The question always comes down to a variation on this one: “Now what? Now that I’ve recognized that my childhood experiences are affecting me, what do I now?” That’s what I heard from those who’d read my last post, Unloved in Childhood: 10 Common Effects on Your Adult Self. The good news is that there are things to be done to live better and differently. Therapy is the fastest route but there are areas you can pay attention to on your own.
While I’m neither a therapist nor a psychologist, I’m familiar with the long road out, both personally and through the stories told to me over the years by many hundreds of women. There is also a body of research that helps illuminate the process of healing and how the behaviors we learned in childhood can be unlearned. This isn’t an easy journey—it’s full of bumps and obstacles—but following are the steps that need to be taken on, one by one, so that Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again.
- Recognizing the wounds
It’s totally counterintuitive but the wounds of childhood can be very hard to see and it’s equally difficult for many to see that their behaviors, many of them automatic and unconscious, originated in childhood. The reasons for this are both complicated and simple at once. First, children normalize their environments, believing that what happens at their house happens in houses everywhere. Second, they adapt unconsciously to the circumstances in which they find themselves (thanks evolution!); a child raised in a bullying environment or one in which she is conspicuously and continuously ignored will learn to withdraw, make few demands, and armor herself emotionally. Third, children are hardwired to need their mother’s love and support, and that need absolutely coexists with the growing recognition of her wounds; motivated by their core needs, they are likely to deny or excuse their mothers’ behaviors because their goal is to wrest the love they need from their mothers. This pattern—one I call the dance of denial—often persists long past childhood and can continue long into adulthood. Sometimes, the dance persists for as many as four, five, or six decades of the daughter’s life. Recognizing the wounds is the first step.
- Identifying your attachment style
Understanding the general and completely unconscious ways you think about others and relationships is a useful tool, especially at the very beginning of the journey. Keep in mind that these categories are not set in stone; you’re looking for the label that describes you most of the time. Children who are well-loved, supported, and reliably responded to develop a secure attachment style. They tend to see the world of relationship as a safe place, are able to trust and rely on others, and are comfortable with intimacy. In contrast, those with an anxious/preoccupied style of attachment—the result of inconsistent and unreliable maternal responses—are always on point, vigilant about whether the person she’s with will leave or betray her. She’s quick to fight back and to get angry, resulting in connections that are more like a rollercoaster ride than not. Those with emotionally unavailable or combative mothers learn to armor themselves and withdraw at a young age, resulting in an attachment style called avoidant–dismissive. These people see themselves as independent, not needing emotional support and connection, and prefer to be superficially connected, if at all. They have a high opinion of themselves and a low one of others. Those with an avoidant-fearful style, on the other hand, actually want intimacy but their trust issues get in the way.
Knowing how you connect to others unconsciously—the mental models you have of how relationships work—is an emotional first step.
- Learning to name emotions
Unloved children usually have impaired emotional intelligence for a number of reasons. Often, they’re discouraged by their mothers to refer to their emotions or told that what they’re feeling isn’t legitimate. They grow up mistrusting their perceptions, often being told that their emotional responses are a function of being “too sensitive” or being “too much of a baby.” Children who are gaslighted by their mothers—told that something they experienced simply didn’t happen—find it difficult to use their emotions to inform their thoughts which is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. Working on naming emotions—distinguishing shame from anger, for example—helps the adult not just quell reactivity (research shows that naming emotions effectively shuts down the reactions of the amygdala) but also puts her back in command of her feelings.
- Beginning to see the self with some clarity
With the recognition of her woundedness comes the first opportunity to see herself not as her mother sees her but as she is. This is a difficult moment for most unloved children because what’s been said to and about them—the repeated litany of their inadequacies and shortcomings, the reminders that they can never be good enough—is often internalized as self-criticism. Self-criticism is the unconscious mental habit of attributing disappointments, setbacks, and failures to fixed character traits. Self- criticism sounds like this: “I didn’t get the job because I’m unlikable,” “He left me because I’m ugly and dull and not funny,” “I’ll never achieve anything because I’m just not good enough.”
Counterintuitively, the habit of self-criticism can also co-exist with success and achievement in the real world and undermines a sense of self and the value of those achievements. Understanding how you’ve internalized your mother’s view of you is key.
- Figuring out trust issues
Recognizing that your lack of trust in others—especially other women—is pretty much automatic and unconscious and influences how accurately you see people and relationship is an important and potentially game-changing break-through moment. You need to see how you are getting in the way of having the kind of connections you so sorely need and desire. The anxiously attached need to wrestle with their reactivity and start working identifying the triggers they respond to. The avoidantly attached have to work at seeing that their world-view isn’t as clear or reasonable as they think. That said, the insecurely attached need to work on both what they bring to the party and to look carefully at how and why they choose friends and intimates. That brings us to #6.
- Identifying toxicity
Childhood experiences which include not just a lack of support and love but also antagonistic, combative, and emotionally abusive behaviors influence the child’s development in many ways, one of which is normalizing the behavior in the home. Yes, that means the children raised in these toxic environments often are slow to spot behaviors which are long familiar to them. All of us are unconsciously drawn to the familiar which is just dandy if you’ve been raised among loving and supportive people. In adulthood, you’ll be attracted to people who fit those mental models. The insecurely attached are also, alas, drawn to the familiar and, yes, someone who marginalizes, manipulates, gaslights, or scapegoats them may feel just “like home.” In fact, if they’ve not gotten to the stage of recognizing their own woundedness, they may not even recognize toxic behavior—that would be totally apparent to someone secure—when they experience it.
Becoming aware of the toxic people in your life—the supposed friend who’s always harping on your flaws, the colleague who likes making jokes at your expense, and, yes, even your mother who’s quick to tell you that “you’re too sensitive” when you call out her meanness—is a necessary part of stepping out of the patterns of childhood and reclaiming your adult life. It’s important to recognize how your own need to please, to minimize or make excuses for other people’s behavior, or to blame yourself for how others act can become part of the dynamic. And that brings us to #7.
- Getting a bead on boundaries
Healthy boundaries define the self and define the relationship between the self and others, and we learn about them beginning in infancy and early childhood. Securely attached children don’t feel intruded upon or abandoned by their mother because the lesson imparted is that of the dyadic dance. It teaches that each person is separate but nonetheless connected by strong ties, and that independence and connectedness are intertwined. It boils down to this: “I am me and you are you but we have bonds that are so tight that you’re never alone.” The unloved child learns none of this and, in fact, reaches entirely the wrong conclusions about boundaries. The anxiously attached girl or woman doesn’t understand them and sees them as a threat to closeness; she thinks that being consumed by emotion and losing yourself are synonyms for love and intimacy. She perceives a partner’s healthy need for boundaries and independence as a distinct threat. The avoidantly attached person confuses boundaries with walls meant to shut others out and herself in.
Learning to both respect and set appropriate boundaries is another step in the right direction.
- Taking chances
Unloved children often grow up to be adults who are motivated by avoidance because they are afraid of failing; to them, missteps or mistakes aren’t seen as part of the road to achievement but proof positive that their mothers were right about them after all. They set their sights low as a result. Mind you, none of us likes to fail but the person with a secure attachment style is able to rebound from a setback or failure with her sense of self intact. She’s able to motivate herself to move forward toward something new. The insecurely attached person goes down for the count, filled with self-recrimination and flooded by self-criticism because she has no trust or faith in herself and her abilities.
Baby steps are what’s called for as you learn to take on approach-oriented goals, rather than goals that are motivated by avoiding failure or some other blow to your self-esteem. As you begin to see yourself more clearly and learn to quell the habit of self-criticism, this will become easier in time and help you set new goals even in the wake of disappointment.
- Examining reactivity
As we’ve seen, your attachment style reflects your unconscious thinking about relationships. If you think of those working models as acting as a filter on your experiences, you can begin to work your way out from under the influence of your childhood experiences. Becoming conscious of triggers is a huge step forward, and you can begin by asking yourself the following questions:
- If something echoes words I heard throughout childhood, do I shut down and withdraw or do I become super-sensitive?
- Do I over-analyze or read into situations whenever I feel nervous?
- Am I able to pull back and look and listen objectively when I feel threatened or does the engine of the past determine my reaction?
Getting a bead on what triggers you respond to pulls you to another level of consciousness. Personally, I’ve been able to change my response to being stonewalled—a situation that once pushed every single one of my emotional buttons—to a much cooler, unemotional response that permits me to see it as a manipulative tactic I won’t tolerate.
The good news is that, with effort, learned behavior can be unlearned.
- Dealing with the core conflict
My own term for the tug of war between the continuing need for her mother’s love and support and her growing recognition of the ways in which she’s been wounded by her mother is the core conflict. This is a process, more than a single step, and may take many years for a daughter to reach a decision about how she can better manage the relationship and whether, if it can’t be managed or changed, to continue. Just seeing that the conflict exists is step toward healing.
To all those walking this path, please seek help if you’re floundering. And Godspeed!
READ MY EARLIER POST: Unloved in Childhood: 10 Common Effects on Your Adult Self
Photograph by Stephen Di Donato. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com