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.
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:
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.
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