Intergenerational Trauma: Core Descriptors & Core Sentence
Updated: Oct 17
In the last two blog posts, we explored the science behind how intergenerational trauma passes through 3 generations. We learned about the four unconscious themes that show up in our words, behaviors, thoughts, health, relationships, and success that are typically passed down through the generations. We also started unpacking Core Language Mapping and figured out our Core Complaint. If you haven't read the last two posts, you can click here and here to catch up!
Thanks to the work of Mark Wolynn, the founder and director of The Family Constellation Institute and the author of It Didn't Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle (2016), he's created a roadmap, called Core Language Mapping/Approach, to help people uncover their intergenerational trauma and start healing it.
Grab your journal or a piece of paper and something to write with as we dive into figuring out our Core Descriptors and Core Sentence.
Core Descriptors: Our Parents
The feelings we have about our parents show us a lot about ourselves and also serves as a doorway to the four unconscious themes we discussed in the first post about intergenerational trauma (merging with a parent, rejecting a parent, experiencing a break in the early bond with our mom, and identifying with a member of our family system other than our parents). We're going to take some time to journal about each of our parents.
What was your mom like? Was she warm and loving? Was she distant and cold? Angry? Aggressive? Sad? Joyful? Patient? Did she give you hugs and physical affection? Write down the first thoughts and words that come to mind when you think about your mom.
My mother was...
I blame my mother for...
Write down everything that comes up for you. Don't censor yourself.
Once you're finished writing about your mom, we're going to do the same exercise about your dad. How would you describe your father? Was he easygoing? Kind? Was he involved in your life?
My father was...
I blame my father for...
Again, allow the words to flow from you freely, and don't censor yourself.
Additionally, how would you describe your romantic partner (if you have one)? You can even chose to describe a close friend or a sibling whom you have a close relationship with.
My partner, close friend, or sibling is...
I blame my partner, close friend, or sibling for...
Let's take a step back and read through what you've written. The spontaneous adjectives that may seem a little off the cuff are what Mark Wolynn (2016) calls our core descriptors. These core descriptors are an entryway into our subconscious feelings.
There are many of us who hold painful images and thoughts when we think about our parents. We've been hurt time and time again by them, especially as children, and when we think of them in the present day, we don't necessarily like the thoughts that come up. If these thoughts are unchecked, the inner images we have about our parents can direct the course of our ives.
If our relationship with our parents was difficult, the core descriptors expose what resentments we're still harboring. If our relationship with our parents was close and positive, our core descriptors reveal the compassion and love we feel towards them. It's common for our core descriptors to sit in the middle - - we have mixed feelings about our parents.
Chances are, our parents are living like traumatized children in adult bodies. Their childhood trauma has affected their ability to parent in healthy ways or form healthy connections with their children. What they've done to us is a problem. But what if another part of the problem could be that we're still holding on to what they've done and living from that place?
*There are parents who are abusive (mentally, verbally, emotionally, and/or physically) dangerous, and not healthy for us to be around. Boundaries are essential in all relationships, but especially when people are like this, and in some cases, terminating access to you for your own emotional, physical, and mental safety can be the best decision (i.e. going no contact). However, it's STILL possible to be free from the resentment and anger we hold towards our abusive parents, including forgiving them, without allowing them full (or any) access into our lives again.
Here are a few examples of common core descriptors if there was an early break in the bond with a mother (p.106):
"I don't ever want to be a burden to my mom."
"We don't really have a relationship."
"My mom was distant and cold. She rarely had time for me."
"My mother is super self-centered. It's always about her."
"My mom can be really manipulative. I never felt safe with her."
"I've never wanted to have kids."
"I was scared of my mom. I never knew what was going to happen next."
Making peace with our parents is essential to our own healing. Remember, this doesn't mean allowing them full access to your life without any consequences for bad behaviors. What it means is that we learn to soften our heart towards our parents, seek to understand their individual stories, lead with compassion, all while honoring our own selves and the type of parents we deserved to have as children. Whether your parents are still here or have passed away, figuring out your core descriptors can help heal your relationship with them.
Anger is typically a secondary emotion; there's something else lying underneath the anger, usually sadness. Sadness won't kill you, but the anger might.
"You can't change your parents, but you can change the way you hold them inside you." (p.109)
The Core Sentence
Struggling with fears, panic attacks, phobias, and obsessive thoughts are common and incredibly debilitating. It can often feel like we're trapped in a prison with no way of escaping. It can be exhausting to live in this space, with anxiety taking up every inch of our breathing space and making it feel impossible to live in the present.
There's a sentence within each of us that's been with us since we were a small child; a sentence that leads to your deepest despair and worry. But when figured out, this sentence can also be your way out. This is called your core sentence, and it's what the Core Language Map has been leading us to! It's the treasure chest.
Grab a piece of paper and something to write with, because we're going to figure out your core sentence.
If your life were to fall apart, if things were to go horribly wrong, what's your worst fear? What's the worst thing that could happen to you?
My worst fear, the worst thing that could happen to me, is...
Maybe it begins with "I":
- "I would lose everything."
Maybe it begins with "they":
- "They would leave me."
Maybe it begins with "my":
- "My partner will die."
We're going to go a little bit deeper; remember, don't censor yourself! Write whatever comes to mind.
The worst thing that could happen to me is...
My children/family/partner could...
Look at what you've written, and ask yourself, "and if that happened, what would be the worst part of that?" Keep going down one more level.
My absolute worst fear is...
Let's look over what you've written. Your core sentence will often be stated in the present or future tense. When you speak it, the words feel alive inside of you and resonate throughout your entire body. Core sentences often sound like this (p.113):
I'm all alone.
I'll fall apart.
They'll reject me.
I won't deserve to live.
It'll never end.
They'll put me away.
It's all my fault.
I'll hurt someone.
I'll lose my family.
They'll humiliate me.
They'll leave me.
I'll go crazy.
I'll kill myself.
I'll lose control.
They abandon me.
A core sentence can often invoke feelings of fear when spoken out loud. Observe if there's a strong physical reaction in your body when you speak yours. Imagine for a moment: does this core sentence belong to someone else? Did someone else experience immense trauma, or carried such deep grief and guilt, or died regretfully or violently, or lived a life that was empty and desperate? This sentence could actually belong to your mom or dad, or even your grandmother or grandfather.
Core sentences travel in families. They move from person to person, knocking to see who will let them in. But letting them in happens unconsciously. We share an unconscious obligation to heal the unresolved traumas and tragedies in our families (p.121).
The Family Members Behind Your Core Sentence
This practice is taken from Mark Wolynn (2016), and it's helpful to do acknowledge who in your family might be behind your core sentence (p.127).
If you have a clear idea of the person who owns your original fear, visualize them.
If you aren't clear who that might be, close your eyes and imagine someone in your family who may have felt similar emotions to what you're feeling. You don't have to know who this person is.
Visualize the person or people connected to the traumatic event behind your core sentence. You don't need to know exactly what the event it.
Bow your head and take a deep breath.
Tell this person or people that you respect them and what happened to them. Tell them they will not be forgotten and they will be remembered with love.
Visualize them at peace.
Feel them blessing you to live a full, beautiful life, free of the fear you've been living in for so long. As you breathe out, feel the heavy emotions of your core sentence leaving your body.
Do this for as long as you need to until your body quiets.
In the next blog post, we're going to finish up the intergenerational trauma series by learning about the core trauma and how to integrate what we've learned into our everyday lives.
Remember, it might not have started with you, but it can end with you.
Wolynn, M. (2016). It didn't start with you: How inherited family trauma shapes who we are and how to end the cycle.
At Root Counseling, we help clients explore intergenerational trauma in a safe space, creating opportunities for them to bring to light what's been lost and heal what's been broken. To schedule an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.