It’s easy to question the way childhood hardship lingers on the mind. Does thinking about the past do more harm than good?
A few years ago, after a book and a meditation retreat raised these issues around the same time but in different ways, I wrote an essay on my private site: WillSpirit. What follows is a revised version of that posting.
In Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, Tara Brach encourages us to accept our bodies and personalities. She begins by describing how the Abrahamic story of Eden and the Fall sets us up for core feelings of deficiency and sinfulness, and how this seminal tale is just one of myriad cultural messages that teach us to feel flawed and undeserving, that lock us into lifelong struggles to redeem ourselves. Inflexible religious teachings and unforgiving social mores condition us to criticize our bodies, question our accomplishments, and reject our emotions. Brach offers meditative exercises that encourage feelings of worthiness, and she relates how she and others have transcended negative conditioning and grown more accepting.
Brach also highlights the problem of childhood trauma, which complicates the picture. Those of us who suffered formative adversity were taught self-doubt by our own families, and this primed us to suffer even more insecurity in the face of cultural shaming. For us, self-acceptance requires countering both toxic societal attitudes and destructive family dynamics. And while we must learn to recognize old insults to our psyche, we must avoid feeling trapped by them. Brach negotiates these waters well, showing how one can remain realistic about early injuries and yet transcend the victim role.
Not all teachers possess such skill. Because Buddhism cautions against believing the many narratives we construct about our lives, it occasionally happens that those who’ve suffered child abuse end up being told that their unhappiness results from clinging to old stories. This is exactly what occurred during that retreat I mentioned above, which offered meditation instruction for overcoming depression and anxiety.
While participating in a discussion session, I asked about a visualization practice I’d been exploring. Back then, I would sometimes picture myself as a child in a loving home, receiving affectionate support from my parents. In other words, I’d imagine scenarios opposite to my actual experiences growing up. I found it a surprisingly comforting exercise, and the meditation teacher endorsed the technique. The mind, she said, doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagination. So long as I remained clear about what I was doing and didn’t get lost in denial or idle fantasy, she thought it a skillful means for building up feelings of safety.
But then she opined that my memory of a traumatic childhood was itself “just another story.” This comment triggered strong reactions that left me in a cloud of confusion for the rest of the day. It seemed to me that by downgrading early mistreatment to “just another story” she risked reenacting the plight of the abused youngster, who often is accused of making things up. Since I was barely familiar with Buddhism at the time, if I hadn’t just read Brach’s book I might have believed the tradition incompatible with healthy recovery after childhood adversity.
Armed with lessons from Radical Acceptance, however, I knew there were more healing ways of interpreting Buddhist teachings, just as there are more healing versions of the Abrahamic religions that don’t fuel guilt and shame. So I emailed the retreat leader to ask whether she truly meant to equate remembrance of child abuse with narrative born of imagination. Did she really believe traumatic memories carry no more weight than fictional daydreams?
When the teacher called to explain her position, she pointed out how we tend to fall into habitual patterns when remembering our lives, and these fixed ways of framing the past can become boxes from which we have a hard time escaping. She acknowledged that she may have erred in referring to the memory of abuse as mere story and emphasized she had not intended to discount the damage caused by childhood loss, trauma, and neglect. Once I understood her stance, I agreed with it.
On top of factual events there is an overlay of interpretation. One example is the belief that childhood mistreatment dooms us to misery forever. Such accretion is not Truth, and it is not helpful. The overlay must be recognized as false and constricting; it must be challenged. The goal is to distinguish between historical fact, which healing demands we acknowledge (while recognizing the limits of memory), and the myths we accumulate around past events.
Childhood adversity injures the nervous system, and those of us who suffered early hardship must identify its effects. But we should avoid compounding our difficulties with self-defeating mythology. We can remember the past but reject the corrosive messages imprinted by our culture and our families. We can honor the suffering of our childhood selves while building confidence in our worth and our potential. In a more public sense, we can publicize the problem of childhood adversity and its many untoward consequences, while combating tendencies to blame, stigmatize, or pity those who survived development trauma.
We all possess the capacity to transcend our early conditioning and develop into strong, compassionate, and mature adults. We can identify problems and work toward solutions. Traumatic histories cannot be denied, but they can be reinterpreted as hardships we have survived, and their legacies as vulnerabilities we can manage or even–in due time–transform into strengths. Such reframing leads to healing and growth. Remembering the past with wisdom and clarity is not self-defeating; it’s self-empowering.