“Why is my childhood still affecting me? Shouldn’t I be over it by now?” Amy, aged 37, asked me at her first therapy session. “I feel like I’m complaining,” she said ashamedly. “I’m sure other people have bigger problems — real problems. I feel silly coming to therapy to talk about stuff that happened twenty years ago.”
I hear similar questions from clients and readers (of all ages) who are still struggling with the effects of a painful or traumatic childhood.
The short answer is no, you shouldn’t be “over it” already. The stuff that happens to us in childhood has a profound impact on us.
Amy’s mother was emotionally abusive and her father was largely absent during her childhood. And she was keenly aware that her anxiety, low self-esteem, and difficulty trusting people were the result of her painful childhood experiences. But she had unrealistic expectations for her healing. And believing that she should be “over it” added to her emotional pain and feelings of shame.
There’s no prescribed timeline for healing
It’s completely understandable that you want to be “over it” or healed from your traumatic childhood. You don’t want to still feel the pain. You don’t want to be plagued by the psychological consequences of what happened to you (or didn’t happen, as in the case of childhood emotional neglect). But the fact that you are still affected by it is perfectly normal.
Change and healing don’t happen in a neat line from point A to point B. Everyone is unique – your experiences, feelings, and healing aren’t like anyone else’s. And judging and criticizing yourself doesn’t help you heal any faster. It simply adds to your pain and reinforces negative beliefs about yourself.
Self-criticism is invalidating and shaming
“I should be over this by now” is a form of self-criticism. And self-criticism invalidates your feelings and experiences and increases feelings of shame.
Shame is the belief that there’s something wrong with you. Often, it’s rooted in the belief that you caused or failed to prevent the traumatic experience(s) you endured. This is almost always a false belief because children can’t control most of what happens to them. But it’s easier and safer to believe there’s something wrong with you than with the adults that were supposed to care for and protect you.
When you say “I should be over this by now”, you’re effectively telling yourself one or both of the following:
- “I’m defective or inadequate.” You use the fact that you’re still healing as proof that there’s something wrong with you. You believe that others have healed from their trauma because they’re superior to you – they’re smarter, more deserving, or harder working than you. These thoughts perpetuate the belief that you caused your mother to abuse you or your father to drink too much – because if you were a “better” kid, your parents would have been happier, healthier, more stable, loving, protective, etc. These thoughts are inaccurate and create shame.
- “What happened to me wasn’t that bad.” Believing that your childhood shouldn’t be causing you pain or problems in adulthood is a form of minimizing what happened to you. It implies that if something really bad had happened to you as a child, it would make sense to still be affected by it. So, according to this faulty logic, you conclude that your childhood couldn’t have been that bad. These thoughts are inaccurate and invalidating.
It’s hard to heal when you’re still being hurt
Sometimes the painful events of your childhood aren’t really over – the intimidation, scapegoating, put-downs, boundary violations, and other forms of abuse continue in adulthood.
It’s especially hard to heal and change when you’re still entrenched in the same dysfunctional relationships or you’ve unconsciously recreated a similar dynamic with someone else.
Consider Amy, for example. Her mother continues to be emotionally abusive. It’s not as frequent as it was when she was a child because Amy’s moved to another state and has been able to establish some boundaries. But her mother still peppers their conversations with passive-aggressive digs, brings up mistakes Amy made years ago solely for the purpose of shaming her and lays on a thick layer of guilt about Amy not calling or visiting enough.
It’s also common for us to repeat the same relationship patterns with romantic partners or friends. Amy, for example, dated a series of men who weren’t emotionally available (like her father). Not only was she continually disappointed and lonely, but she blamed herself. These failed relationships reinforced her feelings of being unwanted and unlovable that had formed when her father failed to show up in her life. So, again, those past wounds were continually reopened making it difficult for Amy to heal.
Accepting where you are right now
It’s understandable that you want to put the past behind you — to no longer feel the reverberations of your painful childhood or to repeat the dysfunctional relationship patterns that you learned as a kid. However, healing is a process – often a long process. And it’s important to remember that slow progress (sometimes it’s so slow that it doesn’t even register) is not because there’s something wrong with you. Healing is a slow process for everyone.
Putting more pressure on yourself won’t help you heal faster. In fact, criticizing and shaming yourself may slow your healing. Instead, try being kind and gentle with yourself. Self-compassion motivates us to grow and improve ourselves and it helps heal the deep wounds of childhood by saying, “I am worthy of love and I will give myself the love and acceptance that I need.”
The next time you think “I should be over this by now”, try saying something like this instead:
I accept where I am in my healing journey. I know that the speed of my healing isn’t a reflection of my self-worth. I will lovingly support myself in my efforts to change and heal. I will be kind to myself when I’m hurting. I will forgive myself when I revert to old ways of thinking and acting. I will be patient and give myself the time and resources I need to heal. I will say supportive, encouraging things to myself. I know that self-love can help me heal in ways that self-criticism never can.
Don’t underestimate the healing power of self-love!