Why not use this Christmas to discover the intergenerational patterns innocently passed down from your parents that you want to end with you? The science lab of the holiday dinner table is rich with opportunity to witness those pesky old “traditions” that keep everyone playing their expected roles of victim, perpetrator, martyr, drunk comedian, co-dependent, avoidant, racist, activist, doormat, workaholic, etc. I mean that can be fun too, your choice.
What is an Intergenerational Pattern?
Intergenerational patterns are the beliefs and behaviors passed down from parent to child, via genetics and conditioning. They are the warp and weft of the material of our character. Some of these patterns are beautiful and some may no longer be serving you. Before you start pointing any fingers, it isn't anyone's fault. It just IS. I discovered one set of beliefs that goes back at least six generations!
My mother, Dr. Jennifer White-Baughan and I, have been healing a few of these patterns for ourselves and our clients and wrote this for whomever would like to do the same. One positive pattern passed down to me from my psychologist mother was a deep curiosity to understand human behavior.
Mom remembers a tradition of chaos around the holidays in her post-war childhood home. A mixture of laughter, unpredictability, beauty, and rage. She and the other children would sit around the fastidiously trimmed tree with her Uncle Bill whose annual Christmas tradition was to tell stories of Santa Claus’s sleigh with its runners in the air, wrecked in the ditch about Pliny, West Virginia. He was third generation Irish-American and the stale smell of booze permeated every word of his slow, southern twang. In retrospect, she can see how he projected his own alcoholism onto Santa and the pattern became a tradition of ritualized drunkeness.
Mom’s reaction to the chaos, dependency, and attendant rage was to cultivate a sense of control. She judged her family dynamic as loony and got the hell out. She moved across the country to pursue another way of being and spent 25 years getting multiple degrees including a PhD in psychology, all in an effort to understand (and avoid) the intergenerational patterns of family dysfunction. She also spent many years inquiring into her own relationships in therapy and became aware of how these patterns were innocently passed down by her mother, a daughter of a coal miner, and her father, the son of a farmer. She saw how having the perfect tree and decorations, the 'Better Homes and Gardens' Christmas, was an attempt to hide the family lies, denial, and unexpressed pain just beneath the surface. This awareness motivated her to prioritize healthy and loving relationships, even when they felt foreign and challenging, and to break away from the quiet desperation in her family of origin.
We aren’t advocating abandoning your family, unless of course, the patterns you are looking to break are abusive. I feel insanely lucky that my Mother made the choice she did. Her work to break these patterns led to her choice of my father and their creation of a mostly peaceful and loving home. But intergenerational patterns can shapeshift. Her pattern of control seeking emerged through me with a fear of too much emotionality, dependency, and intimacy. “Messy humans,” I thought. “Ew.” My strategy for perceived control led to a superiority complex where I ended up deeply isolated and alone. To this day I don’t have deep relationships with extended family and feel a sense of relief if a man I am dating doesn’t either.
Yet, I have a deep desire for intimate relationship and in order to create that for myself I have tried to heal this intergenerational pattern. Every layer of myself I uncover hides some form of fear behind a persistent habit of choosing safety and comfort over emotional risk. “Why risk?” Says the ego. It loves the company of itself.
What can I do about it?
The first step in healing an intergenerational pattern that doesn’t serve you is to become aware it exists in the first place. Your job is just to observe yourself and your family and please avoid the trap of trying to change anyone. Changing others is a waste of energy. NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN. Focus on healing the patterns within you and see what happens.
Steps to Become Aware
- Become a scientist and experiment with neutrally observing your family. What do you notice?
- Are there specific roles you and others are playing?
- Is there an old way of thinking and being that doesn’t fit for you?
- Write your observations down in a safe place and observe what comes up inside of you as you do this. Please, do not judge yourself for any emotions that arise. Take your findings to therapy, spiritual teacher, or discuss with a trusted friend.
Driving intergenerational patterns, is a human desire for safety and a strategy to avoid pain. The terrifying and liberating truth is that pain is a part of living a fully engaged life and to risk heartbreak in the pursuit of love, is what we are here for.
“Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field, I’ll meet you there.” - Rumi
Jennifer White-Baughan, PhD is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice based in Santa Monica, CA. Bristol Baughan is a Professional Life Coach and Founder of Inner Astronauts based in Venice, CA.