Dr. Galit Atlas is a writer, psychoanalyst, creative-arts therapist, and clinical supervisor in private practice in Manhattan.
In her new book Emotional Inheritance (Amazon, Bookshop), she uses the stories of her patients, her own stories, and decades of research to identify the links between our life struggles and the “emotional inheritance” we all carry.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Galit about happiness, habits, and mental health.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Galit: When I was young, I believed that happiness was something one attains and then maintains. Slowly I’ve discovered that happiness is a state of mind that visits and re-visits, one that we shouldn’t try to force or hold tightly. At times when I don’t feel happy, I’m not worried anymore, because I know that happiness isn’t a possession but a welcomed visitor.
You’ve done fascinating research on emotional inheritance. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
One of the things that fascinates people the most about Emotional Inheritance is the idea that we inherit even family traumas that we haven’t been told about, and that in fact we know things that were not explicitly conveyed to us, and the ways these things shape our lives. What I refer to as the ghosts of the unsaid and the unspeakable are intergenerational secrets and unprocessed traumas that very often don’t have a voice, or an image associated with them but loom in our minds nonetheless. I find that people are intrigued by the idea that we carry emotional material that belongs to our parents and grandparents, retaining losses of theirs that they never fully articulated, and that in fact we feel these traumas even if we don’t consciously know them. In the book I try to explain those concepts as they relate to the unconscious communication between people and to attachment theory. I ask how do we inherit, hold, and process things that we don’t remember or didn’t experience ourselves? What is the weight of that which is present but not fully known? Can we really keep secrets from one another? What do we inherit and pass on to the next generation?
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
I love this quote by psychoanalyst Carl Jung: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
One of the books that impacted me the most when I was in my 20’s was Women who Run with the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Amazon, Bookshop). I remember that her perspective on women and on desire and creativity blew my mind. I’ve read this book many times and always found something new in it. Thirty years after I first read this book, Dr. Estés wrote an endorsement to my book, and it was a dream that came true.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
We believe that people come to therapy because they want to change, but in reality, we are all conflicted about change. Usually, as the narrative unfolds, we discover the gaps between what people want to have and what they can tolerate having. For example, behind the wish to make money, have a career, or have children, we might locate resistance to change, a hidden ambivalence about growing up, and a struggle with separation and loss. A change is a slight goodbye to our past—to our childhood, to our familiar roles, to our known selves—and it is not unusual for people not to be able to handle or tolerate having what they think they want. Beneath the urge to have or not to have is usually another layer that navigates our lives. There is an unseen, unconscious part of us that might go against our conscious goals and even attack and undermine them. In fact, everything we don’t consciously know about ourselves has the power to control and run our lives. It’s important for therapists and patients to to remember how scary it is to change and how afraid we all are of the unknown.
Is there anything else you’d particularly like to bring to readers’ attention?
The pandemic has given rise to a new level of discussion of trauma and its effects.
We clinicians are aware of the clear link between the current crisis and a rising wave of pre-existing trauma; personal, intergenerational and racial traumas are now coming to the surface. While childhood trauma used to be a shameful thing to disclose, in the last two years popular culture has become filled with bestselling books, successful documentaries, TV shows and social media references to mental health, therapy and healing, focused especially on early and childhood traumas. It was the distress of the pandemic that enabled an open discussion of trauma which helped many people to examine things that have haunted them since childhood, significant issues that were previously buried. Our new hope lies in the emerging permission to use this moment to re-tell our stories, to look into the eyes of old shameful secrets, to protest against historical harms and to re-process our traumas and the traumas handed down to us from previous generations.