It took me a long time to figure out my childhood was causing problems in my adult life. As a child, I was the brunt of frustration and passive aggression, punished for minor mistakes, forgotten, sent away, ignored, and shamed. Others had it much worse than me, so I thought that my response to what happened to me was an overreaction and I just needed to get over it. “Sensitive” was a term often used in my childhood when I had an uncomfortable emotional response to a disturbing event. I learnt that my feelings were not valid and could not be trusted so I’d suck it up, try to please others, and, when I was really feeling pain I could not hide, I would withdraw from the world. I did not realize my responses were the result of childhood trauma.
Leading trauma expert, Dr Gabor Mate, says there are two ways you can inflict trauma on a child. Most people are familiar with overt childhood trauma such as neglect, abuse, and family violence. There is also trauma that is lesser known and often overlooked by those not in the field – trauma from caregivers failing to provide for the child’s needs. These needs include adequate connection, love, comfort, attention, and attunement. The resultant trauma is sometimes referred to as attachment wounding, giving rise to a range of difficult feelings and behaviours based in childhood but impacting throughout adulthood. Most notably experienced in our close and intimate relationships.
Impacts of trauma
To my childhood mind, my sensitivity was a flaw, so the logical conclusion was, I am not good enough. This was like a subliminal soundtrack that ran constantly. It never occurred to me to me to question whether the problem was outside of me. As an adult I experienced an almost constant anxiety but continued to invalidate myself, talking myself out of my feelings. I’d put my happy mask on and just get on with it. Perfectionism became a means to cope. Until I couldn’t. Then something small would tip me over the edge and I would emotionally implode (withdrawing from everyone and everything) or explode (passive aggression or verbal attacks). These cycles of feelings and behaviour can replay for years if we are not aware that activated wounds from childhood are driving and sustaining them.
Trauma is a wound
It can be helpful to conceptualize trauma as a wound. It is not what happened to you. It is what happened inside you in response to what happened to you. Trauma is the emotional wound you sustained (usually in childhood, but not limited to childhood). Just like physical wounds, emotional wounds are extremely sensitive to pain when touched. If anyone even lightly touches that wound, you will feel pain and will react in an extreme way to avoid further pain. It is a visceral, protective response that happens automatically. Which is why it is so hard to shift without therapy. These responses activate when the pain is triggered. In my case, when my emotional “not good enough” wound was triggered, I only had the knowledge and tools to respond in two ways. Either anger (fight) or withdrawal (flight). Both left me feeling guilty and ashamed and further reinforced the “I’m not good enough” story.
The body’s wisdom – responses to trauma
Gabor Mate asserts disconnection and numbness is the body’s wisdom in response to trauma. We find ways to shut down emotion when the feelings are just too painful. To counteract numbness and feel some pleasure we are then compelled to act in whatever way will sidetrack us from painful feelings rooted in childhood. We may do this in many ways. Taking drugs or alcohol, working excessively, eating, not eating, perfecting, shopping, pleasing others, angry outbursts and withdrawal. The list goes on. The behaviors we may perceive as personal failings are simply a response to difficult circumstances. They provide an escape from the numbness and pain. They protect us from feeling the full velocity of the feelings we cannot bear and it is helpful to learn to acknowledge them with compassion, for trying to help us.
Persistent and reoccurring feelings of not feeling worthy of love, not feeling good enough, feeling like an imposter, anxiety, and shame are often responses to childhood trauma. There are two types of trauma which may be simplified as overt physical trauma and attachment wounding. The resultant feelings and behaviours carry on into adulthood and require specialized help as the repetitive cycle of wound activation, pain avoidance and protective behaviour is complex. It is not your fault if you find yourself stuck in one of these cycles and you can minimize the impacts. Such complexity requires a competent and trusted navigator which is why many people find themselves seeking therapy.
Thankfully, we are not alone and do not have to navigate change and healing alone. At the start of my counselling studies, we were encouraged to have therapy. It was there that I learnt to identify, validate, and soothe my difficult emotions. It was where the seeds of self-compassion were sown for my wounded childhood self. Combined with my studies, I learnt skills to become more self-aware, identify my needs and feelings and communicate them more effectively. I was provided with a safe and non-judgmental space to gently explore my wounds, allow them to heal, and to strengthen my connection with myself and my loved ones. I am good enough and I always have been. My adult psyche just needed help to catch up.
If you find yourself being repeatedly triggered by the same situations and feelings, if you feel compelled to engage in behaviours you know are damaging but cannot stop – your childhood may be causing problems in your adult life. Healing cannot begin without acknowledging what has happened and its impacts. Just as you need medical assistance for an open wound, you need psychological assistance for a wound resulting from trauma. There are therapeutic methods to help you make positive change and develop skills to improve your life and relationships. One of these methods is Resource Therapy which we are pleased to offer at Think Better Counselling.
You are not your past – but your childhood self might need a little help to realize that.