Why a Traumatic Childhood Is Difficult to Overcome
People who suffer from childhood trauma are often asked, "Why don't you just get over it?" Many people do not understand the profound negative impact that abuse and/or neglect has on victims, and the barriers that exist to recovery.
I had a traumatic childhood with emotional and physical abuse, bullying, and neglect. My parents’ negative messages spoken over and over me that I was stupid and could not do anything right. I was harshly criticized at home about most things – the way I spoke, how I cleaned house, or my poor math skills. Kids at school confirmed that I was dumb, ugly, awkward, and unable to accomplish anything. They made fun of me. I began to believe that I was an inferior being that did not deserve love and respect like other people.
For many people like me, childhood trauma like this resulted in low self-esteem, a poor body image, and difficulties facing the challenges of family life and the workplace. I came to realize over time that I had allowed my experiences to define me. They became recordings in my brain that told me who and what I was.
The fallout from childhood trauma can be:
- Higher risks of mental illness such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder
- Behavioral problems
- Health problems such as heart disease
- Drugs and alcohol abuse
- Compulsive behaviors such as perfectionism or workaholism
The online publication Psychology Today reports that previous research studies have come up with these disturbing statistics:
- Up to 80 percent of those with childhood trauma will meet the criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder at the age of 21
- Up to two-thirds of adult patients being treated for substance abuse have a history of childhood emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
Barriers to Overcoming a Traumatic Childhood
For a long time, I flogged myself because my struggles with low-self esteem, depression, and anxiety continued long into adulthood. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just get over it? I have discovered there are a number of barriers that make these negative effects extremely difficult to overcome for me and others who have experienced childhood trauma.
Fear of the pain
Trauma causes tremendous emotional pain. Many childhood trauma victims are terrified that if they allow themselves to feel the hurt, the pain will be unbearable and overwhelm or destroy them. They suppress it and pretend that it does not exist.
Not recognizing and acknowledging the hurt
“You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge,” as TV guru Dr. Phil often says. When I was growing up, my parents saying that I was stupid and administering severe physical punishment for my supposed was normal to me. In my late teens, I discovered that other teens were not treated this way. I watched other families and saw that they had a different dynamic. I asked one girl if her parents hit her and slapped her, and her adamant "No!" and expression of horror at the very idea was eye-opening for me.
I also realized that I had to rethink my view of what was normal and what I thought about myself. The childhood recordings that say things such as: “You are stupid and incompetent,” “You can’t do anything right,” and “You are not worthy to be loved” could continue unchecked if I did not challenge them.
Unhealthy coping behaviors
Some people use drugs or alcohol to deal with the pain of the trauma that they suffered in childhood. Substance addiction has its own set of problems that mask the true source of their pain – the trauma they suffered in childhood. They also may use fellow addicts to create a sense of family that is missing from their lives.
People who turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with childhood trauma can get caught in a vicious cycle of addiction and rehab, never facing the source of their pain. Some rehab centers now provide dual diagnostic services that help patients deal with past trauma as well as their addictions.
Some victims close off their emotions and numb their feelings, hurting their relationships with others. I tried to stuff my negative feelings about myself deep down as a young person and built an emotional wall around myself. This wall kept me from experiencing the pain and processing it in order to heal. Unfortunately, my efforts to suppress my emotions did not always work. My anger and hurt would simmer under the surface like lava in a volcano and then erupt when I least expected it. I could not control it.
Some people try to heal their hurts by seeking the love and approval of others. Other coping methods could be perfectionism, workaholism, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
Unforgiveness and bitterness
Victims of trauma may get stuck in bitterness and unforgiveness. These feelings may be intensified if the people that hurt them do not admit damaging the victims. The perpetrator may also have escaped being held accountable for their actions or have died. Victims may be plagued with anger, emotional pain, and a desire for vengeance that invades their thought life.
When I was in my twenties, I had bursts of uncontrolled anger and spells of anxiety or depression. These emotions invaded my thought life and interfered with my relationships with others. I eventually recognized that I had not released the pain and rage resulting from a traumatic childhood. Once I released those negative emotions through forgiveness, I could begin to heal.
My healing journey
For me, the journey to recovery began with recognizing how these barriers were blocking my path to healing. I had to allow myself to acknowledge and feel my childhood hurts. A lot of negative emotions came to the surface that made me cry, rage, hurt, and grieve my lost childhood. I was surprised however, to discover that not only could I handle these emotions, I could release them by forgiving those who hurt me and focusing on my healing. Many people in my life helped me on my way to understanding how the trauma in my childhood negatively affected me.
Forgiveness was a key element in my healing from childhood trauma. When I released the emotional fallout of my childhood, I could begin to heal. Once my thought life was clear, I could challenge the recordings that told me I was worthless, stupid, and ugly and redefine myself as an attractive, intelligent person worthy of love and respect.
I still struggle with the fallout of having a traumatic childhood at times. Low self-esteem, fear of rejection, and past hurts sometimes bubbled up. I deal with this by understanding the barriers that are keeping me stuck in my pain and deliberately seeking to overcome them.
8 Reasons It's So Hard to Overcome a Tough Childhood, Psychology Today, David Sack, MD
Children Who Experience Early Childhood Trauma Do Not ‘Just Get Over It’, Socialworkhelper.com, Jane Evans
Child Abuse and Neglect: Consequences, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
© 2015 Carola Finch