Our Early Life Shapes Us, but Doesn’t Define Us
Updated: 7 days ago
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The early stages of our life are incredibly important in determining our identity and in shaping our behaviour in adulthood. Childhood experiences can be powerful and sometimes painful, but that doesn’t mean our identity or behaviour is set in stone. Adulthood is a time where we can look back, reflect, and chose to do something different. In this blog, I’ll explain why I think our childhood has such a strong impact on who we become, how it shapes our behaviour in adulthood, and how you might break free of old patterns to live a more informed, deliberate and ultimately more fulfilling life.
“The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents”- Carl Jung
I’m going to give you an incredibly brief and basic outline of childhood stages of development. I’ll include a global and quite idealistic goal of each stage for simplicity. My purpose is not to be thorough, it’s to give context to some later points I’ll be making. Childhood development is complex, has a whole area of psychology dedicated to it, and I couldn’t possibly begin to explain all the nuances or theories in just a few paragraphs.
I’ll also be leaving out any talk of genetics. I realise the importance of genetics, a person may be predisposed to experience anxiety, or predisposed to have a quieter temperament for example, but for the purposes of this blog I’m going to be focusing on the more social aspects of our lives.
The key message I’m trying to emphasise here is that there is a context around who we have become, born from an age where we didn’t have the capacity to choose. As a child we take on what our parents teach us as fact, but how many of us have revisited what we were taught? Are we acting in certain ways because we want to? Or is it automatic? Do you ever blurt something out, only to realise: “that’s just what my mother would have said” or “that’s just what my father would have done”. The purpose is not to assign blame on parents or caregivers, it’s simply stating a fact: we learn what we live through our parents, family systems, school systems and society. The events themselves may have happened years ago, but their influence can carry on long into adulthood.
Lessons from Birth to School Age (the foundation for the rest of your life)
The brief and idealistic overview I give in the next paragraph (idealistic in that no parent is perfect, I’m just giving the ideal scenario) is based on Erik Erikson’s (1994) stages of psychosocial development (see below). Each stage is a continuum so ideally, you would fall somewhere in the middle at each stage. For example, trust at one extreme would be me trusting everyone, while mistrust at the other extreme would be me trusting nobody. In reality we need a bit of both. In addition, each stage compounds on itself. What you learn in the first stage then informs how well you progress on the next stage and so on.
Erik Eriksons’s Stages of Psychosocial Development
Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust (Infancy from birth to 18 months)
Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (Toddler years from 18 months to three years)
Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt (Preschool years from three to five)
Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority (Middle school years from six to 11)
Stage 5: Identity vs. Confusion (Teen years from 12 to 18)
Stage 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation (Young adult years from 18 to 40)
Stage 7: Generativity vs. Stagnation (Middle age from 40 to 65)
Stage 8: Integrity vs. Despair (Older adulthood from 65 to death)
A Brief and Simplistic Overview of Childhood Stages
“Give me a child until he is seven and I’ll show you the man”- Aristotle
The famous quote above emphasises the fact that the first seven years of life have quite a dramatic impact on the rest of your life. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll give examples of optimal development, so I can later contrast it with the impacts of suboptimal development.
Infancy- Trust (0- 18 months)
In the first 18 months of life, we are completely dependent on our parents to meet our needs. We are helpless, innocent and co-dependent in the healthiest sense of the word. The name of the game is: I cry, you meet my needs. A baby knows what it wants. It cries when it’s hungry, it cries when it’s tired, it cries when it’s lonely etc, However, the responsibility in interpreting those needs falls on the primary caregiver. In a healthy relationship, the caregiver will be able to understand what the baby wants the majority of the time, there might be some waiting, but in general when baby cries it gets it’s needs met. Baby then learns to trust that when they cry out their needs are taken care of. This helps them to see that the world is safe and predictable.
It’s also a time where we learn about love. There’s lots of gazing, “baby talk” and being physically held between caregiver and baby. The primary caregiver becomes a “mirror” reflecting back whether babies’ needs are accepted (through face expression, tone of voice etc). Ideally our caregiver will express unconditional positive regard to our range of emotions: angry, sad, happy etc with baby getting the subconscious message “I’m accepted just as I am”. This is where a baby gets its attachment needs met and forms the basis of our attachment style in adulthood. This is important because the way we attach in infancy then impacts how we “attach” to people in adulthood. It is often expressed most intensely in romantic relationships, but can have an impact on our friendships as well.
Toddlerhood- Setting Boundaries (18 months – 3 years)
In toddlerhood it is all about setting boundaries. That is why you often hear children saying “no” quite firmly around this age. They also have quite substantial tantrums when things don’t go their way! That doesn’t mean they will get what they want every time, but they learn that they have the capacity to say no and that it will be respected sometimes. They also learn where their boundaries are in that their parents won’t let them say no every time. That’s a useful lesson to learn. You want your child to feel empowered enough that they can say no, but not so empowered they expect everything to go their way!
Preschool- Early Identity (3 years- 6 years)
In preschool we start to form a very early identity. It’s also the first time we quite literally separate from our parents. Children at this age might say things like “my favourite colour is blue” or “my favourite food is spaghetti”. Their identity tends to be based on what they do, rather than who they are (in the adult sense), but that’s normal for this age and stage. It’s a time where they learn “I’m separate from other people”. Children of this age are still very egocentric, that is they can’t relate to what another might be feeling, at least not very well, some of this needs to be taught. That’s why you might remember teachers at school or preschool saying things like “Bobby when you hit Johnny, he doesn’t like it”. They’re teaching empathy and cause and effect, that the child’s actions (hitting) can have an effect on another person (their peer).
While I’ve only given you a brief basic understanding, hopefully you might have picked up why Aristotle’s quote emphasises the importance of development up until age seven. If as a child I’ve learnt (in basic terms) to love, set boundaries, feel accepted unconditionally and form an early identity, that’s some pretty important building blocks for the rest of my life!
Birth To Preschool: A Time of Wonder, Exploration and Magic
Life seems quite magical in early childhood simply because of where we are at cognitively. We view our parents as somewhat magical and perfect too, because in an evolutionary sense we have to, we need to attach to them in order to survive. This is why children under seven (at least in the western world) can be told Father Christmas is real and they just believe it, they have no reason to disbelieve. Why? Because Mum and Dad said so. They don’t think to themselves: I’ve been to at least three department stores by now, all with a Father Christmas, I’m starting to think my parents are full of it! This cognitive ability hasn’t developed yet. Children around this age often want to be just like their parents and copy everything they do! (a quite obvious sign of their idolisation).
As a child of this age and stage you feel very deeply. This could be described as a time of “felt-thought”, due to the fact our ability to reason or have abstract thought hasn’t developed yet. For example, I might come bustling in one day and my Dad is in a happy mood so he’s fine with this. The next day I might come in exactly the same, bustling around, being loud, but this time Dad has had a bad day at work and shouts “Hey! Cut that out!”. I might feel terrified, confused, sad or upset, but I’ll have no idea why I got told off. I don’t have the cognitive capacity to figure that out. I don’t say to myself: “Wow, Dad must have had a hell of a day at the office!”.
My feelings will be very strong though, since our feelings develop long before our abilities of reason and abstract thought. Since I idealise my father by nature, it can’t possibly be his fault that he’s angry so I blame myself. Children in early childhood can’t distinguish between: “I am bad” and “I did something bad”.
In my example, the child was just being themselves (children are quite free spirited). Dad’s reaction was just a reflection of his mood, but a child under seven has no way to figure this out. If this happens repeatedly, or the reaction is inconsistent (happy one day, angry the next) this can be very confusing for a child. All they want is to feel loved, secure and make their parents happy.
What is your guess as to how your first seven years of life went? Did you feel loved unconditionally? Free to be yourself? Were your parents strict or not strict at all? How might this have affected how you view yourself? How might it have affected your thoughts about the world around you?
The Role of Our Parents/ Caregivers Relationship
A parent’s relationship with each other is key for a child’s development, as is their relationship with themselves. Firstly, if my parents have a loving, secure relationship, they model to me how to be caring, loving, and resolve conflict myself. Secondly, their relationship with themselves is important. The less secure they are in themselves, the harder they are going to find it parenting me.
Children are demanding, vibrant, and spontaneous. If I’m a needy person and my child comes in wanting their needs met, it can feel quite overwhelming. If you look back at your own childhood, chances are you were shamed when you were at your most needy, and children are needy by nature, not by choice. Add to this to the fact that we are impressionable at a young age, you may have come out of your family of origin with messages about yourself that aren’t necessarily accurate. If your parents or caregivers have trouble with certain emotions, how are they going to teach you to deal with them in a healthy way? They never figured this out for themselves which likely goes back to how they were parented.
What emotions do/did your parents struggle with? How do you think that might have impacted the way they parented you? What ideas did you form about yourself as a result of how you were parented?
We All Had a Less Than Perfect Childhood
As I mentioned earlier, in describing childhood stages I’ve been mostly giving the ideal scenario. But let’s be honest, none of us grew up in perfect families and none of our parents were perfect. I believe none of us come through childhood completely unscathed or at least I’ve never met anyone who has.
You might have had a caregiver that found it difficult to interpret your needs in infancy, had a complicated birth or health difficulties. You might have had parents that were very strict in toddlerhood or the opposite, provided no boundaries at all. You may have had parents who let you explore your identity, but only on their terms. You might have enjoyed art but they preferred you to kick a rugby ball around for example. You might have had parents who argued a lot, so didn’t have time to meet your needs, or a father, mother or caregiver who was needy themselves so your needs felt overwhelming.
The thing is everything we learned in the family system up until age five or six (depending on which country you attend school in) determines what tools we have obtained to then enter a school system, a peer group and a sociocultural group. If we didn’t adequately get our needs met in infancy, we may have learned we can’t trust in others to meet our needs. Imagine what that does to our ability to socialise.
In toddlerhood, we may have learnt we weren’t allowed to assert ourselves because this wasn’t convenient to what our parents needed at the time. We may have had no boundaries, so believe we can do what we like but are confused when we enter a school system that punishes us for not following the rules. We may have had a limited chance to explore our identity so aren’t really sure what we like or what we want.
I’m using extremes to make my point more obvious, but I hope you can see that what you are taught in early childhood has a huge impact on how you socialise, learn and develop. In being so young and impressionable you had no control of how any of this went, you relied on your caregivers and more broadly the family system you grew up in.
In the next stage we enter the school system. If you didn’t adequately learn what you needed in early childhood this becomes more pronounced as we now enter a school system where rules need to be followed, we learn to cooperate with our peers, and we are graded on our performance. All of these experiences then combine to form our sense of self.
Our School Aged Selves and Learning to Adapt (6 years-Puberty)
As I have (very briefly) explained the first six or seven years of life create a foundation for how we deal with the rest of life beyond this point. Ideally, you will have learned that you can get your needs met (most of the time), that you can set boundaries and have them respected (most of the time) and that you can have your own likes and dislikes and that’s ok. Ideally, you learnt you are loved unconditionally, and that it’s ok to have whatever thoughts and feelings you have without being punished or judged for having them.
The school age is where whatever you learnt in your family of origin then collides with a school system and ultimately the social system by which it was formed. This happens to coincide with a deeper sense of consciousness or sense of self (age seven or eight). It’s also where we learn to follow (or not follow) the rules and learn to cooperate with others. Our cognitive ability expands and while we are able to reason. We learn to apply logic and use new or existing information to make decisions. In early child we sort of “absorb” the world around us which is why some of the early messages we received can be so powerful. Beyond age seven we start to interact with the world a lot more and this teaches us about ourselves and the world around us.
A large majority of what we learn is through socialisation with our peers. We start to understand how we “measure up” in a school system that is very achievement based. School is unusual in the fact that it is time limited. If I don’t grasp all the mathematical concepts at age 6, I’m moving on to the next year regardless, and that doesn’t account for the fact that children develop cognitively at different rates. This is quite different to adult life, as the counsellor John Bradshaw quite humorously states “If we both leave for LA and I get there two hours after you, I don’t fail Los Angeles!”.
You might be wondering why I just explained all the childhood stages and how that relates to you as an adult. The reason is I want you to reconnect with and understand just how young, impressionable and vulnerable you were at those younger ages. You were completely reliant on your parents to teach you how to survive in the world. I also want you to understand that your level of development was perfectly normal for each age and stage, even if it was judged by parents, caregivers or schools for example.
It can be easy to forget how we used to feel as a child and how much of the world we didn’t understand. I’m now thirty-seven and it wasn’t until I found an old school report and some written work I had done (a short story I think) that I really got the gravity of just how innocent and impressionable I was. That’s the same for anyone reading this, we were all that innocent, spontaneous and free spirited once. Where did that go? Well chances are it’s still there, but as I’ll explain, as we move through the school system and build up experiences in and outside of school we start to gain and idea of who we “should be” moving us from our authentic selves to a sort of adapted or “social self”.
How did the school age go for you? Did you feel you fitted in? Did you feel confident or shy? How might the school age have affected how you see yourself today?
Authentic Self vs our Adaptive Self
The messages we get from peers, teachers and parents during this time are very important. We learn who we are and how we “have to” act through others. I think early childhood is an expression of one’s essence (authentic self) in that we haven’t really been shaped by the world yet (although you were likely impacted by the parenting you received), but in school we start to hide certain bits of ourselves in order to fit into the system (our adapted self). We become more concerned with fitting in than being ourselves and this means a “social self” or “adapted self”, starts to develop.
In my opinion, similar to early childhood, you don’t really have a huge amount of free choice here. You are dependent on your parents for your survival, so you might as well please them. You have to be in school so you may as well please the school to some degree. You want to fit in so you may as well align with your peers to some degree. While you wouldn’t have thought this through as a child, there are pressures there. A lot of what we decide about ourselves is the result of messages we receive from peers, parents, teachers and society. We learn who we are by how we interact with the world.
I think there tends to be an internal struggle between who you’d like to be and who you are expected to be in your parent’s eyes, the schools’ eyes and society. This is where you might internalise messages like “boys don’t cry”. You may still be quite emotional at age seven but you learn a way to stuff that emotion down so you don’t feel tearful. You might hate sitting still and doing book work, but you find a way to do it “good enough” so you get your way through school.
My point here is we adapt to meet peer, teacher, parent and societal expectations between ages six and puberty. This then creates a bit of a split. Your essence (authentic self) was likely there in early childhood (your spontaneity, vibrancy, potency, free expression of emotions) but that then meets your adapted self (in school) where quite likely you had to “cut off” certain parts of yourself to fit in. It’s no wonder that when we hit puberty with a bit more freedom and independence that something of a bomb goes off.
Adolescence The Time to Find Belonging (13-26 years)
The reason adolescence feels so disruptive is it’s a time of consolidation and putting together everything you just learned from the first 11 years of life into something that makes sense. If those 11 years were particularly tough that makes this period even more difficult. Adolescence have quite a painful longing to answer the question “who am I?” This coincides with the development of abstract thought, so they can now think into the future: “What would I like to do as a career?” “Who do I want to be when I grow up?” “What kind of person do I want to be?”.
We act this out by trying on different “hats” or ways of being to see what fits. The trouble is if your needs weren’t met in childhood this can be very difficult. You might feel a real pull to aspects of your authentic self, but at the same time there’s a need to fit in with your peer group. You might not have gained much of a sense of confidence or independence in primary school and now you’re out in the world expected to be independent. It’s quite an adjustment.
We start identifying with our peer group more than we do our parents (a perfectly normal part of adolescence) as a way of separating ourselves as individuals (both physically and psychologically). Identifying with our peer group is a way of having something that is completely our own. That’s why youth cultural has words and phrases that the rest of us have no idea what they are talking about! A very effective separation strategy indeed!
Your peer group become your family, but again like the primary school stage we do what we can to fit in. To an adolescent not fitting in is quite mortifying. This makes sense actually, if we are to adopt our peer group as if they were family, and we’ve chosen to distance ourselves from our parents (to break away and define who we are) who do we have left if our peer group doesn’t accept us?
This means while we can now experiment with who we are, we still don’t really get the opportunity to define who we are, because there’s such a strong pull to fit in with our peers. In my view by adolescence, you are a product of your adapted self (school age) with your peer group self (adolescence) but you’re not really yourself as defined by you. You probably express who you are more than previous stages, but I doubt many of us stepped too far away from our peer group’s expectations. Even in our 20’s there’s still a pull to go to the “right” clubs, be wearing the “right” clothes, going to the “right” restaurants, listening to the “right” music and these things are usually a reflection of our peer group.
When I reflect more closely, our early to mid-20’s are really an extension of adolescence, just with a bit more freedom (You probably had a job, drove a car and likely moved out of your family home at some point in your early 20’s, if not earlier). In your early 20’s you’re very much a young adult and many of us still haven’t entirely settled into who we are or what we want to do.
How was adolescence for you? How have your adolescencent experiences affected how you see yourself as an adult?
Adulthood (aged 26 years and beyond): This Time We Really Get to Choose (but sometimes never do)
I think a lot of us stop much of our growth somewhere between adolescence and 25. We proceed to live a lot of our adulthood defined by a combination of our adapted self and our peer group self with an authentic self so well buried we’ve forgotten it entirely. For some of us our “social self” is such a polished act we can’t even remember who our authentic selves are. I mean this quite literally too. I’ve had clients in counselling who really struggle with the question “What are your interests?” or “What do you enjoy doing?”. I’ve also had clients surprised when they say “actually, I’d forgotten I liked (insert activity here)”.
I realise in adulthood we mature in the sense that we take on more responsibilities, but I don’t think we fully mature in a psychological sense (unless we have done some significant work on ourselves). By this I mean standing on our own two feet and saying “this is who I am regardless of whether anyone likes it or not” and being genuinely comfortable in that position. I mean being who you really are, not how your friends define you, not what your parents expect of you, not how society defines you, and not based on outdated messages you received in childhood.
It sounds horribly cliché but “who you are when nobody is watching” is actually a good way of describing it. To truly be ourselves is incredibly difficult because none of us likes to feel vulnerable, especially men. In fact, for men society tells us the exact opposite, nowhere in the “script” does it say “be vulnerable”. I studied this in more detail when I looked at masculine norms as part of my master’s thesis. You can view it here: Traditional masculinity and counselling: a study of traditional masculine norms in New Zealand and their influence on men’s engagement in individual counselling services. (canterbury.ac.nz)
I suppose in adulthood society still acts as a sort of peer group. Our reluctance (or more likely fear) means we accept life as it is even if we aren’t happy. We might stay in jobs we hate, or relationships that aren’t working. We hide behind our social mask pretending life is fine, yet privately we live in despair. I know this to be true from my own life and from counselling men over the past six years: many of us don’t like having time to ourselves because it feels uncomfortable. All our doubts and fears about ourselves start to surface and often there is pressure. We might think things like: I feel vulnerable, scared or hurt but I feel like I can’t express that. What will my kids think? What will my friends think? What will my wife/girlfriend think? So, we decide to not express it and bottle it up. That’s the clash between your authentic self (your genuine feelings) and your social self (society/others’ expectations).
The reason I think we don’t step away from our “social selves” is it’s so well engrained. You made important decisions about yourself when you were at highly impressionable ages, some of it outside your awareness (early childhood). For a lot of us there were painful or shameful moments in our childhood and adolescence. We get very good at packing that away in a safe place and never looking at it again. We have flickers of vulnerability, stuff that back down and go back to doing what we’ve always done, until we feel frustrated or unfulfilled and the cycle repeats itself.
The Reawakening in Our 40’s (or what some call a midlife crisis)
This is just my hypothesis, but one of the reasons I think men in their 40’s have a midlife crisis (or “aha” moment) is hopefully they have had enough space and time away from their family of origins conditioning and their school or peer group conditioning that they realise they have a choice in who they become.
In some cases, it’s quite a rude awakening. We start thinking “is this all there is?” I followed all these “rules” (subconsciously) that said I go to this school, to get these grades, to go to this university, to get this type of job, to get this house, to be in this type of relationship, and have this type of family and yet I’m still not happy. You may have all the “worldly achievements” you are supposed to have but not the happiness you expected to come from them. I believe this is the result of living a life governed by our “social selves” or our “adapted selves”. I have a quote on my website (www.timrobinsoncounsellor.com) that illustrates this quite beautifully, it’s from a Trappist Monk:
“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall”- Thomas Merton.
My interpretation of that quote is this: if you live your whole life governed by your family conditioning, your school conditioning, your peer group conditioning, and societies conditioning, one day you will wake up and discover it was a path you never chose anyway. You can’t live your life based on others dreams. (I mean you can, but it’s usually an unhappy one).
I think the difference between having a “crisis” and having an “aha” moment in your 40’s or earlier, is dependent on how much you buried your authentic self in childhood and adolescence. It’s also dependent on how willing you are to be honest with yourself when that moment comes. Some of us will reflect, grieve what was lost, and decide to do something different. For these people it can be quite an enlightening experience, living their life as they want to for the very first time.
Others will feel vulnerable, hate that feeling, and do everything they can to avoid it. Stereotypically, this becomes a sort of “acting out” similar to adolescence. The new car, the younger wife, a dramatic job change. They are trying to find who they are but in ways that involve anything but looking at themselves. That’s not to say that those who have a more “enlightening experience” wouldn’t change jobs or end a relationship, they might, it’s just that the intent behind it is different. One moves you closer to who you are, the other moves you further away to avoid the pain of looking at yourself. That’s why some men look back at their 40’s and think “what the hell was I doing?” but by that time the consequences of their actions have often caught up with them so they are forced to look at themselves. Men commonly come to me for counselling when things have hit rock bottom, not when they are on their way up!
The Importance in Making Sense of Your Past
The utility in making sense of your past (including the painful and uncomfortable moments), is you get to break free of your “social self” and make new decisions about who you are, where you’ve come from and what that all means. When you think about it, only you can do this accurately because you’re the only one that lived life from your perspective. Everything else is just others interpretations.
Your parents might say something like “don’t be ridiculous you had a wonderful childhood” but if you can remember feeling angry, hurt or shamed in relation to a particular experience, that is what you really felt, regardless of what anyone decides you felt. How would they know? They didn’t live life from your perspective. I get it, it hurts to think our parents had their flaws, or that the school system failed us, or our peers treated us badly, but unless you demystify your past how can you ever truly address it?
Why it’s Important to Understand Your Life from Your Perspective
This is why I believe you can’t know yourself well unless you connect with your past: The person you are in early adulthood (we now know the brain doesn’t fully develop until 25 years of age) is just a combination of everything you learned in the earlier stages of life. It’s the culmination of putting together in some sort of patch work way the essence of who you were prior to age seven, with the “social self” you learned through interactions with your family, society and your peers. I believe none of which was freely chosen. We then accept “this is who I am” and “this is how things are going to be” and we stop there. Nobody wants to be honest and look at the painful aspects of their lives.
I’m not here to bag parenting or the school system (although both may need looking at) it’s more to make the point that unless you’ve really looked at yourself and your past experiences (the good and the bad) as an adult you could be acting more automatically than authentically. We don’t pause at age eighteen, do an audit of all our life experiences and say: “actually some of that wasn’t very fair” we just move on with our lives and sort of hope it works.
Shame As a Mediator of Change
What is it that makes us tend to stop moving towards change and living authentically? My guess is it’s some combination of shame, fear and vulnerability. I think we dismiss just how powerful our childhood experiences were and the impact they might have had on who we become.
In early childhood you had to attach to your parents, to do anything else would have brought about severe fears of abandonment, this was the same in childhood and adolescence (it’s just we focused on fitting in to avoid our fear) so the fear was real then. As an adult those fears are outdated. Now, anytime you want to step outside your “social self” the alarm bells ring. It’s like “remember this is dangerous”. I think as adults we rationalise why we think change is dangerous based on our family, peer and societal conditioning (the conscious or subconscious messages we received).
You might reason with yourself some version of: I could, but I was never good at sports, I could but I was never very academic, I could but I’m not attractive enough, I could but I’m not good at public speaking, I could but I’m not: big enough, strong enough, rich enough, smart enough, loud enough, diligent enough, bold enough”. I’m sure you could come up with many more.
I believe childhood leaves a “psychological mark”. Now as an adult you go to do something that seems quite benign like public speaking (benign in that it’s not life threatening) and it feels terrifying. In fact, public speaking ranks at the top of what humans fear most (you can google this).
When we go to break the mould of our “social selves” or “adapted selves” those same old abandonment fears come up that “bound us” to our “social selves” in the first place. Why? You’re standing out, you’re being seen, you’re putting your unique ideas out there, and in many cases, you are putting yourself out there to be judged particularly if it’s work related. This doesn’t always align very well with all the messages we received in childhood, messages we internalised without question due to our age and stage.
Here’s some common societal messages: “Always be humble” “If somethings worth doing it’s worth doing well” “If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all” “pride comes before a fall”. Or you might have received something more personalised from family or school. You might have got the message that being shy was weird, or that you could never be as good as your brother/ sister at a particular activity. To this day you might avoid activities that remind you of things you felt you weren’t good at in school. Your parents might say something to you in a particular way and it transports you back to a moment in childhood. These experiences are powerful, they stay with us.
When I look closer at those societal messages above, what do they even mean? “Always be humble” What? Every time? I can never be proud of what I’ve done? I can only do a job well or otherwise I’ve failed? I always have to say something nice even when someone has hurt me? If I’m feeling proud of myself, I better watch out because it’s going to all come crashing down? I know they are not meant to be taken quite that literally but sometimes the underlying messages in what we are told can be quite powerful. New Zealand has an epidemic of “be humble” and we suffer for it at times. How can you be humble but also believe in yourself and be confident? Often the messages we receive are conflicting.
Sometimes our friends or people around us can peddle the same messages because they grew up in the same society with similar parenting. You might be wanting to go on a healthy eating plan and a mate says “good on you, so you’re off to eat rabbit food then” and you start questioning your decision. It might be something subtle if you’re incredibly shame based: “Are you sure you’ll be able to do that” or “good luck rather you than me” and you say to yourself, maybe this isn’t such a good idea.
Sometimes we are given what sound like quite rational reasons: “I mean you could go out and work for yourself but think of the benefits you’ll miss out on: holiday pay, sick leave, a company car”. Always take another look at the person and decide who’s fear or anxiety that really is. Do they want to lose weight but they haven’t had the courage to do so? Have they thought of doing their own business but don’t have the courage to do it? Do they have changes they want to make in their own life but don’t have the courage to get started?
Often those comments aren’t said consciously by the person to be nasty (although they might be) it’s just we live in a culture where we all had imperfect parents, all had to develop a “social self” and lots of us still aren’t aware that many of our decisions come from an identity we formed a long time ago.
How Adapting Caused Us to Avoid Our Feelings
When you abandoned your authentic self in order to fit in (or be your social self) you likely had to do away with certain feelings or behaviours in order to please others. You had to find a way to fit in despite what you were feeling. As adults we still do this, we just don’t realise we are doing it. We do what we can to avoid feelings we don’t like or avoid activities that remind us of aspects of ourselves we don’t wish to have a spotlight put on.
We get very good at not feeling and you probably learnt to do that at a much younger age than you thought.
What emotions were allowed to be expressed in your family/ society/ school? What emotions were you not allowed to have? What did this tell you about yourself and who you had to be? How did you consolidate your emotions? (e.g., How did you “fit in” despite what you were feeling?)
A common message men receive is some version of “be strong at all times”. Think about what emotions you had to deny in order to do that. What price did you pay for having done so? Is it realistic to think men will feel strong in every situation? We all started off as in an infant with a range of emotions, it was parents, schools, peers and society that defined what we “should” and “shouldn’t” feel.
The questions in bold can be useful to ask because whatever coping strategy/strategies you adopted to avoid feelings in childhood and adolescence are mostly likely the same set of strategies you use today (unless you’ve done some work on yourself).
For example, if you “drifted off” in order to escape what was happening in childhood you might be good at procrastinating in adulthood. If you tended to fight back you might be more likely to get in arguments with others or have a “win at all costs” mentality. If you tended to “give up” quickly when things got tough you might avoid challenging yourself in adulthood and avoid anything that seems difficult. If you tended to stifle your own needs in order to please others you might have trouble being assertive in adulthood. If you blocked yourself from what you were feeling, you might feel numb a lot of the time, or anxious because you’re trying to hide your emotions. These are just some examples but hopefully it gives you an idea of how you might have been impacted and why it’s important to take another look at yourself.
Activities Some of Us Do to Avoid Our Feelings
Work long hours, buy something, eat something, zone out/procrastinate, stay angry, look at your phone, scroll Facebook, watch YouTube, watch tv, clean constantly, be grandiose and think you’re better than others, control everything, numb the pain through alcohol or drugs, stay anxious, get lost in fantasy, give up, shame others, be perfect, blame others, pretend to be happy when you’re not, stay strong at all times.
Some of the activities in isolation are fine but if you suspect you do them to avoid feeling something you don’t want to feel, that might be a sign it needs looking at.
How Do I Heal My “Original Pain” And Start Living?
“The truth will set you free”- John 8:32
While I’m not religious, nor do I know the context in which those words were said, the quote is quite apt in this context. The more you get comfortable with your past, see it for what it was, be honest, own it, grieve it, and forgive yourself (and others) it can’t really hurt you anymore. In that sense the truth really does set you free. I hope my explanation of the childhood stages assists in that process. How could you have chosen to think anything different about yourself if you were at ages and stages where that wasn’t possible?
Keys To Therapeutic Change
Firstly, I want to say that ideally you would work with a therapist or maybe a peer support person when going back through some of your past. Sharing with someone else is quite reaffirming as long as they show unconditional positive regard, are non-judgemental and listen rather than provide advice. This is something that our friends while well-meaning often have trouble doing. That’s not a criticism, I would do the same if I hadn’t been trained to be a counsellor and when not counselling it’s easy to fall into the same traps.
If you are a victim of sexual abuse, domestic violence, severe neglect, addicted to drugs and alcohol, or have suicidal thinking definitely work with a therapist. I would recommend they be a therapist specifically trained in those areas rather than a generalist. The reason is the intensity of the emotions that come up with a past like that are too strong to do this work on your own, it would be unsafe to do so.
For those of you that have had a more “typical” childhood (for lack of a better term) you can likely do some of this alone but ideally, you’d work through it with someone.
Honesty: To do this well it’s important you get really honest with yourself. You’ll get a lot more benefit from this process if you’re prepared to be honest. For example, if you’re angry at someone is it really all about them? Or is there a part you played? Did you not stand up for yourself as much as you’d like? Are you angry not just because of what they did, but because you felt hurt or deceived? Are you blaming another person because that’s easier than taking ownership of your own life? Try and understand why the emotion is bothering you as it relates to you, rather than focusing on the other person. This gets easier to identify the more you do it.
Awareness: Understanding what patterns you fall into and why is important. This then means you can recognise them and chose to do something different. This might mean going back through your past to gain an understanding and redefining what those events say about you. Do you keep running into the same issues in your life? Do any of these situations relate to messages you received in childhood? Or mirror a situation from your childhood?
Grieving: To grieve you have to connect with what you actually felt, not what you were told to or think you should feel. If you thought something from your childhood was unfair, it probably was, own it, be angry, sad, resentful or upset.
There might be a temptation to lambaste the person that “wronged” you but this is rarely helpful. Grieving is more an exercise for yourself to process your feelings. If you were to contact the other person you might not get the response you are looking for, and this can just serve to “reinjure” yourself. Also, the focus is on expressing the emotion and letting it go, not staying there.
There are two ways (among many) I know of doing this. Journaling- where you write down in an unedited way exactly how you felt in a current or past situation. The other is writing a letter to your parents or whoever hurt you (but don’t send it). Others use art or music, you can be creative, just find a way to fully express your emotions without hurting yourself or others.
Detachment: Grieving is good for helping you create distance. It means you no longer sit in the feelings reexperiencing them, instead you can sit alongside them like an observer. You know the experience happened and you might acknowledge it “sucked” but the feelings don’t “trigger” you anymore. You have to be able to get enough distance from your patterns/ past to see them as just patterns or events from long ago, instead of being enmeshed in what happened and what that says about you.
“Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die”-Malachy McCourt
Forgiveness/ Letting Go: Another part of the grieving process involves forgiving yourself, your parents or caregivers or anyone that’s hurt you actually. The importance of forgiveness is not to “let others off the hook” or “let them win”, and it certainly doesn’t mean that what was done to you was fair or had any merit. If you find it hard to forgive, I would go back and think about whether you have truly grieved what you really felt about a situation. Forgiveness is for you so you can move on without that experience effecting you, not for the other person’s benefit.
Responsibility: Regardless of whether you think it’s fair or not (and a lot of what happens in childhood or school isn’t fair) it’s now your responsibility to own your own feelings, decide what you want to change, commit to that, and support yourself through it. As an adult it’s you who are responsible for your actions and decisions despite what happened in your past. It might be tempting to blame others but really this is a trap. Blame is another way not to feel. Take a look at what is driving your need to blame others. Do you feel powerless, hurt or afraid?
Taking Action: At some point you have to stop thinking about changing and actually take steps to reinforce your new way of thinking. This gives you confidence and reinforces the changes you have made intellectually by acting on them in reality. You are also taking a risk, if you’re yourself there’s no guarantee others will like you, that has to be something you are willing to accept. The bonus is at least you will be being true to who you are and often this feels much more freeing.
Self- Compassion: You won’t be perfect at this and it won’t happen immediately. It can take a lot of hard work and introspection. Support yourself and find friends/loved ones who genuinely want to see you at your best.
Practice: Once you’ve made changes intellectually and behaviourally you need to keep at it. In times of stress, or trying something new it’s easy to slip back into old ways of thinking and behaving. My guess is every time you do something new or are under high levels of stress the old “childhood wounds” will pop up. The more you process it though, the easier and more automatic it becomes. Stay focused on what you want for yourself.
Celebrate: It’s not a race. You don’t have to have all the answers or have to do all your personal work in one week. Even if it’s “small wins” pause and take the time to be proud of that.
I hope at the very least this blog inspires you to take a look at yourself and your life more closely. I hope that the childhood stages showed you that some of what you think about yourself wasn’t your fault and you were shaped by time and circumstance. I hope in understanding this it will become easier to be compassionate towards yourself, but also compassionate towards those who have hurt you. Remember they too went through the same ages and stages. I hope you then use this information to realise you are the one in control as an adult and that rather than blame or shame others you take responsibility for your own happiness. If we approach our past with honesty, compassion and take responsibility in our adult lives, we start to make choices based on conscious decisions rather than having a future governed by our past. The truth really will set you free but only if you are willing to face it.
Tim Robinson - Counsellor
MCouns (Distinction). Msc Psych. PGDipHealSc (Health Behaviour Change)
Registered Provisional Member with NZAC
For more helpful blog posts or to book an appointment visit: www.timrobinsoncounsellor.com
The reality is it’s difficult for me to reference this blog post as it’s a culmination of everything I’ve learned over a long time. I was diagnosed with social phobia at age seventeen so that got me interested in personal development, leading me to read many books.
I then gained a Masters in Psychology, a Postgraduate Diploma in Health Sciences and a Masters in Counselling over a period of twelve years (I had breaks between degrees), so many of the ideas come from years of study and jobs within the health sector.
Lastly, I’ve worked counselling men for the last six years (at the time of writing) and there’s no question that has broadened my knowledge and cemented theories and ideas in a more practical sense. So, instead of references I’ll include some of the books I’ve read more recently that inspired me to choose this blog topic. They also helped me to expand my thinking. The exception is Erik Erikson, where there was a citation of his psychosocial stages.
Books and references that inspired this blog post:
Bradshaw, J. (1990) Home Coming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child
Bradshaw, J. (1996). Bradshaw on: The Family. Health Communications Inc.
Brown, B (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.
Erikson, E.H. (1994). Identity and the life cycle. WW Norton.