I am the daughter of a German mother and a Russian/Polish father, and I will begin telling my story of transformation starting with my father’s parents. The path of my Russian grandfather and my Polish grandmother crossed through a sequence of unlikely historical events, set into motion by the events of the Second World War. Through the chaos of war, my grandmother and grandfather barely survived a German work and concentration camp respectively and, at the end of the war, they were left stranded in enemy territory in the middle of West Germany. Their inability to adequately process what they had experienced during the war continued to affect not only my father’s life, but subsequently my life as well. Not surprisingly, my father’s upbringing as a Russian in post-war Germany didn’t make for a carefree childhood. His disenfranchised parents struggled to make ends meet while desperately trying to get reparations from the German government for the atrocities endured under the Nazi regime (a request that was later denied). On my mother’s side, things were somewhat less dramatic, but naturally, there wasn’t a family in Germany unaffected by the loss of life, the overbearing silence of the collective denial, and a sense of guilt and shame that haunted generations to come.
By the time I was born in the seventies, life in Germany was pretty much back to normal. Germany was wealthy again by any standards, and I had the privilege of growing up in a middle class environment and receiving a decent education. Nevertheless, I grew up a depressed teenager, plagued by feelings of sadness and helplessness that seemed to originate from a place deeper and bigger than myself. In an attempt to understand why I felt what I felt, understand the impact of my parents’ divorce, and generally to find the meaning of life, I started therapy and soon after began to study for my master of psychology degree. To my disappointment, neither therapy nor the academic study of psychology offered a solution to my suffering.
Based on the paradigms and theories that were accepted in the profession of psychology at the time, I began to understand I was sad because of how my parents were able or unable to express their love for me, because of how my grandparents were able or unable to express love for them — which had a lot to do with their experiences during the war. This seemed like a logical enough explanation, but since it didn’t bring me any closer to happiness, I was compelled to embark on a long journey of self-discovery, one which would prove to be both more challenging but ultimately also more liberating than I could have ever imagined.
During my quest for healing, answers, and personal development, I spent a significant amount of time with teachers, therapists, and various coaches, in numerous workshops, and with my nose frequently buried in books. This period of soul-searching can be summarized by two life-changing insights.
First Insight: I had inherited a hot potato.
During therapy, I was taught that the unexplainable feelings and mysterious symptoms I experienced could be linked all the way back to the events my grandparents and parents had endured. Since my grandparents had no access to therapy and did not know how to process their experiences, they reverted to the same subconscious solution like most of their generation (and presumably the generations before them): they tried to bury their memories, their fear, and their anger. Unfortunately, pretending not to feel something is not the same thing as not feeling something. Failing to acknowledge their fear and anger led to a phenomenon that one of my early therapists called passing on the hot potato. What he meant by that was that a trauma (defined as an event that overwhelms a person’s processing capacity), if not resolved, is passed on to the next generation as a blueprint for how to be in the world. If the next generation does not succeed in dealing with the fallout of that experience either, the hot potato (the energetic pattern of the trauma) is passed on yet again to the next generation, with the associated symptoms growing ever more unspecific and generalized. In the case of my family, this encompassed symptoms such as depression, alcohol abuse, physical violence, and eating disorders.
Second Insight: There is no hot potato.
As I investigated the connection between trauma and emotional and behavioural patterns, I wanted to learn more about how our experience of reality is actually created. What particularly interested me was understanding how two different people could experience the same event in two different ways. Why can something be traumatizing to one person, but not necessarily to another? Why was I feeling depressed when a friend of mine with a remarkably similar background seemed unfazed by his family’s past and walked through life with a positivity that seemed to mock my misery? The more I understood about the creation of reality, the clearer it became: There was no hot potato outside of my own head.
The collected findings from neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy all pointed me in the same direction: the hot potato I thought I was carrying was a creation of my mind — literally a figment of my imagination. My family’s history, which had seemingly been weighing me down and holding me hostage, was in fact no more real in my life today than a shadow on the wall. Now, you may say, ‘Wait a minute, but all of this stuff did happen to your grandparents!’ So, let me try to explain. There is evidence from the field of epigenetics that biochemical reactions to aversive (unpleasant or harmful) stimuli are transmitted transgenerationally. My grandparents’ experience could have led to a disproportionate predisposition in me to react to the same or similar stimuli in a certain way. This could mean that I may have inherited some predisposition for depression or addiction. But even if this is so, I am only ever interacting with events that are happening inside of me now — because this is where my reality is created.
The events my grandparents had experienced had long passed, and the patterns passed on to me from my parents and grandparents were re-enactments in my unconscious mind in the here and now. After all, a pattern is only a pattern if you constantly re-create it. Or in other words, the hot potato I was holding in the present was made up by thoughts and feelings I had about other people’s thoughts and feelings. The insight that the hot potato is an event that I create myself in me right NOW was disturbingly simple and at first somewhat disorienting. Seeing my family as the source of all my unhappiness and the hot potato as their real and tangible legacy had at least been a plausible explanation, even if it hadn’t led to well-being.
This being said, I do not mean to belittle anyone who is struggling with the demons of their own or their family’s past. The nature of our mind is such that as long as we believe in the story and the power that it holds, the consequence of this story are painfully real. In other words, the hot potato is real — inside of us. Once we expose it for what it is — a cognitive illusion — a shadow on the wall without an object to cause it, it stops being a powerful influence because we no longer experience it as real internally.
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