It’s funny how life confirms your beliefs, and as attitudes change, so do the people you meet. Five years ago it seemed obvious that the mood instability and chronic melancholy I suffered directly resulted from the trauma of my past. Over and over I met others from devastating childhoods who seemed to grapple with the same emotional issues: high sensitivity, easy sadness, chaotic relationships, erratic performance, and so on.
Every time I heard of another disastrous upbringing from someone who seemed to struggle just like me, it confirmed my belief that childhood trauma had wrecked me.
These days, I’m less sure. Several times recently I’ve spoken with others who suffer from similar mood issues and sadness, but whose childhoods were not as glaringly awful as mine. Intact families, superficially normal parents, and safe homes seem to be no guarantee against adult angst. Of course, the underlying theme in these cases betrays a more subtle dysfunction: the lack of genuine trust and selfless love. Overbearing mothers, stern fathers, resentful parents, capricious decisions, and chronic stress can all feed into later problems.
Adult emotional dysfunction doesn’t require the equivalent of nocturnal strangulation. Because that was my story, I had assumed the same true for everyone who struggled with the same severe distress I used to endure. For a long time everyone I met who seemed to suffer as much as me had experienced major childhood trauma. But now that I am less sure that the trauma was to blame for my ‘issues,’ and instead suspect it was simply the lack of consistent love, I’m coming across people whose stories justify my new perspective.
No doubt this is mainly a question of selective attention. Perhaps I previously discounted the angst of those who didn’t share a traumatic story; maybe I assumed they suffered less. Narcissistic, I admit, but at least my horizons are now broadening.
There are two points to walk away from here: First, subtle forms of rejection and neglect can damage a person. Mental distress doesn’t require overt torment and contempt. Second, we will always see what we expect to see.
The second observation leads to a behavioral corollary: our patterns tend to self-perpetuate. If we believe we are uniquely damaged, we will look at the world through that filter and recognize only the most traumatized individuals as like us. If we believe our angst to be more ordinary, we will realize that we are not that different from the average person.
This is a genuine problem that explains a lot of discord. Each person is continually finding confirmations for his or her prejudice, and so becoming more and more entrenched in established beliefs. Breaking into new ways of viewing the human situation will only happen if we open our eyes to the unexpected and even to the undesired. Otherwise, our opinions will ossify and conflicts will escalate. Or, on a more personal level, failing to open to the possibility of being mistaken will thwart our growth into higher levels of maturity.
I admit to error and narrow views. Wanting to feel justified in my distress, and wanting to ease my shame, I emphasized the unique aspects of my upbringing as causative in my unhappiness. Now that I’d rather join the human condition than separate myself from it, I’m more able to see how my suffering is universal.
And isn’t that a basic Buddhist teaching? The principle is easier to understand now that I’m less invested in my old story. That’s the advantage of trying to open to new perspectives: you become more receptive to the greatest truths.