Learning and Unlearning: A tale of an (un)eternal vicious cycle

Ananya Zharotia

“We’ll be better parents, a tale older than every other, a long drawn process of understanding the subjectivity of coping with the human condition, unlearning the rigidity of what it means to be happy, healthy, successful. Unlearning inter generational trauma.”


TW: Mentions Of Colourism, Body image, Misogyny, Oppression

What is inter generational trauma?

Intergenerational trauma is related to psychological trauma brought on by oppression, events of war, violence etc. There isn’t an adequate definition or name that can be assigned to the idea of toxic ideologies, behaviours, thought processes and more that are detrimental to our ways of life as we try to grow and heal in the long run without overlapping it with psychological implications of societal oppression. But here we speak about it in the sense of how there are more subtle ways this may be present in our day to day lives. 


Every year, decade and even century we become more aware of a previously dominant yet toxic phenomenon that was normalised in society. Be it colourism, imposing body standards, vocational pressure, or even the classic “What will people say ?”. It would be impossible to break down the entire system in a single article so here is a gist of what I mean by intergenerational trauma in this article. 


In this sense, intergenerational trauma is a phenomenon of unhealthy habits, behaviours and ideologies being forced or propagated to the newer generations as they grow up. To preserve a way of life that was previously thought to be the “right way”. Despite its subjectivity, people become accustomed to a certain thought process that they want to defend and preserve. Although it’s never justified, logically every person of a younger generation is bound to look to those who are older for guidance, advice and more on the basis of experience and their apparent stability as a consequence of an effective way of life. 


Where does it begin?


It starts when we’re children, when we see our parents think and act a certain way, telling us to do the same. We’re psychologically inclined to follow them in their behaviours as they’re our unchosen role models; we don’t know better until later. The cycle is repeating as it did when they were children, and when their parents were children. Possibly tracing it back to every family since the beginning of civilization. 


How does it manifest itself?


We start to adopt how they think and behave, even if we think we don’t, even if we try not to. At some level we develop a behaviour as an imitation or reaction to what previous generations have ingrained in our thoughts and the phenomena roots to such standards being depicted in cultures and traditions. This isn’t always about outward appearances and behaviours but also how we deal with ourselves, treat ourselves and even maintain relationships. There are dynamics in society that may be unfair but a conservative attempt to restore and maintain it rather than change it, largely because the fact that change is always uncomfortable has created the very “society” that we deem to be unfair but unknowingly contribute to it.


In many households, certain practices in the roles of women and men in their relationships, what kind of jobs they have, their role models and how those role models handle problems, emotions and their behaviours is an unconscious practice that we keep adopting without conscious control and unlearning it. 


This includes how we deal with our emotions. For example, the stigma around mental health and a healthy way of dealing with emotions through communication and expression is only now very very slowly being undone. How we talk about topics i.e. sex, reaching out for help, conflict resolution, sensitive and possibly triggering topics related to body image, self esteem, judgement and more in a way that has been passed down that creates a trauma so subconscious that we have normalised it as a thought process that is correct rather than something we have to educate and sensitise ourselves with and change. 


Where do I start to heal?


The first step, in my opinion, is becoming aware of this in your life: looking back at events that have made you uncomfortable or feel a way you don’t want to feel and how your parents and other loved ones dealt with it, which of those behaviours you adopted as a way of ignoring that something made you distressed at all. This process, if you do choose to go by it, can possibly be uncomfortable, triggering or cause distress which is one of the reasons these thought processes are undone with professional guidance. Of course, with the credible and useful resources that one can find, a process feasible for each person uniquely might make this learning and unlearning easier. 


This process can take a long time to do, it comes with ups and downs but at the end of the day, we are individuals beyond the learnings of the previous generations. As children we adopt these as it is a normal part of growth, learning and at a later stage coming to the realisation that we have to unlearn some of those learnings. Growth and healing is never linear. But making yourself aware is a start. Making yourself someone who can form their own ideologies and beliefs beyond any unhealthy ideology and behaviour imposed on us is our birthright and choice that we can start to regain. There is hope to be better, there’s hope to be happier, successful and it’s never limited to the definition of what it was. You get to create that for yourself. 


There is hope and you are that hope.