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How our childhood experiences affect our adult lives

We’ve probably all heard about the nature nurture debate, are we the way we are from our genetic code, or is it our upbringing that plays the dominant role? Whatever we believe, there is no doubt that our childhood experiences play a major part in how we operate in our adult lives. Every day I help people understand the ways that these experiences affect them in all aspects of their life, finding ways to function and do things differently.

These early experiences can result in developmental trauma. We don’t have behaviours and coping mechanisms for no reason, we have them because they were needed and useful at the time. The more extreme the coping mechanism, the more extreme our experiences were. For a lot of my clients, they have very little memory of their childhood and find it hard to recall how their carers or parents behaved towards them. For those people, we have to rely on the body, and the way it moves and reacts to get some kind of clue as to what growing up for them must have been like.

For instance, if they are asked to make a decision, they will often try to work out what the right decision should be. They may fear getting it wrong or that they’ll make the wrong decision. If they can’t get the clues or affirmations from the people around them, then they might panic or get stuck, not knowing what to do. This tells us that either their environment was unpredictable, the rules may have kept changing, or they were expected to take responsibility for things that they just weren’t ready to take. They may have been told off for not making the right decision, therefore feeling a huge responsibility for the enormity of even the smallest of decisions.

These experiences can actually be seen in a physical way in the body, when asked to make a decision, the person might begin to look quickly around the room, they might stare intently at the person in front of them. This might then be followed by a shrinking or a slump in their body. They might then say, ‘it’s all too overwhelming’, or ‘I just don’t know’ and have multiple different examples of not being able to make a decision. Their head will have some pretty critical things to say about this, none of which are helpful, and so the cycle continues.

For some people, they do have some childhood memories. This can be useful, as they can then recall how their carers reacted or behaved in situations. It can be helpful to ask them what was expected of them growing up. Some people were encouraged to be grown up and they were praised for doing more adult things. Some were pushed to do better, but often didn’t receive praise for the achievements they actually made. Some were criticised and shamed if they did things wrong, or they were told off for being spontaneous and childlike.

Whatever the message, we internalise it and are are deeply affected by that message later on. These messages become beliefs and they affect the way that we behave and what we believe about ourselves deep down, these then get stored as a lived experience in the body. The job of the therapist is to notice these unconscious movements and responses, and bring the clients awareness to them.

One of the problems with developmental trauma is that it becomes so natural, it’s not in our conscious awareness, therefore it’s really hard to spot the physical evidence and body responses. The other difficulty with developmental trauma is the same as with any trauma, it doesn’t change in time, the reactions & coping mechanisms stay, the younger parts of us that are attached to the reactions, stay at the same young age. This means that when we react, we are reacting from a much younger part of ourselves but we are totally unaware of it and think it’s just us. We don’t know when it’s a triggered response.

The good thing is that these responses are pretty consistent, which is why they keep repeating. It’s can be really hard to try to behave differently. This means that if we begin to start observing ourselves in everyday life, it makes it easier to begin noticing these reactions and responses. If we can notice where our eyes are drawn to, if our body position shifts, if our breathing changes, then it gives us some clues as to what our body is doing, and why this might have made perfect sense in the past. It gives us a clue about what might be helpful and how we can bring a present moment experience to this triggered past one.

We can try things like, tapping things around us to feel things and hear the noise they make. Moving our feet inside our shoes, shaking our hands. Doing something that we can feel and experience right now. When we understand that we are taking care of a younger inner-self, it can make it easier to engage our adult brain and then try some different experiments.

If decision making is hard, then we have to start a retraining programme for ourselves, where we start with little decisions at first like tea or coffee, wearing a white t-shirt or a blue one, eating a cheese sandwich or a ham one. We’re replacing the fear of a negative consequence with curiosity, giving it a go and seeing what happens. We can also help these unconscious movements by waking up the unconscious a bit. For instance, when we make a cup of tea, we can try observing the order we do things and asking ourselves why we do it that way? If we drive, then we can try noticing the order of each step as we get into the car. Doing this can really help our observing part in its retraining programme. When we begin new experiments, it’s always enlightening and even amusing, it’s such a good way to help the unconscious be more seen and noticed.

When we listen to our bodies, even if we have no memory of our childhood experiences, we can bring some awareness to our behaviours that have come from that time. We can find things that will help us to manage these behaviours or coping mechanisms in our adult lives.

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