When Someone Won’t Talk About Their Childhood—Why Not?
Here’s why so many of us resist sharing our past—and why we should.
Posted Jul 13, 2016
If someone is resistant to—or absolutely refuses to—talk about their years growing up, you can safely assume that their past was not idyllic. Being hesitant or unwilling to discuss one’s childhood almost always suggests that it was either chaotic or suffused with feelings of inadequacy and shame.
A very sophisticated client I once worked with told me he was compiling his “DCM.” Since I’d never encountered this acronym before, I asked what it meant. He replied that it was his personal “Diary of Childhood Misery.” This individual, emotionally preparing himself for the deeper work of therapy, was ready to delve into the many unfortunate things he experienced in his formative years. But most people would rather sign up for a root canal than revisit their worst memories, because these carry a painful electrical charge.
Painful childhood memories are typically tied to distressing feelings such as abnormality, inferiority, worrisome self-doubt, unlovability, humiliation, and shame. However obliquely, memories of these past situations and events can sneak up on a person in the present during moments of “felt” threat or vulnerability.
Just the same, it can be invaluable for afflicted individuals to find a psychologically safe way to return to their past in order to—finally—become liberated from it. In fact, most of the deeper mental and emotional repair work I undertake as a therapist depends on a client’s willingness to return (at least in their mind’s eye) to their past. This enables them to begin correcting negatively distorted assumptions or conclusions they came to about themselves as a result of how they interpreted their caretakers’ (usually disparaging or hypercritical) messages to them.
I consider this therapeutic endeavor a kind of “psychosurgery.” It involves carefully opening up old wounds that did not properly heal in order to perform a vital remedial “operation” on them. The procedure is not designed to effect bodily changes (though that can occur, too), but to positively alter how clients think and feel about themselves.
Most people with troubled pasts are strongly disinclined to engage in a deliberate effort to revisit memories of early incidents and issues that were extremely disturbing. (See “The Past: Don’t Dwell on It, Revision It!”—Parts 1 & 2, as well as "Do Your Trees Keep You From Recognizing Your Forest?".) As children, such individuals usually felt insufficiently cared for, supported, or respected. They feel they had no “voice” in their family, that their wants and needs were regularly overruled or shamed by their withholding, punitive parents. At virtually every turn, asserting themselves was discouraged or prohibited, with the sad result that they were unable to develop much of a sense of personal power, value, or importance.
Even then, these individuals may have vowed to divert their attention elsewhere. Such intentional refocusing can lead them to direct their energy toward peer relationships, engrossing themselves in sports or scholastic activities, or aggressively acting out their hurt and angry feelings through questionable or even delinquent behavior. Some may simply have done anything they could think of to dissociate from feelings just barely tolerable to them. A very common behavior among such individuals is the “solution” of losing or obliterating themselves through some form of addiction to overcome nagging states of mind and feeling. This runs the gamut from sexual indulgences to gambling to tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, or heroin use.
Whatever route these individuals pursue to free themselves of negative thoughts and feelings about deficiencies in their upbringing, their wounds, left unattended, lurk close to the surface. That’s why summoning up the courage to talk openly about them can be so beneficial.
Coming clean about past miseries is rarely undertaken without ambivalence. It’s generally done (if at all) with many qualms and objections. Among them:
- “It will just make me feel worse.”
- “I may lose whatever control or stability over my life I’ve worked to hard to maintain.”
- “I’ve spent my whole life trying to forget how awful my childhood was. Why would I bring it up now?”
- “It will just make me that much angrier to think about how badly I was treated. I can still stew over it if I let myself.”
- “Why should I go back? I don’t even blame my parents anymore—they just didn’t know any better.” [This is what I call “forgiving from the head.” In my professional work I’ve found such a “let-bygones-be-bygones response” inadequate to afford individuals true “closure” on an injurious past. It’s only when they can take the crucial final step of forgiving their caretakers’ serious deficiencies from their heart that they can “wash off” the remaining negative emotional residue still detrimentally influencing their present actions and reactions.]
- “I just can’t see any good reason to bring up the past. It’s past, isn’t it?”
To this last objection, I’d respond with an emphatic No! Your past remains with you until it’s genuinely “released” and laid to rest. If you’re to understand—and eventually change—the out-of-date beliefs and behaviors that run your life, unresolved issues from your childhood need to be examined and evaluated.
Ask yourself about some of your largely self-imposed limitations, whose foundations may have a lot more to do with your biography than your biology. For example:
- Do you have difficulty trusting others, or letting them in? Your parents may accidentally have taught you to distrust others because they themselves were untrustworthy—making promises they didn’t keep or conveniently forgot. Or they told you that other people would only take advantage of you, so you should be wary about putting any faith in them.
- Do you have a shorter fuse than others you know? Might you be saddled with undischarged anger, or even rage, toward your parents? Might you have been subject to a double standard in which your parents were free to yell and scream all the time, but if you dared to follow their lead you’d be reprimanded or subjected to the silent treatment? If so, your parents may inadvertently have instructed you to get angry in reaction to frustration, yet disallowed its expression—with the result that it might still be deeply embodied inside you. You might be quick to let it emerge around your own family, where now you feel much safer and more comfortable letting it out.
- Do you wish you felt less needy than others? Are you ever told that you're too needy? As a child, if you had too many unmet dependency needs, you may—however unwittingly—present your current partner with a bill to “pay up” for what you were deprived of in childhood. This over-dependency can create all kinds of problems in your adult relationships.
- Do you have a hard time being sufficiently assertive with others or setting appropriate boundaries? Ask yourself how rewarded or penalized you were when you spoke up for your needs and desires as a child. If your parents were unresponsive and told you that you were being selfish and thinking only of yourself, they may have conditioned you to be unable to practice healthy assertive behaviors.
- Do you sometimes see yourself as a fraud? Do you think you're not deserving of whatever success or authority you’ve achieved? If you repeatedly got the message from your parents—regardless of what they may actually have intended —that you weren’t good enough, attractive enough, or smart enough to succeed in life, and you became successful nonetheless, your accomplishments could feel bogus. However irrational these feelings may be, they’re surprisingly common among people who were methodically fed negative messages about themselves and their potential.
If you relate to any of these examples, ask yourself whether it might be a good idea to do a life review, either with a trusted, supportive, understanding, and compassionate friend, or with a professional well-versed in dealing with childhood traumas.
Remember that the purpose is not to dwell on the past but to go back to it for the purpose of revisioning it. Only then can you more objectively understand your childhood, rather than focusing on the meanings you've ascribed to it. Childhood is a time when you aren't mature or sophisticated enough to realize that the way you're treated by your parents has far more to do with them and their unresolved issues than any personal inadequacies on your part. It's a time when you can't help but take your parents’ authoritative words and actions personally—to the detriment of your developing self-image.
As an adult, there may be nothing more important than evolving a positive self-regard, and seeing yourself as competent, worthy, and lovable. If you still view yourself in a variety of negative ways, you owe it to yourself to take another look at your past, and to discover—joyfully—that you’re not who your parents prompted you to believe you are. When viewed in a different, far more favorable light, your past can begin to reflect a new you, one much closer to how you’ve always wished you could see yourself.
Here are the two complementary posts I mention in the beginning of this post: “The Past: Don’t Dwell on It, Revision It!”—Parts 1 & 2, and "Do Your Trees Keep You From Recognizing Your Forest?" A third related post is "Can of Worms? Pandora's Box? Divulging Your Dark Secrets."
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To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.
© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.