Generational Trauma

Taja Will (courtesy photo)

My work in the world was carved by unforeseen circumstances. Through a process of understanding, I came to my work with a full spectrum of strength and vulnerability, dedicated to embodied living, compassionate presence and the empowerment of women. 

My childhood was colored by my adoption from Chile to Iowa. My adoptive mother, who was in her early forties at the time, carried severe trauma in her body and mind from the extreme physical and sexual abuse she experienced. Her mind and body began shutting down at a young age. 

Growing up, I didn’t understand why she behaved as she did. I had decided she was the cause of all my own suffering. It took years to understand and have compassion for her. She became the catalyst for my work with women, which focuses on our bodies and our gendered fears, stories and conditioned belief systems. 

My resilience today is composed of both nature and nurture. Nature being my biological understanding of self, my experiences, including trauma passed to me through my DNA. Nurture is my experience of growing up a Latina woman in a small town in Iowa with the presence of mental illness. 

Neuroscientists have shown us the dramatic effects trauma has on our DNA and how it is passed down generation to generation. I may have learned fear and grief from my displacement, but I also learned strength from the most fragile person I know – my adoptive mother. She knows strength because it is the daily costume she wears to survive. 

In learning strength, I took on all of its distortions – aggression, defiance, ruthless independence, the rejection of weakness and distrust of surrender. As I became more aware of these patterns, I softened my strength into awareness, learning about boundaries, interdependence and resilience. 

Here’s the thing about awareness: Our nervous systems store intelligence. If we need to be aggressive to survive, the nervous system will help us do that. It will tell the muscles and brain to prepare our whole body to be ready for threat. If we don’t recognize this as a pattern, a response, then it’s possible to get stuck there.

I’ve been stuck. I know that it can be a slow process to become aware of patterns. I call them defense mechanisms. It’s important to know that defense mechanisms were created for a reason, and we cannot and should not try to correct them without honoring that they protect us when we need them. 

The first step in getting unstuck is awareness – recognizing our patterns. Just that much is a huge step. Next is to interrupt the pattern. You have about thirty seconds between a trigger and the arrival of the defense. If you can assess the situation to know if you truly need your defense in that moment, you can choose to follow the pattern or carve a new path. 

For me, this recognition and choice process is ongoing, it’s been over a decade and I am still practicing. I am committed to my own healing and helping others understand defense mechanisms and their effects on the physical body. Through this understanding the shifts begin and we can expand more easily into greater potential.