The Family Consciousness

Theneurowire
7 min readOct 15, 2022

The notion that we inherit and “relive” aspects of family trauma has been the subject of many books by the renowned German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger. Having studied families for more than fifty years, first as a Catholic priest and later as a family therapist and philosopher, Hellinger teaches that we share a family consciousness with our biological family members who come before us. He has observed that traumatic events, such as the premature death of a parent, sibling, or child or an abandonment, crime, or suicide, can exert a powerful influence over us, leaving an imprint on our entire family system for generations. These imprints then become the family blueprint as family members unconsciously repeat the sufferings of the past. The repetition of a trauma is not always an exact replica of the original event. In a family in which someone has committed a crime, for example, someone born in a later generation could atone for that crime without realizing that he or she is doing so. A man named John once came to see me shortly after being released from prison. He had served three years for embezzlement — a crime he claimed he did not commit. At trial, John had pleaded not guilty, but because of the weight of the evidence against him — a false accusation made by his former business associate — he was advised by his attorney to accept a plea bargain. The moment he entered my office, John appeared agitated. His jaw was clenched, and he flung his coat against the back of the chair. He revealed that he’d been framed, and was now obsessed with thoughts of revenge. As we discussed his family situation, it came to light that a generation back, in the 1960s, his father had been accused of murdering his business partner, but had been acquitted at trial on a technicality. Everyone in the family knew that the father was guilty, but they never spoke about it. Given my experience with inherited family trauma, it wasn’t surprising to learn that John was the same age his father was when he went to trial. Justice was finally served, but the wrong person paid the price. Hellinger believes that the mechanism behind these repetitions is unconscious loyalty, and views unconscious loyalty as the cause of much suffering in families. Unable to identify the source of their symptoms as belonging to an earlier generation, people often assume that the source of their problem is their own life experience, and are left helpless to find a solution. Hellinger teaches that everyone has the same right to belong in a family system, and that no one can be excluded for any reason whatsoever. This includes the alcoholic grandfather who left our grandmother impoverished, the stillborn brother whose death broke our mother’s heart, and even the neighbor child our father accidently killed as he backed out of the driveway. The criminal uncle, our mother’s older half-sister, the baby we aborted — they all belong in our family. The list goes on. Even people we wouldn’t normally include in our family system must be included. If someone harmed or murdered or took advantage of a member of our family, that person must be included. Likewise, somebody in our family harmed or murdered or took advantage of someone, that victim would also need to be included in our family system. Earlier partners of our parents and grandparents also belong. By their dying or leaving or having been left, an opening is created that allows for our mother, father, grandmother, or grandfather to enter the system, and ultimately allows for us to be born. Hellinger has observed that when someone is rejected or left out of the family system, that person can be represented by a later member of the system. The later person might share or repeat the earlier person’s fate by behaving similarly or by repeating some aspect of the excluded person’s suffering. If, for example, your grandfather is rejected in the family because of his drinking, gambling, and philandering, it is possible that one or more of these behaviors will be adopted by one of his descendants. In this way, family suffering continues into subsequent generations. In John’s family, the man his father murdered was now part of John’s family system. When John was framed by his business partner, served time in jail, and carried murderous thoughts of revenge, he was unconsciously reliving aspects of his father’s experience that had occurred forty years earlier. When John made the link between his father’s experience and his own, he could finally release the obsessive thoughts and move on. Two fates had been intricately linked as though both men shared a single fate. As long as this connection remained obscured, John’s emotional freedom remained limited. Hellinger stresses that we must each carry our own fate regardless of its severity. No one can attempt to take on the fate of a parent, grandparent, sibling, uncle, or aunt without some type of suffering ensuing. Hellinger uses the word “entanglement” to describe this kind of suffering. When entangled, you unconsciously carry the feelings, symptoms, behaviors, or hardships of an earlier member of your family system as if these were your own. Even children born of the same parents, in the same family home, who share a similar upbringing, are likely to inherit different traumas and experience different fates. For example, the firstborn son is likely to carry what remains unresolved with the father, and the firstborn daughter is likely to carry what remains unresolved with the mother, though this is not always the case. The reverse can also be true. Later children in the family are likely to carry different aspects of their parents’ traumas, or elements of the grandparents’ traumas. For example, the first daughter might marry a man who is emotionally unavailable and controlling — similar to how she perceives her father — and, by doing so, share this dynamic with her mother. By marrying a shut-down, controlling man, she repeats her mother’s experiences and joins her in her discontent. The second daughter might carry the unexpressed anger of her mother. In this way, she is affected by the same trauma, but carries a different aspect of it. She might reject her father, whereas the first daughter does not. Later children in a family can often carry the unresolved traumas of the grandparents. In the same family, either the third or fourth daughter might never marry, fearing that she will be controlled by a man she does not love. I once worked with a Lebanese family that shared a similar dynamic. When we looked back another generation, we learned that both of the Lebanese grandmothers were given away by their parents to become child brides — the one grandmother at age nine and the other at age twelve. Connected with their grandmothers’ experience of being forced to marry while still children, two of the Lebanese sisters repeated aspects of this fate in their relationships. Like her grandmothers, one married a much older man. The other never married at all, complaining that men were disgusting and controlling — similar to how her unhappy paternal grandmother must have felt being trapped in a loveless marriage. With a break in the mother-child bond among siblings, each child might express his or her disconnection with the mother differently. One child might become a people pleaser, fearing that if he’s not good, or he makes waves, he’ll lose connection with people. Another child, believing that connection is never hers to have in the first place, might become argumentative and create conflict to push away the people close to her. Another child might isolate and have little contact with people at all. I’ve noticed that if several siblings have breaks in the mother-child bond, they’ll often express anger or jealousy, or feel disconnected from one another. For example, an older child might resent the child born later, perceiving that the younger child received the love that he or she did not get. Because the hippocampus — that part of the brain involved in creating memories — isn’t fully operational until after the age of two, the older child may not consciously remember being held, fed, or cuddled by the mother, but remembers the younger child receiving their mother’s love. In response, the older child, feeling slighted, can unconsciously blame the younger child for getting what he or she did not. And then, of course, there are some children who don’t seem to carry any family trauma at all. For these children, it’s quite possible that a successful bond was established with the mother and/or father, and this connection helped to immunize the child from carrying entanglements from the past. Perhaps a window of time opened in which the mother was able to give more to one particular child and not the others. Perhaps the parents’ relationship improved. Perhaps the mother experienced a special connection with one child, but couldn’t connect deeply with the others. Younger children often, though not always, seem to do a bit better than first children, or only children, who seem to carry a bigger portion of unfinished business from the family history. When it comes to siblings and inherited family trauma, there are no hard and fast rules governing how each child is affected. Many variables, in addition to birth order and gender, can influence the choices siblings make and the lives they lead. Even though it may appear from the outside that one sibling is unscathed by trauma, while another is encumbered, my clinical experience gives me a different perspective: Most of us carry at least some residue from our family history. However, many intangibles also enter into the equation and can influence how deeply entrenched family traumas remain. These intangibles include self-awareness, the ability to self-soothe, and having a powerful internal healing experience.

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