Content warning: in writing about healing in her Filipino family, there is discussion of intergenerational trauma with mentions of colonialism and body image issues.
Recently on my mental health journey, I’ve become more aware of how intergenerational trauma presents in my Filipino family and I’ve been learning how to heal.
I first learned about intergenerational trauma in university. In one of my classes, we sat in a circle as my Indigenous professor and classmates shared their insights on having relatives who survived the residential school system in Canada. Before this, I didn’t realize just how deeply traumatic experiences could affect multiple generations.
It took me years since then to face the truth that my family had its own trauma to reckon with.
What is intergenerational trauma and how does it present in a Filipino family?
Also referred to as transgenerational trauma, it is “trauma that gets passed down from those who directly experience an incident to subsequent generations.” It can start with a single or multiple traumatic events that impact you individually or several family members. But it can also include collective historical trauma that impacts a larger community.
Broadly, Filipinos can be said to have faced historical trauma. Between the centuries of colonization from Spain and the United States; occupation by the Japanese during World War II; the tyranny of Martial Law and the Marcos dictatorship; and the ongoing marginalization of Indigenous peoples and underprivileged communities in the Philippines, it’s a lot.
Without realizing it, we inherit our ancestors’ grief.
In the diaspora, deep-rooted colonialism has a huge impact on our mental health. And that’s not even counting the roles of the patriarchy and heteronormativity.
Growing up, I accepted this notion that “my family just doesn’t talk about anything” or “this is just the way that person is.” But the reality was that dissatisfaction and hurt gnawed at me.
Something had to change, even if it had to start with me and a few tearful conversations with my therapist about intergenerational trauma.
I’m in no way an expert, so if you need the support of a professional, you can access Asian Mental Health Collective for a directory of Asian, Pacific Islander, and South Asian American (APISAA) therapists in the U.S.
However, I hope my story and the personal lessons I’ve learned can serve you too.
Intergenerational trauma within our Filipino family relationships can be complex. We need to peel back the layers.
Intergenerational trauma is about as layered as—and maybe more tear-inducing than—an onion. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Fabiana Franco, it can be passed on “through parenting behaviors, changes in gene expression, and/or other pathways that we have yet to fully understand.”
While we might not find all the answers, it’s still important to ask questions like:
- Why might a value be important to my family when it’s not important to me?
- What behavior was encouraged when I, my parents, or my grandparents were growing up?
- Why might my family be afraid of my approach with my relationships or career?
Step 1. One thick layer we can peel back is the map of major events and cultural beliefs that influenced our ancestors’ childhoods. My grandma’s earliest memories were of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in WWII. Meanwhile, my parents were young children during the Marcos regime and were in college during the People Power Revolution.
One day, my children will learn that one of my earliest memories was watching news coverage of 9/11, I started middle school during the 2008 recession, and I graduated college during a global pandemic.
The ways in which these major events affect society and the culture our parents grew up in can also impact us. Even just looking at my own life, the unstable economy contrasting with the not-so-simple formula of “do well in school and get a good job” impacts my advice to a younger cousin who hasn’t started university.
Step 2. I am learning to take a step back and examine the bigger factors. I’m learning to ask myself, “What are the oppressive systems at work here?”
For instance, colonialism inflicted a lot of damage to Filipino body image, including mine, which is why I wrote a love letter to my Filipina nose. Colonialism has hurt us all and unless we grow more conscious of this fact, we get trapped in a cycle of shame.
We can do the work to understand why the cycle happens. And we don’t have to repeat it.
Step 3. Generational gaps can result in different values and understanding, or sometimes misunderstandings. So on top of asking questions, we can take note of patterns.
In any conflict with my parents, I notice that it often stems from miscommunication on both ends. These days, I can see specifically the lack of clarity is a result of how they were parented. One side of my family tends to be more outspoken or severe with their words. Meanwhile, the other side might internalize and shut down when faced with conflict.
How we communicate—aggressively, passive aggressively, or assertively—doesn’t come out of nowhere. Our responses are learned behavior, and more often than not, can be ways we’ve learned to cope.
Like many of us, my family has a complicated history of hurt. This deeper layer I’m peeling back slowly and with care is understanding that our parents and grandparents are people.
They have their own trauma to unpack. This doesn’t absolve them of any harm they may have caused, but it is important to remember.
When intergenerational trauma is uncovered, it can stir up defensiveness … or accountability from those whose actions affect us.
Because of the shame surrounding mental health in Filipino culture, there is the reality that some of our families won’t be open to receiving feedback or having these conversations.
Boundaries are key.
Sometimes unpacking and healing from the trauma requires space from your family. Sometimes you might be the only person willing to step back and ask “Why?”
But if your family is willing to work with you, it takes a lot of empathy and patience.
For myself, I’m learning the patience of listening. It’s not easy, especially when a perspective is different from our own and may upset us. It’s also not easy to learn when we feel the need to defend ourselves.
Still, it’s important to understand that sometimes, defensiveness is a mechanism to protect our ego and can prevent us from growing.
By listening to my elders’ perspectives and experiences, I can gain a new understanding of their responses. Instead of relying on emotional outbursts and avoidance, my family finds that having a hard conversation is healthier.
It hurt a lot when my mom used to pinch my nose to wake me up before school. But by being more patient and open, she was able to tell me that she was criticized for her own appearance growing up. When I call my dad in for being too harsh, he stops and apologizes. Sometimes he even opens up about how he’s had similar experiences growing up.
Honestly, listening doesn’t mean having to agree with every value or thought that’s being presented. It just means taking in a new point of view and trying to find common ground.
Healing intergenerational trauma in a Filipino family requires grace, especially with ourselves and others, for being imperfect.
Lately, I’ve noticed that many of us in the Asian American and Asian Canadian community talk about how important it is to hear the words “I’m proud of you.” Even Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu understands the power of the phrase. For many of us, the care and love we feel is unspoken, though expressed through gestures and food.
That said, it’s still important to acknowledge that we all express and receive love differently.
Last summer, I told my dad that I appreciate all the acts of service he gives me, but sometimes I need more words of affirmation (shoutout to the Five Love Languages). Over the last few months alone, my dad’s been more vocal with positive affirmations and encouragement. I am very fortunate and grateful for how he responded.
Because of my dad’s upbringing, affirmation was sometimes left unsaid for me to assume. Sometimes asking questions wasn’t acceptable. It’s a pattern both my dad and myself are unlearning.
Sometimes my best friend feels she can’t ask me questions or my brother points out that I’m “doing that thing you don’t like Dad doing.” It’s far too easy to feel shame for this behavior.
But instead of internalizing the thought of “I guess I’m just this way,” I’ve become more self-aware. It’s a process but I’m working to stop myself in the moment.
To quote my therapist, rewiring our neural pathways takes about as much time as the trauma took to wire them that way. It often takes longer.
Whether or not you find it in your Filipino family, there is healing in being understood and accepted by your inner circle.
Healing is never linear, but it is never in vain. Through therapy, I realized it’s important for me to verbalize how I feel. Vocalizing thoughts make them less intimidating.
Having even one person to listen and help you explore the whys and hows can be life-changing. You aren’t alone. You may have friends, partners, and loved ones to lean on.
It always helps when I can reach out to a cousin or family friend who shares the experience of being the firstborn daughter in an immigrant household. Our shared experiences ground me and I am reminded that even if it feels like it, I am never alone.
As we unlearn the harm of trauma and colonialism, we learn to create spaces that nurture self-compassion. For those who came before us, for ourselves, and for those who come after. We can pass on love instead.
Cover photo by RODNAE Productions.
Do you feel the weight of intergenerational trauma affects your Filipino family? Are you on a path of healing?
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