Intergenerational Trauma (3 of 3)

October 21, 2022 Dr. Keoshia Worthy Season 1 Episode 4
Intergenerational Trauma (3 of 3)
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In the final episode of intergenerational trauma, Dr. Worthy will guide you through ways to break the generational curse. As the Sturgis’ story ends, you will learn how to approach tense topics with family, the role and function of the family system, and the power of storytelling. 

Linda (00:08)

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. Worthy (00:30)


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 used the fictional characters Joyce and JJ’s lives to explore and provide examples of insecure attachment styles. Additionally, I offered strategies on how to unlearn maladaptive patterns, how to improve interpersonal functioning, and what it means to have a secure attachment style. When you get a chance, check it out!

For those of you who may have missed the background of the Sturgis family, please visit episode 2 at the 1-minute and 11 seconds timestamp. 

Dr. Worthy (01:14)

Today’s Topic 

Today we will discuss ways to heal from decades of unresolved trauma within the nuclear family system and focus on how to break the generational curse of intergenerational trauma.

As Joyce and JJ have journeyed through multiple interpersonal relationships, they continue to work on developing a deeper connection with themselves. Due to failed romantic relationships and unresolved trauma, there is still corrective work to be done concerning self-care, self-love, relationships, and unlearning maladaptive patterns. Although she is changing, Joyce recognizes that she continues to have difficulty connecting and building a solid emotional bond with her children. Similarly, JJ is also evolving and notices that others around him, especially his partner, are somewhat skeptical and guarded. Finally, their mom, Cheryl, is having a tough time grieving her husband. JJ and Joyce are concerned about her. They’ve seen her depressed in the past, but something about this despair is different. 

 Dr. Worthy (02:22)

One of the first things I tell all new clients is that they are likely to leave differently when they come into the therapy space. The overall goal is self-improvement, so parts of them will likely be improved, and while it may be great for them, others may not see it as such. Others may struggle with accepting boundaries, push back on speaking up for themselves, or even be somewhat skeptical of changes, even when they benefit them. 

As you can see, Joyce and JJ are doing better, and the people around them are having difficulty adapting to this “new person.” Believe it or not, parts of them are still the same, and they are now using healthier ways of handling interpersonal conflicts and addressing their concerns head-on. You may ask, “Why is there pushback?” This is not true for every situation, but imagine if you’ve experienced a family member one way for most if not all of your life, and then all of a sudden they are speaking differently, communicating with emotions, more socially aware, more understanding and validating, and choosing to repair, instead of running away from relationships. You, too, would be somewhat surprised. What differentiates being surprised versus resistant to change is when those people are also struggling with boundary setting and interpersonal resolutions.

Dr. Worthy (03:42)

The Power of Storytelling

Let’s begin with the power of storytelling.

I chose storytelling because I genuinely believe in the power of testimony. My first experience hearing a testimony was during a church service as a young kid. I bore witness to those empowered by just hearing someone else’s obstacles, how they fought hard to get out of it, their resilience, and how there was a level of appreciation for the struggle…they made meaning of it. I believe that to un-resolve trauma within the family system, we need storytelling. We must communicate stress, grief, loss, joy, and positive experiences. This allows a more profound social connection; it can be cathartic for the speaker because stories create emotions, and it's a form of communication that can serve many different purposes. Stories can offer relief for the speaker. The story provides many benefits for the listener as well. For example, it can be informative and preventative, teach a lesson, destigmatize, normalize, be relatable, and above all, shows humanness.

Of course, storytelling is not the only way to heal trauma, but it’s worth a start.

Dr. Worthy (04:53)

The Family System

Many families, especially Black and Brown, hold on to secrets for generations. Those secrets lead to feelings of shame, self-doubt, emotional pain, and silence. When we look at family as a system, we can see that just like any other system (such as work or school), it has an evolved set of rules, an organized power structure, and overt and covert forms of communication. The family system is powerful; members are still connected to the family even though they develop their own identities. They are reliant on each other; the family keeps the family’s history and rules (spoken and unspoken) going.

Dr. Worthy (05:34)

Goldenberg (2013) states that the greater the anxiety inherited from previous generations at any transition point, the more anxiety-producing and dysfunctional this point will be for the next generation. Transition points include, but are not limited to, coupling, the arrival of the first child, illness, retirement, or switching roles, and caring for parents. Anxiety can occur in two different ways; according to Carter and McGoldrick, it can be vertical (representing those aspects of our lives that are “the hand that we are dealt,” such as generational trauma) or horizontal (which includes predictable developmental stressors, such as parenting; and unpredictable traumas, like sudden loss). 

It is essential to understand this framework to help make sense of what is happening and also to add language to what you may be witnessing or experiencing.

Dr. Worthy (06:28)

Process vs. Content

Yes, there is power in storytelling. 

It is also imperative to be aware of how powerful the family system is. In lectures on family systems therapy, I begin by introducing my class to the theory of reciprocal determinism, developed by psychologist Albert Bandura. When in conflict or disagreement, many of us tend to focus on the content…the details of what occurred to explain our argument. 

Instead, reciprocal determinism encourages us to look at the process. For a family, we need to be aware that any action by one member affects all other members and the family as a whole. Even more so, each person's response will prompt different reactions involving the system. From this perspective, we see that the problems aren’t caused by past situations; but rather by ongoing interactions that influence the family process. 

For example, when we think of the Sturgis family, they are not experiencing intergenerational trauma because of the multiple miscarriages. They have intergenerational trauma because of poor coping and the interactions that followed. 

As we can see, it is how we, as a family system, react and then regulate after a trauma or stressor. That is what keeps the cycle going.

And as you can see from the story, the parents, Cheryl and Joseph, responded with sadness but did not properly regulate their emotions, which forced their children, JJ and Joyce, to develop poor interpersonal skills and have difficulties with self-regulation. This is the process that continues throughout their family and even in their individual lives. 

Dr. Worthy (08:07) 

Refrain from asking why

My last recommendation that I encourage when trying to break the generational curse is to refrain from asking why. As a psychodynamic therapist, I’ve learned that asking why never captures the whole picture in my work with patients. For example, when I ask a patient why they’re stressed, they may say it’s exam season, or it’s because of a breakup. Instead, I choose and encourage you to begin with these prompts, what, how, and when. Ask yourself or your family members, what is occurring, how it happens, and when it occurs. Let’s take one more look at the Sturgis family using these prompts. 

What is occurring? The family is experiencing difficulty connecting on a deeper emotional level.

How it occurs? Joyce and JJ see their mother struggling and feels disheartened, but they won’t approach her because they don’t know how.

When it occurs? It occurs when their mother expresses sadness, grief, and loneliness when she hides away in her room. It happens when they sense her negative emotions, and it simultaneously heightens their feelings. More specifically, it occurs when they are directly or indirectly expected to provide care, emotional support, or physical touch to someone in need.

Instead of asking why, choose to ask what, how, and when.

Dr. Worthy (09:33) 


As we close today’s episode, I want to remind you that individual and family therapy is available and can be helpful for those struggling with identity, emotional functioning, building relationships, or those who want to resolve pain and injury within the family system. This service can be provided by Marriage and Family Therapists and psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, and master’s level therapists.

We have closed the series of intergenerational trauma, and the next topic will focus on how to prevent and alleviate somatization, the expression of psychological factors as physical symptoms. 

Thank you all for tuning in to today’s episode, and remember that you are worthy, and so is your story! 

Linda A. (10:15)

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.  

Today's Topic
The Power of Storytelling
The Family System
Process vs. Content
Refrain From Asking Why