Hand-Me-Down Vows

The definition of a vow is a “solemn promise,” which implies a conscious decision. Yet what I have found in my work is the unconscious also makes vows, often destructive ones. Uncovering these unconscious vows and then breaking them can be hard going, but it is possible and can be incredibly healing.

Often these vows are the result of trauma. Sometimes the trauma is acute and obvious; other times, however, the trauma functions at a low level over time. Sometimes it is not even recognized.

Vows usually are the result of messaging that isn’t directed to anyone in particular—they are generalized feelings that are embodied. What is fascinating about vows from a psychological standpoint is they can be passed on to the children of the person who experienced the trauma, even if the children did not experience the trauma themselves. The psychological term for this is “Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma” (TTT) where the emotional consequences of some traumatic event get passed down from parent to child. The trauma can occur on an individual level, such as when someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event, or on a larger, community level, such as genocide, war, slavery, etc. This has been studied in populations such as Native Americans, African Americans, and survivors of the Holocaust.

What gets handed down? Stress. Troubled and troubling feelings. Anxiety. PTSD. Mental illness.

In addition to the more obvious cases of TTT, I would argue that the low-level transference of stress and fear goes on every day, in millions of people. I call this “hand-me-down vows.” For example, Ella Enchanted is not the only incidence of a Vow of Obedience; there are many people who have taken it. Many addicts take a Vow of Victimhood. But let me use as an example of how hand-me-down vows work by using the Vow of Poverty.

One example of the Vow of Poverty has its origin with men of a generation or two back who worked for their fathers unwillingly; who felt obligated—or were coerced—to go into the family business. These men worked for fathers who retained a tight hold on the purse strings and the control of their business. In some cases, fathers actively used money as a weapon or a tool to control their adult children.

So these men who worked for their fathers grew to hate money, mostly unconsciously, even if they were making oodles of it.

This hatred of money got passed down to their children, again, totally unconsciously. In so many cases, all of their children have financial issues of some kind or other. Here are some manifestations of it:

  • They think people who make a lot of money are jerks.
  • They feel like a lot of money is something that is out of reach for them, and they feel powerless to change it.
  • They mismanage their money or careers so they don’t have any money, even if they are wonderful at what they do and make a lot of money.
  • They choose a lifestyle that keeps them poor and dependent on others.

I have seen families who have taken this vow, and each child manifests the vow in a different way, but it always comes down to the same thing: none ever has enough money.

As you can see, vows can get complicated. What makes these problems tough to solve is the vast majority of the time, people don’t even know they have taken these vows; they are just stuck and can’t figure out why or how to get unstuck. It never occurs to them—or their therapists, in some cases—to look at parental trauma, especially low-level trauma, as the key to the child’s obstacles.

The good news about TTT is research is now showing that in addition to the negative things that can get passed on, strengths can also be transferred. For example, victims of atrocities that were able to talk about what they went through in a constructive way were able to pass resiliency on to their children. Speaking about experiences negatively seemed to pass the trauma and stress along, and not speaking about it at all seemed to be even worse, according to this study.

Hand-me-down vows can be serious stuff, and most people need professional help to break them. If you experienced trauma—or your parents or grandparents did—it can be crucial to yourself and your children that you face that trauma, if it’s possible for you. Even if you can’t identify anything overtly traumatic that happened to you or your family, other less obvious but still damaging things, such as the example of the Vow of Poverty above, can cause us to take vows. If you feel stuck on an issue but don’t know why, a hand-me-down vow could be the reason. By learning how to deal with it—even just how to discuss it—constructively, you not only will feel better yourself, you might save your children much pain and stress and even make them stronger. And you will feel like a new person.