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Broken Watches and Antique Dresses: The parts we inherit

We all find peace in the little things that remind us of family. A watch worn by our fathers their entire lives, somewhat broken, which is ours to keep safe now, or an antique saree in our mother’s trunk that her mom passed down to her and so will yours to you.

Have you ever wondered how deeply these inheritances are embedded in us? Are these merely the parts you get to have or a great part of who you are? And the biggest question is: Are all these legacies worth passing down?


A Legacy to Be Broken

As surprising as it is, materialistic things aren’t the only treasures passed down through generations, but so are experiences. These experiences, whether composing or traumatising (generally traumatising), impact a community so intensely that they impress on the many generations to come and determine parts of their personalities.

Imagine a bottle of ink breaking loose in your diary. You keep turning pages, one after the other, but its impression remains on all the pages beneath that one affected page.

Similar to this is the phenomenon called generational trauma.

Thanks to the urban dictionary, the word trauma is today widely acknowledged and understood as an adverse impact of a stressful situation in a person’s life. It may be due to losing a loved one, failing an important exam, or being benched during a life-changing match due to a leg injury. Generational trauma, on the other hand, is still an alien concept to most. It is the adverse impact and symptoms of trauma passed down, like a parcel of genetics, from the generation that faced a strong traumatic incident to the next ones that never even came face to face with the adversity.

The plot of Disney’s Coco portrays it precisely, which revolves around a woman and her daughter whose husband abandoned his music career and her great-great-great grandson’s struggle to lift the generational ban she put on music, consequent to her tragedy and fears.

Similarly, people every day try to end generational pressures like that of clearing NEET or JEE, standing up to a violent family member, or challenging orthodoxy by being the first woman in your family to run after your dreams. As the black sheep generation that is hell-bent on breaking loose from the toxic cycles and making the world a more inclusive space, we must be aware and make aware of generational trauma.


Let’s Start from the Start

The impact of the infamous Holocaust on its survivors, their families, and the generations to come, while being a classic example of generational trauma, is also the reason behind its acquaintance with the psychological community.

Experiencing such traumatising events can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which may be carried down as generational trauma to offspring and further on. So, while the manslaughter of the Holocaust ended with the Second World War, its victims could never find peace.

In an article in 1996, a Canadian psychiatrist, Dr. Vivian M. Rakoff, MD, and colleagues documented high rates of mental distress in the children of Holocaust survivors, which included depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and termed this phenomenon intergenerational trauma (transmission from the directly affected generation to the next). The Holocaust, to date, has been one of the most widely researched areas to study generational trauma, as the impacts of it are still evident in the present generation of its victims in the form of transgenerational trauma (transmission from the generations that were not directly affected).

It is very common for the present generation of Holocaust victims to suffer from depression, anxiety, irrational fears, and other mental stresses that become a hindrance in their everyday lives.

Similar to this, there is another more recent indigenous case of the Kashmiri-Pandit genocide of the 1990s. The terror of bloodshed, rapes, and betrayal still runs through the veins of the victims and their families. Recently, the Kashmir files painted a transparent picture of the exodus, which was followed by numerous debates and interviews in the media, which highlighted its aftermath that rules the victims’ minds still.

These incidents of the past, which left everlasting traumatic impacts on generations that continue to the present, are not a thing of the past. Simultaneous to the population that is suffering from the generational trauma passed down to them from their ancestors is the population that is starting similar cycles by being directly affected by the ongoing wars and violence experienced like never before and falling prey to evils like terrorism, hunger, and poverty.

The One with the Most Baggage

For women, adding to the mental distress that gets carried down through their mothers and grandmothers is the physical trauma.

“The female body served as a terrain through which to exchange dramatic acts of violence” (Menon, 2013).

The rape of women on both sides, at the time of partition, was considered an act of taking revenge on an entire community because men’s honour is thought to reside in women’s bodies.

These ordeals that women have had to face are so chronically impactful that society has made space for them in its cultural norms like ghunghat and purdah, which were practiced to protect Rajput women from Mughal invasion but are now a live-or-die rule for many.

Feelings of low self-esteem, body dysmorphia, fear of society, and even an aversion to sex buds in young women with such a familial history as a result of the generational trauma.


How to Identify the Generational Trauma within You

Albeit certain common symptoms are visible in people with generational trauma, like depression, anxiety, nightmares, and low self-esteem, generational trauma may look different in different individuals.

For a child who was raised in a broken home and witnessed many broken marriages, it may show in her aversion to marriage or in the form of a person’s dislike towards a particular community with which their community had an unpleasant past.

One common example, according to Ms. Sanjana Bhasin, a clinical psychologist, is also that of mother-in-laws who give ill treatment to their daughter-in-laws, because that has always been the ‘rule’.

 Hence, the generational trauma, like any other form of trauma, that people carry with themselves equally affects their interactions with the outer world as it affects their internal state of wellbeing. 

Ending the Cycle

Unlike a diary submerged in permanent dark ink, our minds evince the capacity for hope. There are ways for us to deal with the dark sleeping in our unconscious and to manage the traumatising thoughts and behaviours. However, it is not as easy as closing one’s eyes, snapping one’s fingers, and moving on with life.

The first step to ending any toxic cycle is acknowledging its existence and the role it plays in our lives. An issue like generational trauma that possesses the capacity to inconvenience individuals and the community equally requires acceptance to both extents.

Furthermore, seeking therapy helps break toxic patterns and develop healthy coping mechanisms to deal with generational trauma. As important as individual therapy, is the family therapy in this process. However, a “community-binding” mindset and the culture of unconditional respect for elders in the Indian community make several people feel uncomfortable working on the roots of problems that originate from the family itself.

"Younger people are more open to talking about it [their family’s role in their trauma], but for adults, the need to maintain a familial image makes them back out of therapy," says Ms. Sanjana Bhasin. 

Additionally, a person willing to work on themselves tends to take a back when shunned by the community for seeking help. To eliminate such taboo around it, the need to be aware and make aware magnifies. 

Generational trauma, being as much a social issue as it is personal to many, demands that society look beyond unawareness and stereotypes to be dealt with effectively.

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