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When will I stop feeling sad about my childhood?

When will I stop feeling sad about my childhood? | Annie Wright, LLC | Berkeley, CA | www.anniewright.com

So lately, I’ve been hearing an increase of questions – in my clinical work, in my blog and social comments, in emails in my inbox – asking questions to the effect of: 

But when will I stop feeling sad about my childhood? 

When will it be over? When will my sadness and anger stop?

I shouldn’t still be feeling this way, should I?

I have some thoughts about questions like these and how you can best support yourself if this is your experience. 

When will I stop feeling sad about my childhood? | Annie Wright, LLC | Berkeley, CA | www.anniewright.com

When will I stop feeling sad about my childhood?

Your grief about your childhood is legitimate.

If you come from a dysfunctional family, from adverse early beginnings, if you experienced childhood abuse, neglect, relational trauma, or dysfunctional that otherwise impaired your development as a young adult and adult, I want you to consider something:

Your grief about your childhood is completely legitimate.

Sadness, anger, despair, longing, sorrow, rage, resentment… all of these are appropriate responses to the experience you had.

What do I mean by this?

All children, all babies, toddlers, kids, tweens, and teens deserve the experience of being unconditionally loved. Protected. Supported for being exactly who and how they are. 

Every child born on this planet deserves the experience of relational safety, of being honored and respected as a person, and made to feel loved and nurtured in all ways.

If you didn’t have this, if, in fact, you had something quite different and the opposite (whether this was consistently or at times), your childhood was therefore marked. Marred. And possibly lost. 

And this – the loss or rupture of your precious, irreplaceable childhood experience – is absolutely something you get to grieve.

You get to be upset that you didn’t have stable, functional, loving, devoted, and consistent caregivers.

You get to be angry that you didn’t experience a sense of safety – both in the world and in your own home.

You get to grieve and regret and wish for something different to have happened to you.

Your grief about your childhood is completely legitimate. 

It is, what I call, an abstract grief experience – sometimes less socially-legitimized than, let’s say, the actual death of a loved one – but it is still 100% legitimate and worthy of feeling your feelings about. 

So that’s the first thing I want you to understand: you absolutely get to feel the way you feel about your childhood. 

Your grief (and all its attendant complex feelings) is totally, perfectly legitimate. 

Like with real grief, it may never fully end. Not completely.

Now, you may be reading this essay thinking, “Okay, Annie, I get that I am allowed to feel how I feel about my childhood, but I still want to know when it will end. When will my sadness end? It’s so uncomfortable and inconvenient!”

First, I truly get it. 

Feeling what seems like never-ending waves of sadness or anger can be so frustrating if not downright disruptive to our daily experience, can’t it?

But I want you to consider something that may be provocative to hear: you may never fully stop feeling grief about your lost or marred childhood. 

But, that doesn’t mean your grief will always feel the way it feels now.

For example, if you’ve ever lost someone you love (and I’m so sorry if you have!), you might know that grief has stages and seasons to it. 

After the death or loss of our loved one, the grief is acute, it’s peak, it’s so sharply painful in its emotional intensity.

With time and with seemingly endless experiences of allowing ourselves to feel sad, to let our feelings roll through us, the grief in its intensity and acuity may ebb with time.

But it may never fully go away. 

You don’t forget about the spouse you lost to cancer. 

But maybe, years down the road, you feel less constantly, daily swamped with grief and loss every day. 

You can move through your life and your memory of your spouse brings up sadness and a throb of pain in your heart when your mind lands on her, but you don’t feel the acuity of your grief as intensely as you did in the early days after her loss.

But still, days like her birthday, or your wedding day, or Valentine’s day, these days may always feel harder and may evoke your grief, your reminder of the person you loved and lost.

So, too, I think that our experience of grieving our childhood exists in seasons.

There are times, particularly when we’re really just beginning our healing journeys and start to confront the reality of what happened to us and what we didn’t have, that the grief about our lost childhood may take our breath away in its intensity.

But, and I truly believe this, as you move forward in your healing journey, as you do the work to recover from the childhood you had, your grief may change. 

It may ebb, it may feel less acute. Your mind may feel less preoccupied and your heart less consumed with feelings you’d rather not feel. 

And still, too, like with the grief that comes from the death of a loved one, there may always be triggers, times when your grief gets piqued and it peaks because coming from a dysfunctional childhood is like living with a constant series of little losses.

Coming from a dysfunctional childhood involves a constant series of little losses.

I say often that coming from a dysfunctional family system is like living with a constant little series of losses. 

It’s the kind of experience where, as you move through your adult life, you’re reminded so often of the many little losses you had coming from the background you had. 

It’s the kind of loss that gets triggered when you watch your friend dance with her father during the Father-Daughter dance at her wedding, knowing you’ll never have the same thing. 

It’s the kind of sadness that comes up when you read books like Little House on The Prairie or Little Women and wish for something as wholesome as those characters experienced with their fathers, mothers, and siblings.

It’s the kind of loss that gets evoked when you watch the other family in your nanny share situation have two sets of grandparents living within hours of the young family, always able and willing to provide postpartum support and babysitting duties (and those grandparents are actually safe and trustworthy enough to leave the newborn with.) You marvel at what that might feel like. How much easier new parenting would be if you had that.

It’s the kind of loss that’s prompted when you hear that your friend was given a hundred thousand dollar gift of a down payment for his first house and your mind reels at imagining coming from a family as financially functional and stable as that, knowing you’ll have to earn every penny over many, many years to have that same thing for yourself. 

Coming from a dysfunctional family background is like living with a constant little series of losses even as an adult with childhood long behind you. 

So please, if you’re shaming yourself for still feeling your feelings about your lost or marred childhood, remember that, like with the grief over the death of a loved one, countless triggers will be woven into your adult experience that will continue to evoke this sadness for you. 

But here’s how you can care for yourself through your sadness. 

And still, even when you can understand and legitimize your grief and hold space and compassion for the many ways it gets triggered over time, it doesn’t feel easy or comfortable, does it?

While there are things I think we can do to support our healing and grieving process to help it move more swiftly and healthily through us, I do want to say this:

We can’t eliminate grief from your human experience. And we would never want to.

Your sadness, your anger, your grief, your big feelings about what you didn’t receive are not only legitimate responses to what happened to you, but they are also deeply human and very important responses. 

Your heart feels, your soul hurts. 

This is how you know you’re alive and attuned to your human experience.

Provocative though it may be to say, I actually think it’s a good thing that you feel what you feel. 

It means you are connected to your body and that you’re allowing your feelings to exist.

And, still, I know it can feel preoccupying and never-ending to deal with the ongoing grief work of childhood, so please, consider that you can support yourself to move more quickly and healthily through your experience by:

1. Actively grieve: Actively grieving means allowing the feelings to come up when and how they do and not trying to diminish or dismiss them. What we resist, persists. So the more you actually allow your feelings to be present, paradoxically, the more they will move through you and ultimately change and possibly ebb with time.

2. Actively support yourself: Actively supporting yourself means not shaming or shoulding yourself when your feelings arise, even as you allow them. Speak compassionately to yourself, remind yourself that your feelings are legitimate and that they make sense given the childhood you had. Speak to yourself as kindly as a good enough mother would speak to her child. 

3. Actively seek out others who understand: Few things are more healing and supportive than having others in our lives who truly get what we have lived through. The understanding, the mirroring, the empathy and camaraderie that can come from being validated by someone who has lived through (and still lives through) what you did and do can be enormous. You may be able to seek this understanding out in a good friend, or in a 12-step group, or with your therapist, or with cohorts of students who come from backgrounds like you gathered in a private Facebook community for peer support. Wherever you find this help, please actively try to seek it out and allow it to help your own grieving and healing process. 

I hope this essay felt helpful to you if you, like so many of us, have asked yourself the question, “When will I stop feeling sad about my childhood?”

And now I’d love to invite you to share in the comments: 

What’s one phrase you say to yourself that supports you and your feelings when you start to feel sad about your childhood?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments so our community of readers can benefit from your wisdom.

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

Warmly, Annie

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  1. Sarah Stanley on  

    When I grieve my lost and lonely, isolated and scapegoated existence, it is rage, despair, and then numbing as the feelings exhaust me. Mine was a violent, neglectful childhood in the area of love and emotional support. I was essentially given the message that many boys receive when they show sensitivity, “Suck it up and Smile or go to your room.” Don’t talk back. You look like 10 pounds of potatoes in a five pound sack. You are not nervous, how could you be nervous? Stupid. You are a black sheep. Go to your room for the entire quarter until you bring your grades up. Why didn’t you get a full A instead of an A-. I was also often accused of having evil motives and thoughts that had never occurred to me. Taught to swim in the deep end with my dad saying swim to me and then backing up as I reached him. He thought it was funny. I was five. Five was the age I got my first beating too. A babysitter lied and said I would not go to bed when she would not let me. She actually blocked me from sleeping by not letting me go to my room and get in bed. Drunk Dad believed her and beat me that night at 11:00 PM after they got home from a night of Navy partying. I feel cruel because at age 60, two years ago, I stopped calling and cut off contact and resisted all of the golden sister’s attempts to make me toe the mark. On the other hand, I feel free to be me now. I miss the good times which were just enough to make the entire 60 years intermittent reward. They also sent me nice gifts sometimes. I don’t thank them any more and they finally stopped. One of my parents called and hung on the phone for a minute or so and then hung up without saying a word. My father told me once that would make me call. Not this time. And the guilt is with me today, along with the lump in my throat and the quivering and the tears. Am I cruel and a horrible daughter since they are in their mid-eighties? I will never know because I raised myself after I left home and all I know is that it hurts. The appearance of the perfect naval aviator and his dutiful successful daughters is marred and they blame me. Namaste’ I hope every one reading is having a better day than I.

    • Gina Puccio on  

      Sarah, my story is so incredibly similar to yours. I was never physically abused, but there were many times over the years that I wished my dad would just hit me instead of shame me and belittle me because I felt it would be easier to heal from ‘sticks and stones’ as opposed to words. Now at 51, I’m still struggling with many of the same issues. I try to think of affirmations to pull myself up by my bootstraps, sometimes it works other times their continuing criticisms send me spiraling into negative thoughts and depression. I work with my family and so our lives are very intermingled in many different ways. Finally, at 51, I’m learning (albeit slowly) to love myself and give myself grace for those more difficult days. And when I have a good day I embrace it and rejoice in it because they are few and far between. Thank you for sharing your story. ‘We’ are not alone.

      • Annie on  

        Gina, thank you so much for validating Sarah’s experience and for sharing more of your own story. It’s so powerful when we share our stories and hear other people say, “Yes, me too.” Thank you for giving Sarah and anyone else who stumbles on this comment thread that experience. Warmly, Annie

    • Maria Greene on  

      Annie, thank you for this…permission to acknowledge that what happened was not how children are meant to be raised yet I somehow survived. I have always known that survival is not enough it’s living that matters. Living with parents with mental health problems at a time before Talk Therapy was as commonplace as it is now, before SSRIs were invented made me feel different. However, when I feel sad about a specific incident from my childhood that comes to mind, I acknowledge my sadness, I remember the moment of the memory and I pray for healing from the confusion and hurt of that memory. This is a process that I repeat every time the painful memories assault me.

      • Annie on  

        Maria, I’m really touched by your comment and I’m so glad you found some permission in the essay to better validate your own experience. It sounds like you have a beautiful practice that you do when triggered and it says to me that you’re doing wonderful healing work and really showing up for yourself. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us. Warmly, Annie

    • Annie on  

      Sarah, it sounds like you’ve been through a lot in life and it also sounds, too, like you’re taking care of yourself and holding the boundaries that will best serve you. I’m glad about that. I truly hope that hearing Gina (and others’ responses) on this thread feel validating to you. It sounds like many people resonate with aspects of your story. Thank you for taking the time to share so openly. Warmly, Annie

    • Bonnie on  

      Wow, what a childhood. Mine was not terrific even though I tell everyone it was good. Now at the age of 64 I am carrying lots of things I should not be carrying. Some of my childhood is now affecting my adult life. Wish I could go back and change a lot. Take care and God Bless

  2. Joe Monahan on  

    I am so thankful for your work, and look forward to your encouragement via your emails every week. So much so at times I feel they are letters addressed straight to me. When I started my journey to become my best self, I said ” by worldly standards” I had it all. Great kids , Job, home, friends, savings etc etc. But daily I felt at a loss, empty, living in fear, scared constantly . I know now after 18 mos of trying to understand why I at minimum know it is not me (so to speak) Alcoholic father, constant yelling screaming, police at house, priests would visit to calm down household. One event stood out as I began journaling and after an online line class by Siegel and Firestone , becoming your best self I journaled a memory from age 5 where dad pulled car in garage left in run with all of us in house . The memory of mom sweeping us out and chaos that ensued surely was implanted in my DNA and out look on life . Through life I was a fighter, survived and won at all costs. In business world weirdly so I was rewarded for this, but inside I was empty , lost scared. Now I understand why I react , why so naturally I respond poorly when i feel loved one, a coworker or my children back away . My reaction is based on my childhood. I am doing better , and just the knowledge of why is the majority of the battle. I have done cognitive therapy , read 15 or more books on attachment theory , boundaries etc ( hold me tight my favorite) and enjoyed your insights and wisdom. To all, it gets better. Journaling helped me, counseling, reading and living in present moment as well. You need to to the work , talk with Annie or other cognitive therapist. In the end I was a child and did what i thought I had to do, it wasn’t wrong it was the best I could at the time. I had to learn I can’t act that way, or believe that way now at age 56. The best to all on your journeys, remember you our loved , for me it was realizing God loves me first, unconditionally . Give and accept the love to and from others and change the world one person at a time. Sincerely Joe M

    • Annie on  

      Joe, I’m very touched by your share and your story. It sounds like you’ve done (and are doing) wonderful work to support yourself and make sense of your childhood experience. I can hear so much self-compassion in your post and appreciate that you remind yourself that “In the end I was a child and did what i thought I had to do, it wasn’t wrong it was the best I could at the time.” And that now, at 56, maybe those ways of being and doing no longer serve you. I think that’s a place so many of us arrive at and I appreciate you sharing your experiences so honestly. And I’m touched, too, that you value my regular essays. I truly hope that they always feel helpful to you. Warmly, Annie

  3. Erik on  

    Often I feel like it’s not fair towards my mother to grieve my childhood emotional neglect and verbal abuse, because she had her own struggles too. I’ve got to remind myself that that is no excuse for my mother’s behavior. As I write this I recognize that this is another case of me not allowing myself to feel the way I feel. I guess it stemms from my experience how my family was not able or willing to understand and sooth me. Thank you Annie for your blog post. I really struggle with self-compassion.
    Kind regards

    • Annie on  

      Erik, I’m really touched by your comment and I truly hope you’ll stay tuned for my next essay (coming out on Sunday the 16th) which addresses this very commonly shared issue: the struggle to hold the duality of painful and positive experiences, particularly with our mothers. I really appreciate your reflections on how and why this may feel hard for you to do. And even though you say you struggle with self-compassion, I would say that it takes a lot of self-compassion to reflect in the way you just did. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and to read the essay. Warmly, Annie

    • Bonnie on  

      I never really realized the issues especially at my age 64. All come from my childhood. My mom I love her dearly but I have still problems stemming from her. My step dad well I was always afraid of him and felt like god forbid if I do anything wrong what will happen to me when I get home from school. One time I walked in the rain for hours because I got a bad mark on my pumpkin Math paper and when I got home out came the strap and I seem to get hit a lot. I never learned how to handle things growing up. I am looking back and wish I can change things. My mom and me get along pretty good but she would be the first one to belittle me I front of someone. I always tried to do so good in everything and feel I need approval of everything with everybody. Oh my how I wish I could start over and look into the future then and corrected so much. I often get mad at myself even though sometimes I should not. I tried to be s great mom and raise my son basically on my own and now we have not talked for six months and he keeps his daughters from me. I don’t understand a lot but maybe some of my childhood rubbed off on me being a parent. I always tried to be a good parent and a good person but I must of done something wrong. Sad, I will never get to know

  4. Laura Grolla on  

    I say, “It’s ok to not be ok,” and, “I have done enough for today and I am enough.” My favorite: “In this moment I am at peace,” when I get waves of anxiety or shame. All of this soothes my body/emotion self.

    • Annie on  

      Laura, I love these phrases! It sounds like you’ve done a lot of work to know how to support yourself when you get triggered. Thank you so much for generously sharing your go-to self-soothing phrases with us.

      Warmly, Annie

  5. C on  

    Your article was just what I needed to hear tonite, as well as the comments from others. I am currently in therapy doing EMDR to deal with the trauma. One of my constant thoughts is: I am too old to be dealing with this still- I should have let it go by now. (unfortunately, friends say this to me also). I am going to take these ideas to heart and try to be kinder to myself. Thanks

    • Annie on  

      Hi Carole,

      Well, one of my big hopes is that, through the magic of the internet and Google, etc, my words will reach folks when they most need to hear them. So I’m so glad this article came to you when you needed it.

      Please, if friends or anyone else says you’re too old to still be dealing with this, ignore them. You can love them, bless them, care for them, but you don’t have to listen to their feedback. They don’t know your personal history and internal experience. They are not the expert of you. Only you are.

      I’m so glad that you’re in EMDR now and I truly hope that it feels helpful and supportive to you.

      Warmly, Annie

  6. Ami on  

    Thank you so much to all who have already shared, particularly Erik (your comment was sorely needed for me today) as well as Maria, Laura and C whose comments really resonated with my personal experience.

    For me, my phrase is “both are true”.

    It’s a fairly recent phrase for me. My childhood memories are often very conflicting, with parental figures and caregivers who did awful things but also provided for me through their own problems. A smiling face and a biting remark; shelter but no stability. That sort of thing.

    When I am conflicted on how I should feel about these contradictory memories, I simply say “both are true” and allow the conflict to exist. It’s been very helpful, and affirming to all the younger versions of myself that couldn’t work out how to feel.

    • Annie on  

      Ami, I so appreciate your share and feel like you took a peak at my next essay coming out next Sunday where I explore what’s possible when we can hold the duality of our feelings towards our caregivers. Thank you so much for sharing what supports you when you start to feel triggered. It sounds like you’re practicing being a very good inner parent to your younger self. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. Warmly, Annie

  7. Jenny on  

    I say to myself: „No feeling is final“. As a now 40 year old child of an alcoholic father who committed suicide and a mother suffering from schizophrenia, it’s hard to find people with similar experiences and to not feel like an alien. At the moment I am going through another wave of grief and alienation. But “this too shall pass” (until next wave …) Thanks for your great website!

  8. Laura Osborne on  

    Thank you so much for the article. I am a recovering alcoholic. I started in AA in my early 30’s and had a good 10+ years. I don’t know when I started drinking again but I’ve been drinking for 20+ years.
    I’m now working on my 4th step (moral inventory). Realizing that so much of why I drank was from fear and anger. Then as I peeled back more of the onion I realized I’ve been afraid of everything for as long as I can remember. My mom was a narcissist and so was my grandmother who also lived with us. My father was an alcoholic and just blended in with the woodwork. Mom constantly blaming, shaming, very angry. Hard spankings with a paddle. The worst was when my twin sister would be getting her beating and she would be screaming and begging for mom to stop. My little soul could barely stand it. I don’t remember My Pain but I do remember the pain I felt for my sister.
    My mom is still alive at 96. Lives in a nursing home and I have had no contact with her for 5/6 years. Been in therapy for 8 years this time.
    I’m very thankful for my 12 step work that is allowing me to grieve my childhood again and hopefully take that child in my arms and love her a little more each day.
    When I feel depression coming over me I try to ask myself what is bothering me. And I say things like Laura it’s going to be ok. We will walk through this together. And take her hand and pray to the God of my own understanding ❤️

    • Annie on  

      Hi Laura, thank you for taking the time to leave a comment and for sharing your story so generously. I’m sure many blog readers here will see themselves in what you shared. I want you to know that I’m so proud of you for getting back into therapy and for taking such good care of that little girl inside of you. I know recovery and staying sober can feel painful and isolating sometimes, but please know that you’re not alone and that you’re doing such a wonderful job. Take such good care of yourself, Laura. You’re so worth it. Warmly, Annie.

  9. Laurent on  

    Between the physical and emotional abuse, the parents fighting, being spoken to intermittently, harshly and then in the wrong language to even communicate at school, let alone make any friends has truly ruined my life. I feel like my life has been one uphill struggle playing catch up to have a social life, to meet a good life partner, be a good dad. And I haven’t succeeded, things feel ‘enough,’ my days are filled with regret as I spend them with clever, interesting funny people from nice backgrounds who don’t want to connect. School, college, uni were all lonely places, watching others speak endlessly, carefully, happily having fun whilst I struggled alone and sad. Now I take my children to parties, friends’ houses, events and it hurts so bad. I just want to scream ‘Why me!’ into a hole. I could accept it, but it leaves its mark, I am me, not blessed with instant wit and humour but constantly playing catch up. I can let the shame go, and the fawning and the constant desire to run away from home as a child, and feelings of freedom on leaving to uni. But I will always be me, I cannot change that to someone who can engage with the right kind of people.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Laurent, thank you for your honesty and vulnerability in sharing your experience with us. It takes a lot of bravery to do that. I’m sorry you’ve had to navigate those tough experiences, I know that can feel painful and isolating. Please know that you’re not alone and take such good care of yourself. Warmly, Annie

  10. Rose on  

    Thank you so much for this article, I was having emotional ups and downs for weeks, and I could never figure out why, but when I stumbled onto this article, I realized I’m grieving the childhood I never had. Although I didn’t have a negative environment growing up, I was burdened by a secret at five years old that taught me I wasn’t enough as I was. I thought if people knew who I was, they wouldn’t love me anymore. I missed out on so much of just being a carefree kid without any regrets, and just having a normal life. I felt alone with my struggles and had to grow up too fast to emotionally support myself. I had to quickly understand myself, regulate my emotions, hide my reactions, and pretend to be someone I’m not because I was so ashamed of who I was. I would always ask why it had to be me that got this burden, and I’m still so angry at how much that shame took from me. I also tend to minimize my emotions, so it really helped to be validated by this article, thank you.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Rose, you’re so welcome! I’m so pleased this post could validate you even a little bit and I hope it brought even a small sense of hope and healing.

      Being a parentified child and growing up with that shame is so hard. I’ll be thinking of you, and wishing you all good things.

      And if either of my online courses – Hard Families, Good Boundaries, or the forthcoming Relational Trauma Recovery School – could be of support to you, I’ll look forward to seeing you inside and working with you personally. Take such good care of yourself. Warmly, Annie

  11. kin on  

    i tell myself “i love you. i’ll never leave you. everyone else in the whole world can leave but i got you. and god got us” whenever this work comes up i always try to envision connecting with my younger self in those memories, watching her, and i just offer that love and support that she didn’t get. i read once, that “we never realize as kids we would be the ones to come and save us” and i really feel that. thank you for this.

    • Annie on  

      Those are such beautiful affirmations, Kin. And I’m proud of you (and for all of us) for becoming the person we most needed when we were little. It’s no small feat. I’m sending you all my best. Warmly, Annie

  12. Julianna on  

    “It’s okay to cry and ask for help because you weren’t strong enough to do it back then, but you are stronger now” I struggled with in my childhood a lack of emotions because it was the only thing that my childhood self could think of to do to keep myself from going down the wrong path. I wasn’t ready to deal with my emotions then. I am now, but it is extremely hard because I am in the process of grieving my childhood since I am a junior in college and realizing how much I went through. I’ve been dealing with a lot of self reflection and indirectly reflecting on my childhood, and I can’t stop being sad. It doesn’t help that my sister and my mom are both still deep in their addictions and I’ve gotten no closure from that aspect of my childhood. I just thought things would be so much better at this point in my life and I am grieving the fact that it’s not. I just want my sister back and I don’t know if that will ever happen.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Julianna, thank you for your comment. I’m so sorry to hear about your sister and your mom, I can imagine how painful and isolating those relationships may feel.

      Grief in any form is painful and deeply challenging. I’m so proud of you for doing the self-reflection and personal work, and I’ll be thinking of you, and wishing you all good things.

      If my forthcoming Relational Trauma Recovery School – could be of support to you, I’ll look forward to seeing you inside and working with you personally. In the meantime, please take such good care of yourself, you’re so worth it. Warmly, Annie

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