members.

When a parent is insecure in their own heart and mind about their own worth and value and stability, they tend to look to their spouse or children, in this discussion, to meet those needs. They directly or indirectly communicate to their children that they have to “make them proud” or “be good for the family” or “keep family secrets.”

This is what generational trauma looks like. It gets passed down from parent to child, parent to child, parent to child until someone breaks the cycle. I hope this article can help you or someone you know break the cycle in your life today. I believe there is hope for all of us if we can become aware of unhealthy patterns and behaviors in our own lives.

As adults, we have to learn to reparent ourselves emotionally, especially when we find that we lack significant skills in emotional areas of our lives. Now I’m not talking about letting emotions lead us or control us. I am talking about self-awareness that will allow us to control, differentiate and empower us to act out of truth in the face of fear and pain in our intimate relationships. It usually looks like aggression or passivity when we act out of fear and pain.

Why is it, at work or with strangers, that so many people lose their temper or let what a stranger thinks on the internet or social media get them so worked up? Why do we see so much rage and anger online and in public these days? This is what we call aggressive behavior or maladaptive coping skills. It stems from a lack of expression in our intimate relationships and bleeds over into the public. We should truly not care what strangers think or let it change our worth and security. Sometimes, when we don’t feel seen or heard in our intimate relationships, we demand to be heard in ones that shouldn’t matter. We demand that others agree with us, or we seek justice even to the point of physical violence, verbal abuse or harassment.

The other side of the coin is passiveaggressive or passive communication.

This looks like sarcastic comments, putdowns, rude interactions or straight-up lying to someone to manipulate, control or avoid conflict. Many people in our society communicate this way because of the same reasons: People are aggressive. They are scared to be vulnerable due to trauma in their past, or they avoid conflict because they have never been taught to have healthy conflict. They believe they are responsible for everyone’s feelings and that it is their fault if someone is upset with them. Typically, they use passiveaggressive communication to get their way “without getting hurt” or “with lower risk” of being hurt. They can also use it to manipulate and always have a way out of actually taking responsibility.

Both passive-aggressive and aggressive communication are very confusing in relationships because they do not honestly communicate what is happening underneath the surface. Everyone has to then respond to the surface-level behavior or what is seen, but what gets missed are the emotions at the core of the problem.

Example: Imagine a volcano. The lava spews from the top (anger, rage, yelling or sarcasm), but underneath in the core are loneliness, fear, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness and insecurity. We want people to address the core issues, but the outward explosion is all they see. However, the behavior is just a symptom and usually secondary to the actual emotions that never get communicated or, in some cases, even acknowledged.

Example of typical aggressive communication: Someone cuts us off in traffic, and we feel personally attacked. Our heart rate rises, our pulse increases, and we clench our teeth and yell in the car. We feel like they did this on purpose and need to demand they pay for their violation. Why?

Are we even sure that they saw us? Do we even know what we feel underneath all the rage and persecution? Why has such a little thing escalated into something so personal and offensive?

Have we never accidentally cut someone off? Have we not been tired, grief-stricken or had a misjudgment while driving? Was that personal when we did it? Of course not. Maybe, just maybe, everyone driving isn’t trying to attack us personally. But deep down, when we feel unloved, unsupported, burned out or insecure, we start wanting the world to right those wrongs and demand, through aggressive behavior, that it be done. We project our feelings onto situations, and instead of communicating what’s really going on deep down, we explode. We all know how well this goes in traffic or at work. Very poorly.

Example of passive-aggressive communication: You have something you want to be done in your marriage, at work or with friends, but instead of asking calmly and directly, we ask with jokes or say, “I’m just kidding,” or we make subtle remarks, “Boy, it would be nice if you’d do x, y or z.”

We desperately want the other person to pick up on our hints, read our minds or flat out do it without us having to ask because of a couple of reasons. 1. We don’t feel we deserve to ask for what we need. 2. We don’t want to feel rejected. 3. We don’t trust that the other person cares enough for us to honestly want to do what we ask. 4. We are unaware of our own insecurities and past hurts.

Both of these communication styles are inauthentic and do not communicate trust in ourselves or trust in the people we are sharing with. They both come from deep insecurity and family system patterns that have led us to believe unhealthy and toxic lies about ourselves and others.

None of us want to read past anger or sarcasm to get to the truth. We want people to shoot us straight and let us handle the facts. In healthy relationships, we need to learn to communicate clearly and effectively, what we need, want and expect. How do we do this? Well, when we genuinely believe that we deserve it and are not responsible for the other person’s reactions, we can ask for what we need and leave it up to them to respond. We also have to realize their response or lack of response has nothing to do with our worth and value. When we learn to make reasonable requests without unrealistic expectations, we can find freedom even when the outcome isn’t what we would like.

Children, for example, do not need perfect parents; they need authentic ones. They want to know what to expect. Spouses know our imperfections and that we are a mess, so we need to own that and stop pretending they don’t see it. Coworkers do not require us to bully them or make jokes to get our way; they need us to ask clearly and confidently. Everyone smells the rat when we try to be perfect or act perfectly. There was only one perfect person. Trying to trick people into meeting our needs only makes them respond with negative coping skills of their own and puts them on edge because inauthenticity leads to inauthenticity. Clear and direct communication is difficult, but anything else just leads to more chaos.

I like to look at Jesus as an example of outstanding communication. He always spoke with both grace and truth at the same time. He was direct and clear but kind. He expressed truth while also understanding that if someone rejected His view or truth, it wasn’t a personal attack on Him, and He continued to show them love. He didn’t avoid the truth but had hard conversations out of love. He didn’t accept negative behavior from His disciples. Still, He showed them grace in the face of bad choices, racism, sexism, anger, avoidance and so many other negative human coping skills and the brokenness we all share. When we want to communicate what we need, we must speak in grace and truth. We must not be passive-aggressive or aggressive. This will only send the other person into fight or flight, and no one will get what they want. How do we do this? We start with us. We start with knowing we are worthy of love and security. We start by knowing that our internal worth and value do not come from how other people respond to our needs, and we ask anyway, trusting that a good God will make it right.

Clint Davis, M.S., LPC, CSAT, CCTP, EMDR provider, is the founder of Clint Davis Counseling, LLC; gratis assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at LSU Health Shreveport; director of recovery for The Hub: Urban Ministries. Contact Davis at 318-446-4141 or www.clintdaviscounseling.com.


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