Effects of Childhood Trauma
The relationships within our family powerfully shape who we are and how we feel about ourselves. Betrayals in family relationships can have several consequences:
- A belief that relationships are unsafe
- A belief that you do not matter
- A tendency to blame yourself
- Difficulty managing emotions
This can lead to:
- Relationships - difficulty getting close to someone or sustaining a connection with them.
- Self-esteem - you have a negative view of yourself that is hard to shake. You have a hard time believing that you matter to anyone or that you are powerful.
- Self-sabotage - you are your own worst enemy - you tend to destroy the things that you value.
- Impulsiveness - you feel flooded with emotion and make decisions without thinking it through.
- Boundaries - you find that people either walk all over you and you have difficulty saying no, or that you have very rigid ideas and need to control people and situations.
- Difficulties with sexual intimacy - problems with a lack of desire, difficulty trusting relationships, shame about sexual desires, promiscuity: these are some of the common symptoms.
- Depression - you suffer from periods of depression or anxiety that you suspect relate to your past.
- Perfectionism - you have difficulties accepting that you can make mistakes. You may procrastinate due to needing to get things perfect. You find it difficult to be satisfied with anything.
- People-pleasing - you tend to focus on what others need and deny your own needs. This can result in feeling used and resentful.
- Anxiety - you may suffer from general anxiety or panic attacks. The world seems unsafe and you expect to be hurt and a target for other people's hostility.
Examples of Family Trauma
- Demanding and critical parents
- Sexual abuse
- Physical abuse - any kind of physically painful punishment is both unnecessary and abusive
- Physical intimidation - yelling, hitting, and breaking objects when angry with you
- Scapegoating - parents who favoured one child over the others
- Shaming your choices and feelings - humiliating you for your emotional expressions and describing you as stupid. Belittling your choices and desires
- Witnessing continuing hostility - violence and arguing
- Threatening abandonment - if you ______ I will send you to _____
- Intrusiveness - lack of privacy and a sense of being watched
- Over-protection - constantly checking up on you, wanting to know everything, transmitting a fear-based approach to life
- Inconsistency - the rules are constantly changing and if naturally confused by this you are criticized
- Emotional fragility - your parents respond to challenge by getting upset, then use guilt to shut you down
- Addiction - dealing with the chaos or absenteeism of an addicted parent
- Using children as a weapon in divorce
- Adoption trauma - separation from birth parents and your adoptive parents having difficulty dealing with your differences
- Mental Illness - dealing with the inconsistencies and the absenteeism of a mentally ill parent
- Hostile communication - judgment, belittling, humiliation, sarcasm, contempt, verbal attacks, ignoring, negativity
- Debating everything with you - as children you could never win the debate but were expected to try
- Anxious, fearful, or unfulfilled parents - wanting you to do things that they are afraid to do, feel incapable of doing, or live their dreams
- Abandonment - one or both parents leave the family or have inconsistent contact
- Cult or religious abuse - systematic sexual, physical, and psychological abuse involving groups around ritualized events
Healing the Past
When you work on healing from an abusive or dysfunctional family, it is important that you go at your pace with gentle encouragement to come to terms with what happened. You may not have spoken to anyone about some of the things that happened to you, or you may have received a bad response when you did. Perhaps you are afraid to open up to someone again.
Developing a trusting relationship, even with a therapist can bring up a lot of activation. Anxiety and fear of being seen or known or fears of being controlled are common. We may spend time at the beginning of therapy processing these feelings and dynamics if/as they come up.
Much of your experience especially from a very young age is unconscious. This implicit memory becomes enacted in your behaviour and bodily reactions to the world around you, particularly in relationships. The therapeutic relationship is a perfect environment to bring this unconscious material to light and experience it in the present.
So what that might mean is we pay attention in therapy to the sensations, motivations, and emotions that get activated. These are all aspects of early experience that have become scattered and disintegrated by overwhelming stress, trauma or betrayal. As you pay attention to these parts of your experience they can over time, integrate into a coherent whole.
Part of moving on and leaving the past behind involves how we make meaning of the experience. How do you create the life you want now and what is important to you? Processing negative feelings and thoughts about yourself, and others, and developing new and current meanings will lead to you discovering what is important to you. You will achieve this as you learn to embody your experience, rather than focus on only thinking differently about it.