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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

Why You Don’t Need a Very Bad Childhood to Have a Complicated Adulthood

Those of us inclined to believe that events in our childhood must play a critical role in determining the course of adult lives may sometimes step back and ponder an acute question: 

How come I am in such a bad way, given that nothing especially bad ever happened to me early on?

We may feel forced to conclude that our present distress can have nothing really to do with our childhoods, given that mum and dad were friendly enough souls, the house was comfortable and the authorities were never called. Maybe how we fare is only ever down to our genes, some inherent biological weaknesses or our own plentiful confusions and errors.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

But there is another haunting possibility: maybe the challenges we wrestle with are indeed – to a large extent – explicable with reference to our childhoods, it’s just that we need to rethink what a ‘difficult’ childhood might involve; maybe not much needs to happen for certain powerfully consequential forces to be set in motion.

We are at risk of blinding ourselves with unhelpfully lurid definitions of trauma: we imagine the term must involve children who are hit, burnt, screamed at or assaulted, who are nightly subjected to humiliation and who might never have been offered a freshly cooked meal or a trip to the seaside.

But emphasis on outward drama disguises an always slightly inconceivable aspect of being human: our astonishing fragility. To get a bare sense of this, we need only rub a finger along our temples and consider how little would be required to wreck our minds; a paperclip could kill us. We could be done in with less force than would be needed to break a matchstick, fifteen seconds of pressure on the carotid arteries would be enough. We could sever our veins more easily than we could a granny smith. We’re delicate things indeed. 

Nothing too outwardly significant ever has to take place for our emotional apparatus to be crippled; we can be fundamentally knocked off track by attitudes and events that lack any obvious markers of horror, that would never show up in pictures, that are compatible with a good amount of love and decency and that everyone (we included) are keen to forget.

Our confidence can be decisively broken by nothing more savage than a decade or two in the hands of a quietly belittling caregiver. Corrosive parental envy can exist alongside financial privilege and good humour. A sprinkling of favouritism or covert bullying can unmoor a life. Seduction and sadism can be at play in otherwise intelligent and charming people. A secret can crush the spirit transgenerationally without a single word being spoken. 

People who start psychotherapy often wrestle with a paradox: parents are remembered favourably. And yet the early years seem, on inspection, to lie behind certain significant setbacks in adulthood.

The clue to the riddle lies in our susceptibility. We can be knocked from our optimal path by a breath of wind, we’re marked by the brush of a feather, we’re shattered by a sound at a certain frequency. Few parents lack good intentions – and yet a large minority routinely manage to make life far less sane or pleasant than it should be. We are – unfortunately and unavoidably – the most sensitive things in the universe.

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