Breaking the Cycle
History repeats itself, even on small time scales.
When you’re a kid all your emotions are purely yours. They’re not corrupted by anybody else’s thoughts or ideas. You don’t know too much about social dynamics or games people play so you feel free to think what you think and to be who you are.
If you’re different than other kids your age, you may not be able to see it but your parents do. So when you go to them with questions that they don’t know the answers to or when you feel emotions that they’ve learned to suppress in themselves, it makes them uncomfortable and sometimes they react by lashing out at you.
You’re taken aback because you didn’t know that your thoughts were different or wrong in any way, so you stand up and try to defend yourself. But as more and more incidents happen where you feel a certain way and your parents refuse to acknowledge your feelings, you learn that maybe being your true self is not the way to get your parents’ love and attention.
Slowly, as time passes, you change your behavior and thoughts and do what pleases your parents and hide who you really are. Since at this stage of your life your parents control everything about your world, displeasing them is not in your best interest. So you do what you need to do to survive.
This is a very impressionable age where you absorb everything like a sponge. And as you change yourself to please your parents, something else happens that you won’t even be aware of until much later: you subconsciously pick up habits and patterns of thinking from them, including ideas about what to do when you’re faced with uncomfortable emotions.
It’s like osmosis, absorbing this information. It comes so naturally to kids that no one even notices it’s happening, least of all them. It’s as invisible as breathing. And because you spend much less time with people outside your family, they also aren’t able to see that you’re absorbing your parents’ patterns. But whether you realize it or not, you’re learning all the ways to bully someone less powerful than you into submission, you’re learning that the best way to deal with uncomfortable emotions is to suppress them, and most importantly you’re learning that being yourself has *bad* consequences for your life.
Then a few years later you leave the bubble of your house and go out into the world to become your own person. Late teens and early twenties are a little bit of an outlier because everyone is trying to figure themselves out at this age. And if you’re in college you’re surrounded by people who’re growing and changing as fast as you are. Everyone’s hormones are running high and people try on different personalities in the hopes of figuring out which one fits them best.
But eventually you leave the bubble of college and now you’re interacting with people of all ages and backgrounds. You may have to work with them and admit that you might be wrong sometimes. If you’re starting a new career then you may be at the bottom of the ladder and come to realize that most of your opinions will be dismissed or ignored. You may also have difficult, surprising, and inexplicably bad experiences, as everyone does in their life at one point or another. You will learn that in many of these types of situations there is nothing you can do to control them and there is nothing you could have done to prevent them. You will feel powerless and lost in the face of them.
Now, the same feeling is ignited again. No one is listening to me, no one knows who I really am or cares about what I really want. I can’t be myself around them. So you think, ah, the world is out to get me. First my parents didn’t let me be my full, authentic self and now the world is not letting me be my full authentic self, so the world must be a bad place filled with bad people therefore I need to protect myself. And now that I’m an adult with resources - money, a house, independence - I’m more capable of defending myself from the hostile forces of the outside world.
So you double down on these feelings of anger and hurt that you’ve been harboring. Since it is easy to use anything that happens outside of yourself to justify your actions to your internal self, you use this sorry tale of the world being out to get you as a sign that your feelings have finally been validated. You think, the world is a bad place and now that I have the means to deal with this badness I have no choice but to become a big bad man and defend my castle.
This is exactly what happened to Daenerys, of House Targaryen. She was born in the wake of her family being exiled and grew up in the shadow of the fear and doubt that comes with having no stable, permanent home. They moved around from place to place in order to evade capture, relying on the mercy of their few friends or people who wanted to curry favor with them in the hopes that they would eventually win back the throne. So she grew up feeling isolated and resentful. For as long as she could remember, thoughts of returning to her home and restoring her family’s rightful place in the world consumed her.
But she also had a different thought, a dream of making the world a better place. It was a noble idea and a goal that she came really close to achieving.
However during her journey, somewhere along the way, things changed. The people she trusted most, the people closest to her, betrayed her. Her husband was killed and her son was stillborn. Her best friend was killed, her most trusted advisor was killed, her dragon babies was killed. Loss followed loss, grief and heartbreak were the name of the game for her. Still she rose above it all, continued to fight and got armies, supporters, a kingdom. But by the end she was exhausted. And finally when she won the throne, the thing she had been working so hard for, all she could remember of her journey was the loss and trauma she went through. She looked around at all that she had won and all she could think was: what was it all for?
What was all the loss and fighting and the anger and the pain for? What did she gain? If anything, she lost all her friends and family and everyone she loved in this world, even two of her dragon children. There was no one left but her. So from where she was standing, why shouldn’t she be mad? They deserved it, they all deserved to be burned.
And that was exactly what her father said, “burn them all”. Because this was exactly his reaction when the world hurt him. When his dragons started to grow stunted and his power started to diminish, he also felt resentful and angry at the hand he’d been dealt. He saw the world as a hostile place that had taken his most prized possessions and symbols of power and turned them into nothing but tokens. So he thought I must use what power I have left to hurt the world before it hurts me any more.
The kicker is that Dany knew all this and told herself that she was not her father. She dreamed of making the world better. She was willing to forgive the world for its sins towards her family and create a happy and healthy community for all her future subjects.
Many people could see that that was true. That Dany had a lot of good in her, that when she let her conscious mind guide her actions she made good decisions. Of course she would slip up sometimes and use her dragon power to make people fall in line. And in those moments you could see certain similarities between her and her father, you could see the potential of what she could turn into if she decided to go bad. But most of the time there was still light, still conscious thought, still a semblance of good.
However when all those terrible things happened to her on her quest to make the world a better place, some part of her broke and she burned the city to the ground.
This is because simply dreaming of breaking the cycle is not enough.
A lot of people dream of breaking the cycle of generational trauma and create a new world for themselves and the people around them. But the thing no one realizes is that making this resolution is not the hard part. The hard part is when unexpected things happen to you and you’re forced to react instinctively and it turns out all along your true instincts are the same as your parents’. They were just hidden deep inside where you couldn’t reach them and there was no need for them to surface when everything was going fine in your life.
But when life became too hard for your conscious brain to handle, when you were faced with immense pressure and uncertainty, then your animal brain decided enough was enough. She decided she was going to suppress conscious thought and let instinct take over because that’s the only way she was getting out of this situation alive.
And unbeknownst to anyone, your lizard brain learned all its patterns from your environment and your family. She learned that when faced with extremely strenuous situations the best course of action is to suppress all her emotions and react with violence and anger. She learned that if she puffed up her chest and pretended to be strong and aggressive then her opponent would back down and the problem would go away. She learned that she needed to hide her fear because expressing it would make her look weak. So whether or not she wanted it to happen, when push came to shove, she reacted exactly like her father did.
There’s this concept in analytical psychology called the shadow self - the part of ourselves that we don’t know exists but controls most of our subconscious actions and thoughts. It’s carries our deepest secrets and is shaped by our darkest thoughts and innermost traumas. If you go through life not recognizing it or bringing it out - if you go through life denying it’s existence - then it will control all your actions and you won’t ever know why you did what you did.
Dany did not recognize that her shadow existed and it destroyed her. Dany turned into her father because in the moments when she wasn’t paying attention, the same thoughts snuck into her brain as the ones that caused her dad to go mad.
Game of Thrones was a story but this is true in real life too. Now that you’re a grown up with power you can choose how to exercise that power. You can either wield it to wage war on the world, like your parents did, then be frustrated when you realize that’s not working, then come back and take it out on your kids who subconsciously absorb your patterns and grow up to be angry and resentful too.
Or, you can choose a different path.
But in order to do that, first you have to learn to see.
You need to notice that there’s a pattern of behavior that you subconsciously fall into when you’re faced with situations that are too difficult for your conscious mind to handle. You need to recognize when you’re reacting in a way that calm, confident, relaxed you would react and when you’re reacting out of panic and fear. In these moments you need to pay attention to the reality of what’s happening, how you’re actually reacting, and then go from there.
Watch your life as if your actions are being taken by a character in a movie and your conscious mind is a person sitting in the audience, or as if your conscious mind is god mode for a first-person shooter game. By watching yourself from a higher level, you will slowly begin to realize that there is a difference between who you think you are and the person you really are.
You have to be this third person, this outside observer, as often as you can but especially in the moments when you predict you’re going to be susceptible to fear and pain, because that’s when your shadow self is most likely to take over. The goal here is to be able to identify who your shadow really is, without judgement, in order to form an accurate picture of who you are. Not who you want to be, not who you think you are, but who you actually are.
Then, you have to learn to accept what you see.
Now comes the most difficult part: learning to accept your full self without judgement when no one has ever modeled that behavior for you. Learning that the only way to truly change is to first acknowledge the reality of what is. Learning that you might be scared but choosing to be brave is the only way you’re going to transform your life. Learning that you need to give yourself the love that you were never given so that you can feel comfortable accepting your flaws and healing your wounds.
The challenge is to remain aware of your shadow without getting overwhelmed by its existence. To be able to see that it exists and how it controls your life, and yet not be affected by it and slowly work to change it.
It’s incredibly difficult to break the chain of intergenerational trauma. It takes an insane amount of strength to even see that you’re doing something wrong. Healing your own trauma instead of passing it on or taking it out on the world is the best course of action but it is also the hardest. You need to go really deep inwards and confront some *very* uncomfortable feelings buried deep in your emotional core. And even then, it takes so much processing and so much time before you can finally come to terms with who you really are.
To hold both these thoughts in your head at the same time is an exercise in infinite patience - you’re amazing as you are and you deserve love and happiness, *and* there are things you could do to improve yourself so you can learn to accept the world and make peace with your reality.
It also takes so much strength to say yes the world hurt me, but revenge isn’t going to heal my wounds. And my goal is to heal, move on and let go. My goal is to live my life and learn how to be happy. Killing everyone did not solve that problem for Dany. And lashing out will not solve that problem for you. There will always be more people out there who will hurt you intentionally or unintentionally. Or something will happen that won’t be to your liking. But now that you have watched this movie of your life and seen that your shadow self reacts with destruction when it experiences hurt, you can be prepared for next time it happens.
The easy lesson to take from being hurt by the world is that you should become the strongest, most powerful person around so that no one will ever be able to hurt you again. But the correct lesson here is that we need to make our minds resilient and flexible. Resilient to hurt and pain so that we are able to resolve it internally for ourselves, no matter what is happening out there in the world. And flexible enough to change tactics and know when something is not working as a good resolution and find some other way to resolve it.
Working through our traumas we may also start to see other people’s hidden traumas and how they govern their lives. But we also need to realize that it is on them to take responsibility for their actions.
Yes, society was wrong to lay its burdens on your parents. Yes, your parents were wrong to pass that stress onto you. Yes, you can’t do anything about it right away even if you notice it because it’s become a core part of your personality. Yes, it’s going to take years of processing and understanding yourself and forgiving yourself and being ok with being imperfect and flawed before any real change can take effect. Yes, it’s going to be incredibly hard and heavy and make you uneasy and uncomfortable all the time.
But do you have a choice? No. Not if you’re ever going to being truly happy.
.. he couldn’t help but feel like humanity kept learning the wrong lessons from its traumas.
— The Expanse Book 5, Nemesis Games
The cycle will not be broken unless we learn the right ones.