Discovering Transformative Family Narratives
Bea Hollander-Goldfein, PhD, LMFT is a clinical psychologist and marriage and family therapist with over 30 years of experience. Her expertise includes trauma, marital/relationship conflict, sexual dysfunction, and infertility and adoption. Dr. Hollander-Goldfein is also the Director of the Transcending Trauma Project.
“To thine own self be true”
This Shakespearean quote that has always stuck with me. It’s a common ethic in our modern world, whether or not we actually fulfill the imperative to know ourselves, we often pay lip service to the sentiment.
Some utilize therapy as a vehicle to achieve self-understanding. Others rely on friendships or other supportive connections. Some try to accomplish this goal on their own. Knowing oneself has various therapeutic benefits, and it’s easier to change if we know who we are and why. Leslie Greenberg, a founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, says “you can’t leave until you arrive.” By this, he means that you can’t truly change yourself until you fully know yourself.
Well, that’s a tall order. How do you accomplish knowing yourself? Even in therapy this can be an elusive goal.
This post focuses on one path to achieve an aspect of self-knowledge, which, in fact, is a very deep level of knowing once it becomes conscious. This path is exploration of the significant stories of childhood. This is not a very common path of self inquiry, but it can be a very informative and profound source of personal awareness. My advocacy of self-investigation comes from my work on the Transcending Trauma Project, which is an investigation of coping and adaptation after extreme trauma. The goal of the project is to develop an integrated model of survivorship and resilience.
We all tell personal and family stories to our children, about self, parents, background, specific experiences, etc. Individuals who have experienced difficult lives convey these experiences to their children in some way. Most survivors of trauma tell their children about their traumatic experiences because these are part of who they are and part of their life story.
So far, none of this came as a surprise. But what is surprising about these stories is their intergenerational impact. In our interviews of survivors and their children, we were able to explore the impact of trauma-based stories shared with children. It was fascinating to observe that the children not only heard the pain and sadness that were part of their parents’ experience, but they also heard their parents’ values, personalities, and moral choices. The survivors themselves rarely perceived these hidden messages, for them it was the telling of a tragic story so that their children would have a connection with that aspect of their lives. For the children, these pivotal memories were heard on multiple levels, with one level experienced as how to live life, not just how to face death.
A significant process in child development is called “identification.” It is the process by which a child identifies with a parent, and it does not necessarily take place on a conscious level. The Transcending Trauma Project revealed through analysis of interviews with survivor parents and their adult children that the process of identification was very powerful in the way children incorporated their parents’ war memories. Children perceived the inner value system and personality of their parents through these stories of trauma, which inspired them to want to be like the parent in the powerful ways conveyed by the story. TTP research has revealed how deeply these stories reflected pivotal experiences for the parents and how deeply these stories fostered a process of identification in the children.
This finding prompted us to introduce an exercise for exploring the impact of stories heard in childhood into presentations about TTP to various audiences over the past 10 years. We engaged the audiences in the discovery of their pivotal stories from childhood and in the exploration of how these stories impacted their development as children, and how they are reflected in their adult personalities. This was incredibly meaningful and successful for most participants. I could see all the light bulbs turning on around the room.
Below you will find questions that will help you explore the transformative narratives of your life. It’s best done with a partner, so try it with a friend or loved one. You can do the exercise by taking turns, each one of you in turn digging back to report the stories of your childhood to find out how these stories have impacted who you are as an adult.
You won’t regret what you will learn. In fact, this discovery will affirm the importance of the person whose story so impacted your life. For many people, it’s a reconnection that just feels right on a profound level. The exercise helps you to look in the mirror and see something you never saw before.
Exploring the Impact of a Story
- Focus on a story that was told to you by a family member, which was important to the person telling you the story and had an impact on you as you listened to the story. Recount the story to your partner.
- What impact did this story have on you when you heard it as a child? What do you remember thinking about the story? What do you remember feeling about the story?
- Who told you the story? Why do you think it was so important to this person? Describe your relationships with this person.
- What was the message of the story? What was the family member trying to tell you through this story?
- What makes this story important to you? In what ways has the story affected you throughout your life? How did it affect your thoughts, your feelings, your beliefs and your values?
- What role does the message of the story play in your life? How do you identify with the message? Have you made the message a part of you?
- Overall, has the story been a positive or negative influence in your life? In what ways?
The discovery of transformative narratives and how they are embedded in our value systems and adult personalities is enlightening and satisfying. Once brought into awareness, it is impossible to believe that such insight about oneself was ever unavailable to our consciousness. This is not surprising, since identification is not a conscious process. We are not aware of saying to ourselves as children that we want to be as brave as Dad, or wise as grandma, or strong as uncle Joe, or as intuitive as Mom. It is the power of the pivotal memories for the storytellers that make the stories so impactful on the listeners.
What does this have to do with the Transcending Trauma Project? Nothing and everything.
Nothing in the sense that the stories you will discover as profoundly impacting your life, will not have anything to do with the Holocaust, and hopefully will not have anything to do with extreme trauma.
Everything, because the only way to understand the impact of stories of parental trauma on their children is to deeply understand the impact of family stories on yourself.
As a trauma specialist I have often been asked what I thought the impact of 9/11 would be on the children of the rescuers. Since I am not personally interviewing these families, I cannot answer with certainty nor specificity. I would speculate that apart from the short lived impact of vicarious traumatization that the rescuers inevitably bring home to their families after experiencing such an overwhelmingly horrific experience, the children will learn what their rescuer parent tells them.
Yes, they will learn the facts and be confronted with the painful reality of evil in the world, but even more importantly, they will learn about their parents, their values, their beliefs, their personalities, and how they coped. This is what the children will make a part of themselves as they move forward in their own lives.
Every family faces challenges and hardships. It is the nature of life. These realities become the stories upon which we are reared. Explore these stories and “to thine own self be true”.