On Feb. 16, 2022, Cresset will welcome internationally acclaimed psychoanalyst Dr. Galit Atlas for a virtual conversation on emotional inheritance and overcoming the legacy of family trauma.  In her new book, “Emotional Inheritance: A Therapist, Her Patients, and the Legacy of Trauma,” Dr. Atlas draws on her patients’ stories, her own life experiences, and decades of research to help understand how loss and suffering from the past can haunt us in the present. This event is part of Cresset’s ongoing series of peer-to-peer learning designed to inspire professional and personal growth.

We recently connected with Dr. Atlas to get a preview of what she will explore and to better understand the concept of emotional inheritance and how we can overcome the legacy of trauma.

Dr. Atlas, what exactly is emotional inheritance?

Emotional inheritance is the transmission of emotions from generation to generation. In the last decade, contemporary psychoanalysis and empirical research have expanded the literature on epigenetics and inherited trauma, investigating the ways in which trauma is transmitted from one generation to the next and held in our minds and bodies as our own. In studying the intergenerational transmission of trauma, clinicians investigate how our ancestors’ unprocessed emotions, especially trauma, are passed down as an emotional inheritance, leaving a trace in our minds and in those of future generations.

In your book you write, “What haunts us are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” Can you explain?

This quote is based on psychoanalytic work from the 60’s with Holocaust survivors and their children, which focused on the many ways in which the second generation felt their parents’ devastation and losses, even when the parents never talked about them. Their inherited feelings of the parents’ unprocessed trauma were the “phantoms” that lived inside them, the ghosts of the unspeakable. What haunts us is what we feel but don’t know, the unsaid that we can’t make sense of or put in words. Those feelings that are not processed in language can activate somatic problems, which means that they will be expressed in physical symptoms. Headaches, obsessions, phobias, and insomnia can all be signs of what we have pushed away to the darkest recesses of our minds. It is only when our mind remembers that our bodies are free to forget.

The book presents the interesting, but also complicated, conclusion that we inherit family traumas that we weren’t told about. How is that possible?

We found that people know things that were not explicitly conveyed to them. As children, we know and feel things, but we don’t always recognize their source because our brain is able to pick up nuances that we don’t consciously register. We communicate with each other not only on a verbal or explicit level, but also in non-verbal and implicit ways. Children monitor their parents and register not only what the parent says, but also what they don’t say directly or what they hide. The omissions, the gaps, are part of what we inherit and often can’t fully identify.

You write about how your parents, who both had very tough childhoods, were optimistic and had that feeling that everything is fine – which is not uncommon. Can you explain why people will deny that anything is wrong or refuse to admit to any negative feelings? 

Both my parents grew up with six siblings in poor neighborhoods and struggled with poverty and racism. They both suffered as babies from life-threatening illnesses, and both lost a sibling. I’m not sure my parents ever realized how similar their histories are, or how their bond was silently tied with illness, poverty, early loss, and shame. Like many other families, our family colluded and shared the unspoken understanding that silence was the best way to erase what was unpleasant. The assumption in those days was that what you don’t remember won’t hurt you. This is, of course, a protective stand that aims to push pain away. In the book I ask:  what if what you don’t remember is in fact remembered, despite your best efforts?

The last section of the book is about the secrets we keep from ourselves. Why do we do that?

We can’t always afford to know the truth, and therefore we protect ourselves from seeing reality. We use defense mechanisms to manage our emotional pain and our perception of ourselves and of the world around us. For example, we project onto others what we don’t want to feel, or we trivialize our painful memories and strip them of meaning. That defense mechanism helps us dissociate and repress trauma so it doesn’t overwhelm us. Its protective function, however, also limits our ability to examine our lives and live them to the fullest.

Can you give examples of the kind of secrets that you discuss in the book?

The book discusses the many faces of our emotional inheritance and secrets in the family. It presents secrets related to sex and trauma, such as infidelity, homosexuality, homophobia, and sexual abuse. It discusses secrets related to early trauma and loss, as well as secrets from the time before we were born or from our infancy. Those hidden realities, although not consciously known to us, shape our lives.

This is a hopeful book in many ways. While we can’t undo trauma from the past, you show how your patients regain some feeling of ownership over their narratives by bringing them to light. Is this as close as we can get to “curing” someone of their emotional inheritance?

The psychological work is one of making connections and gaining the capacity to reflect on feelings and thoughts, especially those which were too painful for the previous generation to feel or know. Trauma disrupts and sometimes even destroys one’s ability for reflection, and trauma survivors have to protect themselves from the pain that memories might inflict. The privilege of the next generation is that they often can go toward that dissociated pain and recover the ability to reflect and to process, to see reality as it is, and make connections and set themselves free. This can help them break the cycle for future generations.

To hear more from Dr. Atlas on the concept of emotional inheritance, register for Cresset’s virtual event on Feb. 16, 2022, at 1 p.m. CT. This event will be hosted by Whitney Webb and Rachel Gil of Cresset’s Family Governance team.