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When Generational Trauma Leads to Self-Oppression

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

Joelle Depiton, creator of Mirrored Love says:

When we liberate ourselves, we liberate others as well because we break the bonds, the chains, that keep us tied to relationships based in domination. So how are we gunna break the chain if we ignore that it’s even there?

I heard the term “trauma” for the first time as a graduate student at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work. According to the program’s department, we were to assume everyone had experienced trauma at somepoint in their lives — regardless of the severity. I myself am a childhood trauma survivor (or CTS), and like many other CTSs, I navigated the world and the environments I entered on autopilot. My ability to achieve a college education, see my name in numerous publications and remain alive despite some of the decisions I now deemed an example of untreated mental and emotional trauma, spoke of my determination to persevere. I carried that torch during my days as a street activist, a public speaker and onto my radio show, “The Bonfire Talks,” on which I discussed white supremacy and its venom passionately.

While friends saw an intellectual freedom fighter advocating for justice and peace to those who were “othered,” my subconscious mind screamed out the muted struggling of my inner child. The memories of my own childhood struggled to seize my attention, practically waving their hands in front of my eyes. Yet, I steered clear because the consequences of even peeking around the corner of my traumatic past was something that would interfere with the political legacy I called myself endeavoring to build.

I discovered through hardship (much of it self-inflicted) that is not how life works for a CTS with unaddressed pain. The undercurrent of rage and depression earned from an abuse history I did not ask for, this suspicion yet another perpetrator’s scheme to assault me, normally stood in the way of my ambitions. There were times when my complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) symptoms were so severe, I feared leaving my house. And years of relying upon coping mechanisms with the potential to kill me only complicated matters.

It wasn’t until I allowed myself to receive support I discovered why I felt so disjointed: I was subconsciously reenacting the trauma I experienced as a child. The raw emotions I suppressed always emerged through my interactions with others.

Indescribable trauma stories living within my subconscious mind convinced me everyone was a potential threat to my safety and the best “alternative” was voluntary separation from the communities of which I was a part. Between that and the self-loathing, it became obvious I was acting as my own oppressor. And as I continue my own healing journey, I’m learning for me to live as my authentic self with complete abandon, I must dismantle and eliminate from my subconscious mind the stories written by generational and historical trauma. In fact, many CTSs are to individually address their internalized generational and historical trauma to end their self-oppression.

In “Why Are Queer People So Mean to Each Other,” Kai Cheng Thom explains constant exposure to trauma has an impact on the brain and nervous system, eventually resulting in survivors perceiving almost everything and everyone as a potential threat. While the brain and nervous systems respond accordingly to our environment, the subconscious mind collects our unspoken thoughts, desires and personal history, driving our actions and reactions to our experiences. CTSs often unknowingly turn to the subconscious to determine whether the environment and its people pose as a threat to their well-being.

As children, we heavily depend upon family members and other entrusted authority figures to provide guidance on how to survive the world, while remaining connected to our divinity. In dysfunctional environments, however, these very authority figures often violated our boundaries with stories they designed to diminish our sense of security and self-worth. CTSs are likely to view their negative perception as the truth, which can transform the abusive adult into our oppressor. We eventually replaced them with ourselves.

This unfortunate assault on our subconscious occurred because many times, our perpetrator also struggled with unaddressed historical and generational trauma. And the reason why the trauma exists can be due to white supremacy. White supremacy is a form of psychological terrorism that implanted irrational fears into the subconscious mind of our BIPOC ancestors. White oppressors employed it to establish dominance over them, forcing the latter to anticipate retaliation over the slightest thought of rebellion. White oppressors utilized their resources to eliminate our ancestors’ personhood by separating them from long-established cultural norms and rituals.

Despite the acts of rebellion of some of our BIPOC ancestors, many of our people also internalized the message the entire demographic is not only flawed, but inferior to whiteness. This caused many of our ancestors to pass down to us descendants generational and historical trauma, forms of oppression involving the near erasure of our connection to our inner power and divinity.

White people were also gravely affected by white supremacy, as evidenced in how they psychologically terrorized themselves and whites who chose to reject their oppressive culture. Individually, many white people benefitting from the status quo used false evidence to convince themselves their culture and its norms were consistently under siege. This group then targets white accomplices striving to deconstruct and eradicate the supremacist culture by ostracizing them from the white community.

The fear of their perceived unworthiness without power and perfection can prevent many white people from examining their contribution to the psychological terrorism that birthed the historical and generational trauma many of us struggle with today. They instead began oppressing themselves, then each other while influencing BIPOCs to do the very same.

Generational and historical trauma is the foundation of the self-inflicted oppression CTSs might subject themselves to. It is only when we decide individually to discard from our subconscious mind the dysfunctional stories about the self, CTSs of all ethnicities will be free from self-oppression.

Now knowing where my self-oppression began and how it affected my overall personhood, it was important to also be cognizant of the solutions. How do I and other CTSs (especially BIPOC survivors) completely break the bond with oppression? To do so, we are required to:

1. Acknowledge we are capable of being our own oppressor.

2. Hold ourselves accountable for oppressing others due to our own unhealed trauma.

3. Be honest with ourselves about the power of the negative subconscious trauma stories that impact our perception of reality.

4. Recognize the negative stories told about us are a product of someone else’s unhealed generational and historical trauma.

5. Internalize the fact we possess the power to rewrite own life story.

6. Believe we are worthy of an existence without inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering for personal and spiritual elevation.

Unlearning self-oppression is an assignment that will take years to unravel, considering the substantial amount of trauma I shoveled through to reach this point in my personal history. But after all the insight I discovered on my healing journey, after being reintroduced to my innate power and divinity, I am worth some of the peace I established at the end of the day. And that fact in itself is a step toward liberation.

A version of this story originally appeared on issuu.

Getty image by StudioM1

Originally published: June 9, 2021
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