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Family Practice: How to Love Without Hurting So Much

Author Mark Wolynn talks about the art of healing family wounds.

Key points

  • Understanding inherited trauma can transform a person's life. The mother wound is the epicenter of family trauma.
  • It is possible to be generous, loving, and open with people who challenge us.
  • It's crucial to understand the language you use to describe painful experience, and the stories that ensue from that language.

Mark Wolynn is a world leader in the field of Inherited Family Trauma and Director of The Family Constellation Institute in San Francisco. His breakthrough book, It Didn't Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, has been translated into over 20 languages and won a Nautilus Book Award in psychology in 2016. As the creator of the Core Language Approach, he has spent over 25 years observing how language and trauma intersect—how patients’ presenting symptoms, specifically the language they use, can lead us to the root of the issue, often to trauma in the family history or in early childhood.

Wolynn teaches at hospitals, clinics, conferences, universities, and teaching centers around the world, providing education and training to trauma therapists, psychologists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, mental health professionals, coaches, counselors, educators, physicians, and other health practitioners. His articles have appeared in Psychology Today, Mind Body Green,, Elephant Journal, and Psych Central, and his poetry has been published in The New Yorker. We spoke a few months back about how the pandemic has forced us to spend more time with people we may find challenging (e.g., family members) and how to navigate these turbulent waters with grace and more love.

Mark Matousek: Ram Dass once said that if you really want to know how far you've progressed on a spiritual path, go home and see your family. Why is this sometimes a daunting prospect?

Mark Wolynn: When we haven’t done our inner work, being with family can retrigger our early wounds. A significant number of us have some break in the attachment with our moms, whether we’ve experienced something directly disruptive or whether it was an inherited wound that was passed down in the form of chemical changes in the DNA. We might be impacted by our mother’s relationship with her mother or from our father’s relationship with his mother. We now know through one of the most replicated epigenetic studies that separating baby mice from their mothers can create molecular changes that can be observed for three generations.

A break in the bond with our mother affects how we feel in our body, our ability to self-regulate, our self-confidence, our ability to trust life, and our ability to receive love from a partner. It affects every aspect of our lives, and yet, for many of us, it remains a mystery why we suffer because the wound happens so early or passes down invisibly. A wound like this can be reflected in sentences like, “I’m stuck. There’s a piece I’ve never been able to get to in therapy. No matter how much work I’ve done, I still don’t get better. I can’t speak up for what I need. I feel invisible."

So being with family can bring up a lot of anxiety, particularly if we haven't been able to neutralize the charge we carry in our body. We shrink, tighten, defend, or go into some form of reactivity that’s not good for them or for us. Even being with siblings can "rehydrate" the mother wound. We may have feelings they got more from her than we did or have feelings of guilt that the opposite took place. Older siblings can reject younger siblings due to feeling they got more love, even if that love was equally limited for everyone.

Our hippocampus doesn’t come online until around age 3, when it begins to make connections with our prefrontal cortex, and we form cognitive memories. Before that, our somatic memories are stored in our body. Our first cognitive memories can be those of our mom holding our little brother or sister, and then we create a story around it.

MM: Is it true that when we change the story of our trauma, it accelerates emotional healing?

MW: Yes, and it's also helpful to look behind the traumas. What happened to your mom when she was a little girl? What happened to her mom? What blocked the love from her parents? What were her parents experiencing when she was in an important developmental stage? Until we pull back the curtain, it can be difficult to neutralize the charge. The narrative needs to change by bringing more information to it.

MM: In your book, It Didn’t Start With You, you write about how understanding the backstory can radically shift our perspective on personal pain.

MW: Absolutely, but we can’t always find the stories that created this broken attachment with our moms. Maybe all it took was Dad’s drinking or Mom feeling trapped in her marriage. Perhaps a miscarriage meant your mom couldn’t tune in to the new pregnancy, fearing she would lose you too. If she knew she had to give you away, she’d be thinking, “I can’t keep you, I can’t keep you,” and this could easily translate into cortisol flooding her body, which is caustic to the fetus. We know the fetus even develops a cortisol-busting enzyme just to survive the flow of cortisol from her stress.

We have to ask questions, and even though we may never know exactly what happened during conception, we know that period of time is significant. Was it an arranged marriage? Did your mother get pregnant out of wedlock? Did either parent feel forced to marry the other? Early events like these can create a break in the mother-child bond.

We know from studies in epigenetics that the same chemical changes observed in mice also occur in humans. A brilliant Swiss researcher named Isabelle Mansuy studied blood samples from survivors of the attack in Nice, where a driver killed 80 people with his van. She found that the survivors carried the same changes as the mice that were traumatized in labs. Similar results were found in the blood of Pakistani orphans who lost their parents in the war.

MM: How does changing the story affect our ability to forgive, even to be grateful for, our wounded past?

MW: Forgiveness begins with the inner work of being able to hold a position that whatever happened was for us and not against us. Perhaps we gained the ability to speak up and have healthy boundaries. Maybe we learned to pay attention to our bodies and have compassion for what we were feeling.

Once we’ve neutralized the charge we carry in our body, we can take forgiveness outward. Not from a victim place, but from a place of equanimity. This is much deeper than merely saying, “Mother, I forgive you.” Those words create more distance by making us superior. Deeper words might be, “Mom, Dad, I get it. I understand. What happened wasn’t easy for either of us.” You can feel the difference.

Forgiveness between friends and partners has a different movement. When we’re hurt, we may need to take action that brings the relationship back into balance. If you forgive someone for continually being late and nothing changes, there’s no motivation for them to stop, and you either lose respect for them or for yourself. When you tell them, “I can’t do this anymore. It doesn’t feel right to be kept waiting,” that person will consider how they might lose your friendship if they don’t change their pattern.

MM: But that doesn't work with family, within which the relationships are more fixed. Things aren’t as negotiable as they are with friends. With family, the challenge is to live with the fact that you will never get what you wanted from them. And living with that awareness.

MW: It truly is finding peace with what we didn’t get, as well as what we did. In our attempt to have states of well-being that last, we’ve got to contend with this evolutionary brain that orients us toward our negativity bias as a form of self-protection. Two-thirds of our amygdala scans for threats, while our limbic brain looks for evidence. To compete with that, we need to calm our brains, which are capable of change.

That’s where gratitude comes in. A practice of generosity, of loving-kindness, any mindfulness practice feeds the prefrontal cortex and helps us reframe the stress response, so it has a chance to calm down. But these practices are like any muscle—we’ve got to practice to get the benefit.

MM: Lots of folks are having a hard time feeling grateful for life during a pandemic.

MW: Being able to appreciate this life we’re given and being able to navigate to the other side of what sometimes feels like a dead-end brings us to a state of well-being. And with age, it seems easier to have that state of expansiveness.

We’re all feeling collective trauma right now, and that creates fragmentations inside our core. Fragmentations where we’ve split off, shut down, numbed out, or tightened against feeling something painful. Many of us are going through our lives with a core that’s disconnected from itself and that keeps us from having access to our full potential. A daily practice can integrate these fragmentations. It's important to celebrate the positive experiences in our life. Feelings and sensations of positive experiences actually change our DNA.

MM: David Steindl-Rast, the Benedictine monk, talks about the need to create a network of grateful living in order for our civilization to continue. What might such a network look like to you?

MW: Start with inner work. Get to that place inside yourself that feels open and good, and then look outside in appreciation. When I feel a connection to myself, I feel a connection to everything beyond. A network of grateful living is not standing in position against others or feeling split from them, but being in the humility of open curiosity.

And even though your body might be feeling strain, stress, and anxiety, you can have a generosity practice, where each day you open yourself to your own vulnerability and cultivate tenderness toward others. It would work this way as well. An outward generosity practice is a great way to create inward states of well-being.

For another perspective, see this piece:…

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