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Dr. Mariel Buqué on Healing in ‘Break the Cycle: A Guide to Healing Intergenerational Trauma’

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

By Amaris Castillo


Break the Cycle: A Guide to Healing Intergenerational Trauma begins with a personal story. The author – trauma psychologist Dr. Mariel Buqué, PhD – writes how her grandmother grew up in poverty in Barahona, Dominican Republic. She remembers being 10 years old and walking over a mile with her abuela to collect water from a small spring. Neither her grandmother’s home nor her village had running water.


Her abuela, Buqué adds, taught her the value of preserving not only water but every small thing they owned. Later on, Buqué noticed how her mother held onto that same spirit of preservation. Her mother would not throw anything away and, whenever there was money to send things to family, she’d prepare boxes to ship to DR. 


“I now live a comfortable life, as does my mom, but I’ve often found myself holding on to things that I don’t need, the same way she did,” Buqué writes. “I have lived with that same fear and guilt.”

Trauma as a “wounding of the soul” – a multilevel emotional injury that impacts a person’s mind, body, and spirit.

She felt her family’s fear transferred to her. And she felt loyalty to them whenever she preserved things. Buqué would later come to identify this as intergenerational trauma. The Columbia-trained trauma-informed psychologist describes this type of trauma as a “wounding of the soul” – a multilevel emotional injury that impacts a person’s mind, body, and spirit.


Break the Cycle: A Guide to Healing Intergenerational Trauma (out on Jan. 2, 2024 from Dutton) is Buqué’s comprehensive guide on how to transform intergenerational pain into intergenerational abundance. In clear and nurturing prose, Buqué provides an in-depth orientation into each aspect of intergenerational healing through scientific research, practical exercises, and anecdotes from her therapy room. Healing is possible, she reminds us.


Break the Cycle is a necessary guide for anyone who considers themselves a cycle breaker, and who wants to do the difficult work to disrupt harmful patterns in their families. It’s also a deeply resonant read thanks to Buqué’s sprinkling of stories about her own family and place as a member of the Dominican diaspora. To me, one of the most sobering and effective exercises was the intergenerational trauma tree; essentially, it’s a visual map of the soul wounds of your family that can help you answer questions for your own healing journey. In Break the Cycle, Buqué offers readers the knowledge and tools needed to begin healing through a holistic approach.


Ahead of the book’s release, Buqué spoke with the Dominican Writers Association about piecing together Break the Cycle, intergenerational trauma, and what it means to be a cycle breaker.


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Congratulations on Break the Cycle. You’re a psychologist and an expert in intergenerational trauma. What inspired you to bring what you know into a book?

It’s a powerful question to start with. Thank you for that. What inspired me was twofold. It was both the work that I had been doing with my clients, which was in the Heights. There were a predominant number of people that were a part of my community, specifically. So the work really started there.


It was always like this two-way street; the work was always both personal and professional because of how much I identified with my clients, but also the fact that I started seeing a lot of what I was studying in my own home. I was seeing all the layers of how my clients would come in with these really long histories of trauma that span generations. And then simultaneously, I was seeing that in my own family. And then I wasn’t seeing how the work and the research was leaving the ivory towers of Columbia, where I studied… It really started both in the professional spaces, but also as I started seeing how much my family had also suffered and the ways that I could be helpful.


In your introduction, you write about your grandmother, who grew up in poverty in Barahona and never let anything go to waste. Your mother kept things even if they were no longer functional. And you write how you would later be riddled with guilt whenever you threw anything away rather than donating them or sending them to the Dominican Republic. How did you reach the point of labeling this intergenerational trauma?

Great question. Interestingly enough, I’m literally staring at my maleta because I’m leaving tomorrow to DR, and the maleta has zero items that belong to me. It’s one maleta instead of like five, and not a caja – so we’re a work-in-progress.


The reason why I was able to see that this was indeed part of an emotional experience was when I would see how my mom would respond to us throwing away items. My mom would actually go into [an] ataque de nervios – which is very common for Latinas as a general expression of emotional distress. And sometimes I would feel the weight of her emotions when she couldn’t do something for every single person that was in DR – like both sides of the family, everybody. It would be this immense emotional experience of feeling overridden with guilt. And I was like, this is more than the items. This is more than the boxes. This has to do with survival. This has to do with, ‘I must feed every mouth that is connected to me in some way. Otherwise, if any of them actually suffer, it would be my fault.’ So she would basically take that on in such a profound way. 


Then I started saying, we never really unpack this or really saw it as something that needed unpacking. Because how many Dominican families do you know are literally living the same experience? Or how many Latino families, or how many immigrant families? And so when it becomes so much of the norm, it invisibilizes itself. We can’t see it. It’s la cultura, the cultura – it’s just the thing that we all basically live and nobody really takes the time to unpack it and say, ‘Actually, there’s something here that is actually hurting us, even if it’s something that we’re trying to do out of our hearts… We are in pain, and it’s keeping us in this emotional burden. And even if we still send cajas and stuff, it has a different way of being internalized by my family now. It doesn’t have that element of this overburdening guilt of not being able to help others to survive.


There are many conversations around intergenerational trauma and its effect on people. You describe it as a wounding of the soul. How so?

Intergenerational trauma is a trauma that actually impacts our minds, meaning that it changes the ways that we think about everything. We start thinking in very worrisome thoughts, usually. Our emotions start shifting; we default to emotions like sadness, grief. That tends to be the general way in which our emotions are organized. We become ridden with guilt, ridden with shame. And that becomes more of the norm than emotions that are more lighthearted.


It impacts our bodies because trauma is mostly situated in the body. What we know through science and many scientific areas of study is that trauma implants itself in our cellular biology. It implants itself in our genetic encoding. It implants itself in our nervous system. Our bodies respond to stress triggers, because our bodies are so much of a container for our traumas. And so our bodies are also implicated in that. 


What I like to say in reference to how trauma is basically also planted in our spirit, is in the ways in which it actually impacts how we connect to others, how we connect to ourselves, how we connect to the universe, the higher powers. We start having unhealthy relationships with other people in our lives – sometimes toxic ones. We start having unhealthy relationships with ourselves – being codependent or having poor boundaries, or not being able to be kind to ourselves and take care of ourselves. The same goes with whatever we believe in. Sometimes that’s disrupted because of trauma. 


There’s so much that happens at the mind, body and spirit level. Taken together, mind, body and spirit would be our soul. So the idea of the soul wound didn’t come from me. It actually comes from mostly Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous cultures and the ways that they have, for centuries, conceptualized the wounding that happens as a result of trauma. I just conceptualized it from the ways in which it’s reflected in my therapy room as being mind, body and spirit, but the idea of the soul wound in respect to intergenerational trauma has roots in ancestral wisdom.


You address the reader early on as a likely cycle breaker. What is your definition of a cycle breaker?

Cycle breakers are people who take on the courageous task of disrupting the things that have been seen as normal in their families and communities, but are actually hurtful. And they do this mostly out of intuition because before Break the Cycle, there hasn’t been a strategic, organized guideline and comprehensive protocol for people to be like, “This is the path. This is how I can start. This is how I can integrate cycle-breaking practices within my own journey.” People have just been knowing, “You know what, I just want things to be different. I just know I want to parent my children in a different way than how I was parented. I don’t want to live in fear in the same ways that my father lived in fear. I just know that the ways that I got yelled at, caused me to be really emotionally sensitive and conflict avoidant. And I don’t want that for myself, or for future generations. I want to teach them a different way.”


And so cycle breakers typically just work off of intuition and just knowing that they want something different for themselves and for their future. And sometimes a cycle breaker might say, “You know what Mami, Papi, Abuela… you guys are also suffering. Let me just sprinkle a little bit of knowledge your way, just in case you want to pick it up.” Because older generations have a little bit of a bigger hold on the norms that they have perpetuated. Sometimes we do want to sprinkle back just in case they’re willing to take in some of that process themselves. 


From your experience, how difficult is it to break generational patterns? 

It’s really hard. There’s no question. Which is why we need specific ways to actually start and maintain the journey of breaking cycles. Because we’re talking about one of the hardest tasks that anybody would be tasked to do on this planet. It’s having to go into yourself and into your life, and look at things completely differently than how you saw them before. Which means that, very likely, you yourself are going to have a bit of an existential crisis [with] having to contend with the fact that you’ve been in pain and haven’t even known it. That already is a lot of work, and a lot to hold. 


Beyond that, we’re talking about disrupting even within our family units. There are a lot of people that are going to be within our families that aren’t going to want to do the work, and it’s going to be a journey that we’ll sometimes have to walk alone. I always instruct cycle-breakers to find your person – a fellow cycle-breaker, a friend, a cousin, somebody that is equally committed to the process, because there is a likely chance that you’re going to get a lot of resistance and pushback. The journey won’t feel very linear or easy. It’s going to feel like it’s got a lot of bumps in the road, nuances, and ways in which you need to tailor the journey to your own life and family and their own little intricacies and characteristics. We have to take the tools and then tailor them, just the way that I do within my own family. The way that I tailor them to my mom is different from the way that I tailor them to my dad. It’s that process of making the journey our own that’s really important for every cycle-breaker, because all of our lives are very different.


In Break the Cycle you feature an intergenerational trauma tree, which includes the names of family members, their relationship to you, any traumatic event that happened in their life, whatever personal characteristics they’ve adopted, etc. What is the purpose of the tree?

The intergenerational trauma tree is one of the ways in which we can gather data about what happened in our family line, and how that could have eventually made its way into the kind of hurt that we carry. It’s, in essence, almost like some of the trauma trees that exist already – but this one has an intergenerational element in which we’re able to not only capture what happened in our families and how it impacted us, but also the internalized beliefs that we may have adopted along the way based on how hurt we’ve been. And then also the ways in which the society that we exist in perpetuates these traumas. It’s really a comprehensive way of looking at how trauma exists in our lives, rather than a very individualistic way in which we tend to see it in the Western world….


It’s the old adage, knowledge is power, right? If we have an understanding of what happened in our family unit that created specific behaviors, practices, and patterns, we have an opportunity to then see the pattern and visibilize it. Rather than leaving it to be invisible and in the shadows of our families, we make it known and then we cut the cord.


I appreciate how, in your book, you end each chapter with a set of reflection questions. What is the importance of self-reflection in this journey?

It’s really critical because if we’re not able to understand ourselves better, we’re going to walk around life behaving in ways that sometimes can perpetuate cycles. The more that we’re able to have an understanding of ourselves, the more that we’re able to 1) disrupt whatever we don’t want in our lives anymore. But 2) there’s moments when the self-compassion is actually built from self-awareness, because we’re able to say, ‘You know what, wow. I suffered a lot. [During] my childhood, I constantly felt sad. I feel for that little part of me.’


If we’re not actually reflecting and digesting the past, and understanding it and ourselves better, we’re not going to have an opportunity to sit in the compassion for ourselves. Instead what we’re going to do – which is a trauma response – is we’re gonna avoid. We avoid, we deny, we repress, we push things to the back of the mind and don’t deal with it. And what that does is it comes up and festers in other ways. It comes up in our relationships. It comes up even in the ways that our bodies develop chronic illness. It doesn’t go away. Instead, we can just enter moments of self-analysis, get to know ourselves better, befriend ourselves, love ourselves, and really build a relationship with ourselves that is healthier than the ones that we were taught to have with ourselves in our childhood. 


Your section on intergenerational loyalty was fascinating. You talk about how keeping family secrets is learned behavior. It felt resonant to me, particularly when I think about Dominican culture. Why do many of us really keep family secrets?

Across a lot of cultures, including the Dominican culture, a lot of us are avoiding shame. We keep family secrets because we don’t want something to get out, and then people look at us a certain way. And that causes our family to have to deal with the repercussions of what people will say. We don’t want to face that and so, as a result, what we manage to do is to just keep it hidden. 


It’s also something that is historical. It’s a part of the history of us keeping, for example, secrets about people not being emotionally well in our families. Because people that, in essence, wouldn’t be emotionally well in the past would have been institutionalized. Or there would have been a mark on the family. So all roads lead to shame, but there have been historical markers that really contribute to why families keep secrets. On top of it, families are trying to preserve their image more than anything.


How do you break intergenerational trauma without losing your identity and ties to your culture in the process?

Our cultures are always in us, right? We can’t lose our culture because we’re trying to better our lives. As I see it, I think that the biggest loyalty that we have not only to ourselves, but to our families and to our communities, is to actually heal for everybody. Because when we heal, we don’t just heal for ourselves. We show up more healed in family functions, which means everybody gets to experience a more healed version of who we are. And that’s a benefit that is there for all. 


I believe the best way that we can preserve our cultura is by extracting the beautiful things from it and keeping them as legacies – and allowing that to be what we pass forward, and then reconfigure what doesn’t work. I think that’s a more beautiful way to organize our thinking around who we are.


I am a person that utilizes a lot of humor, because humor is so incredibly ingrained in the personality of Dominicans, right? And at the same time, I can also hold family members accountable for not perpetuating harm onto children. I can do both. I can keep the beautiful thing that I love about who I am as a Dominican, and then also ensure that I am protecting the next generation of Dominicans but also elevating us as a cultura in the process.


What do you hope people take away from your book?

I hope that they can take away the fact that it is indeed possible to break cycles. That it’s doable work. That even if it’s layered and it’s been there, and our families are saying, ‘I’m not doing anything. I’m not changing anything’ – that there’s still a chance that we can create change. Because when we talk about intergenerational trauma, people are like, ‘What? This is too much.’ But it is also something that we have more power over than what we believe. And I hope that we can hold onto that truth.




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Visit our Bookshop to purchase a copy of Break the Cycle: A Guide to Healing Intergenerational Trauma.

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About the Author:

Mariel Buqué, PhD, is a Columbia University–trained trauma-informed psychologist, professor, and sound bath meditation healer. She has appeared as an expert on Good Morning America and Today and in Allure, Self, Glamour, and Well + Good, among many other outlets, and has offered wellness talks to corporations such as Google, Capital One, and Meta. She is originally from the Dominican Republic and currently lives in New Jersey.


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Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, Dominican Moms be Like..., and most recently in Quislaona: A Dominican Fantasy Anthology and Sana Sana: Latinx Pain and Radical Visions for Healing and Justice. Her short story, "El Don," was a finalist for the 2022 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival. Amaris lives in Florida with her family.

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