When I was 5 years old, my mom caught me in a small lie. It’s unfortunately true — I threw away a bologna sandwich despite saying that I had finished it. Later that day, she told me that she saw it in our trash and that I shouldn’t lie because lying indicates fear, and I should never admit that I’m scared of anyone.
Looking back on my life, this was a pattern in my home. I was raised through moments that my mom turned into one important lesson: Never show weakness. Anything that hinted at the implication of struggle was a sign of failure.
My upbringing may not be shocking. The truth is that I come from a line of resilient women who learned to survive despite their circumstances. In the 1950s, my widowed great-grandma managed to escape North Vietnam with her three children, including my grandma, on the last plane to South Vietnam.
Growing up, my grandma was fiercely independent. She taught herself how to read and write while selling food on the street for extra money. In 1975, my teenage mom followed her lead when she fled Vietnam with her siblings, my great-grandma, and my grandma to escape political oppression and poverty. They spent days huddled among strangers and eventually made it to their final destination of Minnesota, where a large portion of my family still resides.
Almost five decades later, I’m in extensive cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to manage my anxious thoughts, all-or-nothing thinking, and reoccurring guilt of living life the way I want instead of the way I was taught. Throughout this journey, I’ve been able to identify the role that intergenerational trauma has played in my family, along with its impact on my life and who I am as a person.
Intergenerational trauma has many definitions, but the concept is pretty linear. Essentially, it’s trauma that carries on from previous generations who have experienced tragic events, such as war or famine. Although experts first recognized it in 1966 among children of Holocaust survivors, research has broadened to include other groups, such as American Indian tribes and the families of Vietnam War veterans.
“With a history of physical displacement and identity crisis from war and discrimination, many Asian Americans find themselves passing their unresolved trauma in ways that may not be obvious at first,” says Soo Jin Lee, LMFT, an executive director of the Yellow Chair Collective and co-author of “Where I Belong: Healing Trauma and Embracing Asian American Identity.“
However, getting mental health support may be especially difficult for Asian communities.
Stigma is a common obstacle that Asian communities may deal with. Jeanie Y. Chang, LMFT, CCTP, a board chair of the Asian Mental Health Collective (AMHC), notes that this may be because many cultures are rooted in Confucianism. Many Asian Americans learn from older generations to live a peaceful life and that mental health difficulties directly result from bad habits. In other words, people have taught Asian Americans to follow the rules and not cause disruptions in society.
The model minority myth can also play a negative role in this narrative. Dating back to World War II, the term “model minority” was first used to describe successful Japanese American families in the United States supporting the assumption that Asian Americans are more successful than other minority groups. That belief can be extremely harmful. A 2018 study found that when Asian Americans internalize the model minority myth, it can lead to increased depression and anxiety.
For my mom, being a “model citizen” held true and she taught me to follow suit. In elementary school, I came home with a note because I was caught talking during a lesson. As a response, my mom baked a dessert for my teacher and told me to write an apology letter. The next day, I was carrying an entire cake onto the bus, avoiding eye contact with my friends, and feeling ashamed that I had caused trouble.
Years later, I changed my traditional career path in the medical field to pursue my passion for writing. I felt relieved for being honest with myself. However, when I accepted my “dream” job at a media company, I found myself working endless hours and crying due to feeling bullied.
When I told my mom, she shared her own obstacles to becoming the corporate director she is today. She worked alongside racist co-workers, was asked if she even spoke English, and wasn’t considered for opportunities. The lesson? Life is hard, but it could always be worse.
This response can be common. Chang confirms that older generations tend to downplay the experience of younger generations by comparing their own traumatic experiences. Yet using tragic experiences as life lessons can cause unintended consequences, like feelings of shame, explains Lee.
Through therapy, I’ve learned how to stop minimizing my struggles and stop feeling uncomfortable about making choices based on my own version of happiness. Instead, I now practice self-compassion and am proud of living authentically. Plus, I’m able to better receive my mom’s advice by understanding her learned survival skills of following the rules and not making any disturbances.
Every family is different, which means the signs of intergenerational trauma may also vary. Still, they can show up as maladaptive coping mechanisms and mental health symptoms, shares Cindy Shu, MS, LMFT, a diversity chair of the San Francisco Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.
Mental health symptoms can include:
- substance misuse
- difficulties maintaining healthy relationships
- conflict avoidance
Intergenerational trauma can also have a significant effect on relationships, explains Lee. I had my first breakup in middle school when my then-boyfriend held another girl’s hand at a birthday party and promptly removed me from his top eight on Myspace. The next day, my mom shared another lesson with me: People will hurt my feelings, and my only response should be to act unbothered. I should cut off all contact, delete their number, and never mention them again. From ex-boyfriends to ex-friends, I spent the next decade pretending as if I was unaffected but actually accumulating negative feelings from every breakup I went through.
Therapy has helped me relearn that the aftermath of a breakup isn’t to prove strength but to allow space to reflect and heal. While I feel that my mom’s advice held some truth, I know that her upbringing influenced her uncompromising beliefs and strong actions to not act upset. My mom set the standard for my self-worth, but therapy has given me the extra tools to view both myself and my relationships in a healthier way.
Therapy can create a safe space for individuals or families to explore their family history, identify past trauma, and create healthy coping mechanisms, says Shu. While there are many methods to choose from, I’ve personally seen positive results through CBT. With this model, therapists can help change the way individuals think about themselves and their situations, explains Lee.
The CBT strategies that I regularly use include:
- Cognitive restructuring: Through identifying negative thought patterns, I’m able to reframe my thoughts to be more positive.
- Journaling: Practicing this daily has allowed me to feel more gratitude.
- Grounding techniques: Breathing exercises can help calm my anxious thoughts.
Regardless of what approach you take, Chang says it’s important to be proactive about getting therapy and to keep in mind that the purpose isn’t to fix your family. You don’t come to therapy to change someone else. You come to change yourself, she affirms.
Chang advises finding a professional who is specifically trauma-informed and understands intergenerational trauma.
There are also various resources that emphasize serving Asian American communities such as the Asians For Mental Health directory and AMHC’s directory. For those who don’t have access to therapy, Shu recommends getting mentorship from someone with a shared background. However, it’s important to note that if you’re experiencing significant mental health distress, professional help may be necessary, adds Lee.
Although I’m still healing, I can now better identify my triggers, navigate my thoughts, and put context to my reactions while appreciating my mom in a new way.
Intergenerational trauma can’t be undone, but it’s possible to break the cycle of behavior through education and action. For me, that starts with acknowledging my struggles instead of being embarrassed by them, reframing my negative thoughts instead of fueling them, and feeling empowered by my life choices instead of believing they’re shortcomings.
After all, there’s strength in making changes — and peace in knowing you have control to shape the future.