What are the effects of childhood trauma in adulthood, and is there a way to let go of that pain? Discover the subtle signs that a troubled childhood or dysfunctional family could be overshadowing your adult life and how to drop this emotional baggage, writes Alexandra Massey.
Are you journeying through life thinking ‘What’s wrong with me? Why do I feel like I’m running on empty? How can I fix it?’ You might suffer anxiety or depression and have no idea why. You may wonder why relationships are so difficult or why you feel a fraud much of the time. Or, you may have simply lost your way.
If this is you, it’s worth taking a quick dive into your childhood and check out if it could be a cause for your current distress. But this isn’t about bashing your parents about the poor job they did bringing you up, this is about bringing some clarity to your current state of mind to help you feel better about you and your life.
The idea is this: you might be carrying old baggage from your past which is affecting your life today. Knowing this can help you recognise that this is old stuff that could have been triggered by growing up in a dysfunctional family, and this is not because you are downright messed up! This will give you something to work with and help you move towards your recovery.
Of course, there’s a huge diversity when it comes to understanding the term ‘dysfunctional family.’ It ranges from a mildly flawed family to one that’s completely off the rails, but they share some common themes, which can be summarised in some ‘rules’.
Don’t follow the rules!
‘It’s best summed up as Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel,’ says Dr. Claudia Black, a renowned author, speaker and trainer, internationally recognized for her pioneering and contemporary work with dysfunctional family systems. ‘Don’t Talk’ means keep the family problems a secret and don’t talk about what was really going on.
‘If you were ashamed to bring friends home, this was you. It happens when the family is in pain but won’t want to talk about it for fear of the shame if the truth came out. At a young age children learn to bury any concerns they have about their family.’
The next is don’t trust. ‘If you weren’t able to talk to your parents about your problems, you learned to stifle worries for fear of being shamed,’ says Dr Black.
‘Children stop trusting themselves, preferring to deny there were any problems. As adults, this stops us from seeking help. Consequently, we can feel very isolated from others. Have you ever felt so lonely, even when you’re in a crowded room? You didn’t learn to trust as a child.’
The final rule is don’t feel. ‘This refers to the child’s inability to share or express their feelings. A child of a dysfunctional family often has so many distressing feelings that they find the only way to cope is by repressing, hiding or ignoring them. Does someone ask you how you feel and you simply don’t know? You might be hiding them from yourself.’
Signs you may come from a dysfunctional family
1. You feel guilty when you stand up for yourself. Do you challenge your partner, friend or someone at work and feel guilty, as if you’ve done something wrong? Feeling guilty is like telling yourself it was wrong for you to do that and you’ve ‘hurt’ the other person. As a child you may have been taught that putting yourself first was ‘selfish’ and you had no right to think about your own needs.
2. You fear being abandoned. It could be that you often felt deserted as a child, both physically and emotionally. For instance, perhaps your parents shamed you for things that you said; were overly critical; or were sarcastic or made veiled jokes. In this way they were abandoning you as loving parents and making you the object of their anger. You fear it could happen again.
3. You’re a people pleaser. This usually develops as a result of being regularly abandoned. It’s an attempt to disarm people when you fear their criticism. But the result is that you actually abandon yourself by moulding your personality into someone who tries to be ‘good enough’ so that others like you and no-one will leave you. As an adult you undermine yourself, are unable to feel equal to everyone else, and believe others are more deserving than you.
4. You feel like a victim. Behaving like a victim could be a way of trying to get your emotional needs met. When you roll up in a ball and plead for help, you think you are less likely to be abandoned. It’s a powerful but manipulative way of asking for help. You may have a hard time asking for help in a direct and adult way because, as a child, you were shamed for asking and you don’t want to recreate those feelings today.
5. You shame yourself mercilessly. Shame is the feeling of being defective beyond repair. It comes from being humiliated as a child by being criticised for not being good enough, slim enough, strong enough or intelligent enough. You may have spent your whole life attempting to hide your shame or trying to outrun it by trying to be perfect or by trying to push it down with drugs, food, or other behaviours.
How to recover from the effects of childhood trauma in adulthood
If you have identified with the above, while you can’t change the past, the good news is there is much you can do to change how you feel. Part of your recovery journey is to break these rules, update your behaviour patterns, start talking about what happened to you and trusting your feelings.
The joy of living a life for you, rather than following outdated rules, is a powerful and exhilarating passage of rite and could become your life’s work. Here’s how to get started on your recovery journey.
This is the journey back to the person you were before you obeyed the family rules. It starts by becoming your own ‘loving parent.’
We’re all familiar with the ‘critical parent.’ You know the one…sitting on your shoulder like Jiminy Cricket giving you grief all day long. The loving parent is also in there somewhere, but drowned out by Jiminy’s ‘chirruping.’
This loving parent is the voice of compassion and acceptance. It’s the gentle part of you that knows what’s right and will give you a break. It’s the part of you that keeps you safe and, when you stop and listen, will show you the right decisions. A loving parent will hear how you feel without judgement and understand WHY you feel that way.
They will comfort you in dark times and show you how to have fun in the good times.
We all have this side to us and we can use it to re-connect with ourself and tap into the support we look for outside of us. We all help others all the time. Now it’s time to turn your attention to helping yourself.
How to re-connect with your loving parent
Left Hand/Right Hand technique
Take a journal and open it so you have two blank pages. On the right-hand page (if you are right-handed but the left-hand page if you are left-handed) write something to your inner self…the part of you that’s struggling.
For example, introduce your loving parent: ‘Hello Alex, I’d like to introduce myself. How are you feeling?’ or ‘How have you been? I’m here to listen to you if you’d like to talk.’
Then place the pen in your other hand and write the thoughts that come up on the opposite page. These thoughts might be random or make no sense but don’t judge them. Allow the thoughts to flow. The writing will be scratchy and childlike. These thoughts are coming from your younger, more fragile self.
Respond to what you wrote back on the other side of the page. Imagine what a loving parent would say. This is a private exercise and you can afford to be free thinking. Let the words drop onto the paper and continue the written dialogue from the right page and back to the left page until you feel the shift inside you.
Practise a little every day, be patient and don’t try to force results. In time you will reconnect to that part of you which has been lost and you will feel reassured that YOU have the authoritative voice you’ve been searching for. By turning to this loving parent, you will have some amazing benefits.
- You stop assuming you’ve done something wrong
- You challenge your Jiminy Cricket
- You see mistakes as challenges to grow
- Your focus narrows down to the present moment
- You recognise you have choices
- You stand up for yourself without feeling guilty
- You dissolve chronic anxiety and depression
- You feel a sense of freedom you never thought was possible
In time you will come to see that your parents gave you a life but through your own loving parent you can create the life you want.