Over my 15+ years as a professional mental health counselor, I have repeatedly heard phrases like these from my clients. “What happened to me as a child doesn’t bother me anymore.” “I’m over it now; it was so long ago.” “Are you kidding? That was when I was a kid. It was painful back then, but it is not a problem now.” Although it is natural to want to disconnect from memories that make us feel weak and childlike, these statements actually represent denial of suppressed emotion rooted in unprocessed childhood pain. The problem is that the things that happened to us as children are even more alive in us now if we haven’t done the hard work of allowing ourselves to process pain and emotionally heal. This article is part one of a three-part series discussing the concepts of identifying, healing and truly moving on from the painful things that happened to us when we were young.
Shirley Jean Schmidt, a licensed professional counselor and originator of the Developmental Needs Meeting Strategy (DNMS), an effective therapy technique for adults with childhood wounds, explains that repeated experiences of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse can lead to complex trauma wounds, while chronic neglect, rejection, enmeshment, or misattunement can lead to attachment wounds. Bad things that happened (e.g. abuse) and good things that did not happen (e.g. lack of loving attunement, nurturing, validation, encouragement, etc.) affect us until these unfortunate events are healed1. Complex trauma wounds are deep emotional scars that impact everything about the way a human develops and sees the world. Attachment wounds are interruptions to the bond a child is supposed to naturally form with his/her primary caregivers. Secure attachment is formed when parents or primary caregivers are emotionally present for a child. When a child is neglected or abused, insecure attachment takes root and causes the child to respond either internally or externally in unhealthy ways. Parents don’t have to be perfect for secure attachment to form, but it is vital that parents do their best to restore the broken relationship when an interaction has emotionally harmed their child.
Parents and caregivers are not the only source of pain for a child. Other children and adults (even those in positions of authority) harm children in devastating ways. As a child, no one has the skills to protect oneself from inappropriate or abusive treatment. In fact, it is much more common for a child to take on the wrongful actions of others as their own fault. He or she thinks, “I am being treated this way because there is something wrong with me,” and this belief often lasts into adulthood. In John Bradshaw’s book, The Family, he expresses that our first beliefs about ourselves are formed by our mother’s feelings and desires toward us2. The mind of a child learns its individual identity based on the way others (especially parents and primary caregivers) mirror or reflect it back to them. A child has little to no ability to think outside of this paradigm unless there is an adult of equal influence present in the child’s life and who is helping them to understand the truth.
Children who are mistreated and/or ignored develop conscious, subconscious or unconscious coping skills to deal with their painful reality, although these skills (i.e., defense mechanisms) usually end up being more harmful than helpful in adulthood. The defense mechanisms of repression, suppression or dissociation cause adults to forget or be out of touch with the pain of their childhood. Pia Mellody3 gives clear definitions for these ways of halting mental processing. The following are the definitions she offers:
Repression is the automatic and unconscious forgetting of things
that are too painful to remember.
Suppression is consciously choosing to forget things that are too
painful to remember.
Dissociation involves a child psychologically separating “who he
or she is” from his or her body during the abusive act and taking
that inner “self” away (somewhere) so the abuse cannot be seen,
heard, felt or experienced in any way.
Cook and Miller explain that as adults, the vulnerable parts of our souls that we try to push away are often stuck in childhood and hold onto painful memories. If we are honest with ourselves and pay attention to the deepest yearnings of our inner life, these parts of our soul feel shame, fear, insecurity, loneliness, hurt, and sadness. We tend to be dishonest with ourselves about what is really going on below the surface. We distract ourselves with a host of options that range from behaviors that look healthy (i.e., perfectionism, performance, people pleasing, hobbies, etc.) to things that we know aren’t healthy but serve us well in terms of distracting us from uncomfortable emotions (i.e., overeating, overspending, substance/process addictions, etc.)4. These distractions only prolong the inevitable. The pain we push away only grows in intensity until it is uncovered and healed.
Unhealed childhood wounds cause (but are not limited to) the following problems in adulthood:
- Immature behavior (also known as: wounded child ego states, arrested development, low emotional intelligence, or developmental deficits)
- Addiction of all kinds
- Mental health concerns (anxiety and depression), as well as other major mental illness and psychosis (i.e., hallucinations and delusions)
- Personality disorders
- Intimacy disorders
- Chronic physical health issues
- Lack of identity
- Need for control
- Obsessive/neurotic behavior
- Disengagement and isolation
- Self-hatred, self harm and suicidal thoughts, and actions
- Relational conflict
- Abuse and mistreatment of others
The best way to identify if you have unhealed wounds is to assess whether or not you are able to act like the person you want to be consistently. If you feel good about your behavior and your responses in life are mature and kind, you may be free from childhood pain. On the other hand, if you find yourself continually acting outside your best intentions, it’s important to note that there may be something holding you back. The book Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You by Dr. Jim Wilder and others offers a quote from Dallas Willard which helps us to understand this concept:
While you are living from your hurt, you may not be able to understand the
characteristics of your heart. As God heals the hurt and is invited into every
area of your life, you will be able to discover the nature of your heart. When
you are living from your heart you are truly being yourself5.
Identifying that there could be unresolved pain below the surface in your life is the first step to change. The next article in this blog series will cover the concept of how healing takes place for adults who uncover childhood pain. I also recommend reading one of the books in the resources section of this article, or give a therapist a call so you can start your discovery and healing process. It’s always worth the effort to uncover and deal with unresolved pain. There is purpose in the pain, and there is deeper freedom and enjoyment of life and relationships on the other side. I invite you into this courageous journey of discovery and healing.
- Schmidt, Shirley Jean. (2020, July). The Developmental Needs Meeting Strategy (DNMS) Retrieved from: https://dnmsinstitute.com/clients/
- Bradshaw, J. (1996). The Family. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.
- Mellody, P. (2003). Facing Codependency. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
- Cook, A., Miller, K. (2018). Boundaries for the Soul. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books.
- Friesen, J.G., Wilder, E. J., Bierling, A. M., Koepcke, R.. Poole, M. (2013). Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House Inc.