I’ve been thinking trauma is inherited. Not just that my parents, in responding to me, taught me to cope in the way that they coped with their traumas even though these same events might not happen to me, but also that trauma begets abuse.
Not to conflate traumatized people with abusers, but it is the traumatic impact of abuse which caused my parents to abuse me. This is not really rocket science. Everyone knows this, but I have been wondering exactly, precisely what is the mechanism of inheritance.
I had a 3-day weekend, quite unusually and very mercifully given the anniversary effect involved, following Halloween. I felt awful, but kept my shit together enough to get through the day and landed here, on a Tuesday now, with some answers.
I should add the reason this is so important to me is that I believe that my relationship with my parents shapes my relationship with myself, and I speculate it is largely my relationship with myself that causes me misery. Secondarily, it is my relationship with others, and lastly it is the actual, day-to-day impact of the trauma itself. One of my bloggy friends mentioned in a pot that her parts have been living in an abusive environment, and this has stayed with me since I read that. I think she’s really on to something.
That may not be unusual to think, except that I don’t tend to have the cascade of negative thoughts other people describe. I suddenly feel bad. Parts complain about how awful they feel. And it’s extremely hard for me to work out what precipitated the bad feelings. But something is going on.
So I think it’s this. What’s inherited is difficulty in mentalizing: difficulty in understanding or making sense of desires and intentions. It may be there are deficiencies in this area, because the mind of the other feels so menacing or is overwhelming and painful. How do I respond to my mother if I understand her intention is to cause me harm? It may be that the parent’s inner world is so confusing there seems to be no point in trying to understand why they do what they do.
Normally, what’s happening for a parent is not impossible for a child to see, although it may be different from the child’s experiences. Parents are hungry and thirsty and tired too. They want to get to work and school on time. They want you to buckle your seatbelt so they can drive safely. Parents are surprised by sudden noises that surprise children too. As a child, with some effort, you can work out why parents feel the way they do, because people’s inner worlds are related to their outer worlds and you can see it and hear it. If your parent, like my father’s mother, is responding to sounds and images that you cannot see or hear, you may give up on trying to understand people altogether.
That’s one piece: the developing child who is, for whatever reason, unable to understand other people’s experiences and then may grow up to be a parent unable to understand their children’s experiences. This, of course, we think of as being an element of pathological narcissism, but it is not all of narcissism. It’s only one aspect.
You may also have a child whose self-image is so negative that it’s painful to think of the self, so however well someone else understands the child, she cannot see herself as she is imagined within someone’s mind.
The other piece of what I believe may lead to the inheritance of trauma is the result of not having a parent who imagines your experiences, or even if they imagine it, but as a child it’s so painful or confusing for you to see what they imagine that you don’t know if they are able to understand your experiences or not. The only way to know if they understand is if you can see it in their actions. In other words, the lack of imagining of other people’s mental states, increases the pressure to get your way, because it’s only when you get what you want that you feel yourself existing in the world.
And this happens both for children and for parents in these families. Power becomes very important, because what is at stake in interactions is not merely your comfort, but a sense of being real and alive. For the child, getting the toy they want is not merely about a toy, but feeling they are themselves. For the parent, having a child who won’t go to bed when you tell him means you lose your sense of yourself.
Naturally, we all get a sense of efficacy when we can have an impact on the world. None of these things are abnormal.It’s simply the pressure on this as a part of our identities that’s overly intense, because other ways of feeling we exist cannot be relied on (namely, empathy).
Of course, adults usually have more power than children in the world, and so they may be more likely to win in these seemingly life-or-death contests over whose will might prevail. The child complies, feels perhaps dead inside, or turns away from the punishing, smothering parent thus losing the opportunity to learn the social skills normally developed within the family.
The third piece of that attachment impulses are easily activated, because the degree of conflict inherent in normal, everyday activities is so great. You feel like you might need help with simple things, because with a parent who feels not getting her way makes her disappear, you must be prepared to fight hard or not at all. The weapons may be physical, but there are parents who don’t hit, but instead attack your self-image, your sense of belonging, or your status.
I cannot tell you how much this set of assumptions about what forces may have shaped me make my day-to-day experiences coherent and comprehensible. Getting up in the mornings is difficult for me. I wake up early, I feel like doing things, but physically getting started is really hard. It’s painful and upsetting. For years, I’ve mostly noticed attachment pain, but sometimes I’m angry or despairing.
If the question in my childhood was, “Who gets to exist today?” then this makes total sense. I’m terribly scared. I think I might need help. I may be angry at an anticipated struggle over who gets to exist. I may even be angry that there is no one there to do my bidding and make me feel that I exist by doing what I want.
I don’t know what to do to solve the problems this is causing me, but I think it’s a start.