This week we will focus on inter-generational trauma manifested in relationships. To begin, a lack of modelling of positive and healthy relationships leads to a lack of trust in ourselves and in others. Trust is the foundation of all human connection, and all human connection is dependent on our ability to trust. In the present day, a two-parent home is less common as we see the rise of co-parenting and single parent homes. Parenting style and structure is a personal choice, but we need to be very intentional in how we chose to model relationships to children who are in our immediate care.
There are four types of attachment styles: secure, preoccupied, dismissive, and fearful-avoidant. A secure attachment style is ideal and seeks healthy, interdependent relationships. Preoccupied, dismissive and fearful-avoidant form the insecure attachment style who have unhealthy relationships with themselves and others.
Your attachment style is informed by the relationships you grew up observing. This is usually the relationship of your caretakers such as your parents. Lily’s parents were conventionally dysfunctional. Her dad was struggling with alcoholism, and her mum was unfaithful to her absent husband. On a Saturday morning when she opened her living room door out into the front of the house, she found her father laying on the floor lifeless in a pile of his own urine. She was only ten years old, but old enough to understand the place alcohol took in her dad’s life over her own position. Things weren’t always this bad. Lily remembered the times her dad would come home from work early swinging her around in the living room as her mum was in the kitchen making her favourite dinner.
Her dad was her first love until he adopted his love for alcohol. As with most daughters who dress their dads in superhero capes, Lily lost her appetite for life. The same dad who had once made her feel like the most special, beautiful woman was the same one who formed the loudest inner voice that told her no one wants to spend time with her. Lily withdrew from the world and became anxious about everything that a child who hasn’t experienced her trauma would not be. Her dad eventually got fired. Lily started worrying about whether her school fees would be paid on time given that both parents were either temporarily or permanently unemployed. She was worried that her school friends and teachers knew of her great shame. She tried to leave her trauma at her house gates but they followed her throughout her day. She hated mornings especially because of the daily ritual of opening the door to her drunk and absent father. She carried responsibility for a cross that was never hers to bear.
Her mother also separated from her father and started a new family. Lily’s half siblings took over her mum’s life the same way alcohol had done in her dad’s life. Lily never trusted her mum to be consistent or responsive when she needed her to be. Thus, her mental representation of relationships was painful. She became uncomfortable with intimacy and counter-dependent. Lily had the typical case of an insecure attachment style.
As a “functioning” adult in a society that doesn’t stop to ask about childhood emotional trauma, Lily was disassociated, anxious, sad, angry and fearful. These are all common emotional symptoms of emotional abuse. In her workplace, Lily was considered a great asset to the team whose performance ran uninterrupted throughout the year. She had never committed to a long term relationship or hobbies like travel; taken no maternity leaves; and was notorious for skipping out on annual leaves. She was the model employee who climbed the ranks very quickly. Privately, Lily went home to an empty apartment and ate takeaway every evening. Her TV carried cobwebs, and her garden had more weed than plants. Her traumatising experience with her parents made her disconnect with the world avoiding any situation that required her commitment. She learned that the best way to cope in her situation was to close off all channels of communication.
From the outside looking in Lily was thriving, but internally she was emotionally dis-empowered. She had given away her choice, power, and responsibility to her parents who had failed to carry out their own responsibility. Lily was also living in the past. She carried unrealistic expectations that many traumatised people begin to believe: one relationship can satisfy all our needs. Instead, they become 'avoidant attached' individuals who keep away from close contact and relying on anyone other than themselves. Lily had trusted her dad to provide for her. When he failed to provide for her financially, emotionally and even physically being there- she fell into the insecure category of attachment styles. In the family sphere, this teaches children unhealthy communication and openness who fail to cope and integrate into the world. They live in the past and displace shame on themselves, failing to celebrate and live their fully.
It is good to recognise family patterns and learned behaviour. If and when you are ready to rewire your brain from an insecure to a secure attachment style: here are some starting tips; 1. Focus on developing on the things you are already good at, and your hobbies. Most insecure attachment styled individuals have highlighted their traumatised childhood blueprint. Therefore, go back to your childhood and instead focus on what you loved doing. If these have changed, that is okay too! Just know that you are so close to being passionate about your life again by spending time in what you love doing. Praise your strengths, be proud of yourself, and who you are. Remember, don’t put the burden or responsibility on the other person to make you feel special. 2. Exercise This is quite simple; iron sharpens iron. A healthy body will strengthen your mind too. Exercise also improves your positive self-image which contributes to the compassion and love you will have for yourself. Healthy relationships with others begin with a healthy relationship with yourself. Commit to yourself. 3. Quit the negative self talk Rewire your inner voice, and tame the narrative of your own self-perception. Understand that some life events may have been part of your story, but you are in charge of your life. Be willing to move on. The tongue also holds power of life or death; choose life as much as you can. 4. Create your own rituals In the empowering journey of healing, its important to create your own rituals to self-reward and build healthy relationships. Short term rituals could be monthly spa days, and a dinner date with a loved one. That is two different activities in a month- one with yourself as self-reward, and another with someone you want to build a trusting and close relationship with like a coworker or friend. Long term rituals could be annual travel trips ticking off a bucket list of all your favourite destinations. These are building blocks to overcoming insecure attachment style behaviour.
Take care. Renew your self-compassion every day!