One of the most effective ways to strengthen your personal resilience is to explore your childhood wounds. For some people, life as an adult does not look, sound or feel satisfying. They often wonder why they and their lives are a painful mess. That was once true for me before I engaged in counseling and discovered that the root of some of my inappropriate adult behaviors stemmed from my upbringing.
Inevitably clients ask, “Why do I have to go back to those crappy, emotional childhood memories? What does my inner child have to do with my life now?” Many leave saying, “Counseling did not work for me.”
Many also wonder why the therapist did not wave a wand and say magic words to heal their childhood wounds. Fortunately, some stay engaged and decide to look into, clean up and sort through their old haunted closets.
In over 20 years of counseling, one of the greatest compliments I ever received came from a client who described me as her “safe and steady light guiding the way” into her dark, messy closet of the past. Out of the darkness, she emerged into the light again with greater awareness and a firm sense of personal choice.
Who and What is in the Closet of Your Past?
Most of our childhood wounds, even the traumatic ones, are not resolved or even acknowledged by our parents or others of significant influence. Dr. Phil McGraw refers to seven pivotal people in your life. Of course, these significant people did the best they could. Yet, typically they believed that it was better to train children than listen to them.
As the author of Wishcraft, Barbara Sher said, “The cost of forgiving the past before you’ve really confronted it is that you blame yourself for everything that happened to you. You can’t move an inch toward what you really want when you’re beating on yourself.”
It is not useful to blame our parents for what they did not know or neglectfully did not do or abusively did do. But we can hold them responsible for not giving us what we needed to blossom into wholeness and peace. The good news is, we are now adults and in charge of our lives. Awareness helps us execute that power and freedom wisely.
The Blame Game
As children, many of us were spoon-fed messages that were not healthy for us emotionally or mentally. Even as we matured, we were still functioning with old, damaging, and often unconscious beliefs and behavioral patterns — all well grooved into our habitual way of being.
We often decided to blame ourselves and told ourselves, “If only I was smarter, prettier, kinder…they would see me as lovable and capable.” It was easier to accept blame for our childhood wounds as it gave us a sense of personal power. A belief explored in Games People Play, Eric Berne’s classic book on transactional analysis comes to mind: I am not OK. Everyone else is OK.
There are a few people who live with the opposite programming. They blame others for their unease. “If only they were smarter, kinder and agreed with me.” In Berne’s terms: I am OK. Most everyone else is not OK (i.e. the ones who disagree with me).
Also, when we were toddlers we had our feelings of sadness, fear, anger, and happiness to guide us. Then we were trained to contain them in tight stomach boxes locked with old parental and controlling messages. Without a full emotional repertoire, we told ourselves who we should be rather than truly experience who we are.
Why Explore Your Childhood Wounds?
When you discover what thoughts, beliefs and behaviors you carry from childhood, it helps you:
- become aware of childhood trauma effects in adulthood.
- get out of automatic reacting and into a mode of conscious choice.
- unlock your core feelings.
- clarify your values.
- better separate the choice you HAD TO MAKE in childhood from your desired adult response.
- choose what kind of partner, friend, colleague, parent, and person you want to be.
- differentiate yourself from your beginnings to your growing self.
- live a life of more authenticity, creativity, and joy.
Ways to Explore Your Childhood Wounds
- Know Your ACE Score: The Adverse Childhood Study is one of the largest studies ever made on this topic. Therapists of all backgrounds use it to establish the impact of childhood trauma. I have noticed it helps my clients have compassion for themselves. It is a quick and helpful guide. The ten measures do not tell the WHOLE story of your life but they do indicate the depth of your childhood wounds. Please know your score by clicking here on ACE Score.
- Arrange for some counseling. For many people, a therapist is an effective agent of healthy change. Consider reading my blog, You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Find a Therapist. If you cannot afford to pay for counseling, check your workplace. Many companies have Employee Assistance Programs that provide free therapy.
- Do the exercises in a self-help book like Phil McGraw’s Self Matters or Ronald Richardson’s Family Ties that Bind.
- If they are willing, interview your parents or other key players from your past. Ask questions about your childhood that do not make sense to you. What was going on when you were neglected or abused in some way? Find out about your caregivers’ childhoods. Doing this allows us to see our parents’ hang-ups as part of their childhood survival patterns and less about us.
- Answer the questions below in two ways:
- From your parents’ or primary caregivers’ perspective and experience.
- From your perspective and experience.
Write Out the Answers to these Questions:
- What was going on at five-years-old (and the years into adulthood) that resulted in…?
- What was childhood like? Describe it…joyful, protected, neglected, restrained, painful, scary?
- What were some of the happiest moments?
- What were some of the most disturbing moments?
- Are there any regrets? If so, what?
- Was discipline used or was punishment used? If you do not know the difference, discover it.
- What were you taught about:
- Having children?
- Raising children?
- Religion or spirituality?
- Values, morals and virtues such as honesty, kindness, compassion, respect, integrity?
- Feeling sad, hurt, scared, anxious, disgusted, frustrated, angry, happy, proud, joyful?
- Expressing feelings?
- Having a strength and gift?
- Work and success?
- Having fun?
As you answer these questions, observe how core beliefs and habits are passed on from generation to generation. Are you speaking and acting like you would be in a play spewing the words of your black sheep, princess or clown family role? Some people believe they are free of the older generation’s influence. They swore, “I will never neglect my child like my parents did me.” Then they overprotect, smother and try to control their child. They, indeed, are also passing on a generational dysfunction. They are reacting; not consciously choosing a healthier and reasoned cluster of parental behaviors.
Once you have responded to all of the questions, slowly review your answers. Discern if you are ‘stuck’ or ‘reacting’ in poor generational habits. Those patterns may have helped you move through your emotional childhood wounds, but do they still serve you with your present day situation and relationships? What changes are you ready to make to be a more resilient adult?
Please let me know how this process unfolds for you. If you would like to contact me privately, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org I will surely respond.