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Overcoming the Pain of Childhood Abuse and Neglect

Finding our way through upsetting memories.

Hurt by those we loved

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

When we have been abused or neglected as children it can leave us feeling wounded, deprived, and wronged by those we love and trusted. The hurt can be especially deep if those who caused pain were our own parents. If these hurts are not resolved, they continue to affect us and our subsequent relationships. As a result of such experiences, we might try to:

1. Find new relationships with people who give us the things we didn’t get from our damaged parents.

2. Attach ourselves to people who remind us of those who hurt us and fix them as a way of vicariously repairing our damaged parents.

3. Change our parents so they will finally give us what we needed when we were young.

The problem is that although these efforts may feel terribly right in the moment, they will be unsuccessful in bringing about real healing and fulfillment. Worse yet, the pain often won't go away on its own or over time.

Why can’t I fix myself?

When emotional wounds occur in childhood, these injuries are experienced from a child’s perspective. Memories and understanding of the events are stored in the brain in that child-like state. Children do not process information like adults. They tend to place too much blame on themselves and internalize negative messages received from others. We carry this blame as adults and still believe and replay those negative messages. “You’re stupid,” “Why can’t you do anything right?” or, “I wish you were never born.” We may tell ourselves these things for years after those who made the original tapes are long gone.

Memories of these events are painful, so we tend to avoid thinking about them too deeply. Or if we do think about them, we focus on certain parts at the expense of others, precluding a complete picture of the events. Thus we have an incomplete and child-like view of the harms experienced, and any mental “solution” to the problem is likewise incomplete and without the benefit of being properly vetted by our mature higher mind. The child mind wants to rewrite the story and change the ending (as per the three points above). But doing so at this late stage will not change the past nor will it remove the pain experienced nor will it fix the psychological and spiritual damage.

Confronting the totality of our painful experiences is the only way to gain mastery over the past. It allows us to objectively revisit what happened so that we can reassess it from a more mature and objective vantage point. It allows us to gain a more complete picture of the events and come to more appropriate conclusions about the cause and meaning of what happened. This understanding allows us to move past the futile urge to reenact these experiences and allows us to recreate an internal understanding of who we really are in a more functional and accurate way.

Childhood pain can last a lifetime if not confronted.
Source: Dreamstime

Where do I start?

I suggest revisiting your earliest painful memory as a starting point. What happened? Write down everything you can remember. What did you think would happen at that time? What would you have wanted to happen (i.e., how would you have liked this to have played out differently)? How did you interpret this event (i.e., why did it happen)? How did it make you feel, about yourself? Who do you blame for what happened and why (you can blame more than one person)? How do you feel toward the other people involved? How did this event affect you in the future? How does it affect how you feel about yourself today? How did it affect your relationships in the past and today? What sorts of things cause this memory to pop up for you?

Write for at least 20 minutes. To best connect with the experience, write in the first person present tense as if the events are happening now. After you write about it, walk away and give yourself a break. Revisit what you wrote, alone or with a supportive, trusted person. Think through the experience using your adult mind. How does that change your perception of the event? The next day, discard what you wrote, and write about the whole event again. Add more details if you can. As you repeat this process, observe how your perspective on the event shifts. What changed? What did you learn?

Start over again with another upsetting memory from your childhood. Keep doing this until you have gone through all your painful memories, or you are no longer feeling distress over your childhood.

Anticipate setbacks

It will be hard to get started because you are probably afraid. That is totally normal. Just remember that the memory of what happened is only an imprint in your brain and not the actual event, thus it is completely safe to revisit. You may feel stress when you do these exercises. You may cry or even feel disoriented for a short while. Be good to yourself and find as many excuses as you can to reward yourself later for pushing through it.

If you find it too hard to do on your own, find a good friend or therapist to go on this journey with you. Sharing your experience with another person is a good way to break the power of shame and help come to a quicker resolution from the pain. This process is not easy, but it is worth it.