“It’s up to us to break generational curses. When they say, ‘It runs in the family,’ you tell them, ‘This is where it runs out.’” ~Unknown
I never even knew what I experienced was trauma. It was my normal. I was born into a world where I had to walk on eggshells, always on high alert for danger.
I held my breath and always did my best to be good and to not cause an eruption of my dad’s temper. He literally controlled my every move through fear. I agreed to anything just to feel safe and to please him.
I grew up with the example from my mum and my grandmothers that women were submissive to men. That men could do whatever; get drunk, not pay bills, blame, shame, and abuse their wives, and they would stay no matter what.
They would allow their children to be hurt, as men were on this pedestal. I didn’t grow up in a violent home, but there was always the threat of it.
It was the words that really haunted me for decades. They diminished my self-worth and self-esteem.
I was terrified of men as a result. I unconsciously stayed single as an adult because the belief I had deep within my unconscious mind was that men were not safe.
Any men I met reconfirmed that belief. I was determined that I wouldn’t bring children into a home like the one I grew up in. But I was not attracted to healthy men, so staying single kept me safe.
This belief and my need for safety kept me very lonely. I just didn’t trust myself to not repeat the cycle I grew up watching. Especially since any men I was drawn to had some subtle abusive tendencies or emotional unavailability like my dad.
I so wanted to be loved, but I was scared. So I began to take baby steps to become the cycle breaker in my family. My dream was to have a family, but I wanted a home that was safe and nourishing, with no tolerance for abuse.
But I had no idea what that was. It was normal for me to experience the silent treatment or verbal abuse if I didn’t do as Dad wanted. He would be loving at times, giving me a crumb of love if I performed as he wanted.
A crumb of love was normal for me. Having no boundaries and getting walked all over and treated badly was normal for me. I had to go on a healing journey to heal the wounds of the past and discover what normal and healthy actually was, as I had no idea.
Here are my top tips for becoming a cycle breaker.
1. Understand the generational trauma in your story.
As small children we blame ourselves for how we are treated, but there are many reasons why our parents behave the way they do. It’s not our fault.
Look at each parent and grandparent and review what traumas, big and small, they experienced. Look at the country your family is from to understand the bigger traumas your grandparents experienced like wars, poverty, political issues, etc. What happened in each person’s life to make them feel unsafe?
It’s likely that your parents and grandparents didn’t seek help and therefore remained stuck in survival mode. This is the place in which you were born and brought up.
This exercise helps you to understand their story. You don’t have to forgive them if you don’t want to because you deserved way better. But they brought you up the only way they knew how. They didn’t know how to regulate their nervous systems and take care of themselves, and that is what they taught you.
2. Reparent your inner child.
Take a close look at what you experienced as a child from birth to age seven. These are the years when your brain and nervous system were being developed. Your brain was taking in information on what was a perceived ‘threat’ and what felt unsafe.
For example, I grew up around a lot of arguing, so raised voices overwhelm my body with fear. This is a childhood wound.
Rather than being frozen by that fear in my adult life, I now reparent my inner child. I visualize going back in time to the memory where I felt unsafe or afraid and giving my inner child what she needed. Maybe some reassurance, validation, or love. I just let her know she is safe.
This calms down the nervous system and helps heal wounds of the past.
3. Review the family survival plan.
We all have a survival program, as do our parents. For example, my dad learned to shout and control when he felt unsafe or his nervous system was dysregulated; I learned to be frozen and please in attempt to feel safe. We didn’t have any choice but to use these survival programs as children. We needed them.
But as adults they could be causing us issues with loving ourselves, having healthy relationships, and maintaining our overall well-being.
Take a moment and reflect on each family member’s survival programs. What is each person doing or what did they do during your childhood when emotions were triggered or that feeling of unsafety was intense?
These behaviors are learned, not genetic! The first step is becoming aware of the behaviors that are not actually helping you to survive but are keeping you stuck.
Examples of behaviors that are a nervous system response are:
- Fight – control to connect and rage to feel safe e.g., narcissistic, explosive, controlling, entitled; a bully, a sociopath; demands perfection
- Flight – perfect to connect and be safe e.g., OCD; adrenaline junkie, busy-aholic, workaholic; rushing, worrying, overachieving; compelled by perfectionism
- Freeze – avoids connection and hides to be safe e.g., dissociative, hiding; hermit, couch potato; achievement-phobic, relationship avoidant
- Fawn – merge with others to connect and grovel to be safe e.g., codependent, slave, doormat, domestic violence victim, parentified child, little adult, people-pleaser, relationship addict
4. Work on behavior change.
Once we’re aware of our unconscious toxic behaviors we can begin to take baby steps to change them. As we take small steps every day, over time, we’ll create new positive habits.
First, we need to look at the behavior we are trying to change. For example, people-pleasing, which is a fawn nervous system response. We could introduce a new habit to pause for a half-hour before saying yes to someone. In this pause we can do something that makes us feel good and then make a decision if we authentically want to say yes instead of doing it just to please others.
5. Get support.
When we stop using old behaviors to numb feelings, pain from the past can rise up. When we sit and feel our feelings, they can pass in ninety seconds. But at the beginning this can feel scary and overwhelming.
Create a support system to help you. This might include therapy, coaching, support groups, or working with a mentor. It doesn’t matter how you get support, just that it makes you feel safe. Working with people who are healing on the same journey can be helpful, as they can share tools with you.
6. Cultivate daily practices to heal nervous system.
This is one of the most important steps. A daily practice provides a moment in your day when your nervous system feels calm. Pick activities that make you feel safe and at ease. We are all different, so what works for one person may not work for another.
Start small with just fifteen minutes and build as you need. You could try breathing, meditating, dancing, listening to your favorite music, journaling, repeating affirmations, or lying on the grass as examples.
When you introduce a daily practice, you will notice what is triggering you to move you out of your calm state. Is it overworking? Or a particular relationship? When we are unconsciously moving through life we can’t tell!
You can then start to bring in tools to help you calm your emotions when you get triggered. Maybe breathing or reparenting your inner child to get you back into balance rather than falling into old behaviors.
7. Practice self-compassion.
The transition from old toxic behaviors to new healthier behaviors is imperfect and bumpy. You may regress. You may get frustrated with yourself. Be kind to yourself through it all. You’re trying to unlearn generations of behaviors. Your subconscious mind does a lot of behavior automatically; it takes time to reprogram it, but slowly, you will notice you are getting there.
Celebrate every tiny win, like “I did my breathing today,” and notice how these new behaviors make you feel.
8. Learn to love yourself.
When we grow up in dysfunctional families, we are desperate for external validation, as we may not have received this growing up. But all that love we want from others, we can give it to ourselves. By speaking to ourselves with kindness and love. By validating ourselves. By taking care of ourselves, mind, body, and soul.
If you are great at loving others but not yourself, imagine your inner child and visualize yourself taking care of them. Nurture them, hold them, and show them love.
9. Clear away beliefs that are not yours.
We hold a lot of beliefs from our families. For example, a belief that I got from my childhood was “failure is not an option” because it was quite literally unsafe to fail! When I noticed that voice in my head a few times, I realized this was not my own but my dad’s.
My belief is different. Failure is a part of growth and healing. This belief feels much better in my body, so I repeat this often with my hand on my heart to embed it.
What beliefs do you hold that are not yours? What is a more empowering belief to support you and your journey? Repeat it as often as you can so it gets embedded in your subconscious mind.
No matter what you experienced in the past, you can create a different future.
Join me and become a cycle breaker. It’s where the happiness is at.