Reframing the Legacy of Ancestral Trauma as Resilience By Lyrica Fils-Aimé, LCSW on 6/24/21 - 11:45 AM

Linda, a client I’ve seen for years who has struggled with anxiety and depressive symptoms, returned for sessions with me to revisit coping strategies for a new job. We found ourselves talking about her insecurities, how she learned to cover up her neighborhood accent, how she was taught to “be twice as good to get half of what white people have” and to be “perfect” in order to “get out.” Growing up and looking back, she shuddered at the memory of her dad telling her not to be like her friends who had working class backgrounds because they would “not amount to anything” and her mom telling her that braids were “unprofessional.”

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But the truth is, as a dark-skinned Black woman, Linda was just now learning that these were not necessarily truths, but were instead passed-down beliefs and trauma-born messages from her parents and grandparents. This was not easy for me, a clinician who is a light-skinned Black Haitian with a white parent, to relate with. I must constantly acknowledge the privileges I hold in being light-skinned while also challenging the beliefs and acknowledging the racially unjust context in which we live. However, bringing up the subject of my light skin in therapy with Linda and my difficulty relating with her experience as a dark-skinned Black woman has not only helped her, but has also opened a space in which she can challenge her beliefs.

Linda struggled to participate in the Black natural hair movement and to show up for work with braids, as she would often experience comments from White coworkers about her hair. “What would your grandmother think of your braids?” I asked her. “She would hate them.” Linda was sure in her response. But it was missing acknowledgement of the societal and racial context in which her grandmother lived in the decades between 1930 and 1970. “What caused Grandma to resist natural hair?” I wondered aloud.

I then asked Linda to reflect by saying, “So your coworkers may still comment on them, but they are not telling you not to wear them. Let’s keep that in mind while I ask you this next question. Why did Grandma feel so strongly against braids?”

“Because afros and braids were dangerous to have back then. You couldn’t get ‘good’ jobs and you were seen as too Black.”

“So, let’s say your grandmother, your mother and your father were all passing down some form of ancestral trauma to you, and although it was born of pain, suffering and social marginalization, it may also have been a means of survival, if not physically, but mentally and emotionally—a form of resilience.”

Linda was resistant to considering this theory, likely because it was hard for her to believe that something positive could be associated with these negative messages that her ancestors passed on to her.

“But I do have to be twice as good,” she protested.

“That may be true, but can you see how it harmed you? Something can be protective and help you at the time, and be harmful later.”

I explained to Linda that these “rules,” or perhaps survival skills and beliefs, might have been passed down to protect her and to promote survival, even though they ultimately caused unintended distress. “I work so hard, but don’t take care of myself,” she recognized. “I am tougher on myself than I need to be. I can understand how my parents and grandparents might have been trying to protect me with their hard-earned survival tips—their wisdom.”

Linda and I wondered together if it was indeed possible to acknowledge that these restrictive messages, born of trauma, might lay the foundation for a new set of messages, ones of resilience and strength, to use in her own life and possibly even pass down to her own descendants. Linda agreed to keep her braids in for work the next day, and to wear them to her family reunion the following weekend.

Together, we prepared planned statements for whomever might make negative or hurtful comments about her hair, whether family members at the upcoming gathering or from white, AAPI, Latinx or Black people at work. Linda decided that she had some freedom to wear her hair however she wanted, even though her ancestors did not, and that she could also honor the pain and lived experiences they had during far harsher racially divided times.


Linda has a long way to go in undoing Anti-Blackness from her belief patterns and freeing herself from the trauma-based experiences of her ancestors, but she is on track to self-empowerment by honoring her ancestry while, at the same time, reframing their pain as resilience.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy