The good thing about having been raised badly is that it provides an excuse for the embarrassments of later years.
Have you succumbed to addiction? The Adverse Childhood Experience Study demonstrates how susceptibility to alcoholism and drug abuse rises in near-lockstep with one’s burden of early hardships. Has sustaining relationships proved difficult? Data support a similar connection between numbers of romantic partners and formative adversity. Have you struggled to take care of your health and suffered from medical and psychiatric problems more often than others? Rates of heart disease, respiratory illness, obesity, anxiety, depression, and many other serious conditions correlate with childhood trauma, loss, and neglect.
Explaining present difficulties in terms of past mistreatment can lighten our burden of shame and self-reproach. We can see that we have been conditioned to feel insecure and to make unwise choices. Children raised as if they are unloved, deserving of punishment, or bound to the demands and urges of caretakers cannot be expected to grow into adults who treat themselves gently. So we can jettison self-blame.
We who were brought up with burdens of hardship enter the world with a handicap that can be used to excuse conflicts, failures, and nervous breakdowns. It’s really a kind of ‘get out of jail free card,’ an explanation for the sorry state of our inner and/or outer lives.
On one level I’m joking, of course, but on another I’m serious. Deadly serious, because the consequences of early adversity lead to premature mortality in all-too-many cases. A person with an ACE Score of six or more may suffer a two-decade loss of life expectancy. Formative hardship explains so much, it’s a tragedy we don’t talk about it more.
But why concentrate on such depressing facts? Isn’t childhood behind us? What can we possibly do about it now?
The notion that the pain of formative years lies in the past, and should remain there, probably explains why people hesitate to discuss it openly. Society resounds with admonitions to “move on” in life, to not dwell on discouraging memories. Those of us from damaging childhoods can ill afford such progressiveness. We must look back, or we will live in the shadow of early mistreatment forever.
Nowadays there are trauma remedies and psychotherapies that work well to help us heal after childhood adversity. I recommend pursuing as many of these as you can find and can afford. But, in the end, we must construct our own recovery; we must rebuild ourselves from the ground up. Said differently, we must reinterpret ourselves in order to break free of corrosive childhood and societal messages that lurk behind the unskilful things we do and the distressing ways we feel.
Developmental trauma is a study in adverse conditioning. How does an organism fare after being raised to squelch its yearnings, put itself second, and question its right to exist? The answer–as everyday observations and clinical studies demonstrate–is not very well.
Luckily, what can be learned can be unlearned. True, we can’t expect to undo every bit of negative training, but we can undo a lot of it. What’s more, we can learn to reframe our remaining vulnerabilities until they serve us as strengths. How this can be done is a long story, the one I plan to tell as this writing project proceeds.
As a first step, I’ve found it helpful to acknowledge the problem: my upbringing conditioned me to react strongly to stimuli, to mistrust others, and to doubt myself. This entrainment then led to conflict, withdrawal, and confusion. The point is, I never chose my early lessons; they were imposed on me. Blaming myself for the downstream effects of childhood adversity is not only unhelpful, it’s unfair!
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Last reviewed: 23 Jul 2014