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Why It's So Hard to Build Healthy Relationships After Growing Up in Chaos

...and how acknowledging past hurts can help you better cope.

When we grow up in emotionally chaotic households, we face challenges in establishing healthy adult relationships. When chaos is the norm, we get accustomed to living with what feels bad and scary. We learn to silence our experience because it feels too dangerous to speak up for ourselves or call anyone out on their behavior.

As children, we need to belong; to belong is to survive. To express our experience of the family drama would be to risk the love of our caretakers, our belonging, and thus our survival. When a home is emotionally chaotic, it’s not generally filled with adults who are open and interested in the child’s experience; there’s often no safe person for a child to talk to and even less chance for there to be someone who will take responsibility for, or change, what’s happening.

When we grow up in an emotionally unstable and untrustworthy environment, we develop certain defense strategies to maintain our safety and keep ourselves intact. Put simply, we learn to get okay with a lot of stuff that doesn’t feel okay. We become experts at burying anxiety, fear, anger, and despair; we walk through the wreckage as if nothing crazy is happening, no matter how bad it feels. And eventually crazy becomes our norm.

Our strategies for survival succeed at keeping us safe as children, on a certain level. But when we carry these same defense strategies into adult relationships, they stop working and we end up feeling trapped, powerless, anxious, and angry. The feelings we buried as children are still there— only now they won’t stay underground.

Those of us who grew up in homes where such behavior was the norm often obsessed about what we wanted to say out loud to a parent, but we didn’t say it because it would have created anger or more chaos, and accomplished nothing in terms of changing our world. Similarly, as adults in relationships, we think incessantly about what the other person is doing to us; we make the case for our grievances silently inside our heads, and rehash what we’re going to say and how we’re going to say it. But, again, we stay silent. We think obsessively about the other and our bad situation, but we don’t know how to take steps to make it change: We’re too afraid of the consequences or of our own rage. As a result, we stay stuck in bad situations, feeling powerless to make our relationships change, chronically fearful and overflowing with resentment.

As adults, when we're confronted with behavior that feels bad, crazy, aggressive, or just not okay, our nervous system goes into a kind of fight, flight, freeze response. Our front brain shuts down in a sense and we enter survival mode. Deep in the recesses of our brain there is an assumption being made—that if we speak up, we’ll pay dire consequences and ultimately be worse off. Our deep-seated fear takes over and before we know it, we’re figuring out a way to make the other’s bad behavior work inside the relationship.

But staying silent doesn’t work in grown-up relationships. It doesn’t allow us to grow, feel known, or develop real intimacy. Furthermore, it doesn’t keep us safe like it did when we were kids. Quite the opposite: The strategy of swallowing our truth and our natural self-protective instinct under the guise of protecting ourselves become the very thing that harms us. We end up consumed with fear, obsessively thinking about what we hate, and carrying overwhelming resentment. We end up enraged at the other and ourselves—for what they’re doing to us and for what we’re allowing.

How do we change when our nervous system naturally responds to bad behavior in a way that keeps us stuck? How do we make what’s happening instinctively into a conscious process so that we have choices? The first step is to start paying attention to what’s happening inside us in the face of conflict—that is, to recognize and acknowledge this pattern, and become aware that we go into reactionary mode when confronted with what feels relationally unsafe. In recognizing and acknowledging this truth, we offer ourselves not just kindness and compassion, but also gratitude for keeping us safe in the only way we knew how. And we remind ourselves that this behavior no longer takes care of us.

Secondly, we stop to ask our fear what it needs to know or hear from a trusted other that would allow it to speak up for itself. Sometimes the frightened part of ourselves wants to know or be reminded that it doesn’t actually need this other person.

If we can realize that we won’t die without this other person, that we’ve projected our childhood dependence onto this relationship, the risk drops and we can find the courage to speak our truth. If we don’t yet genuinely believe that we don’t need the other, we can start taking steps toward the autonomy that can set us free.

On the other hand, the little one inside us may need to know that it doesn’t have to explain why what’s not okay is not okay, or get the other person to understand or agree. Sometimes the fear is about having to defend our case against the other’s anger, blame, and defensiveness that feels most daunting. In truth, we don’t have to get confirmation or validation from the other that their behavior is not okay for us. We can offer ourselves permission to simply say No, this is not okay, period.

There are an infinite number of possible answers to the question, What would I need to believe to speak up in the face of chaos? What’s most important is simply that you ask the frightened part of yourself, with kindness, what it needs to stand up for you, confront the crazy, and speak your truth. Once you know what your system needs to move forward, you can offer yourself that truth, or start on the path to making that answer true.

When we grew up accepting the unacceptable because we had to, and we become grownups afraid to stand up for ourselves, we learn to stuff our anger and keep the peace at all costs, including the cost to ourselves.

But just because we grew up around chaos doesn’t mean we’re condemned to live with it forever. We can change. We can change our reaction to behavior that’s not acceptable, and in the process, change the situation itself. Or we can leave a situation that doesn't work for us. Once we become conscious of our own behavior, we have choices. We can learn to be the light in the darkness and create our own reality.

Unlike what we believed as children, we do get a say in our own reality and we can move from the problem to the solution.

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