How To Unlock Healing After Intergenerational Trauma And Racial Violence
Written by Kianna Morgan, a therapist in training and MSW student. Kianna is passionate about trauma-informed practices and enjoys writing as a way to share empowering information with people suffering from trauma and chronic stress.
What does intergenerational trauma and racialized trauma look like?
Trauma spreads through families, communities, and societies. We pass it on to those around us and to those that come after us. It informs our cultural norms, family dynamics, and community values.
In the United States our population is made up of a wide variety of traumatized peoples. Native people who were persecuted by colonizers, enslaved people who continue to face racial persecution after slavery has long ended, ‘white’ people who fled persecution and then became the inflictors of trauma by colonizing and enslaving others, and immigrants from around the world fleeing oppression, war, economic instability and more. Our society is full of trauma.
Bodies with unhealed trauma tend to build on one another. Much like white colonizers turned their own trauma onto native enslaved people. Traumatized parents and caretakers are more likely to abuse their children.
Recent studies are also demonstrating that we may pass trauma on through our genetics. Unprocessed trauma leaves an epigenetic biomarker that gets inherited by the next generation impacting their nervous systems and DNA. This buildup of generations of trauma and toxic stress has resulted in a sea of bodies with unhealed trauma.
Fortunately, we have the power to heal from trauma both individually and culturally. We have the power to build resilience and form bonds that support us through great adversity and stop the continuation of trauma into the next generation.
Resmaa Menakem, author, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, and Clinical Social Worker specializing in the effects of racialized trauma, identifies that healing from generational and racialized trauma is not easy. He states that it can actually be painful, but differentiates between the pain that perpetuates trauma (dirty pain) and the pain that comes from standing in grounded integrity (clean pain). This clean pain is the key to healing.
So, how do I know if my pain is clean or dirty pain?
According to Mr. Menakem, clean pain is when we stand in the face of fear and choose integrity. For example, recognizing that you have a short temper with your loved one when you’ve been triggered, and reaching out to a therapist for help. Taking responsibility for our healing process and facing the pain of our trauma is clean pain.
On the other hand, dirty pain is when we reject the responsibility of healing our trauma by going around it instead of through it. Resmaa Menakem states that dirty pain can look like reacting from our wounded parts. For example, lashing out at or manipulating others to try and create the perception of control. Perceived control may feel safer for us in the short term, but in reality we are not healing. Instead, we are pushing our trauma onto others through violence and coercion, and are perpetuating the trauma cycle.
Dirty pain creates unresolved trauma in our bodies and genes that can continue to build. Clean pain invites us to walk down the path of healing. Clean pain creates healing in individuals, families, and communities.
What does clean and dirty pain have to do with intergenerational and racialized trauma?
When we operate from dirty pain we make choices that will continue to hurt us (i.e. engaging in unnecessarily risky behavior like driving recklessly) and others (i.e. driving recklessly may result in an accident that harms us and someone else). Pain and trauma build as people with dirty pain congregate in the same home or community. The unprocessed trauma compounds and infects entire societies over generations.
Our children learn the behaviors we exhibit when acting on dirty pain. They follow our lead and deal with their trauma in unhealthy ways that infect others. They too become participants in passing on unprocessed trauma.
But we can break the cycle! Clean pain heals the nervous system and body. Just like dirty pain, clean pain spreads. When we settle our nervous system, we become safer for ourselves and others. We become a source for co-regulation that plants seeds of grounded presence in others. Instead of infecting others with pain, our settled nervous system builds connection and belongingness.
Clean pain has the power to help others and future generations. Our children observe us regulating our nervous systems and through that learn to regulate theirs. While science may be pointing towards epigenetic inheritance of trauma, it also points to resilience. Scientists believe that we may also be able to correct some of the genetic alterations. By leaning into clean pain we heal ourselves along with our children and the generations to come.
How can we create a fortified mindset and resilience in the face of adversity?
According to Resmaa Menakem, “reps”, or practices that intentionally move us between sympathetic activation and social engagement, are necessary to build culture, resiliency, and fortified mindsets.
These reps are something that are best practiced in safety, ideally with a somatic therapist. As we build the ability to navigate sympathetic activation and settle back into social engagement, we can then take this skill-set out into the world and start to practice there.
Much like a skillful weightlifter starts with low weights (loads) and builds to higher loads, we can start by practicing our reps with stressors that are less triggering and work our way up to bigger more intense triggers.
A surfer is another great example. They start with small waves close to shore and only move to bigger waves as their capacity to safely navigate the waves improves. A fortified mind that has overcome waves before is able to rise across the wave and comes back down to social engagement. By practicing these reps we learn to traverse activation and calm, and master the wave and life.
The following is an example of a rep exercise for those just starting out:
How can we create fortified minds, culture, and resiliency in our families and communities following collective trauma?
Maya Angelou rose to great heights following intergenerational trauma by doing her reps with her community. She formed bonds that were fortified against unthinkable pressure. She famously stated, “You may shoot me with your words, you may cut me with your eyes, you may kill me with your hatefulness, but still, like air, I’ll rise.”
By doing reps today, we build the capacity to go through adversity together, and by going through adversity together we support resilience in each other.
When doing reps you drop into your own body while you observe someone else do the same. You go up the wave together then relax your nervous systems together on the way down. This forms a connection and deep synergy. Through felt experience you learn each other’s strengths by enduring the wave together.
A community and culture is strengthened by its ability to face adversity together, and its ability to be resilient in the face of adversity is dependent on the strength of the community. At Red Beard Somatic Therapy we strive to create healing bonds that support community and connection.
How can a Red Beard Somatic Therapy help me heal from trauma and reach clean pain?
The Red Beard Somatic Therapy team is here to support you as you heal. We offer body based treatments and exercises such as Somatic Experiencing, Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE), The Safe & Sound Protocol, and Somatics & Yoga Therapy. These practices and our providers will work with you to safely support you as you lean into clean pain, connect to your body and discharge intergenerational trauma in a healthy way.