In my professional and personal life, I have met and observed an overwhelming number of people who have grown up in difficult environments. As children, all of us have probably experienced some sort of trauma that has had a long-term effect on us. For some, it’s some significant life events. For others, it’s a general, undefined mood that they feel stuck in and are unable to clearly define (e.g., general, chronic anxiety). For many of us, it’s a combination of both.
A lot of people enter adulthood feeling hurt, loneliness, tiredness, anger, sadness, despair, hopelessness, fear, paralysis, or a mix of all these things and more. It’s not uncommon for a person to leave their childhood home and “enter adulthood” feeling lost, confused, and empty. They don’t know how they really feel, what their genuine beliefs are, where they are in life, what they like, where they are going, and what do to with all of that.
So why do many people feel this way?
If, as a child, you are not allowed to be yourself and if your true thoughts, emotions, needs, and preferences are forbidden by those around you who react to them with rejection, scorn, invalidation, or attack, you will learn to hide it. If you are in a problematic or otherwise wanting environment, hiding it is a valid and necessary survival strategy.
Consequently, you develop this as a defense mechanism, a way to protect yourself, and you start repressing your feelings, hiding your thoughts, and ignoring your hobbies and interests. You also don’t show anything that may result in being attacked. You learn to self-erase.
Usually, all of it is not a momentary, one-time experience that you can point to later when looking back at it in therapy, but rather a complex, long-term process that leaves many people confused, perplexed, or even unaware of it.
Eventually you become a person who is so shielded from potential hurt, so disconnected from your true self, that you have no clue who you really are deep down. That’s why there are many adults who say, “I have no idea what I like.” Or, “I understand how I’m supposed to feel now, but I feel nothing.” Or, “I have no clue what I’m supposed to do now.”
Life Scenarios and Roles
In an attempt to resolve their feelings of emptiness and confusion, they usually take on a problematic role or a life scenario. Below we will take a look at a few common roles, scripts, and life scenarios.
“Normal”/Like Everyone Else
Finish school, find a job, get married, have children, entertain yourself in socially accepted, self-erasing ways when free, retire, and die. In other words, be the way the majority of people are. Any deviation from that is unacceptable and “weird.”
Your role in life is to meet other people’s needs. Such a person has been conditioned to feel that their needs, wants, emotions, and preferences are less or not as important compared to those of others. If there’s nobody around to take care of, they feel like their life has no meaning. They often feel an overwhelming amount of unjust responsibility and guilt. They tend to care a lot about others, and this, combined with their sense of responsibility and tendency to self-sacrifice, makes them more susceptible to exploitation.
Here, the person believes that the only way to have something is to take it from others or at the expense of others. Such a person often has strong narcissistic and other dark personality traits. They often compare themselves to others and are very insecure. They seek social status, positions of power, and often engage in antisocial or even downright criminal behavior.
Hero/The Good Guy
This kind of person feels that they have to do “what’s right.” In their mind, “right” can be living how their parents want them to (i.e., a variant of a “normal” life), or taking care of others (i.e., giving), meeting people’s expectations, or keeping the family intact by pretending that it’s not dysfunctional and staying silent, or “gaining respect” (i.e., gaining power and abusing others), or keeping face and pretending (i.e., being fake and narcissistic).
As child, you were blamed for many things and so you learned to take blame for things, even the things that were not your fault or responsibility, and to stay submissive.
Such persons are usually blamed for everything that is wrong with the family. In school or among peers, they are often the ones who are unjustly blamed, too. As an adult, they may feel terrified of authority figures and groups which is understandable given their early environment. They may also be prone to being exploited because they are so used to taking the blame for things that they are not responsible for.
While a Taker/Abuser is downright harmful, abusive, and toxic to others, a Rebel is more like a “troublemaker” or an anti-establishment type of a person who often goes without harming others. Maybe they have a lot of tattoos or listen to “weird” music, or have a pet tarantula, or enjoy other things that are not considered “normal,” but they can be caring and kindhearted. If they engage in harming anyone, more often than not it’s self-harm.
As the name suggests, such a person is incredibly lost, unprepared, and so void of self that they seek strong parental figures in their lives. Because they are very confused and easily impressionable, they can end up in some sort of a dysfunctional community following an often sociopathic, cult-like leader or a toxic perspective. They start mimicking the leader and other members, adopting their beliefs and behaviors. That way, they feel a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose.
In the older days, the more extreme cases of such scenarios ended up in the news (Children of God, Heaven’s Gate, and many others). These days, such environments are easily found online where they are less understood and more normalized, until they eventually end in a harmful or self-harmful act. And while most cases of following a dangerous set of beliefs don’t end up like this, even in a mild form it can mess up a person’s psyche for a long time, if not for the rest of their life, or escalate underlying psychological issues.
Here, the person uses humor to mask their pain and anxiety. It is often used in social situations to establish a certain role. And while from the outside it may seem like they’re really jolly and happy, many actually carry a lot of hurt and loneliness. After all, many professional comedians openly say that they are unhappy and that they use laughter so that they wouldn’t cry. For instance, many are addicts and engage in self-destructive behavior. Some have been known to kill themselves, either directly or indirectly, because of their self-destruction.
For many people, it takes years of recovery, healing, self-reflection, self-exploration, therapy—self-archeology—before they rediscover their buried interests, or start to understand their emotions better, or learn to think for themselves, or begin to take better care of themselves, or are able to build and maintain healthier relationships.
Many others live their whole lives without even questioning it or realizing that there’s something fundamentally wrong here. And then one day they die, like all of us—and that’s it. This is tragic yet common.
But—it can be different. Things can get better. It may require a lot of work, but it’s possible. A human being can endure a lot. We are incredibly adaptable. It’s never too late to change your life.
Or—you can do nothing. The choice is yours.
The good thing about being an adult is that nobody can tell you what to do anymore. You can do what you want when you want it. And sometimes it takes some time of doing nothing before you start feeling free to do something you really want, feeling how you really feel, and being who you actually are.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.