Lightening the Implicit Load: Healing the Pain of Past Generations – December 2013
Those of you who have been reading this newsletter for a while know that I have spent my life with a hollow leg for sugar and sweet things. When I choose empathy over the compulsion, the hollow leg eases, but has never really disappeared. Over my 50 years I have consumed a thousand cakes and hundreds of pounds of chocolates, and have never felt sick or full. When other people would say, “too rich for me” my eyebrows would come together in consternation and incomprehension. “What would it be like to experience satiation?” I would ask myself.
As I began to work with Family Constellations, I noticed that many of us carry emotional burdens throughout our lifetimes in the effort to lighten our parents’ loads. I watched person after person say to their parents: “I return the anger to you; I return the sadness to you; I return the pain to you. From now on, I will just take the love.” This repeated experience led me to look at the world of people with wonder – was everyone carrying the patterns of emotional pain of their parents in addition to what they themselves had experienced during this lifetime? And what about the pain of their grandparents? Epigenetics researcher Moshe Szyf’s prediction that soon we will be able to read the history of trauma in our families from looking at the meythlation of our DNA only deepened my wondering about how to create supportive change and transform the juggernaut of the past that bears down upon us.
So what kind of implications could this have for me and my hunger, and for my clients and their persistent emotional states, states that held on despite hours of focused, somatically centered empathy? I decided to explore this question with them and with myself. I began to ask, “Was your mother or father carrying the same physical pattern of emotional pain, tension or reactivity that you carry? And if instead of giving you empathy for your life’s experience, what if you receive empathy on your parent’s behalf? What happens with this persistent emotional state then?
My clients’ bodies relaxed in new ways as I tested this process with them. In curiosity about my own experience, I corralled two friends to hold space with me and dove into the sensation of the bottomless pit of my hunger. I tried out my mother’s body superimposed on my own, and my father’s body, and the hunger sensation resonated more with my father. The boy he was began to speak from within me, about his exhaustion and despair when his mother was institutionalized for a nervous breakdown in the early 30’s in California, and he and his brothers and sisters were split up among their violent and frightening relatives. My father within me was anxious for his mother, concerned for his younger siblings, angry and hopeless with his father, frustrated and helpless. The father I carried inside me was longing to contribute, had an ache for safety and support, was homesick and had a need for familiarity, and most of all, had a longing for all the signs of his mother’s well-being, including a strategy of a never-ending flow of sweets. My sense of my father’s body melted into a sense of my grandmother’s body and her hunger for wellness and solidity, a determination to be well, a quiet, deep fear of the emotional black hole of her breakdown, and a tentative anxiousness about being able to hold on to herself.
I have my grandmother’s cookbook, and there are 56 different cake recipes in her writing: snow cake, fig éclair, banana cake, filbert torte, orange cloud cake… My best guess and understanding is that she made a cake every day of my father’s childhood, except when during the time of her mental illness, so cakes meant stability and well-being.
Several days after doing the work, and after several weeks of the abstinence from sugar that usually is my best support for dealing with the bottomless hunger, I found myself at a party with my favorite german chocolate cake in the world. I tried out a small slice to see what would happen with the never-ending black hole, and found that the slice was just right for me, and that I didn’t need more.
That was fun and surprising. I don’t know where this journey will lead me, but it’s always interesting.