As I work with adults who experienced childhood trauma, I’ve increasingly become aware of a child’s belief, deep down inside many of these folks, that they are the cause of their own unhappiness. The chronic symptoms that have brought them to see me reflect how this core belief has lingered into adulthood in crippling ways.
Most children in unhappy settings experience not only physical discomfort but too frequently adults who are inclined to blame and be critical (the lingering residue of their early trauma). Well into adulthood, individuals who grow up in such environments, where the pervasive message is that mistakes are not OK, and they should try harder, fundamentally believe they aren’t good enough. The experience of physical or emotional abuse, or not enough nurture or too much, lead a child’s mind to conclude that ‘It’s because of me’, and ‘I am the thing that is wrong’ eventually causing childhood trauma in adults.
As adults, these individuals tend to take responsibility for their spouse’s unhappiness. They often marry other individuals who are willing to allow that arrangement to persist. When things go wrong at work or with other relationships, rather than being curious about what went wrong, there is a short in the logic circuit and the blame comes directly home, no questions asked.
The Nervous System And Fear
We know now a lot about human nervous systems that grow up in insecurity and fear. They tend to go to fight-or-flight readily, they tend to scan the environment for the next bad thing. It is often difficult for people with this kind of chronically aroused nervous system to focus or pay attention. They tend to startle easily and find calmness scary because bad thoughts too easily intrude. They sleep poorly and they digest poorly. In fact, they get sick easily and frequently, because the steady wash of stress hormones is very hard on the healthy workings of the immune system.
This is the kind of chronic nervous system activation that extends the sense of ‘something wrong with me’ to ‘something physically wrong with me’. Often this worry produces symptoms such as pain in the gut, painful muscles in the neck that cause strain on the neck skeleton, odd sensations in the chest that interfere with sleep. These physical concerns preoccupy the mind, and the ability to be in a comforting relationship is diminished.
These individuals often seek medical care – of course, they want answers and too frequently this leads to expensive testing with no good answers about what is wrong. Because their important childhood relationships were difficult, they often have poor models for how to relate without blaming, and this complicates their search for answers. They often are desperate, and their search for answers leads to the internet where they devour good and bad information alike – with little capacity to distinguish due to their anxious certainty that something dire is in the works in their bodies.
This nervous system set tends to catastrophize. In its heightened vigil for survival and protection, this nervous system consistently mistakes innocent signals for a tiger right around the corner.
Childhood Trauma In Adults
When it comes to childhood trauma in adults, the part of the nervous system where these feelings and instincts live is not in good working communication with the logic brain. So if you asked most adults from adverse childhoods if they believe they caused their early childhood to be a painful one, they would rightly say no. Rather, the certainty that they were at fault lies deep and in a place that most of us have little conscious access to. The steps to healing childhood trauma include providing a safe and trusted environment to help the person gain access to what didn’t feel right when they were young – and trying to help the individual get in touch with the feelings of insecurity, danger, or a feeling that something just isn’t right outside of them. Allowing that to register as an actual feeling often gives the nervous system the opportunity to see that the problem was outside of themselves – not within, and not a defining quality.
That single dissection can often lead to the release of lots of boundary issues – between the patient and their past, and also between themselves and their important other(s) in the present. More openness and curiosity in current connections usually leads to closeness and a sense of security – the very antidote to the isolation and self-blame that it as at the root of many health and relationship challenges.
It’s not your fault!!