I saw Moonlight last weekend; it is a powerful, poignant, and nuanced movie about Black male development, masculinity, love, and sexuality. One aspect of the movie that moved me to tears was the depiction of the trauma the main character experienced in relationships with his mother and peers and how this trauma influenced him as a child and as an adult. Inspired by Moonlight, this post is dedicated to discussing childhood wounds and providing suggestions for how to heal them.
I was blessed to grow up in a stable, loving family and I still came out of childhood with some wounds. As a kid it felt like my parents were a unit and that I was on the outside of their strong marriage. Also, because my parents were so successful, I believed that they were perfect and that I needed to be perfect in order to be loved. In addition to my experiences at home, I frequently felt like an outsider as one of few black kids at school and didn’t quite fit in with my black friends at church. Loneliness was a frequent companion. As a child and teenager I adapted to this combination of experiences by working to try to get people to like me. I subconsciously felt that I was unlovable and spent a lot of energy trying to do things (giving my time, energy, support) in order to be loved. I guess it’s no surprise that now my job involves spending most of my time helping people to feel better about themselves and to not feel alone. I carried the wounds from my childhood into my young adult years and therapy was what helped me to heal and let go of these wounds.
Most of us carry childhood wounds into adulthood. Whether we were in a family where emotions were not acknowledged, we experienced abuse, we were neglected, it was communicated that who we are was not okay, or we witnessed violence in our home or community, these childhood wounds often go unhealed. As kids, most of us figure out ways to adapt to difficult situations, for me that meant trying to be perfect and pleasing everyone, for other people it could mean hardening your exterior and keeping people at a distance by being cold, for others it could mean not establishing boundaries with people for fear that you will be rejected or harmed if you do. Many of us grew up with parents who did not have the emotional bandwidth to handle our pain and distress, so we learned to keep our emotions to ourselves or reject them all together in order to avoid being punished for expressing sadness, disappointment, and anger. These survival strategies helped us make it through difficult situations as children but often cause problems for us when we become adults. For example, the survival strategy of pushing everyone away can cause problems if you are trying to develop an intimate relationship with someone. As kids we may not have had much choice in how we responded to our environment and the people in our life but as adults we can work to heal our childhood wounds in order to move forward with our lives. What follows are my recommendations for how to begin to do this.
Acknowledge the wounds
Many people suppress memories of childhood wounds in the hopes that if they ignore these experiences, they will just go away. Unfortunately, it does not work that way. Suppressing difficult experiences negatively affects our behavior. When we don’t acknowledge our wounds we often respond in unhelpful ways to situations that are similar to hurtful experiences we had in childhood. For example, when I feel like an outsider or get the sense that someone is rejecting me I tend to shut down and withdraw emotionally because that is what I did as a child. As adults, we have the opportunity to acknowledge and process these experiences so that we can choose how we want to react to similar experiences now. I encourage you to take some time to journal and think about painful or difficult experiences you had as a child. If it feels overwhelming to do this on your own, consider exploring and processing these wounds in therapy.
Show yourself compassion
Most of us are critical of ourselves and the struggles that we experience related to our childhood wounds. I encourage you to offer yourself some compassion. Know that your adaptation to the wounds you experienced was probably the best thing you knew how to do as a child. Additionally, most of us experienced childhood wounds in part because the people in our lives were not compassionate towards us. Offering ourselves compassion now can help heal wounds from the past. Self-compassion involves acknowledging and accepting your emotions. Taking deep breaths and paying attention to your physical sensations can help with this. Next, remember that whatever emotions you are experiencing are normal; they do not indicate that something is wrong with you, they are a sign that you are a normal human being who cares about things. Finally, provide yourself with some comfort and encouragement. This may be something that you longed for as a child but never received. You could put your hand over your chest or wherever you feel the emotion and say something encouraging, supportive, and empathic to yourself (e.g. imagine responding to yourself the way you would respond to a baby or puppy).
Decide what you want to do differently
When we acknowledge and process the pain from our childhood wounds we then have the opportunity to choose to do things differently. Unhealthy family cycles are perpetuated by successive generations continuing to engage in the same destructive behavior without taking the time to reflect or make amends. While most of us just did the best that we could to survive in situations where we were powerless as children, when we are adults we have more power and control over ourselves and situations. While we cannot control our family members and the way they act, we can choose how much time we would like to spend with them and how we would like to act with them. We also have the agency to choose to respond to other people in more constructive ways. In order to do this take some time to think about ways that you interact with people that are not healthy or helpful. Then consider how you would like to respond differently. For me, this means choosing not to take my parent’s behavior personally and comforting myself and interrupting my overplayed story of being unlovable when I feel rejected. It also means being vulnerable and talking to the person who I feel rejected by instead of completely shutting down. Therapy is a great place to figure out how you would like to change your childhood survival strategies to fit with how you’d like to be as an adult.