Joe’s father has always criticized his children. He was quick to punish them for the slightest infraction. Joe recalled a road trip where he and his siblings rode around in the back seat to visit family friends. His dad stopped the car and asked Joe if he wanted to get spanked on the side of the road or at their friend’s house. Joe couldn’t wait to leave home by the time he turned 18.
My parents divorced when I was 13, a few months after my grandmother, who lived with us for five years, died of a sudden heart attack. It was one of the most difficult times of my life. I have never felt so alone.
Many of us have had painful childhood experiences – divorce, loss, alcoholic parenting or worse. There is no qualifying exam to become a parent.
Difficult life experiences have a lasting impact on adults. Much of the trajectory of our lives depends on the circumstances of our birth – the family we are born into, where we live, and our socioeconomic status. Indeed, so much can be predicted by the zip code in which we were born. It has little to do with who we are as people. But it can have a huge impact on who we become.
Difficult life events can influence us both negatively and positively. As Bessel Van der Kolk notes in her best-selling book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” trauma or neglect early in life can impact our brain development and how we respond to stimuli. external. Our fear-driven brains can respond with a flight, fight, or freeze response without real provocation. Some adults, with a difficult childhood, may lack trust in others. They are always waiting for “the other shoe to drop”.
But there are also positive impacts. Many trauma survivors are fiercely independent and self-sufficient. They are strong, persistent and resilient. They have the ability to overcome obstacles and challenges. And they often have great compassion and empathy for others. They want to help their friends and loved ones who are in pain and suffering.
Survivors want to “overcome” these early losses. They hope to “let go” of their fear and pain. They want to get rid of the scars of those experiences.
But is it possible?
In my experience, we can never get rid of everything we’ve been through. All events in our lives are part of who we are and have become. We can explore this landscape, tap into our memory, and create a narrative that makes sense to us. One that has a beginning, a middle and an end. We can develop self-compassion and a sense of equanimity about our life journey. We can become aware of how we react to the world around us and learn to react differently. We can learn to cultivate inner peace and hopefully experience joy and love.
We cannot get rid of painful life experiences, but we can find a place for them in our inner garden where they have less hold on our lives.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at the Everett Clinic. Her Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/healthwellness-library.html.