I beamed with pleasure, subtly restraining myself from gushing as I’m wont to do whenever anyone asks about her, and shared a little bit about her.
I told my friend how strong, feisty, confident, and boundaried she is.
I told her about how my daughter moves through the world with a bone-deep conviction that she’s worthy of the respect and attention of the adults around her, chastening adults in public if they bump into her in the grocery store saying “You DON’T have my consent to touch me!”
And I told her all about her obsession with the Spice Girls and how most days in our house feel like 1998 throwbacks…
We laughed and then my friend asked me a question: “What were you like at her age?”
Without thinking I blurted a question back, “Who was I at her age or who would I have been if the environment had been safe?”
After I said it, we both just looked at each other, goosebumps on my arms, because that was a really good question and an especially salient one for those of us who come from relational trauma backgrounds.
“Who would you have been if it was safe?”
I talk often about this, but children are master survivalists.
It’s a sad and distressing truth that children’s well-being hinges on the approval of the guardians and caretakers around them.
It’s a painfully vulnerable position to be in if your guardian or caretaker is mood- or personality-disordered, addicted, or otherwise compromised and compromising in their ability to be a stable, loving, and providing presence.
In order to secure and maintain that approval, that connection with their guardians and caretakers, children will do almost anything to preserve that tie, sometimes becoming masterful personality contortionists in order to do so.
A drunk, volatile father who creates an environment of explosive danger without warning? A young child might learn how to withdraw, make herself invisible and needless, lest she “rock the boat” and draw his wrath on her.
A depressive, suicidal mother who is overwhelmed by life? A young child might try to be her confidant, friend, and household partner, growing himself up before his time as a parentified child hoping he can prop his mother up lest she collapses or give up on life.
In environments that are unconducive to all parts of the personality coming forth safely and with a degree of welcoming, a child may never access and/or consciously or unconsciously learn to disown certain aspects of herself (her anger, her fire, her loudness, her exuberance, her neediness, her defiance, her sadness).
She’ll do what she needs to do to stay safe. To stay connected.
So for those of us who identify as coming from relational trauma backgrounds, I think there are always two questions we have to answer when someone asks who we were at a young age:
“What was I like at that age?” and “Who would I have been if the environment had been safe?”
I know in my bones that I would have been different at age 4 (my daughter’s current age) if my circumstances were different, if the environment had been safer.
Who I was back then was quiet, compliant, a “good girl,” a “little helper” to my mother taking care of my younger sisters, all of us close in age. I didn’t talk back, didn’t have tantrums, and was fairly “easy.”
I don’t think that’s my real personality.
Not once since the age of 8 has anyone ever described me as “easygoing” and “compliant” and I don’t think they ever will.
My personality now at 40 is actually a lot like my 4-year-old daughter’s personality.
Determined, fiery, intense, passionate, unapologetic, energetic, confident, a little tiring to those around us (namely my husband).
But here’s the thing: I genuinely think that she gets to express all of these pieces and have her personality shine through because of the environment of safety my husband and I have worked so darn diligently to create for her.
And what does that environmental safety for my child look like?
In our family, it looks like unconditional love and regard for her personhood.
It looks like allowing and accepting all her feelings, validating them and normalizing them (while also setting limits around behaviors sometimes).
It looks like trying to regulate ourselves to be present for her in the face of her very big feelings that can be, let’s be honest, exhausting and hard to stay present with.
It looks like centering concepts of consent so that she knows how important her boundaries are.
It looks like welcoming the different aspects she shows: her neediness, her extraverted exuberance, her sensitivity to social slights, and her competitive streak.
And I imagine that I would have been a lot like her, too, had my early environment been different.
(but instead, it took me nearly 20 years in therapy to unearth those parts, heal, and come back to myself.
So who can a child ideally become in an environment of safety?
Their whole selves. Their full selves. However this looks.
I won’t lie: sometimes I still get sad when I think about what could have been possible if I had been raised in a safer environment.
I wonder about how much further I’d be in my life, how different the path would have been.
And then I look at my daughter and I feel bittersweet about how she gets to start the race at the starting line versus 200 yards behind with a lead weight around her ankle.
It’s the goal, isn’t it? – to do more for our kids that our parents did before us – and still, it can be triggering to experience the contrast.
So then how do we use that triggering, that grief, this question I reflexively asked my friend over lunch “Who would you have been if it was safe?” We use this all as grist for the mill, so to speak, in our own personal healing journeys and go a layer deeper by asking ourselves the following:
- “Who would I have been if it was safe?” What do I imagine about this? What clues do I maybe see in my own kids as an answer?
- If I didn’t have the environment I needed when I was young to become my full self, do I have it now? In what ways yes, and in what ways no?
- So how do I make my world safer and more conducive for all aspects of me to come out? What do I need and want?
- How do I support myself to be more of who I am now that I’m out of that environment? What feelings and aspects of self do I disown, disavow and limit that I may want to make more space for?
- And, if you’re a parent, you could also ask: how do I create an environment of safety for my own child’s full self to come out? What would doing something different than what my own parents did look like?
If you feel so inclined, please share your answers to these prompts and/or any other thoughts and reactions you had when reading this essay in the comment section of this blog below.
When you share, our community of 30,000 monthly blog readers can benefit from your earned wisdom and experience and possibly see themselves in your story, feeling less alone.
And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.
This is a big one for me. I’ve been told I’m a really good mom. I’m grateful and proud that I’ve been able to give my three daughters something better than what I had. At the same time, I grieve what it meant for me to go without. My girls each carry a part of my personality—my courage, my kindness, my tenacity—that I get to and have to watch unfold in an environment of safety. I know I’ll make my own mistakes but that for the most part they will take those things to another level and sooner than I did. It hurts at times. I feel sad for little me and imagine how nice it would have been for me to have a mom like me.
I’m so glad to hear that you’re proud to have given your daughters what you never had, and please know that you have every right to grieve your own childhood. Be gentle with yourself and take such good care, you’re so worth it.