Shaking the Family Tree: Exploring Inherited Family Trauma

‘I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be a practitioner or an educator in inherited family trauma’ says Mark Wolynn speaking with the quiet, earnest confidence of a person who, through both hardship and hard work, experienced something of a Damascus moment almost two decades ago. ‘I lost sight in one of my eyes’ he explains, ‘and the doctors were unable to tell me what caused the loss and what would heal it’. Worried that his sight would begin to fade in his other eye, Mark wrapped up his business in the US and embarked on a trip that took him around the globe in search of healing.

Like all great quests, it ended with him returning home equipped with a very different vision of the world. Reflecting on his journey, he can pinpoint the moment that his path to healing began in earnest – at a South East Asian meditation centre. ‘Everything I had been trying – juice fasts, and vitamins, supplements, and hands on healing – did not work’ he says. ‘I had waited in line for eight hours to have a satsang – a  discourse with a spiritual master. And at that stage I had learned some very useful fundamental principles to let me stay with the uncomfortable and intolerable sensations in my body. When I got to the top of the line I thought he might congratulate me on being a good meditator, but instead he looked right through me, as if he could see what I couldn’t see. And he told me to go home and call my parents’.

It was not the advice that Mark was expecting. ‘I was livid because I thought he misread me’ he says, laughing, ‘so I thought I would go to an even greater spiritual teacher. And I waited in line all day, and get to the front and I found the same advice – go home and make peace with your parents. But I wondered how I was going to be able to do that because our relationship was so broken. I didn’t realise it at the time but inherited family trauma stood in the way of my relationship healing with them’.

The effects of trauma are becoming far more widely recognised in recent decades. The repercussions of exposure to traumatic events became evident in ostentatiously traumatic events, such as those experienced by soldiers in warzones. But every traumatic experience can carry lasting repercussions. In the past few years, more research has developed on the intergenerational aspects of trauma.

Mark saw a pattern of parental disconnect in his own family history. ‘There was this pattern of being broken from the mother’s love’ he explains, ‘three of my grandparents lost their mothers when they were babies, and the fourth lost her father when she was just one year old, and through that lost her mother’s attention’. Recognising this pattern was a key to healing for Mark, giving him the opportunity to see that ‘this is what was being passed forward in my family. The anxiety of feeling that there was nobody there… the terror of feeling unsupported’.

Mark began to challenge a habit of disconnecting from his parents as soon as he returned home to the America. ‘I’m walking up the driveway and I know my mother is going to hug me, and I know it is going to feel like being squeezed in a bear trap. But this time because I had so much training in staying with what was uncomfortable, I asked her to keep holding me. And even in that day things began to change, but in the weeks that went forward, my heart broke open and I healed my relationship with my mother. I fell back in love with them both. The teachers were right. And so for the next 20 years I started to teach principles that I had learned, first as a meditation teacher and then a trauma therapist and body-centred psychotherapist. My eyesight returned and I was a different person’.

Fundamental to the approach that Mark went on to study and further develop is the science of language. As a student of English and a poet, his connection to our most nuanced form of expression is deep. ‘When trauma happens, clues are left behind in the form of emotionally charged words and sentences’ he explains, ‘these clues form a breadcrumb trail, and when we learn how to follow this trail it can lead us back to traumas in our early childhood and in-utero experience, and in our family history’.

‘Around 20 years ago, in my first case of inherited family trauma, I worked with a 24 year old woman who habitually cut herself. She cut herself severely on her legs and abdomen, so badly that sometimes her life would be in danger from blood loss. Her particular way of self-harming told a story. Why was she cutting so deeply? I asked her to try to describe the thoughts and feelings that are present in the very second before she cuts. And she said to me “I deserve to die”’.

‘I was looking at this 24 year old and asking myself – what did you do? Did you hurt or harm somebody? Did you do something that led to someone hurting or killing themselves? But it turned out that nothing like that had transpired. So we start to look at her family situation, and she seemed to have a good, loving relationship with her mother and father. And she seemed to have a good childhood. And she was still able to receive love and tenderness from her mother’.  

‘So without knowing where I was going, I started to ask about the generation before. And then she told me about a very traumatic incident in her family history. Her grandmother was an alcoholic, and was driving a car drunk when she crashed into a telephone pole. Her husband, the client’s grandfather, was in the passenger seat and suffered severe lacerations and died before the ambulance arrived’.

‘When she told me that story, I understood two connections. The first was a connection between her self-inflicted wounds and the wounds that caused her grandfather’s death – an incident that nobody talks about in the family because it is too painful. And the second connection was a deeper one, the feeling of guilt that her grandmother would have felt following the death of her husband. At that point 20 years ago, we didn’t know anything about biological evidence of trauma. We just knew through working with many cases and seeing similarities and connections like this, that some process what going on. At that point I started to find out about some of the work of Burt Hellinger and I started to study with him’.

What Burt Hellinger observed as a psychological phenomenon of ‘unconscious loyalty’ among family units paved the way for further psychological and biological theories on how trauma is passed through generations. ‘ People ask me about what they can do to stop the cycle’ says Mark ‘and I tell them that it is very important to shake the family tree and see what falls out. What stories never got told? What traumas have never healed all the way? It is important to know these things, especially if we are unconsciously reliving elements of a trauma that essentially does not belong to us… trauma doesn’t sleep but looks for the fertile ground of resolution in the children of the following generations’.

In the therapy room, Mark has found that knowledge of trauma from previous generations alone is not enough. How and when that knowledge is integrated is a key part of the healing experience. It is an act that requires creativity. ‘Healing from trauma is very similar to creating a poem because both require the right timing, the right words, and the right image. When all three of those things align then something profound gets set into motion and we can feel that alignment in our body’.

‘In order to heal we need to have an experience that is larger or more powerful than our old trauma feelings. When we practice the new feelings of this new experience we end up bulking one part of the brain and in a way we steal energy away from our old trauma response. We engage the prefrontal cortex with these new feelings – of calm, security, or well-being – and the practise of these new feelings allows new neural pathways to develop. It is the old principle of Hebb’s law, that whatever fires together wires together. We have synaptic synchronisation, and the expression of neurotransmitters like serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine. Then even our genes can express in a new way’.

‘I think that is why it is important to be very in tune with your client’ says Mark, ‘because if you are not in tune then your timing can be off. If the words that comfort your client come too early then your client might not be able to take them in. And if your words are not precise, then your client may not be able to resonate with them. So you have to really hear and listen to the language that your client is using. When we can join the healing image, at the right time, with the precise language, then we create a new healing experience’.

Mark’s approach, marrying decades of clinical experience with the latest genetic research seems to be resonating deeply with people around the world. His book It Didn’t Start With You acts as a guide to exploring the world of family trauma. ‘If we ignore the past, it comes back to haunt us, but if we explore it then we don’t have to repeat it’ he says ‘we can break the cycle of inherited family trauma’. The key to the puzzle of trauma always stems back to language we use – ‘our core language insists on being heard’ says Mark, ‘when we follow where it leads and hear its story, and it has the power to defuse our deepest fears’.

About the author: 

Director of The Family Constellation Institute and The Hellinger Institute of Northern California, Mark is North America’s leader in Inherited Family Trauma. A sought-after lecturer, he leads workshops at hospitals, clinics, conferences, and teaching centres around the world.

Mark is the author of the newly released book ‘IT DIDN’T START WITH YOU: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle’. Mark specializes in working with depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, fears, panic disorders, self-injury, chronic pain and persistent symptoms and conditions.