“But Annie,” she said, “How do I know if my childhood negatively impacted me? I mean, I think it did but how do I know?”
My response: “If you’re asking me that question, some part of you already knows.”
And then we talk more about the specifics of her life and her history, making sense of it all and helping her see herself and her experiences with more clarity.
“How do I know if my childhood negatively impacted me?”
I get asked this question a lot because there’s no definitive checklist for what makes a childhood dysfunctional or negatively impactful.
We come close to this with resources like Kaiser’s invaluable ACE study, but what if you don’t see yourself in the extremity of those questions asked?
Do your negative childhood experiences count as “negative” if they don’t look as “extreme” as the examples given in that study?
How do you know if your childhood negatively impacted you?
How do you know if you come from a relational trauma history if the broad strokes of your past don’t seem “extreme”?
In today’s post, I list five of the common ways that your childhood might have negatively impacted you and, more importantly, what’s possible in terms of overcoming those impacts.
If you’ve struggled with the question, “Do I have a childhood trauma history?” or ever asked yourself, “Would I benefit from relational trauma recovery work?” please read on to see if any part of what I share resonates with you.
5 Signs Your Childhood May Have Negatively Impacted You
1 ) Your moods and emotions feel like a veritable Weeble Wobble.
Do you remember that toy from the 1970s, the Weeble Wobble? You push it to one side, it falls but bounces back (thanks to the weight in its bottom). You push it to the other side and it falls down but bounces back. Always at the mercy of some external force to dictate the way it moves.
I think that, very often, for folks who come from adverse early beginnings, who come from relational trauma backgrounds, our inner lives often feel like a veritable Weeble Wobble.
You can insert a panoply of adjectives here: stormy, intense, chaotic, variable, all-over-the-place. The words all mean the same thing as the Weeble Wobble demonstrates: your mood isn’t very stable. Your mood is influenced by external forces often.
You’re perceived well and treated well, your esteem soars. You’re treated or perceived poorly, your confidence plummets. You’re in a great mood and then your husband comes home in a foul mood. Yours plummets, too. You were feeling good about yourself but received a slightly terse email from your boss. You feel anxious and wonder what you did, your evening ruined as you ruminate.
For those of us from adverse early beginnings, it’s not uncommon to have challenges with emotional regulation, with emotional equanimity. And so one sign your childhood may have negatively impacted you is if your inner life – your moods and emotions – feel like a veritable Weeble Wobble. Always at the mercy of outside forces.
2 ) You have challenges making, keeping, and sustaining good relationships.
With a romantic partner, with friends, with mentors and colleagues, and even the neighbor down the hallway in your apartment building who keeps making overtures for friendship. You struggle to make and keep good, healthy relationships in your life. At least in the way that you want.
And/or, you may have plenty of relationships in your life, but they don’t feel healthy. They don’t treat you well and honor your dignity and personhood. You think that the good decent partners always seem taken. You experience major ruptures with girlfriends time after time. You always seem to end up with toxic, narcissistic bosses who remind you of your father.
It’s not uncommon for those who grow up in dysfunctional, chaotic, neglectful, or outright abusive homes to have challenges seeking out and keeping healthy, functional relationships.
After all, if you don’t grow up in a home where healthy, functional relationships were modeled and lived out, how are you supposed to magically know how to find and keep good healthy relationships in your own life once you outgrow that home?
Often, as part of relational trauma recovery work, we have to unlearn and relearn what a healthy, functional relationship looks like and feels like.
3 ) You move through the world masking your lack of esteem, feeling like you’re “faking it” and like you’re about to be found out all the time.
Call it imposter syndrome. Call it faking being a grown-up. The experience of feeling like your inside experience doesn’t match up with your external actions is, to a certain extent, normal and natural.
You launch a company, or plunge into new parenthood, or find yourself in charge of managing a huge team of staff, many of whom are more seasoned and older than you… in each of these scenarios, it’s somewhat normal and natural (especially in the beginning!) to feel like you’re faking it, figuring it out as you go.
What I’m talking about is different. It’s feeling like everyone else got handed the Guidebook to Life except you. It’s feeling like if people really knew you and your past, they’d run away. It’s feeling like you’re never really up for what life requires and you wear a mask of confidence but inside you feel like you’re holding it all together with proverbial paperclips and tape, constantly belittling yourself and your abilities, feeling like you’re not up for it, feeling like it’s all going to crumble and fall apart at any moment.
Low self-esteem, impaired self-perception, and feeling like you’re moving through the world faking everything and simply not up for what life requires can be another hallmark that you were negatively impacted by your past.
4 ) You feel the need to escape. Often. Repeatedly.
Life feels like too much and, to take care of yourself, you developed ways of coping. Of escaping.
You escape the boredom, stress, overwhelm, strain, and emotional pain of your daily life through repetitive actions or substances, sometimes compulsively.
Binge eating and purging. Gaming for hours. Disappearing into Netflix. Three, four glasses of wine a night. Or, and here’s a slippery one: you work. A lot. Like all the time.
Whatever the escape looks like. You do it. You find yourself counting the hours until you can just escape, zone out, relax, disappear.
Again, while a certain amount of escapism is normal and natural (really, who doesn’t love Netflix?!), a telltale that this is, perhaps, indicative of unresolved issues is the degree of severity and compulsivity of the escaping.
In other words, if you feel like you don’t have choice over it, it’s a problem.
And that – that way you choose to cope with life and all its attendant hard-to-tolerate-feelings and the lack of choice you have around it – may be a sign that your childhood negatively impacted you and you need more tools and skills to deepen your emotional capacity and abilities to cope with stressors.
5 ) You don’t know what “normal” is.
Now, let me be clear: normal is a bit of a four-letter word in therapy. There really is no “normal” insomuch as there’s no black and white single way of things being okay or not okay.
But there is a kind of “normal” in terms of what’s healthy and functional versus unhealthy and dysfunctional that folks who come from relational trauma backgrounds often fail to understand.
It’s normal for a father to scream and rage at the kids one minute and then act like nothing happened the next morning, right?
No, it’s not.
It’s normal for me to not tell him I want to be exclusive because I shouldn’t pressure him, right?
What made you think that was normal dating behavior?
It’s normal to feel super depressed at night and wonder what the point is, right?
You get the picture…
So often, when you come from adverse early beginnings, there’s a misunderstanding of what “normal” (e.g.: healthy and functional looks like). With relationships. With life expectations. With self-expectations.
Often in relational trauma recovery work, we unpack all the maladaptive beliefs internalized from childhood and take a closer look at what “normal” actually is. We rewire your expectations and help you develop more functional, adaptive beliefs. About yourself, about others, and about the world.
But here’s the most important thing to bear in mind.
Today I shared with you five anecdotal ways that you may have been negatively affected by your childhood.
My hope is that by writing out these examples you might see yourself and your story, your personal history, with a little more clarity.
But here’s the most important thing to bear in mind.
Like I mentioned in the intro to this post, even if you didn’t see yourself in these descriptors in the same way that you don’t see yourself in the questions posed by the Kaiser ACE’s study, it’s important to remember that if even some part of you – even a small part of you – is asking the question, “Did my childhood negatively affect me?” then you already know the answer.
Trust yourself and your perception of your experience. No one else is the expert of you. Not me, not the pop psychologist on TV, not your parents, and not the deity you were told is the expert of you. Only you are the expert of you. Trust your judgment here. You already know the answer.
And if you would like concrete support with your relational trauma recovery work, I hope that, if you live in California you’ll reach out to me to work together in therapy, and if you live anywhere else in the world, I hope that you’ll consider exploring my signature online course about relational trauma recovery.
In the meantime, take such good care of yourself. You’re worth it.