Skip to content
podcasts

Breaking the Cycle: Understanding Intergenerational Trauma – Podcast

By Jason Clayden on January 10, 2023

Paula Bamgbose-Martins, a child, couples and family trauma therapist from one of our Philadelphia offices helps us understand more about intergenerational trauma, porous boundaries and ways and strategies for addressing and healing from generational trauma.  

Listen and Subscribe Here

Nicholette Leanza:

Welcome to Convos from the Couch By LifeStance Health where leading mental health professionals help guide you on your journey to a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Hello, everyone. This is Convos from the Couch by LifeStance Health. I’m Nicholette Leanza and on this episode I’ll be talking with Paula Bamgbose-Martins, a child, couples and family trauma therapists from one of our Philadelphia offices, and she will help us to understand more about intergenerational trauma. So welcome back, Paula. Great to have you on.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Thank you for having me. Very excited for this conversation.

Nicholette Leanza:

Oh my gosh, so am I. Intergenerational trauma, or sometimes it’s also called generational trauma.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Mm-hmm.

Nicholette Leanza:

It can have such profound impact on individuals, families, and so I really look forward to our conversation today about it, how it manifests and how it can be addressed as well. So, thank you again for being on.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

I appreciate that.

Nicholette Leanza:

We’re going to go ahead and get started. And let me throw out the very first question here for you which is: can you explain what intergenerational trauma is and how it differs from other forms of trauma?

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Right. So, intergenerational trauma, or like you said, generational trauma, and I believe it’s also called “multi-generational trauma,” it’s all the same.

Nicholette Leanza:

Gotcha.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

The point of it is the generational aspect of the trauma that makes it already different from other forms of trauma because it’s trauma that’s passed from generation to generation, to generation, of obviously family trees. You can also look at it as let’s say the initial survivor of the trauma passing it down to their descendants, so that can just be a specific parent. Doesn’t necessarily have to be both, as long as it’s just one parent who’s passing that down.

The thing with intergenerational trauma is the fact that it looks just like trauma because that’s what it is, and it looks like PTSD, it looks like anxiety, it looks like emotional dysregulation, it looks like mood dysregulation, poor communication skills, having poor or very rigid boundaries. But typically, I would even gear towards more so porous boundaries because the notion and idea of family comes with a sense of obligation from the beginning in that type of relational dynamic. So with a family system that already comes with the sense of obligation from the beginning, you are born to be obligated, to be assimilated to your system and things like that.

The lack of boundaries, it’s more so porous us than rigid because it’s usually, if you have conversations with people, they will tell you it’s harder to set boundaries with their family as opposed to people that are strangers.

Nicholette Leanza:

Right.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

So I would definitely say that intergenerational trauma looks more like porous boundaries. And of course, if we’re going to talk about why it’s different from other forms of trauma, you could also look at what actually causes intergenerational trauma. That’s one.

And then another thing that you could look at too as well is how it actually affects us. The first part being the cause, if I’m being honest and coming into our conversation today, I was like, “Oh, my! I didn’t realize that there was even more causes than I thought there were.” But it kind of made sense. It made so much sense. It also tied back to the previous podcast episode you and I had where we talked about identity. A lot of the trauma that stems from the root of intergenerational trauma comes from historical trauma, as we all know, things like being a descendant of refugees, Holocaust survivors, colonizing, racism, war, even slavery too as well.

So because of the fact that that is the root, you see why it’s hard. When you look at the generational aspect of the trauma, it’s like this very hard thing to shake off compared to, let’s say, if someone talked about, and this is not to differentiate or negate the fact that trauma is trauma, but if we’re comparing it to, let’s say someone who may have had an acute traumatic experience where let’s say they gone into a car accident, comparing that to something along the lines of intergenerational, you might still have the same approach with healing from that trauma, but the level of work that’s going to have to happen for the generational trauma is different. So that already makes it very different from other forms of trauma.

Nicholette Leanza:

I’m glad you bring up that point. I think that’s actually a really key point. I also wanted to circle back because you talked about porous boundaries that families might have, which is actually one of the things we look at of how intergenerational trauma can manifest in families. But can you go a little bit more into what porous boundaries are for people who might not be familiar with that term?

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Porous boundaries is pretty much just poor boundaries. It looks like oversharing, it looks like not having the ability to say no, for example, it looks like people-pleasing behavior. Yeah, that’s one.

Nicholette Leanza:

That’s a big word.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

It also looks like a level of, how do I put this? A level of a script. So a script that we develop for ourselves to justify why that is not… I’ll give you an example. A client of mine who I actually saw this week was explaining to me how a friend of his for three years now has consistently called during times of the day when he’s busy, and he’s with his family, and he needs to do things that are his responsibility. And he’s communicated to them, not directly, just said, “Yeah, can you call me at another time?” But would pick up a lot of times when the friend would call him. And of course, next thing, something recent happened where he got tired, but he hadn’t set those boundaries with this friend. So the friend calls, he just ignores. The friend calls, he ignores, and then eventually the friend gets angry and doesn’t speak to him. So he comes to therapy and he’s saying, “It’s my fault,” meaning it’s his fault that he did not pick up the call as opposed to, “It’s my fault that I did not set the boundary with my friend.”

Nicholette Leanza:

Right.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Because for him, he see that as an “I have no choice but to pick up the call when this person calls. But because I’m afraid of conflict,” which you would see in family dynamics too as well, afraid of conflict,” it would be easier to say that it’s my fault. That would be an example of what porous boundaries look like.

Nicholette Leanza:

Oh my gosh, that’s a great example. Can you share with us other ways that this type of trauma can manifest in individuals or families?

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Yeah. The thing with that is there’s a lot of emotional dysregulation that comes with intergenerational trauma. I think if I look at my experience with my clients who have some level or some degree of intergenerational trauma, it’s like, oh, okay, made sense. I see what’s happening. So there’s a lot of unresolved emotions and thoughts.

Very deep resentment as well can absolutely manifest. One very common one is a negative repeated pattern of behavior. For example, I don’t know if the terminology, “hush culture,” something like that, so whereas we don’t speak about this thing that clearly is a problem in our family. So of course you might see some generations of abuse happening with women specifically in the family and no one says anything. I had a client who had talked about their picking up on the generational negative repeated patterns of behavior of a specific member of the family always being killed by a loved one or being killed by someone. And I was like, that’s an interesting line to actually… That’s an interesting observation when they have brought this to me. So that repeated part of the behavior can look… It can be different ways, but it’s still very similar.

And I would say another thing too as well, unfortunately, when we talk about generational trauma is the poor parent-child relationship where a lot of us as adults were manifesting attachment styles that mimic what our childhood was like. That already in its own can be a topic on itself.

Nicholette Leanza:

That’s a whole other-

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Those are very big indications of generational trauma when we’re looking at how it can actually manifest.

Nicholette Leanza:

Now, have you come across, I think in some of my own clients that I’ve identified generational trauma, for some I’ll see a mistrust that the family will have for just people outside of the family. This just basic mistrust. Have you noticed that as well?

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

What do you mean when you see that?

Nicholette Leanza:

Okay, one of the examples I’m thinking of, I used to work in foster care and sometimes we know in foster care, foster youth obviously have been exposed to trauma. Part of the goal of foster care is reunifying back with parents or family, because of the system per se. So even looking at children’s protective services, I’ll find some families, even with reunification, will be just very not trusting. And then the play of their generational trauma too, where generation to generation of maybe abuse and neglect and trauma playing out. So that’s where I’ll see probably just more of a mistrust of the system is probably more of how I’m describing that. Does that make sense?

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Yeah, absolutely. During the time when I was solely working with kids and their caregivers, I saw that all the time. It was very common where I would have kids who wouldn’t even trust me because they would look at me as the system too as well.

Nicholette Leanza:

I’ve been there.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

And I could have Mom come in who has maybe a ruptured attachment with the kid or would also be distrusting of the system, so they’re both, what they share, the trauma that they share in common is the mistrust of the system in itself.

And then looking at it too as well, because it does absolutely impact that relationship, because a lot of times if we’re going back to the causes of the trauma that the marginalized groups and identities are formed from that trauma. So of course, if we’re looking at it from that perspective, it makes sense as to why even looking at the mistrust of the system as a shared common trauma, the relational aspect of it, the intergenerational aspect of it is just, they connect. There’s a connection there.

Nicholette Leanza:

Right. Let me ask you this. How can understanding generational trauma help us better to support those who’ve experienced it?

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

That question for some reason is a tough one.

Nicholette Leanza:

I agree. That is a tough question. I mean, here we are having this lovely conversion.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

That is a tough one.

Nicholette Leanza:

Right? We’re having the conversation about it, and you and I are both coming from the point of view of knowing what it looks like working with individuals and families.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Yeah.

Nicholette Leanza:

But I think one of the keys, and we were talking a little bit about this before we were recording, is that my hope is for some listeners to realize, “Wow, this is a thing and maybe this is something in my own life that I’ve been experiencing, and my family has as well.” So I think even for individuals understanding that this is a type of trauma that might be a dynamic in your family, it could just be helpful right there.

Or if somebody outside the family looking at the family, that might be another way of… I think when you understand something, you can better support it. Does that make sense?

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Yeah, it makes sense. The reason why this is a tough one is because I don’t know how the listeners are going to feel about my answers to that.

Nicholette Leanza:

I’m curious. All right, what’s your answer here?

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Honestly, this is just coming not from a professional point of view, but maybe a little bit of that, of looking at the world. But I think as long as there’s a family line, there’s trauma, if that makes sense. So as long as there’s a family system there, there’s going to be trauma. Of course, the trauma is going to range in terms of severity, frequency, who’s responsible for it, what type of trauma it is. But as long as there’s a family dynamic, it can even be as, and I say “minute” but it’s also not minute for some people, that’s their trauma, the expectation to be perfect, for example.

The trauma of, “We present ourselves this way.” If you present yourself very differently, it’s almost like a disgrace to the family. I have had clients where that was the trauma. And for someone, someone might be like, “Yeah, but it’s made your dad successful, it’s made your mom successful, it’s made you successful, so what’s the trauma?” And they’re like, “I don’t know how to stop.”

Nicholette Leanza:

Right.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Someone told me, “I don’t know how to stop. I don’t know how to pause and rest and be mindful and be present in life.” That is a trauma. So I think the reason why that was my thought when you asked that question-

Nicholette Leanza:

I see. Okay.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

… it’s the fact that we have to be made aware. You can’t really fix or address what you’re not necessarily made aware of. And I think because there’s also a hush mentality with generational trauma because it has to do with families and families have different makeups, they have different cultures around what their dynamic looks like. So it’s understandable that this is not a conversation that we’re having, but it should be a conversation that we have and we need to normalize it.

Nicholette Leanza:

Yes.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Normalize it in a sense where we’re not talking about this because Mom did something wrong or Granddad did something wrong, or Grandmom did something wrong. Now, bear in mind, I’m not talking about people who have actually gone through severe levels of abuse where a family member was responsible for that. Those people are wrong, if that makes sense.

Nicholette Leanza:

Right.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

But more so coming from the perspective of, “Okay, I understand. Make sense why you parented me this way because that was what you experienced.” But unfortunately, the reason why the awareness aspect most likely is very, very low is because I have a lot of… I see it every day in my sessions where if I say this, this would happen. If I set that boundary with my parents, this would happen. If I had that conversation with them that this happened because there’s a block within that power dynamic of I did the best that I could, but I don’t want to sit to have to realize what trauma did I actually experience that I passed on. Because then comes self-accountability. And that is one of the things that we really struggle with as adults.

Nicholette Leanza:

Right, right. Very true. You made a point a little earlier saying, I’m paraphrasing, if you’re in a family dynamic, what comes hand-in-hand with that is trauma, some sort of line of trauma. And I think that’s a really interesting statement and I agree with that. Part of it too is I’m a trauma therapist specialist, so I feel like I see it day to day as I’m working with my own clients. But I think it’s one of those notions that people don’t really recognize that if you’re part of a family dynamic, there’s probably some semblance of a line of trauma just inherent in that. Is that a fair way of how you’re describing it?

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Yeah, absolutely. And you’re absolutely right when you say that you think that people just don’t recognize that. I honestly don’t blame them. I have more empathy for them in my sessions when that happens. I don’t blame them because it changes the idealistic view that you also have of your family, if that makes sense.

Nicholette Leanza:

Oh, good point. Oh, I didn’t look at it with that point of view.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

And I think us, whether we’re adults, we’re older generation, mid to late generation, whatever generation we’re in, we’re always still kids at heart. So if something changes that the idealistic view that you maybe had of a parent or anyone, any family member really, it becomes shocking to the point where no one really wants to have to sit with that emotion because that’s when it’s real, if that makes sense.

Nicholette Leanza:

Right. Oh, for sure. And sitting with those emotions can just feel so uncomfortable, which is why I think it drives people to want to avoid feeling that or maybe even turning to substances to numb it and things like that.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Yeah, exactly. Currently in my life, I’m having these kind of conversations with my mom. I will tell you this, that if this were five years ago, if this were 10 years ago, I would never have pictured me having these conversations with her where she’s not running. She’s not running anymore, she’s actually sitting and connecting the dots with me. And I think that’s probably the most intimate in terms of our relationship we’ve gotten because there’s a little, even though she’s not verbally saying that, self-accountability there. She’s showing that self-accountability there. But I’ll tell you that it’s not an easy thing.

Nicholette Leanza:

No.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

And I know families and people arrive to that state. They arrive there when they arrive there. Some people, it takes them 30 years. Some people, it takes them two. It’s just unfortunate.

Nicholette Leanza:

Right. We’re going to shift gears a bit here. Can you share with us some ways and strategies for addressing and healing from generational trauma?

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Therapy.

Nicholette Leanza:

Love it. The-ra-py. Let’s say it very clearly: the-ra-py. So I guess that’s inferring that it’s best to seek out a professional support.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Absolutely seek treatment, seek a professional, seek support. I have that [inaudible 00:20:15]. The reason why I say that is because my friends, they know when I have conversations with friends of mine and they’re saying some things and they’re like, “I have…” And they’re connecting their generational trauma, I’m like, “The-ra-py.” They’ll connect it with me, actually go through to therapy.

This week I had an interesting conversation with a trauma client of mine about taking a break from your healing process. It’s okay to take a break, it’s okay to pause. They were explaining to me how they get very exhausted after sessions. Sometimes I call it an emotional hangover type of thing.

Nicholette Leanza:

That’s a good term for it.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Where it’s just like, “I can’t move, I don’t want to do anything.” And I told them, I said, “You know you the have a choice to go at whatever pace you want to go with the healing of your trauma.” And they’re like, “I do?” I said, “Yeah, you do. You have a choice to say, ‘I only can do two sessions in a month and that’s it. I can’t do every week right now,’ because it’s a lot that you’re uncovering.” And I’m just giving this example to explain-

Nicholette Leanza:

It’s a good example.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

… the fear that we have in going to therapy. And a lot of times people say, “I don’t want to have to sit with these emotions.” So it’s pretty much letting them know that they have the choice to go out whatever pace they want that lets them realize, “Okay, I do need therapy.” And obviously there is interventions like EMDR which really helps with just identifying new ways of thinking. And then in addition to that, helping you really reprocess your trauma, which I’m trained in EMDR.

And I learned recently too as well the IFS. That has a lot of bringing various parts of your personality and yourself across, I think, your developmental trajectory and then kind of molding who you are as a whole person. Don’t really know much about IFS. I’ve been hearing about it a lot and it seems very interesting on how it correlates with trauma.

And of course, there’s CFCBT too as well, which is an additional way which can actually help you challenge a lot of the beliefs and narratives that unfortunately have been developed for us and we’ve kind of carried along generations.

But in terms of strategies too as well, I think one of the things that’s very key, at least for anyone who is actually doing trauma work, if that makes sense, you have to realize that the trauma, yeah, we’re using EMDR. You’re going to the past, so to speak. You’re taking a journey back. You’re like, “Okay, great. I’m reprocessing, reprocessing. Oh, really? I felt abandoned then. This is why every time people leave, [inaudible 00:23:08] abandoned. Oh, my mom does that. And I see those similarities. And oh, I am very anxious and I have an anxious parent who projected their anxiety on me. And my granddad did the same thing to my mom and it just…”

So we’re processing and going back and visiting. That’s nice. And once you’re going through that process of healing from generational trauma, the client has to get to a point where they start to actually design what their future’s going to look like because the main thing, I would say, the most important thing to understand about generational trauma is that it can actually end with you.

So I think that’s probably the part of generational trauma that is amazing. Because how we talk about trauma cannot… That we don’t like to say the word of trauma being “fixed” because it’s a lifelong journey that you take with you. The thing about generational trauma is that there actually is more likelihood that it can end with you. Of course, there’s just going to have to be a lot of work that’s being done.

Nicholette Leanza:

I like that you’re emphasizing that. It’s about eventually just breaking the cycle. It ends with you and not not to carry it forward. And that’s one thing I think therapy can be very helpful with that.

Now let’s talk about how communities and society as a whole can address generational trauma and maybe even help prevent its transmission to future generations.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Yeah.

Nicholette Leanza:

What are you thinking about that?

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

I think community also, that has to include the family subsystem, the ecosystem in general. So that’s like family, church, school, mosque, wherever. That includes that because I think the silence and secrecy narrative of generational trauma is what’s really key. It’s what’s really holding it together as strong as it is right now.

One of the reasons why I say that is we need to start to make changes. These communities need to start making changes to that narrative of, “Oh. No. That happened to you? No, that did not happen to you. You don’t bring that up again.” So making these changes helps.

I can give you a quick example. My mom and I would have this conversation all the time because I feel like this was probably her most transformational moment as a parent, so to speak. I think when I was very young, since maybe the age of 10, I was very quiet. So very mute, very quiet. So sometimes maybe mute, even. And I had, you know how… I don’t know, maybe you don’t know actually. So as Christians who go, and we go to church and we have uncles and people that we call “uncles” and “aunties.’

Nicholette Leanza:

Yes. Yeah, I have that in my family.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Your uncles… Maybe they aren’t your uncles and your aunties. So we had an uncle who had just noticed me at church, just being very mute for an extended period of time. And then just brought it to my attention and told my mom rather. Actually, he spoke to me first. Didn’t tell me he was going to tell my mom, he spoke to me first. And I was like, “Yeah, everything’s fine.” But everything wasn’t fine because I was experiencing trauma as a kid. So he then spoke to my mom, and my mom actually listened. She listened as soon he told her. She put me in a room and was like, “We’re not leaving until we process this,” so to speak. And of course that was very helpful because that’s when I knew like, “Oh, I can actually speak. There’s no silence, so to speak, of secrecy around that.”

So I think that community is key because a lot of times we see things as community and we don’t really say anything. And of course by doing that, we’re easily normalizing it. And that’s one thing that we need to be able to do because a lot of times… There’s this therapist, I’m trying to remember… Tabitha? I’m going to butcher her name, but it’s okay. Tabitha Mparamira-Puguree or something like that. I was watching a video of her and I found what she said to be just so powerful. She said, “Because of traditions, we don’t question why we do what we do.” And I was like, huh.

Nicholette Leanza:

Oh, that’s good. Right.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

It’s interesting. I think she likened it to something as little as, “Oh, that’s grandma’s recipe. That’s how my mom does it. That’s how my mom does it, all that. And my mom says, ‘Oh, that’s how my mom did it.'” But we don’t really question. Even with parenting too as well. So I found that to be very powerful. I think that’s another way in which as a community, we can start to really do that.

And of course, self-accountability, like I said before.

Nicholette Leanza:

Yes, right. Can’t emphasize that enough.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

That is very needed.

Nicholette Leanza:

Right, right. My gosh, Paula, thank you. You’ve just provided so many amazing insights into this very difficult topic. You mentioned the hush dynamic. I mean, this is really bringing it to light to make people aware, to pay attention to it, and to speak for it. So I appreciate everything you shared with us.

Paula Bamgbose-Martins:

Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. It was a great conversation.

Nicholette Leanza:

Thank you. And I also want to thank the team behind the podcast: Jason Clayton, Juliana Whiten, and Chris Kelman. Take care, everyone.