A Path Towards Healing Generational Trauma By Lyrica Fils-Aimé, LCSW on 2/17/22 - 12:28 PM

Jaza is a client who suffers from generational trauma rooted in the genocide of Native American people, ancestral trauma from theft of their land and livelihood, and the ongoing cumulative impacts of Indian Residential schooling. Colonization, the active process of settling and taking control over the indigenous people, reverberates as ancestral trauma in Jaza’s day-to-day life. She has used her therapy time with me to examine messages passed down to her from family about the way she should live and breathe as a descendant and recipient of these experiences. She asked an important question when we were talking about ancestral resilience and wisdom as an antidote to ancestral trauma: “Is it really ‘resilience’ if so many of my people are still suffering?”

Like what you are reading? For more stimulating stories, thought-provoking articles and new video announcements, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Historical trauma is a cumulative experience. It doesn’t simply disappear because the event or events have passed. I have seen the impact of slavery on Black clients, the residual, multigenerational effects on Asian clients of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment camps, and the destructive legacy of Holocaust concentration camps on Jews, the Roma, and those with disabilities. In therapy sessions with Jaza, we acknowledge the trauma, hurt, pain, and suffering her family has experienced and work to heal her wounds from the genocide of Indigenous people.

We reframe the harmful messages that have been passed down to her which include:
“You look like your great-grandmother with your hair styled that way. Don’t wear it like that to work. It’s unprofessional!”
“We don’t speak our native languages anymore. We should write in proper English and not reveal our roots.”
“You look too Indian in that—you are more likely to get in trouble with the law.”

For ancestral, cumulative, and generational trauma with Jaza and clients with similar legacies, I have used narrative building to reframe harmful histories and messages passed on through lineage and reorganize them within the client’s mental schema as survival techniques from living in oppression. Why did your grandmother pass on that message to you? What was she trying to protect you from? How does it hurt you today? Can we acknowledge her attempts at survival in colonization, and can we release them? These messages are meant to help but have caused pain and confusion for Jaza.

We spend time processing and then releasing the messages. We don’t talk about it as redemptive resilience, but more like expired wisdom. Wisdom that is necessary for her to have in her mind, but then packed up and stored away only to be revisited when she wants to reconnect to her ancestry. It does not apply to her current time period and life experience. There are occasions in which we celebrate the passed-down wisdoms and look for ways to incorporate them into present day life. There are other moments in which we look to reduce the impact of the messages and the memories associated with them.

As a clinician, it is important for me to remember that this type of resilience is not like that of a plant growing despite difficult weather conditions. Instead, it is akin to a plant’s maintaining and struggling to survive despite pesticides and unnecessary attempts to kill it while nearby plants perish. This is resilience in spite of the historical trauma. It is watching family members and friends succumb to colonization. It is a reaction to forced assimilation, assimilation for survival, and assimilation for respectability. This is about the need to have assimilated to a colonizer’s dominant culture and about keeping wisdom in a box, being grateful for a little more freedom than her ancestors had, and reconnecting to her roots with intentionality. This reconnection can be healing.

As Jaza puts some of those messages in storage, she learns more about how this historical trauma impacts her day to day. She learns about rituals her family developed over time and incorporates them into her life. Jaza learns about the foods her family ate, the scents they valued, the seeds they planted, all in an attempt to reduce the colonization she experiences to this day, and in so doing, feel more connected to her ancestors.


Jaza has taught me that a redemptive story can be a strategy a descendant holds onto as they begin to heal the painful and enduring wounds of ancestral trauma. The question of resilience in and its relationship to oppression is an examination I have to do continuously for my own ancestral history. My birth country of Haiti is often deemed a resilient nation after incessant political disasters and catastrophic climate impacts. I look at the historical facts, the systems of oppression, the harmful messages my lineage shared with me, and treasure the wisdom and resilience I can bring into my life with intention. 

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections