Have you ever heard, “You laugh just like your mother,” “You seem to be great with numbers like your Dad was,” or “I love to garden just the way my Grandma always did”? Our culture likes to point out the positive things we inherit from our parents and grandparents, but rarely will you hear someone bring up the harder truths of inheritance, although they are just as real. “I’m addicted to pain killers like my mom was,” “I seem to constantly lose my temper just like my dad,” or “I’m struggling with depression and I recognize these symptoms from my mom and my grandma.”
We inherit so much from our family, much of it being subconscious. You don’t need to have suffered a major traumatic event, or even have endured heavy trauma like sexual abuse to have experienced a childhood of harmful messages, emotional neglect and toxic practices. Destructive behaviors, thought patterns and mental illness quietly pass from one generation to the next, unless intentional steps are taken to break the cycle and replace the toxic patterns with healthy practices.
Hope and healing are possible, no matter how “messed up” your family was or how many mistakes you have made. It can be hard to think of your family in a negative light, and even harder to have the courage to say you are going to do things differently. Remember, none of us are perfect and each of us have room for turning away from sin and taking steps toward holy redemption.
After generations of broken marriages, I am working through what I have seen modeled by family and learning how to fight for a strong, vulnerable marriage instead of fleeing when things get tough. I want a close connection with my kids rather than the emotionally distant relationship my parents had with me. This requires me continually choosing uncomfortable conversations and the courage to enter unfamiliar emotional territory.
The way your family has behaved and the choices they have made are not an eternal sentence of doom on your life. They do not define you. You are not destined to become an alcoholic, you can make smarter financial choices, you aren’t stuck being an angry mother or short tempered husband, and most importantly, you can live your life and lead your family in relationship with the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ.
In Mark 22:34, Jesus commands, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” Don’t forget about the tremendous peace available to us through our faith. Jesus longs to see us experience healing now.
After deconstructing my own addictive tendencies, co-dependant behaviors, disregarded mental health and false beliefs about myself I had inherited from my family of origin, I have been able to heal from much of the generational toxicity that was once pointing me down a path of self destruction. I want the same freedom and renewed sense of life I have found for you too.
While everyone’s healing process will look different, many have found the following steps to be vital along the journey.
The process of healing is an important one, much like the process of grief. Recognizing toxic behaviors and patterns in your family (and yourself) can evoke a sense of loss. God wants us to lament these feelings alongside Him; remember, He is big enough to handle whatever your feelings may be.
Growing up in a toxic environment, you may have felt like you didn’t fit in or truly belong to anyone. You may have allowed lies from broken people to define you. I was constantly told, directly and indirectly, that my sister was the smart one. We must identify the lies that are causing shame and replace them with the truth from the one who calls us Beloved. “I am not dumb, for the Lord gives wisdom. From his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Proverbs 2:6)
Get Real About Mental Health
The shame, masked as pride that passed through my Grandma, to my mom and down on to me, served as a conductor of anxiety and depression. Trauma changes the brain in ways researchers continue to discover. I encourage you to explore the ways generational trauma may have negatively affected your mental health with a professional. Seeing a counselor and psychologist not only led to healing for myself, but gave my children the courage to do the same after watching my example.
Learn to Advocate
In order to see lasting change come to fruition, it is important to put boundaries in place with your family of origin. Depending on the levels of trauma and toxicity, this may be as simple as “Mom, I need you to call before stopping by instead of dropping in on us.”, or “Dad, it is important that we develop some of our own traditions and so we are going to spend Christmas morning with just us this year.” If the problems are deeper and more serious like current addictions or abuse of any kind, more distance may be required while you heal.
Pioneer a New Family Legacy
Just like you as an individual are not defined by your family’s past, your current family is not defined by past mistakes or identities either. This is your chance to create an entirely new narrative for your family and leave healthier beliefs, behaviors and patterns for your children and grandchildren to inherit. Your child can someday say, “I learned to talk about the way I was feeling from my dad,” “I want to fight for a strong marriage like my parents had,” or “My mom worked through her depression with a counselor and that’s how I knew what to do when I walked through a dark season.”
Editor’s note: This article originally ran in 2021.