8 mins

“Concretely, healing the family is a way to contribute to world peace,” explain Roland and Sabine Bösel.
Based in Vienna, Austria, Roland and Sabine travel the world, facilitating “inter-generational workshops.”
Since 2004 they have been offering these workshops that they themselves have created to heal families and break the cycles of generational trauma.

It’s revolutionary work.

Understanding generational trauma

The Bösel’s understanding of generational trauma came from analyzing their own origin stories.
By looking more closely at their individual stories, they saw their stories’ impact on their relationship as a couple.
Trained as therapists and specializing in family therapy, they began to realize how easily trauma can be passed on from one generation to another.

Treatment of trauma and its consequences is an emerging field in health care.
Trauma is basically an emotional response to an overwhelming event. When an unexpected event is overwhelming, a person impacted by trauma has the experience of “too much, too fast.”

The short-term effects can include reactions like confusion, shock, anxiety, and sadness.
But left unhealed, these reactions can lead to serious long-term effects that can threaten the person’s health and wellbeing.

Generational trauma can happen whenever someone doesn’t get adequate help in dealing with a traumatic experience.
The negativity associated with the trauma gets passed from the traumatized person to other family members.

Unlike family heirlooms or other physical possessions, generational trauma becomes an unconscious inheritance.
Sabine and Roland explain that family members can pass trauma on to subsequent generations without even being aware that it is happening.
In fact, anyone may be holding trauma from a previous generation without even realizing it.

the hand on an elderly person pointing to a old black and white photo in a photo album resting on a table with a young person looking on

Image by Marina Andrejchenko/Shutterstock

The ripple effect of recurring family patterns can last for generations.
But it is a cycle that can be broken.

To explain how it works, Sabine and Roland told us their story.
It’s a story about people from very different backgrounds with roots that reach back to the Second World War.
This is the story of their journey.

“My father was a Nazi”

Roland: We both were born in 1959 in Vienna.
My parents owned a big butchery, and I was the 4th child.
I have 3 older sisters, and my parents were waiting for a boy because they thought a man should continue the butcher shop.

Before my father, my mother’s first relationship was with a Jewish man. He died on the border to Poland in Germany in 1944 during World War Two.
After that, my mother decided that she would never again be in a relationship.

My father was born in 1919.
He was a Nazi.

My father didn’t kill anybody. But he was drawn to Hitler’s ideas, and he was very fascinated by the Nazis.
He was in the war and was imprisoned for 2 years in Russia.
When he came back, he met my mother, and my mother was very touched by my father, and they married.

At the time, my mother didn’t know that my father was a Nazi.
They were both Catholics, and when they came together, they continued the family butcher shop.
They grew the business to 10 shops in Vienna with 150 workers.

I wound up joining the family business.
When I met Sabine in 1976, she was the first person in my life who asked me, “Do you really want to be a butcher?”
Sabine could tell that running a butchery business was not my decision and not where my talent was.

When trauma is inter-generational

Sabine: My grandmother was Jewish.
But she was not religious. She didn’t like religion.
When Hitler and the Nazis arrived in Austria, new passports were issued.
In her passport, there was a yellow star.

My grandmother didn’t understand why she was suddenly Jewish when she didn’t practice the religion.
But for the Nazis, she was Jewish nonetheless.

She survived the war because my grandfather was what was considered to be “Aryan”.
My grandfather was an important man at the ministry in Vienna. Because he was married to my grandmother, she survived.
And the house she lived in wasn’t registered as a “Jewish home”, because the man of the house wasn’t Jewish.
This whole period was hugely traumatizing for my mother.
Although her mother survived, many members of my family were killed during that time.

I remember when Roland’s father met me for the first time.
After I left, he asked his son, “What kind of nose does Sabine have? It’s an interesting nose and a nose like an Egyptian woman.”
When I heard this, I understood straight away.
In his world, in his imaginary world, he saw a Jewish nose.
And although he was correct – I am Jewish – being Jewish is not a “race,” it is a religion.

How trauma is shared

Because of the history of the Holocaust and the Second World War, Roland feels very guilty because of his family history.
He carries this like a weight on his shoulders.
I remember that we were once in Washington D.C. at the Holocaust Museum.
The museum is very well done, and Roland felt deeply sad, and he broke down in tears while we were visiting.
I told him, “Roland, it’s not your fault! There is nothing that you have done, and there is nothing that you can do.”
I repeated this sentence to him about a dozen times.
But he felt very guilty about what had happened, about this catastrophe.

In my family, there was also a huge tragedy.
My parents had 3 children.
Their second-born child, my sister Ursula, died before I was born.
It was a tragic accident.
She fell out of the window when she was 7 years old. My brother, who was 2 at the time, was with her.
My family believes that she was dancing and joking by the window and she fell out.

I was born a year and a half later.
You can imagine the weight of this tragic event on me.
I felt guilty for being alive while my sister was not.

So like Roland, feelings of guilt are also very present in my personal story.
Because of this, when we met, we immediately had the feeling of already knowing each other.
It was a shared feeling of guilt that we both carried that made us feel that way.

Navigating the consequences

Roland: And after the honeymoon period, Sabine always questioned me about being a butcher.
I would typically respond, “Shut up! It’s not good to speak about that. I have to do the work for my parents.”

We had many power struggles, and we separated several times because we were too different.
Then, we started our first couple’s therapy.
It was at the end of the couple’s therapy that we decided to get married.

When we married, we had a big crisis.
In the beginning, Sabine had an affair with another man, and one year later, I also had an affair with another woman.
It was very complicated, and all our friends told us that it would be hard for us to stay together.

We went back to therapy for 2 years and decided to stay together.
We started the forgiveness process on both sides.
And then our second son Marcus was born, and 3 years later Clara was born, our daughter.

A light-haired man in a cardigan holding a book and a dark-haired woman wearing eyeglasses and an orange blouse and dark jacket - therapists Roland and Sabine Bosel - seated on the floor and gazing smilingly at each other.

Therapists Roland and Sabine Bösel.
Photo courtesy of Roland and Sabine Bösel.

Sabine and Roland are now both psychologists and psychotherapists.
They have trained separately and together in many therapeutic disciplines, including family and couple’s therapy and systemic practice.

In developing the intergenerational workshop, they combine several approaches, including an approach known as Imago.
Although Imago is famously used in couple’s therapy, the Bösel’s were the first to apply it to family dynamics. It is an approach that encourages dialogue, deep listening, and empathy.

The opportunity to heal

Sabine: Parents are usually scared before they come to the workshop.
As parents, they fear that they are going to be blamed by their adult child. They also often feel guilty and apprehensive about participating.

But after the workshop, parents always describe the feeling of amazement.
They are amazed that they were able to listen to their adult child in such a special way.
They report being able to really hear their child, understand them, receive important, new information, and feel many emotions with them.

Naturally, difficult subjects get brought up during the workshop.
It sometimes isn’t easy, and many people find themselves crying.
But the parents make it clear that it is a positive feeling to see the sadness or the anger in their adult child expressed in a healing way.
The whole process offers the possibility for healing, even if it’s about an event that happened 10 or 20 years ago.
The parents can actually play an important part in their child’s healing.

And from the adult children, we are told that they are relieved and happy that their parent has heard them.
They feel gifted to have had the time to speak their truth and say how they lived through a difficult situation as a child.

A burden is lifted

A classic example of this is when parents divorce.
During the workshop, adult children are finally given a space where they can express their feelings about the divorce.
And because of its structure, the workshop offers a safe space where the child can genuinely be heard by their parent, frequently for the first time.
It is usually a big relief because these are feelings that they have been carrying, unspoken, for years.

And surprisingly, by sharing their feelings and being genuinely heard, the child can also actually give something back to their parent.
Usually, the child will give back something that they have been unknowingly carrying on behalf of their parent.
It’s something from the past that the child unconsciously took responsibility for.

And the other surprise is that the parents are also very relieved to take this back from their children.
That’s because most parents don’t want their children to be carrying around a burden that weighs them down.

So while the origins are very unconscious, the process of uncovering a truth and giving something back to the parent turns out to be a gift to both parent and child.
This is a very powerful part of the workshop.
It is deeply healing.

A young, bearded, dark haired man sits at a table, his two hands holding the two hands of an older woman wearing a reddish-orange knotted jumper. The gaze at each other, smiling.

Image by Grusho Anna/Shutterstock

Group support makes all the difference

Roland: What is also a very important part of the process is using a group to support the parent-child duo.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the group actually allows the duo to be authentic and share feelings about the family history.
The group provides safety.
And it offers more safety than would be possible if a parent-child duo was doing this work on their own.

Each workshop will bring together 10 to 12 parent-child duos.
This creates an incredible amount of connection and safety for each duo.
Nobody is alone, everybody in the group is going through something similar.
This group dynamic is very different from working individually with a therapist or a family or generation therapist.

Spreading a simple idea

In closing, Roland talked with us about their ideal vision for families, the importance of healing, and the importance of sharing their work.
As part of their quest to help families break the cycle of generational trauma, the Bösel’s have begun to train other facilitators in this work.
They have also developed workshops designed explicitly for siblings.
In the sibling workshops, sisters and brothers sit down without their parents and talk together about their family history. The Bösel’s want to develop these workshops where siblings can share information and gain valuable insights in a way that is not possible in traditional approaches.

Roland: We want people to take away two important things from these workshops.
We want them to be able to have a new understanding of the history of their family.
And we also want them to start a healing process.

The idea is simple.
When I realize where I come from, when I understand the part of my history that I inherited from my parents, it becomes possible for me to feel at peace, form new relationships, and have a better life.

Personally, this is why I feel that I can now bring more peace to the world.
Healing from the guilt that I felt towards my father was not about what is “good” or “right”, it was about understanding and being more conscious.
And this has allowed me to be able to create new, healthy relationships.

Our colleagues often tell us that we do this work to bring peace into the world.
There is probably some truth to that – the family is the smallest unit in society.

If you don’t have peace in the family, how can you have peace in the world

Generational Trauma – further info

To get more information on the Sabine and Roland Bösel’s approach to generational trauma, their publications and workshops, go to their international website here and for their website in German here.
And look for their latest book “Lend me your ear and I’ll give you my heart” wherever you go to get your books (English version release date December 6, 2021).

If you were interested in this article about people developing novel approaches to create a more peaceful world, you may also be interested in our article about Beyond Equality, an organization that is helping young men rethink masculinites to prevent  gender-based violence.

Feature image credit: courtesy of Sabine and Roland Bösel