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. 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. 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,
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