Q. Why is it that aging doesn’t equal moving past painful events from our childhood? I am in my 50’s but realize that my past still directs some of my choices, especially related to relationships. I should be past all that by now. Is there something wrong with me?
A. There is nothing wrong with you. You are in a club with countless others. The experiences in our childhood, both good and bad shape our lives, they form our belief systems. The positive ones usually don’t cause us any harm but the painful, traumatic events can create some very dysfunctional, destructive and confusing behaviors.
We repeat what is familiar. Once we develop coping behaviors to traumatic events, they become our normal responses. We do not really think about how healthy or unhealthy they are; they simply get us from one day to another.
When a child is sexually violated, especially over a longer period of time, he/she forms a way of coping. A belief about themselves and the perpetrator. If a child witnesses a shooting or the violent death of a friend or family member, there are images and thoughts that will plague this child forever.
If a child receives aggressive physical punishment they will think about this long after it is over.
There are many other events in childhood that can leave painful scars, i.e., neglect, abandonment, poverty, bullying at school, being the scapegoated child, etc.
There is a phrase that has been heard for years, one that creates frustration for therapists: Children are resilient. What choice do they have? They have to hang on to something. But that doesn’t mean they are not traumatized.
The reality of painful, traumatic experiences, LEFT UNTREATED is that they don’t just go away.
I often see adults who have never shared with anyone what happened to them as children. They describe anxiety, depression, substance abuse, multiple marriages/divorces and unsatisfying relationships which finally brings them to therapy.
The reality of traumatic events is that the brain remembers everything!! Debriefing from these painful experiences and working through the feelings can be very powerful in writing a new script for healthy relationships. It is hard for a wounded person to have a healthy relationship until treatment is received and even then it takes practice for new thoughts, feelings and behaviors to feel comfortable.
The goal is for painful life events to be remembered but not relived. It is a process, one that can change your life.
Vicki L Mayfield, M.Ed., R.N., LMFT Marriage and Family Therapy Oklahoma City
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