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How Intergenerational Trauma Impacts the South Asian Community

A few months ago, my 9-year old nephew and I were watching Disney’s Encanto, chronicling the journey of the Madrigal family who flee their home village in Colombia to a charmed place called Encanto. All of the family members, except one, are armed with special powers; this causes the family’s widowed matriarch to pressure her children and grandchildren to live up to impossible expectations to use their supernatural gifts to survive.

Though a children’s movie, Encanto portrayed a theme that I was intimately familiar with: intergenerational trauma.

According to therapist and founder of Love Your Behavior, Ayushi Acharya, LCSW, MPH, intergenerational trauma is best described as unresolved pain that is passed down through generations and can include intimate partner violence, low self esteem, medical conditions, poor mental health, and other self destructive behaviors. In the South Asian community, this concept shapes the identities of millions (as a result of Partition, poverty, lack of education, financial distress, etc.), though hardly acknowledged or dealt with.

The mental weight of intergenerational trauma can be heavy and cyclical in nature. The stories of representatives of the South Asian community portray how reacting to the inherited trauma can continue to impact their lives if not properly rectified. Here are some ways intergenerational trauma can impact the South Asian community.

Mental Health

Amber, a 20 year old Pakistani-American student, grew up with a mother who experienced widespread trauma while growing up in Pakistan. Instead of dealing with her emotions, she buried them. When it came to Amber’s own struggles with depression and anxiety, she resisted going to therapy because she saw that her mother was fine without it, and believed that she had to act similarly. Her religion, coupled with societal stigma towards counseling, contributed to her defiance.

“A lot of my family turned to religion to cope and find comfort. My dad is a pretty traditional Muslim and encouraged me to turn to God for help with my mental illness. I think it’s important for older generations to realize that therapy is not a way of replacing religion, but an added booster when dealing with life’s challenges,” she tells Teen Vogue.

A 2020 study found that South Asians experience high rates of mental health issues, but often don’t seek treatment. One reason people in the community don’t seek mental health help, according to the study, is the cultural idea that getting help outside the family can be seen as a failure.

It wasn’t until Amber attempted suicide that she realized there was no shame in asking for help. Therapy is the avenue that helped her to heal, and is what she believes will allow future generations to explore the trauma that they are handed. She learned from her mother’s mistakes to be proactive about her future.

Self Esteem

South Asian women are often perceived to be docile and submissive beings whose life purpose is geared towards child-rearing and domestic duties. Blame it on Bollywood, or archaic societal constructs, any deviation from these characteristics is often frowned upon.

For 29-year-old Sailusha, having any opinions of her own — and being judged for them — was a trickle down result of intergenerational trauma that she says forced her to modify her behavior to accommodate her family.

Sailusha comes from a conservative, quiet family, which is unlike her vivacious and bubbly personality. A few years ago, when her grandparents visited from India, they scorned her for her outgoingness. “I feel so bad for whoever you marry because you have so many opinions,” Sailusha recalls her grandmother saying. Hearing these comments over and over again, a direct reflection of the submissive training her grandmother was accustomed to, forced Sailusha to subtly change her behavior towards her (now) husband.

“Hearing these comments clearly triggered past moments and fed into my insecurities of thinking that my personality would always be too much for someone long-term. I changed my behavior towards my partner to not be ‘too much,’ which he ended up realizing and became something we talked through.”

Being told she is too much, and at the same not enough, impacted Sailusha’s self-esteem. Thankfully, open conversation with her partner helped work past these triggers and help her understand how to better filter what she says and how she says it to the next generation.

Sexual Repression

There’s a common phrase among the South Asian community called “log kya kahenge” (what will people think?), which has become the punchline of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s jokes The idea is that South Asians should prioritize the feelings of society and families over their own; in other words, don’t do certain things because society will not accept it.

This was one of the key reasons why married couple Amit, 35, and Aditya, 34, came out as gay late in their lives. Due to the fear of society, and the shame that they believed they would bring to their families, they concealed their sexual identity.

“Being gay was not a part of the advised life choice and neither was it even understood. We struggled with our sexuality and struggled mentally with accepting the fact that we are not heterosexual men,” Amit tells Teen Vogue.

The pair are now happily married, yet the way they express affection towards one another is still dictated by the intergenerational trauma to uphold certain standards when it comes to love and affection.

“Even now, we seldom hold hands in public or show affection like heterosexual couples would do. It’s an in-built trauma that refuses to leave. Being the first same sex couple in our family, we definitely feel a little bit of pressure to uphold certain standards,” Amit adds.

Jashima, 25, says she experienced sexual repression because she was trained to perceive sex as shameful; she only perceived sex to be a function of marriage and grew up with shame around pleasure because no one educated her on it. The lack of discussion around the topic, a direct result of the ‘hush hush’ and shame that both her maternal grandmother and her mother were conditioned to feel around the subject, meant that Jashima, too, grew up thinking sex was bad. They accepted one way of thinking and being that trickled down to her.

“My maternal grandparents and my mom, by nature, have conditioned themselves to accept: Accept when someone has hurt them, accept when things do not go their way," she says. “They have been perpetually accepting, in their personal and professional lives, [and] this lead to me also being perpetually accepting in my personal and professional life, never advocating for myself.”

Only now does she separate from what she is expected to be into who she wants to be.


Immigrant families chasing the American dream are focused on financial stability and living a life that was better than the ones they left their homelands for. Oftentimes, this “rags to riches” mentality can contribute to a complicated relationship with finances.

Slesha, 29, recognized the need to contribute to her family’s finances to take the burden off her parents after learning about her father’s upbringing. When he was age 5, the communist party took over Burma and he fled back to South India overnight with the clothes on his back. Her father grew up malnourished and mostly on the streets through his childhood.

“My dad's philosophy on money is if you can buy something for cheaper, then do that," she says. My brother and I grew up in a far better financial situation than my dad in his childhood, but my parents still raised us with the philosophy to work for everything we wanted for fun.”

As a result, even the career choices she and her brother selected were motivated by helping her family realize the “American Dream” and obtain financial stability past survival, even if that meant living a life focused on what the future brought, instead of savoring the present moment.

Jashima compares intergenerational trauma to inheriting an unpacked suitcase without knowing what’s inside it. “As you open it up, the unresolved flows like a river you've never seen but are still drowning in,” she says. “It's feeling the impact of something deeply despite not being able to trace its causation to a first-person sensory experience.”

 The next generation, at least, are using therapy, art, movement and community support to learn to play the hand they are dealt with.

“If therapy isn’t accessible for everyone, the first step is to understand that your life experiences and trauma will show up in ways that may not be obvious but really listening to your body when you are irritable, angry, crying and acknowledging some of that pain,” Acharya says. “Take really good care of your emotional being, and invest in your close relationships and yourself.”

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