When bad things happen to us, we draw on our inner resources in order to cope. This is what resilience, in its essence, is: our ability to build and tap into an inner reservoir of strength.
If we experience too many adverse events, the reservoir gets depleted. We may then come to regard further struggle as futile and improvement as impossible. That’s despair.
A bad childhood undermines our ability to cope in a different way: by making it difficult or impossible for us to accumulate life-affirming energy from the start. Unlike a person in despair, we may still go on but become unable to flourish, even without major negative events. It is sometimes suggested that a bad childhood damages us. What is true, rather, is that it may prevent us from developing a healthy self, one with an intact, life-affirming core. We are not born with such a self, and a troubled childhood does not damage it: It arrests its development. As a result, a person may experience a void or darkness where others have stored hope.
We often cannot tell by looking at people what pain they carry inside, and we may not be able to tell here either. This is partly because people may choose to conceal their suffering, but it is also because psychic pain is generally possible to conceal. A broken self is unlike a broken arm or leg – it may not be visible to others.
In some cases, the brokenness is partially hidden even from those who carry it. People who have a wounded inner child may sense that something is not as it should be without quite knowing why. Perhaps, they find that they cannot lay on the grass and enjoy the sun the way others can, because they are constantly and seemingly inexplicably assailed by negative thoughts; or maybe, they notice that, for reasons obscure to them, they cannot bring anything to completion.
In fact, both tendencies may have their source in childhood. To lay on the grass and simply enjoy being alive may be difficult for a person with early trauma because of the missing inner bank of life-affirming sentiment; the inability to finish things may be a result of a deeply ingrained habit to fear the criticisms of an overly demanding parent, even one who is no longer living.
At other times, people are fully aware of the consequences of childhood. Such is the case of writer Franz Kafka. In his gripping A Letter to My Father, Kafka describes a despotic father, utterly lacking in compassion, who at once undermines his son’s sense of self-worth and instills profound self-doubt in the child. At one point, the wounds of the psyche are said to produce bodily symptoms in young Franz:
…I was worried about myself in all manner of ways. For example, I was worried about my health: I was worried about my hair falling out, my digestion, and my back – for it was stooped. And my worries turned to fear and it all ended in true sickness. But what was all that? Not actual bodily sickness. I was sick because I was a disinherited son…
But Kafka also doubts his own ability to succeed at anything:
When I began something which didn’t please you and you threatened me with failure, my awe for your opinion was so great that failure was unavoidable… I lost the confidence to do anything. … And the older I was, the more solid was the material with which you could demonstrate how worthless I was; and gradually, to a certain extent, you became right.
There are also cases in which the source of pain is not a particular person or people. Novelist Thomas Hardy, for instance, scandalized his contemporaries by depicting, in Jude the Obscure, an unloved child without a name, nicknamed Little Father Time, who commits suicide and kills his two half-siblings to free his parents of their children. However, Hardy does not condemn the parents. He portrays them as victims of a society whose mores do not allow people like them – separated from their spouses albeit through no fault of their own – to live happily together.
Climbing out of the darkness
It must be noted here that certain kinds of childhood trauma may have a positive side. It is quite possible, for instance, that Kafka became the writer he became because early pain shaped him into an unusually reflective person. Hardy’s child character Little Father Time, similarly, is mature beyond his years.
But the inability to function or succeed in the world is generally not the main problem for people whose childhoods left them wounded. Well-being is. What about the prospects of coping and finding happiness?
This is rather more difficult. We never get a second chance to live our formative years and emerge unscathed. Nor can we find new parents as we can find new friends if the old ones prove untrustworthy. We can walk away from our mothers and fathers, but in so doing, we orphan ourselves.
The problem may be compounded by well-meaning family members who cannot bear to see us go even when we are ready to. Kafka, for instance, at one point in the letter says that his loving mother kept trying to reconcile him and his father, and that, perhaps, had she not done that, he could have crawled from under his father's shadow and broken free earlier.
None of this is to suggest that we ought not try to reconcile with parents responsible for our missing life-affirming impetus. It is only to say that reconciliation is not always an option. A parent who remains immature in old age may continuously prompt an adult son or daughter to revert to the painful identity of a child not good enough – not good enough for success and not worthy of love.
Moreover, even when we do walk away, we carry the child we once were inside always.
But healing is possible, though the road to recovery may be a long one. The missing inner joy can be found and a reservoir of well-being can be built later in life, through intimacy. A loveless childhood does not make us destined to have a loveless adulthood.
Indeed, there is a sense in which not only the adults we become but the child we were can eventually find his or her happiness. For when two adults relate intimately, they relate not simply as adults but as children – through play and the kind of frivolity that closeness brings in its wake, the joy of being in each other’s company, without purpose; and of being alive.
That we always carry the child we once were inside can, thus, be a blessing even for those whose younger self is deeply wounded. It is precisely because the child is still with us that when we find a kindred spirit, not only the adult we are but the little boy or girl we once were can heal.
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