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The playing field wasn’t level to begin with: On childhood trauma and the fruitless comparison game.

The playing field wasn’t level to begin with: On childhood trauma and the fruitless comparison game. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

I’ve wanted to write about this idea for a long time.

You see, in my work as a therapist and in my personal life, I watch something happen really, really often:

The playing field wasn’t level to begin with: On childhood trauma and the fruitless comparison game. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

The playing field wasn’t level to begin with: On childhood trauma and the fruitless comparison game.

People who come from traumatic childhood backgrounds comparing themselves to peers who didn’t and beating themselves up for not being further ahead in life or at the same level as their peers.

This, obviously, is super painful for those who are comparing themselves to others and finding themselves lacking.

But it also doesn’t and cannot make sense for physiological and psychological reasons.

In today’s post, I want to tell you why this doesn’t make sense and share with you what kind of comparison (if any) is going to make more sense instead if you yourself come from a traumatic childhood background.

What is childhood trauma?

Childhood trauma. Those words, for many of us, evoke a sense of heaviness and somberness. And rightly so.

But they are also sometimes very misunderstood words.

In my experience as a therapist, the idea of what defines trauma is sometimes not very well understood.

Trauma, by definition, is an event or series of events that occur and where one’s coping abilities fail to metabolize and process the emotional impact of such events.

Childhood trauma isn’t “only” isolated, more easily-pinpointed events like a kidnapping, a car crash, a scary surgery, or being assaulted by a parent. (I say “only” because I don’t intend to diminish any of these events in the slightest! Rather, I want to highlight the singularity and traumatic obviousness of such events.)

Childhood trauma can also involve more complex, protracted, less easily pinpointable traumas that come in the form of repeated, persistent, prolonged events involving physical, emotional, or mental abandonment, neglect, or abuse most often by a caregiver or by those in a position of authority over the child.

For example, parenting that consistently made you feel physically and psychologically unsafe, chronic poverty, disownment by a parent figure, perpetual emotional, mental and physical boundary crossings by guardians, coaches, grandparents, your church leaders, etc..

The impact of childhood trauma.

Trauma – whether isolated and singular or protracted and complex – can have very profound effects on the physiological and psychological development of the child who undergoes it, especially when and if parent figures, authorities, and caregivers are the perpetrators and/or fail to recognize what has happened and help the child process and metabolize the stressors.

In their attempts to cope, survivors of childhood trauma often have a host of physiological and psychological impacts that can last into adulthood including, but not limited to:

  • Loss of safety and trust: Especially in your parents if they were your abusers. But also a loss of safety and trust in the world, believing the world to be a dangerous scary place where anything can happen. As well as a loss of safety and trust in relationships in general.
  • Flashbacks and re-enactments: Actual memories of traumatic events and/or disproportionate responses to triggering events that unconsciously remind you of/reenact past experiences.
  • Depression, anxiety, PTSD and other disorders: Trauma survivors often deal with high levels of anxiety, depression, or both as a result of their experiences. For those who experience complex, protracted relational traumas, there is an increased possibility of PTSD and possible personality disorders developing.
  • Loss of self-worth: An underlying belief system may develop in which you see yourself as unworthy, and/or alternately as grandiose and better than others. You may see-saw between these feeling states, both of which compensate for the absence of a stable sense of self eroded by childhood trauma.
  • Heightened stress response: A hyper-aroused nervous system that makes you jump at the slightest noise, an inability to relax, a depressed immune system, a dysregulated body system or a disconnect from your body altogether.
  • Loss of a sense of self: Not knowing who, at your core, you are and what your most basic needs and wants might be. A hollow or false sense of self.
  • Use of distorted coping mechanisms: Compulsively using food, alcohol, or other substances or repetitive behaviors (exercising, shopping, gaming, sex, gambling) to cope with the intolerable feeling states you may be feeling and/or developing emotional responses or life preferences as a reaction to traumatic experiences such as compulsive aggression responses or isolation tendencies.

And this is really just the tip of the iceberg.

The impacts of a traumatic childhood will be subjective and differ from individual to individual. So while the above list is just a sampling of some of the ways that childhood trauma can manifest and continue into adulthood, it’s by no means comprehensive.

The playing field was never level to begin with.

But even with this short list of symptoms, one thing is probably very clear to you as you read it: Those who have lived through traumatic childhood experiences often have to deal with a host of complex and painful issues and symptoms that their peers who did not live through childhood trauma do not have to face.

So from this perspective, the proverbial playing field between those with traumatic childhoods and those with non-traumatic childhoods was not and cannot be level earlier in life.

Why? Because it takes an enormous amount of life energy and time to cope with and then, hopefully, and ultimately, heal from childhood trauma.

For example, because of the above list of symptoms, childhood trauma can arrest psychological and even physiological development and inhibit survivors from accessing the energy and capacity to achieve certain developmental milestones that their non-traumatized peers might more easily be able to do, such as dating, exploring interests, forming close friendships, clarifying and working towards a career paths that feels authentic and fulfilling to them.

If this is you, if you had to spend a majority of your life surviving an abusive childhood, and then later coping with the lingering impacts of it, and now you find yourself looking around at your peers – folks from childhood, college, or on the news or TV screen – and feeling jealous and upset that you’re “far behind”, please recognize that it’s utterly unfair to compare yourself to someone who had literal developmental advantages over you.

A better comparison to make.

Look, we all get jealous.

It’s a normal and natural human emotion. And contrary to popular belief, I actually think that jealousy can be an important clue for us.

But what’s really unhelpful is to have jealousy about and compare yourself to others who didn’t have the same early childhood disadvantages that you did have.

And while I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to compare ourselves at all, if you’re going to do it (and let’s face it, we’re all human so you probably will at some point) I think it makes more sense to compare yourself either to:

  • People who had the same set of early childhood traumas/disadvantages as you.
  • Or, better yet, you from one, five, or ten years ago.

When we compare ourselves to people who had the same set of early childhood traumas and/or disadvantages (think siblings or peers whose similar life stories you know well), we can level the proverbial playing field a bit.

But, of course, even if you had the same childhood as your sibling, how children cope with traumas subjectively differ so you may see different outcomes even as adults. So please just be mindful of that.

And certainly, the comparison that I think is the most helpful to make (if you’re going to make one at all) is comparing yourself to you a year ago. Or five years ago. Or even ten years ago.

Compare yourself to your past self and reflect on and appreciate how far you’ve come, what you’re now capable of that you may not have been back then. Reflect on your own growth and progress and use that as your benchmark, not the achievements and “progress” folks who did not have your childhood experience seem to be having.

Resources.

It takes tremendous courage to face your childhood trauma.

Acknowledging the truth about our pasts, how our past continues to be present, and then being willing to do the hard work of grieving, processing, and moving forward in life requires so much bravery.

Overcoming a childhood of trauma is not easy, but it is doable. And certainly, no matter where you find yourself on this journey, nothing will beat working with your own trauma-trained therapist, but if you’d like some additional resources to support you in your healing, here are some of my recommendations:

Now I would love to hear from you in the comments below: What’s one tip or suggestion you have for others who have survived traumatic childhoods who may compare themselves to those who didn’t? What’s been one resource that’s helped you in your own recovery and healing journey? Leave a message in the comments below so our community of blog readers can benefit from your wisdom.

If you would like additional support with this and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together. You can also book a complimentary consult call to explore therapy with one of my fantastic clinicians at my trauma-informed therapy center, Evergreen Counseling.

Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life.

And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

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  1. Katherine on  

    Love this article. Often compare myself to peers with careers and families while I struggle to overcome childhood trauma/neglect. Really appreciate this article. For my recovery, medication, therapy, God and money have made the biggest impact in getting my life back.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Katherine,

      I’m so glad this article resonated with you! I think what you described – comparing yourself to peers who have “hit benchmarks” that maybe you haven’t – is incredibly common. It also sounds like you know what you need to do in order to take care of yourself and that’s huge! I’m wishing you all the very best as you put one foot in front of the other on your healing journey.

      Warmly, Annie

  2. Tyson on  

    I think much of my pain comes from doing what you suggest. I look back at what I was capable of a decade ago and see that I’ve fallen so far since then. I used to be a literal genius and now I can’t even manage the most basic things. I keep deteriorating and I’m not sure how to stop it.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Tyson,

      Thank you for taking the time to write and share your thoughts. Comparing yourself to yourself isn’t meant to be a way to evoke shame or regret if you find you’re not further along. Instead, I’d invite you to “compare yourself to yourself” by having self-compassion for all that you’ve been through and recognizing that what you’re going through right now makes sense given the context that you’ve gone through. As much as possible, I recommend you try and be kind and accepting towards yourself and where you’re at. I hope this feels helpful.

      Thank you again for taking the time to read my post and I wish you all the best on your healing journey.

      Warmly, Annie

  3. kan on  

    What help me is my faith in God . human is falliable. parents church colleagues doctors. all falliable. Having an immovable faith help when you are alone. Also by studying tons of therapy helps.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Kan,

      I really appreciate and understand how faith has been a constant in your life when other external factors have not. I think many people have that experience and appreciate you adding this to the conversation.

      I’m wishing you all my very best.

      Warmly, Annie

  4. Joni Clark on  

    Lifetime Integration therapy helped me. My therapist was wonderful and was trained in trauma therapy technics.

    • Annie on  

      That’s wonderful to hear, Joni! I’m so glad you found a modality and a guide that really work for you. Warmly, Annie

  5. Melanie on  

    The problem with comparing myself to the me of the past, is that I was a lot more functional back then. Age and stress has brought exhaustion, memory issues and other health related problems. I think not comparing myself to anyone is the best measure and instead continue in my quest to discover authentic me and pursue healthy practises.

    • Annie on  

      Ah, yes, Melanie. This is a tricky thing! If it works better for you to not compare yourself to anyone then I 1000% support you in that. You raise a good point in that it can sometimes be triggering to compare ourselves to our past selves. Keep doing what works best for you and know I’m wishing you all the best moving forward! Warmly, Annie

  6. Anna on  

    As the scapegoat of a dysfunctional family who wants contact with my child but not with me, I see history repeating itself on several levels. Haven‘t been in therapy for years and would simply break off contact if it was just me, but that is not in the best interests of the kid, who has a good relationship with granny in spite of the difficulties between her and me. Recently I discovered ACA. The understanding and support from others in similar situations help, and are showing me new perspectives.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Anna,

      Thank you for sharing your story. It sounds like it is a complex situation, I’m glad you found something that feels supportive and can help show you new perspectives.

      Warmly, Annie

  7. Jean on  

    I really appreciated this article. thanks so much for writing it. I just turned 40 have never been on a date (got asked always thought i hadn’t met the right person….turns out i was so emotionally immature and shut down from an abusive childhood there was no chance! Have now pretty much recovered from the 20 years of anorexia that went with it) My friends all have families and kids and relationships and i feel several decades behind still. have now learnt to have some real friendships but still got a way to go on anything more and always feel like there is something wrong with me for being so far behind when i compare. all i can say is this recovery process takes years longer than i could ever have imagined. for me having a rock therapist helped the most.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Jean,

      I’m so glad you found the article validating! Recovering from childhood abuse is a long, circuitous process and it can take years and years. I’m so glad you found support in the form of your therapist and I’m glad you can see what you may perceive as goals “unachieved” in the larger context of your recovery work. I’m sending you all my very best as you journey along this path.

      Warmly, Annie

  8. Leah on  

    A great article, but please call it what it is. C-PTSD. C-PTSD has now been accepted into the World Health Organization’s ICD with 6B41 as it’s ID. Now we need appropriate diagnoses by doctors, appropriate trauma therapies for sufferers, and DEEP investigation as to how to prevent C-PTSD which would involve coordination of the educational system and the law society as well as the medical field. Jail abusers and or send THEM to rehab courses on alcoholism and Anger Management for domestic violence, not send families to shelters! Teach children how to respect one another so there’ll be less bullying, domestic violence repeating and the like and then there may be less suicides, addicts, murders, homelessness. The possibilities are endless! The DSM will be sure to follow soon! Please write more along these lines.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Leah,

      I’m glad you liked the article and think you’ll particularly enjoy my next blog post coming out on Sunday, July 8th as in that post, I talk about complex PTSD and complex relational trauma extensively. The child abuse article, as well as the next one, are a series of articles addressing C-PTSD which, I agree, is a huge and important issue for us as a society (and world) to address holistically.

      I hope you enjoy the next post and the other posts this summer.

      Warmly, Annie

  9. Krish on  

    Yea, I have only recovered my sense of self recently, and able to think and form concrete thoughts in my mind recently, still working on my core belief, never been to a therapist, actually i do not really understand myself, how i function, as a childhood abuse survivor ,how i am different from others, i wish i know myself better, should i read up more to understand more?

    • Annie on  

      Hi Krish,

      Thank you for your comment and I appreciate your desire to know yourself better. I’d like to invite you to explore the library of articles available on my blog. You also might enjoy my newsletter where I write extensively about relational trauma recovery and send high-quality essays out every two weeks. Are you on my mailing list yet? You can sign up directly here and/or via the quiz on my website: https://www.anniewright.com/newsletter/

      I’d really love to stay in touch with you and be of support to you with my writing and work. In the meantime, take good care of yourself.

      Warmly, Annie

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