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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

How a Messed up Childhood Affects You in Adulthood


We are, all of us, beautifully crazy or, to put it in gentler terms, fascinatingly unbalanced. Our childhoods, even the apparently benign ones, leave us no option but to be anything else.

As a result of these childhoods, we tend, over most issues, to list – like a sailing yacht in high wind – far too much in one direction or another. We are too timid, or too assertive; too rigid or too accommodating; too focused on material success or excessively lackadaisical. We are obsessively eager around sex or painfully wary and nervous in the face of our own erotic impulses. We are dreamily naive or sourly down to earth; we recoil from risk or embrace it recklessly; we have emerged into adult life determined never to rely on anyone or as desperate for another to complete us; we are overly intellectual or unduly resistant to ideas. The encyclopedia of emotional imbalances is a volume without end. What is certain is that these imbalances come at a huge cost, rendering us less able to exploit our talents and opportunities, less able to lead satisfying lives and a great deal less fun to be around.

Yet, because we are reluctant historians of our emotional pasts, we easily assume that these imbalances aren’t things we could ever change; they are fundamentally innate. It’s just how we were made. We simply are, in and of ourselves, people who micromanage or can’t get much pleasure out of sex, scream a lot when someone contradicts us or run away from lovers who are too kind to us. It may not be easy, but nor is it alterable or up for enquiry.

The truth is likely to be more hopeful – though, in the short term, more challenging. Our imbalances are invariably responses to something that happened in the past. We are a certain way because we were knocked off a more fulfilling trajectory years ago by a primal wound. In the face of a viciously competitive parent, we took refuge in underachievement. Having lived around a parent disgusted by the body, sex became frightening. Surrounded by material unreliability, we had to overachieve around money and social prestige. Hurt by a dismissive parent, we fell into patterns of emotional avoidance. A volatile parent pushed us towards our present meekness and inability to make a fuss. Early overprotectiveness inspired timidity and, around any complex situation, panic attacks. A continually busy, inattentive parent was the catalyst for a personality marked by exhausting attention-seeking behaviour.

There is always a logic and there is always a history.

We can tell that our imbalances date from the past because they reflect the way of thinking and instincts of the children we once were. Without anything pejorative being meant by this, our way of being unbalanced tends towards a fundamental immaturity, bearing the marks of what was once a young person’s attempt to grapple with something utterly beyond their capacities.

For example, when they suffer at the hands of an adult, children almost invariably take what happens to them as a reflection of something that must be very wrong with them. If someone humiliates, ignores or hurts them, it must – so it seems – be because they are, in and of themselves, imbecilic, repugnant and worth neglecting. It can take many years, and a lot of patient inner exploration, to reach an initially less plausible conclusion: that the hurt was essentially undeserved and that there were inevitably a lot of other things going on, off-stage, in the raging adult’s interior life for which the child was entirely blameless.

Similarly, because children cannot easily leave an offending situation, they are prey to powerful, limitless longings to fix, the broken person they so completely depend on. It becomes, in the infantile imagination, the child’s responsibility to mend all the anger, addiction or sadness of the grown-up they adore. It may be the work of decades to develop an adult power to feel sad about, rather than eternally responsible for, those we cannot change.

Communication patterns are beset by comparable childhood legacies. When something is very wrong, children have no innate capacity to explain their cause. They lack the confidence, poise and verbal dexterity to get their points across with the calm and authority required. They tend to dramatic overreactions instead, insisting, nagging, exploding, screaming. Or else excessive under-reactions: sulking, sullen silence, and avoidance. We may be well into middle-age before we can shed our first impulses to explode at or flee from those who misunderstand our needs and more carefully and serenely try to explain them instead.

It’s another feature of the emotional wounds of childhood that they tend to provoke what are in effect large-scale generalisations. Our wounds may have occurred in highly individual contexts: with one particular adult who hit their particular partner late at night in one particular terraced house in one town in the north. Or the wound may have been caused by one specific parent who responded with intense contempt after a specific job loss from one specific factory. But these events give rise to expectations of other people and life more broadly. We grow to expect that everyone will turn violent, that every partner may turn on us and every money problem will unleash disaster. The character traits and mentalities that were formed in response to one or two central actors of childhood become our habitual templates for interpreting pretty much anyone. For example, the always jokey and slightly manic way of being that we evolved so as to keep a depressed, listless mother engaged becomes our second nature. Even when she is long gone, we remain people who need to shine at every meeting, who require a partner to be continually focused on us and who cannot listen to negative or dispiriting information of any kind.

Similarly, a childhood craving to pacify and never bother two squabbling unhappy parents can far outlast our actual presence in their company. We may decades later still harbour a powerful desire to evade all confrontation, even though the original source of our hesitancy has long disappeared and such avoidance bears a heavy price.

We are living the wide-open present through the narrow drama of the past. We suffer because we are, at huge cost, too loyal to the early difficult years. We should, where we can, dare to leave home.

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