Why Can't I Get Over My Painful Childhood?

New studies explain the enduring effects of early adversity.

Posted Mar 09, 2018

Image Point Fr/Shutterstock
Source: Image Point Fr/Shutterstock

In his book How People Change, psychiatrist Allen Wheelis describes childhood events that continued to affect him well into the sixth decade of his life, and probably beyond. One chapter is devoted to an episode when Wheelis was 8 years old, and his father made him spend his summer vacation cutting their large lawn with a straight razor rather than playing with his friends. He writes of his father:

     "He made his mark on me that summer, and after his death that fall continued to speak on a high-fidelity system within my conscience, speaks to me still, tells me that I have been summoned, that I am standing once again before him on that glass porch giving an account of myself, that I will be found wanting, still after all these years a 'low-down, no-account scoundrel'!"

Wheelis is not alone in continuing to react in ways that appear to have developed in childhood. Countless studies have shown that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) increase the risk for many difficulties later in life.

One of the most-studied adult outcomes in the context of ACEs is depression. In his recent review, psychologist Richard Liu concluded ACEs make adult depression twice as likely, and more likely to recur. ACEs are also associated with a longer time to recover from depression. Liu noted that childhood adversity raises the risk for depression whether in the form of sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, or neglect.

Issues from childhood can affect not only our emotional health, but our physical health as well. A longitudinal study in the UK showed that the family environment at age 4 predicted whether a person would have persistent back pain in his or her late 60s. Similarly, lower socioeconomic status (SES) at age 4 was associated with a substantially greater risk of back problems six decades later.

And it's not just humans who show these effects of early experiences on later wellness. Research from Michael Meaney's lab has shown that the way rat pups are handled during their infancy affects how their bodies and brains respond to stress throughout their lives — even affecting age-related brain health and memory decline. These findings have obvious implications for humans. 

As a cognitive behavioral therapist, I tend to focus on a person's present situation and challenges. At the same time, I'm struck over and over by how helpful it can be to understand where longstanding patterns come from. Simply recognizing links from childhood to adulthood can be an important part of one's growth. The insight alone is usually not sufficient, but it can provide crucial clues that promote the healing process. 

Many people I work with wonder why they're still struggling with things from so many years ago. They often battle self-criticism, telling themselves they "should be over this by now" and feeling like it's self-indulgent to discuss certain aspects of their childhood and upbringing. 

In reality, time alone is no guarantee that the effects of our early experiences will fade. Let's consider some of the factors that explain why these experiences follow us into adulthood.  

Personality

Our personalities are the relatively consistent ways we think, act, and feel in response to our environment, and findings from a new study underscore the effects of our family experiences on our personalities and relationships. The study authors found that the quality of our relationships in our family of origin was a significant predictor of our current relationship satisfaction with our significant other.

They went on to explore how those early relationships affected our current ones, which is where personality came in. Individuals with worse family of origin experiences tended to score higher on the personality trait of neuroticism, which is the tendency to experience negative emotions. Higher levels of neuroticism, in turn, led to poorer relationship quality with one's partner.

Thus, our earliest relationships can direct the formation of our personalities, which then affect our later experiences. (I should mention that a significant portion of personality differences are explained by genetic differences, so families can affect us through both nature and nurture.)

Over-Rehearsed Patterns

The more we practice certain ways of responding, the stronger those tendencies become. By the time we're adults, we've probably had thousands of opportunities to practice old habits.

For example, imagine you were often shamed as a child for any little mistake. You may have learned to hide your mistakes at all costs, because it was the best way to avoid being mistreated. As an adult, you might continue to protect yourself vigorously against shame, even in situations that no longer call for it. Perhaps you married a kind and loving partner who doesn't operate based on shame, and yet the old pattern of behavior continues as you fear exposing yourself to judgment. 

It takes considerable care and attention to change lifelong habits. Even when we know what we want to change, we can fall back into old ways in a time of crisis.

Lack of Awareness

We might also ignore the possible effects of our upbringing on our current behavior, assuming we're responding purely to the situation in front of us. We might not recognize the filter through which we see the world, or the deeply held beliefs that color our perceptions. Thus we might not even know that we have some choice in how we respond in certain situations. 

When I was just out of college I got into a heated argument with an older friend, who stopped at one point and said with sudden recognition, "You're reacting to me like I'm your dad." I angrily denied that my response had anything to do with my father, and it took me over a decade to consider that he was probably right. Our reactions are always some blend of the present and our life history. 

We can also forget what our experience was actually like at the time. For example, being physically punished by an angry parent can feel quite terrifying to a small child. As a person looks back on the punishment with the benefit of hindsight, it might seem obvious that the parent was not going to annihilate them. As a result, the person might underestimate the impact of the punishment at the time on the child version of themselves, and the lasting mark it made.   

Self-Identity

Solid relationships early in life can help us develop a stable sense of who we are — what researchers call "self-concept clarity." Our sense of identity develops through our interactions with others, and positive and predictable relationships offer a reliable context in which to develop that identity.

A recent study showed that ACEs are linked with low self-concept clarity, which in turn leads to greater depression, loneliness, perceived stress, and life distress. The authors proposed that an "impoverished sense of self may then lead to poor adult mental health." In contrast, having a clear sense of one's identity can protect again depression and isolation.

Interactions with Others

Some of the patterns we develop early in life can actually get stronger later in life, particularly through our interactions with others. Consider attachment style, which is the way we relate (or "attach") to close others in our lives. Our relationships with early caregivers play a big role in whether we're generally secure or anxious in these connections.

Someone with an anxious attachment style will have a hard time feeling cared for in a relationship, which might lead to frantic efforts to avoid being abandoned. These behaviors, in turn, might lead a partner to distance themselves, which will further trigger the fear of abandonment and clinging as the cycle continues.

As a result, our interactions with others can amplify the tendencies that we developed in childhood. A recent study confirmed this pattern among adults with a history of physical abuse and neglect. The researchers found that childhood maltreatment led to an anxious attachment style, which in turn led to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem

Brain Changes

It's now been more than a decade since cognitive neuroscientist (and my doctoral advisor) Martha Farah demonstrated the effects of poverty on brain development. In his review article, Liu also highlights some of the brain differences associated with childhood adversity, including the reduced size of the hippocampus (crucial for learning and memory), the greater reactivity of the amygdala (involved in fear and other emotions), and abnormalities in the parts of the frontal lobes associated with regulating emotion and planning complex behaviors.

These kinds of studies make it clear that our experiences literally shape our brains, just as Michael Meaney and his colleagues demonstrated with rat pups. Thankfully, our later experiences can continue to shape our brains and stress responses in a positive direction, given the right conditions.

Core Beliefs

Given that our experiences affect our brains, it shouldn't be surprising that they also affect our minds. In cognitive behavioral therapy, "core beliefs" are defined as our fundamental way of seeing the world and ourselves, which develops through our experiences.

I addressed core beliefs in the context of cognitive behavioral therapy in my book Retrain Your Brain; in my forthcoming book CBT Made Simple, I devote an entire chapter to recognizing and changing them, because of their power to influence our automatic thoughts and our resulting feelings and behaviors.

For example, if I have the core belief that I'm unlovable, and my wife doesn't greet me warmly when she comes home, I'll be quick to interpret her behavior as, "She doesn't care about me." That automatic thought will lead me to feeling sad and dejected, and possibly to withdrawing, thereby weakening my relationship.

Core beliefs have the poisonous quality of being self-reinforcing, because they bias our perception of reality, driving our automatic thoughts, which in turn reinforce our core beliefs. It takes considerable effort to recognize and reshape these beliefs, often in the context of focused work with a therapist. 

Unprocessed Memories

Very traumatic life events can so overwhelm our nervous systems that our memories of the events are not fully processed. Our desire to avoid these painful memories further prevents us from facing — and ultimately making peace with — these haunting episodes.

And yet, despite our best efforts to bury these memories, they intrude on our awareness — popping into our minds out of nowhere, triggering panicked responses to trauma reminders, flooding our bodies with stress hormones, and affecting how we see ourselves, others, and the world.

These dynamics may be clearest in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Whether the trauma happened in childhood or later in life, undigested memories can continue to haunt us. I've worked with veterans on facing their combat-related trauma of 40 years earlier, and the memories felt as fresh as when they were 22 years old on the battlefield.

By facing our darkest memories in a safe and supportive setting, we can allow the open wound to heal. We'll be left with a scar, but the pain will no longer be acute.

How Do People Change?

Given all the factors that perpetuate the effects of our early life experiences, perhaps we should wonder that people manage to change at all. And so returning to Wheelis, I'm struck by the rather optimistic title of his book, How People Change. How does he propose that change is possible, in light of the quote that opened this post? Later in the book Wheelis writes:

     "How curious, though, that this perception of the determining quality of childhood experience is at the same time the creation of freedom."

Wheelis suggests that by pulling our experiences close and examining them, we can recognize in our current reactions the signature of our past; that recognition allows us greater choice in how we respond. 

Thus, a willingness to address the past doesn't mean refusing to take responsibility, wallowing in one's misery, blaming one's parents, or feeling sorry for oneself. In fact, quite the opposite is true — understanding our history is about recognizing and taking responsibility for longstanding patterns that probably trace back to our childhood, because we're determined to change them. To deny the influence of our past means we never learn from it. Wheelis recommends a balanced approach:

     "We must affirm freedom and responsibility without denying that we are the product of circumstance, and must affirm that we are the product of circumstance without denying that we have the freedom to transcend that causality."

I've focused on research that addressed frank maltreatment, but we don't have to have been abused or neglected to have been shaped by early life experiences. Each of us has a history that has written itself on our bodies and brains, and that we carry forward into the rest of our lives. For example, each family has a particular way of dealing with strong emotions, or handling conflict, or using guilt or shame. And in big ways or small, each of us has been wounded.

It can be painful to revisit the difficult parts of our past and to recognize their lingering effects. Some people may choose to let the past be the past and keep it buried, which each of us is free to do. If you're interested in understanding more about how your own past affects your present, consider talking with a loved one or a therapist. As Wheelis concludes:

     "The more cogently we prove ourselves to have been shaped by causes, the more opportunities we create for changing."

References

Chen, R., & Busby, D. M. (2018). Family of origin experiences on relationship satisfaction: A mediation model. Journal of Family Therapy. doi:10.1111/1467-6427.12217

Liu, R. T. (2017). Childhood adversities and depression in adulthood: current findings and future directions. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 24, 140-153.

Meaney, M. J., Aitken, D. H., Van Berkel, C., Bhatnagar, S., & Sapolsky, R. M. (1988). Effect of neonatal handling on age-related impairments associated with the hippocampus. Science, 239, 766-768.

Muthuri, S. G., Kuh, D., & Cooper, R. (2018). Longitudinal profiles of back pain across adulthood and their relationship with childhood factors: Evidence from the 1946 British birth cohort. Pain. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001143

Wheelis, Allen. (1973). How People Change. New York: Harper.

Widom, C. S., Czaja, S. J., Kozakowski, S. S., & Chauhan, P. (2018). Does adult attachment style mediate the relationship between childhood maltreatment and mental and physical health outcomes? Child Abuse and Neglect, 76, 533-545.

Wong, A. E., Dirghangi, S. R., & Hart, S. R. (2018). Self-concept clarity mediates the effects of adverse childhood experiences on adult suicide behavior, depression, loneliness, perceived stress, and life distress. Self and Identity. doi:10.1080/15298868.2018.1439096