Mind-Body Health

Ancestral Healing: An IFS Approach

Family sitting on pier by the sea

I can feel the clear blue water around my calves. I can see the white sand that’s sinking my toes into its body. It’s cradling my stance as I look next to me and I see my grandmother and her mother standing in a line with all of my cousins, my father, my aunts and uncles, and my grandmother’s cousins. We are all in the water and the sun is shining, making priceless diamonds as it reflects on the blue-green ocean. The ocean water is carrying away the fears and the trauma of our lineage.

“This is the power of doing your work,” I think to myself and I gaze out into the expansiveness of the ocean before me. I can feel my body tingling, as we are letting go of the fears we inherited when the Nazis stole my family’s sense of safety in the world. I can see my great grandfather in his glory, loving life and laughing with his loved ones. I can see my grandmother returned to her original state. She is playful and full of vibrance. I can feel our lineage releasing.

This is a vision I had in a session with my therapist. We were working through a fear that I have about my life being stolen from me for a reason I don’t understand. All my life, I have had moments where someone might look at me in a way that triggers this fear, and all of a sudden, I am convinced that they are going to come into my home and take me hostage and my life will be over. When you consider this fear in the context of my life, it makes almost no sense. But, when you look at the fear in the context of my family’s lineage, all the pieces come together.

A family of holocaust survivors, in experience and passed down DNA, my ancestors did have their lives stolen from them. Over and over for seemingly no reason. However, this is an inherited fear. A fear that is not serving me in any way. It’s not protecting me from anything. It’s not keeping me well. “A legacy burden” is a term that could be applied to this fear. And I bet you have them too.

What is a Legacy Burden and Do I Have Them?

A legacy burden is something we inherited from our ancestors. It is something that may never even be mentioned verbally in the family line but something we can all feel and all deal with in our own ways. For example, my grandmother never spoke of the atrocities she experienced until I was an adult. Even then, the details were couched in tears and palpable emotion. So much so, that I never really pressed her about it.

Many families and cultures have ever present legacy burdens being passed and carried on without ever naming them. Racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia are some of the legacy burdens we see playing out in our culture every day. Unconscious things that we carry around that keep us separate from one another and allow us to dehumanize each other for seemingly no reason. Legacy burdens don’t have to be clear or named to be deeply felt. More info about that can be found in this conversation with the founder of IFS here.

Internal Family Systems: IFS

Speaking of the founder, the term legacy burden comes from Dr. Richard Schwartz’s model called Internal Family Systems or IFS. This is a modality practiced by healers and therapists alike all over the world. The modality purports that we have many parts inside of us. Every part has a specific job, and its own complex life and history, and the path to healing is about developing a trusting a loving relationship with these parts so that they can transform. A legacy burden is a part that is inherited but does not serve much function in the system. My fear of being taken hostage and losing my life, in dialoguing with it, I learned that there was nothing it was doing to promote control or wellness in the system. Therefore, it was inherited. Had to be.

Legacy Burdens and Intergenerational Trauma

You may have heard of this concept being termed “intergenerational trauma.” Trauma is anything that happens to us that exceeds our nervous system’s ability to cope. We can have an isolated Trauma (like a car accident or a hurricane) or chronic trauma (like emotional neglect or misattunement in childhood): note the capitalization of the “T” and “t” to delineate the difference. One thing we are discovering through the field of epigenetics is that trauma and experiencing trauma, have the capacity to rewire our DNA and that rewired DNA gets passed on. Inapplicable terms this means, that my grandmother’s DNA was not the same before and after the holocaust. And the DNA I inherited is post-holocaust DNA, which may make me more prone to having big fear when someone cuts me off in traffic.

I’m not the only one, however. One of my favorite studies on intergenerational trauma came out of Emory University and it was done on a group of rats. The original experiment had the rats experience an electric shock when the smell of cherry blossoms was pumped into their cage. Therefore, the rats developed a fear response to the smell of cherry blossoms. This response was passed down SEVEN generations later. That means that for seven generations, each litter of rats had some semblance of a fear response to the smell of cherry blossoms. You can read more about this experiment here

Looking for Legacy Burdens:

  • What are the beliefs you inherited from your family that do not fit into the current circumstances of your life? (maybe you have an abundance of food or wealth but still keep expired products in the fridge?)
  • What patterns do you notice that you, your parents, and grandparents, and kids if you have them, all embody? (maybe you all struggle with social anxiety …etc.)
  • What traumas or Traumas have occurred in your family? What have been their ripple effects that you’re aware of?

If you want to work through these legacy burdens, my top recommendation would be to find an IFS therapist or coach who can help you, hold space for you and help you release legacy burdens responsibly. Sometimes the release of the legacy burden can be disorienting to the system without meaning to be so it’s best to work with a practitioner who knows how to use the system responsibly. You can find an IFS therapist/coach here.


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