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  • Writer's pictureMiki Goerdt

What we inherit from our ancestors: Burdens and gifts


Legacy burdens and legacy gifts

3.5 x 4 inches each (a set of two), Mokuhanga woodblock prints, 2023


This month’s Mokuhanga images are about what my ancestors passed down to me and my daughter. A psychological approach called “Internal Family Systems” conceptualizes that our ancestors often unknowingly pass down to us their experiences of trauma and attachment injuries as extreme beliefs, emotions, and energies. Our ancestors’ ways of coping with difficult situations may not be so helpful to us and become burdensome. Epigenetic studies also describe how our ancestors’ stress responses imprint chemical marks in our genes, influencing our own responses to certain stressors. In this way, we inherit more than biological genes and physical features from our ancestors. At the same time, there are legacy gifts that we may inherit from our ancestors—for example, resilience factors, positive traits, ways of thriving. In my view, legacy burdens and gifts are connected. And I believe that legacy burdens can be transformed into legacy gifts sometimes.


Legacy burdens are often closely connected to historical and societal contexts. A personal example is my mother’s anxiety in relation to my maternal grandfather’s experience of serving in Manchuria during WWII. My grandfather witnessed some things that he did not know how to swallow and digest. The experience changed the way that he treated my grandmother. As a child, witnessing my grandfather’s anger and conflicts in her household, my mother often experienced fear. The fear fostered the urge she felt to control people and the environment around her when she became an adult and a mother. My mother’s fear-driven behaviors have been passed down to me. I work hard at letting them go so that my daughter won’t inherit them from me. The aim of raising our awareness of what we inherit is to understand ourselves and give ourselves a choice---a choice to keep what we inherited, or to let it go.


When extreme emotions, beliefs, or energy come up in clients during a therapy session, I ask clients “Where did you learn to think this way?” or “Who taught you to feel that way?” These questions sometimes lead to identifying burdens and gifts that they inherited from parents/grandparents/ancestors. When we understand our emotions, beliefs, and actions, we can be more compassionate toward ourselves and others.


I understand why fear has been such a familiar emotion to me. I also understand why my grandfather needed to express his pain in a form of anger. I feel compassion toward my mother who had to witness two people she dearly loved in conflict and pain.


To make this month’s Mokuhanga images was to sit with this family history of mine.


To make art is to understand ourselves.


There are stories related to legacy burdens and gifts in my life.

In the next month, I am going to capture these stories as new layers over the ones I printed this month.


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