The survival tools you use to escape a shitty childhood are not tools you can use to build a healthy adulthood. This is not always immediately obvious for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, a dysfunctional family system will misinform you, confuse you, and leave you ill-equipped to skillfully engage with reality. Especially as it relates to feelings, wants, needs, responsibility, relationships, and personal boundaries.
It’s like being blindfolded and spun around in a circle for eighteen years and then pushed out into the world, expected to walk straight. I wouldn’t count on such a person to know their ass from a hole in the ground.
Secondly, what you had to do to survive, as far as your nervous system is concerned, literally saved your fucking life. So it would make perfect sense to cling to those survival tools and coping mechanisms like your finest assets. These may have been the only things that were there for you when your family wasn’t.
These survival tools became your family.
This is the most powerful reason people hang onto their maladaptive coping strategies long into adulthood. Surviving was their greatest triumph, and they owe it all to their dissociation, over-functioning, hypervigilance, or whatever fill-in-the-blank emotional kung-fu they developed instead of hanging themselves.
When Self-Preservation Becomes Self-Destruction
I always say that our most persistent adult problems were once childhood solutions. Allow me to illustrate with a couple commonplace examples.
The boy with shame-based parents learns early on that the only way to get their love and avoid their shame, criticism, and disapproval is to be number one at everything.
Achievement becomes his solution.
Straight A’s and varsity letters turn into PhD’s and Ferraris. He spends his entire life trying to be good enough, but each new success is just as hollow as the last. No marriage, job, or achievement will ever replace the unconditional acceptance he never received from the people who gave him life. He is chronically discontented.
Maybe he’s able to avoid his gnawing self-hatred with the busyness of achievement, but after all the limelights, acceptance speeches, and plastic smiles, he still goes to bed most nights thinking how lovely it would be to not exist.
His obituary will be very impressive, I assure you.
A girl with alcoholic parents discovers that she is valued for being the adult of the family. She takes care of her siblings, cleans up after her parents, and is praised for being “so mature,” “so helpful,” and “so understanding.”
Self-sacrifice and care-taking is her solution.
Entering a helping profession is only natural for her, becoming a doctor, nurse, therapist, or teacher. She mastered the fine art of self-abandonment under duress and has decided to put that unique skill set to use.
She does it all for her job, she does it all for her marriage, she does it all for her kids, she does it all for everyone the fuck else besides herself.
And despite being “connected” to so many people through her service, there is an unnamable loneliness in the pit of her stomach. A dull ache. Distant yearning. A quiet desperation that she couldn’t possibly do anything with except keep it to herself.
It’s quite difficult to ask for help when your whole identity is based on being the helper.
If nothing else, she’ll be remembered for her resilience, strength, and uncanny ability to suffer mercilessly for decades on end with nothing but a smile and a kind gesture for anyone who needs it.
Ignoring Your Trauma
The genders in the above examples are arbitrary. They could just as easily be reversed. Although women are at significantly higher risk of sexual abuse, trauma, in general, is an equal opportunity human experience.
There are innumerable ways in which people turn their childhood trauma into an identity and ride their wounds off into the sunset clutching their toxic shame like grandma’s pearl necklace. You’ve gotta become willing to take a hard look at your past and the compulsive patterns of your present in order to write your own future.
Most people regard their childhood as “normal,” and generally unremarkable. Especially those who suffered from childhood emotional neglect, because they usually can’t recall anything bad ever happening to them. Their trauma stems from all the things that didn’t happen but should have (developmental trauma). Even people who survived a complete shit-tornado of abuse and dysfunction learn how to pay bills and appear adulty in the public eye.
All this to say that there are vast swaths of the human populace walking around with untreated childhood wounds, living out their trauma responses in total oblivion. What a mess.
If you don’t heal your wounds, you become your wounds (see Stop Calling Your Trauma Response “Me” for a great article on this subject). You pass them onto your kids and then you die. Bummer.
Learning To Actually Live Your Life
If you have yet to escape survival mode and experience freedom, wholeness, serenity, and self-love, there is yet time for you, my friend. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that recovery can be really fucking hard.
Obviously, everyone’s healing journey is unique. But if the shit was easy, there’d be a lot less badly broken human beings scattered across the planet frantically searching for something to spackle their soul with.
Healing is a long road — much longer than this article. But here are some guiding principles that you may find helpful in creating a life worth living…
1. Find Your Tribe
Belonging to a healing community is vital. I can’t stress this enough.
I read about a study in which 90% of people after heart surgery, left to their own devices, went right back to mainlining twinkies and cheese fries within two years. Faced even with the possibility of death, their willpower still folded like a cheap lawn chair.
In this study, another group of heart surgery patients was enrolled in a program with support, guidance, accountability, and fellowship. Close to 80% of these people maintained drastic lifestyle changes for years post-op.
The difference between recovering with and without peer support is literally life and death for most folks, so I recommend finding your people. This could be a twelve-step fellowship, therapy group, an intimate church congregation, or any cluster of fellow humans that are focused on moving from surviving to thriving.
There is an old saying, “One man is no man.” You need a tribe.
2. Get One-On-One Help
Your biggest problems are in your brain. Trusting your own thinking to fix any of those problems is like asking a burglar to call the cops for you. It doesn’t make any damn sense. You need someone who can give you specific, actionable, individualized support.
Get a therapist, coach, twelve-step sponsor or someone experienced you can meet with regularly to help improve your life. Excuse the metaphor, but you can’t do your own colonoscopy. You will definitely need an objective third party to take a gander at that thing for you. There is no shame in asking for help.
Dying a slow and salty death with all the same problems you’ve shouldered your entire life because you were too proud to admit that you’re human — that would be the real tragedy.
Ask a person for help.
3. Take Advantage Of Available Resources
There are so many books, audiobooks, podcasts, videos, blogs, apps, social media accounts, classes, conferences, groups, and communities completely devoted to learning, healing, and growing through this messy human experience. If you have access to the internet and the ability to absorb new information, you have no excuse for floundering hopelessly in emotional squalor.
Make personal growth a hobby and commit to continuously finding new sources of guidance and inspiration. Learn how to make healing enjoyable. Give your life to the process and the process will give you a better life in return.
4. Participate In Your Own Healing Every Day
Recovery is not an event. It’s a habit. A way of life.
It took your whole childhood to program all your fears, triggers, addictions, shame, and shitty beliefs. It’s not likely that you’ll be “all better” in a month or two. Being that there is no finish line in sight, my best advice is to pace yourself and just make recovery a new way of living.
Just like some people are into gardening or cycling, you can make reparenting yourself a personal hobby that you look forward to doing all the time. And why not? Being nurtured in that way is literally what you craved most for all of your formative years. Give yourself that gift!
Living Is More Than Not Dying
Look, we all survived something or other as kids — divorce, death, disease, car accident, bullies, algebra. We are surrounded on all sides by potentially traumatic circumstances. But merely surviving these things is not enough for healthy human development.
Dr. Gabor Maté says that trauma is not what happens to you but what happens inside you as a result of what happened. This is vital in defining something that is yet so widely misunderstood.
Under overwhelming stress, we tend to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn. These are our evolutionary survival skills. Cortisol and adrenaline — they work in a pinch, but they’re certainly not long-term strategies for wholesome living. In fact, they’re demonstrably poisonous to the human organism with overexposure.
Living a beautiful life of your own choosing, free from the compulsive survival mechanisms of your childhood, is not promised anyone. Death is certain, but life is not.
Life is something you gotta work at.