In this week's episode, Dr. Worthy looks at how parents' unresolved trauma negatively impacts their adult children's interpersonal functioning. She uses storytelling to highlight insecure attachment styles, defines secure attachment, and provides strategies to improve interpersonal functioning and unlearn maladaptive patterns.
Transcript for Episode 3
Generational Trauma Part 2 of 3
(Linda A. 0:03)
WorthyTherapy explores the intersection of mental health and identity in the Black, Queer, and athletic communities. Dr. Keoshia Worthy, a Licensed Psychologist, uses her humaneness to relate to the listeners by targeting an audience she identifies with. And she answers the question, “How do I know if and when therapy is needed?”
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 00:24)
Hi! And welcome back to Worthy Therapy. I am your host Dr. Keoshia Worthy. In today’s episode, we will continue the three-part series of intergenerational trauma through storytelling with the fictional family, the Sturgis. In the previous episode, I defined intergenerational trauma and discussed how unresolved hurt and pain could permeate the family system, affecting couplehood and parenting. I highlighted a few developmental needs during childhood, like emotional attunement and emotional regulation. Both are modeled and provided by the caregiver, but when inconsistent, it can influence the child’s identity, interpersonal functioning, and emotional intelligence into adulthood. Additionally, I offered three helpful strategies to heal from trauma within the family system. When you get a chance, check it out!
Recap of Sturgis family
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 01:11)
For those who may have missed episode 2, I will give a brief synopsis of the Sturgis family, a fictional family I created for educational purposes only; it is not based on actual events.
Cheryl Hughes is an 83 y/o Black woman who was married for 57 years before the passing of her husband, Joseph. Despite wanting a big family, Cheryl and Joseph struggled with multiple miscarriages but eventually had two children, Joyce, 62, and JJ, now 55. Cheryl and Joseph maintained a constant physical presence in their children’s lives. Still, they struggled with developing a strong emotional connection with their children because of their unresolved disappointment, pain, and anger from not having a large family. Cheryl struggled with depression, which worsened after the passing of Joseph, and he coped with alcohol. Joyce, their daughter, never married, although she has three children, and their son, JJ, had two failed marriages and is now working on his third.
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 02:08)
Today we will explore the impact of intergenerational trauma on Joyce and JJ’s adult life and discuss attachment styles, how to unlearn maladaptive patterns, and improve interpersonal functioning.
By the time Joyce was 25 y/o she had her first child with a man she had dated on and off for three years. Her romantic relationships were either on and off or brief, not lasting longer than three months. A part of her liked this level of independence of not needing a man, not having to rely on someone else. She had two significant relationships, and both were met with challenges regarding Joyce’s inability to connect emotionally. Whenever the relationship felt that it was becoming too serious, she would accuse her partners of becoming too needy, which led her to withdraw and eventually disconnect completely. Even more so, when these relationships ended, she was left entirely alone, with no one to confide in, not even her brother.
If you remember from episode 2, Joyce’s mother, Cheryl, struggled with Major Depressive Disorder due to her unresolved grief of multiple failed attempts at carrying a child full term. As a result, she was not emotionally available to Joyce during infancy and throughout her childhood. The word I used previously to describe this was consistency. Unfortunately, Cheryl’s parenting was unpredictable, and Joyce had to learn to self-soothe and manage her emotions alone, without the guidance or support of her parents.
What is Attachment Theory?
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 03:31)
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed Attachment Theory in the 1930s. In a nutshell, attachment theory suggests that our early experiences with our caregivers influence our behaviors and interpersonal functioning in adulthood. Specifically, they focused on the infant/caregiver relationship. Bowlby stated that “the propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals is a basic component of human nature.” Mary Ainsworth supported Bowlby’s claims through her “Strange Situation” experiment in the 1970s. The findings yielded four attachment styles: secure, anxious-ambivalent, avoidant, and dismissive. In her study, she examined infants’ emotional responses to their mothers, first introducing them to strangers, separating from them, and then reuniting.
In Joyce’s case, she developed an avoidant attachment style. While self-soothing and independence were adaptive in her household, it is now maladaptive. Don’t get me wrong, being able to self-soothe and show independence is healthy, but it becomes unhealthy when it prevents us from building and maintaining relationships with others. We are social beings and have survived and thrived from making meaningful, deep connections with others. Joyce fears intimacy, and rightfully so, since her parents could not provide that…how could she possibly trust another?
JJ married at the age of 18 after finding out his girlfriend was pregnant. JJ, unlike Joyce, wanted closeness and intimacy, he wanted to feel connected with another, and he was desperate for it. JJ believed he was in love, despite the obvious signs that his girlfriend was unfaithful. After one year of marriage, they divorced after he found out that the child was not his. JJ was distraught, deep down, he knew the truth, but he only felt complete and secure; when he was with her, he would do whatever she wanted, including marry. JJ married again at 26 years old, lasting for 13 years. The second marriage presented its challenges. His wife felt that he was too needy, jealous, and controlling and that he struggled with creating his own life separate from the relationship. In JJ’s defense, he needed reassurance, he needed to know that she loved him, and he needed attention. He was embarrassed by the level of closeness he craved.
JJ is exhibiting an anxious-ambivalent attachment style. JJ responded differently to inconsistent parenting during childhood. Instead, he was left with the feeling of anxiety and a sense of uncertainty about his needs being met. How could he trust another to provide him with safety and security if his parents were unstable in that area?
How to unlearn maladaptive patterns?
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 06:15)
The first thing we will address is how to unlearn maladaptive patterns…
As you can see, Joyce and JJ had two different responses to their upbringing, which is typical. I used the term adaptive earlier because they both recognized a need for comfort, someone who would always be there, and someone who would help them make sense of what they were feeling. Since this was not provided, Joyce sought it solely from herself and JJ from others. Now, this tool is no longer needed; it is causing them pain and failed relationships. This way of functioning is now maladaptive, causing more harm than good.
As mentioned in the previous episode, an unresolved trauma from the caregiver can impact the child’s identity and emotional development. While Joyce feels strong, somewhat sure of who she is, regarding her need for independence and not having to rely on others, JJ has low-self esteem and over-identifies with and is codependent in relationships. He does not know who he is, if not a partner. In fact, Joyce’s take on not needing anyone is a defense mechanism to avoid vulnerability and closeness; she, too, is struggling with identity and emotional development. Both of them present with insecure attachment styles. The good news is that it can be unlearned.
To unlearn unhealthy patterns, we must first do self-reflection. Often, we go throughout our lives blaming others for our poor relationships, making excuses or rationalizing our behaviors (such as Joyce’s beliefs that she doesn’t need anyone), or simply going inward, which consists of self-blaming, self-loathing, and sometimes having self-deprecating thoughts (e.g., no one will ever love me, I’m not good enough, what’s the point). These responses only worsen your thoughts about yourself and others, which keeps you clinging to others and seeking external validation (Like JJ) or becoming further isolated, having superficial and empty relationships like Joyce. Introspection is critical; I encourage my clients to identify their role in relationships, whether or not you’re a people pleaser (like JJ), a controller (like to have things your way while excluding others’ needs/wants), or an avoider (like Joyce, she avoids closeness and runs). These are only a few examples, but think about how you show up in your relationships. It’s not just about the other people in your life; you play a role too.
The second thing I encourage is to be an observer of others and your internal and external responses to them. This means to be in the presence of family, friends, or a significant other and note how they interact before responding, pay attention to your internal sensations (uneasy, numb, calm), then register your feelings (anxious, disinterested, or angry), finally, pay attention to what you contribute to the conversation (are you dismissive, do you cut people off because you’re controlling and restless, do you listen for understanding, or are you simply silent). This process helps you improve awareness of the self and others. For the latter, you’re observing how others respond to you. The more you practice this process, the more you note the different internal sensations and external responses you have around different people. From there, you can be even more curious about why you are more nervous and uneasy around your partner and more calm around your co-workers, for example.
How to improve interpersonal functioning?
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 09:24)
Let's examine ways to improve interpersonal functioning…
To improve our social life, we must first strengthen our relationship with ourselves. Some prescribe the technique of parenting oneself. Here, I’d encourage you to provide yourself with unconditional positive regard, a term popularized by the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. This means to be fully accepting of yourself without judgment. Give yourself what is missing, such as forgiveness, learn to fall in love with your flaws, and be kind when you make a mistake. Some of us get so down on ourselves and believe that there is no hope and that nothing will ever go right. I encourage you to challenge that thought by exploring what has been right or good enough and offering self-understanding and acceptance of those negative emotions. The same way a parent would. This does not mean that we do not hold ourselves accountable. We can be responsible and kind to ourselves; both can exist. For example, JJ beats himself up for the failed relationships and blames himself instead of looking inward and questioning his anxiety and his need for self-fulfillment from others. We do not have to shame those needs; we want to understand them better and healthily learn from them. Most importantly, we want to be able to pour into ourselves and fill ourselves up with love and strengthen our self-value and worth.
Lastly, get out there and consider the people that give you that calm, welcoming, at ease sensation and learn to take chances with them. Please share a little more about yourself, observe how they respond, and try to avoid choosing the familiar option, the easy route latching on unhealthily because of your need for external validation, OR running or shutting down. If they are validating and warm, continue to share a little more because you know you are enough.
Secure Attachment Style
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 11:03)
Like you, Joyce and JJ still have a chance of developing a secure attachment style. Secure attachments develop through experience, which can be with a guardian, teacher, friend, therapist, or lover. It is a noticeable difference; you feel more confident and self-assured because you love yourself and notice how that same self-worthiness trickles into your relationships with others. When you have a secure attachment style, you don’t overanalyze or get insecure when your partner needs alone time or time with their friends because you also see the value in that for yourself. When you have a secure attachment style, you know that you don’t need others to validate your feelings because you have you. You will be more receptive when people disagree or challenge your perception because you are open to learning and growing. Because you do not see it as an attack on your personhood but rather a difference in perspective. You understand the value of developing meaningful relationships which involve emotional vulnerability, you want to trust others, and lastly, because you value yourself, you’re able to identify unhealthy situations, speak up for yourself, and then end them if needed.
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 12:07)
As we close today’s episode, I want to remind you that individual therapy is available and can be helpful for those who are struggling with identity, emotional functioning, and building relationships. It can be a space that offers and models safety and trust, unconditional positive regard, and ultimately increases one’s ability to be vulnerable. This service is often provided by psychologists and master’s level therapists, and licensed clinical social workers.
As a reminder, intergenerational trauma is a three-part series. The next episode will focus on how to heal from decades of unresolved trauma within the nuclear family system and how to break the generational curse of intergenerational trauma.
Thank you all for tuning in to today’s episode, and remember that you are worthy, and so is your story!
(Linda A. 12:51)
WorthyTherapy thanks you for taking time out for yourself today. The path to mental wellness comes with multiple challenges, and Dr. Worthy hopes that this week’s episode made life feel more manageable and hopeful.
Please remember that this podcast is not a replacement for psychotherapy. If you are interested in seeking mental health support, please follow up with your healthcare insurance or visit the links in the podcast's description.
For more self-improvement and mental wellness tips, please visit Instagram and search @WorthyTherapy. Be well and until next time.