Emotional Scars: The Legacy Of Adverse Childhood Experiences

All children are born very needy and dependent. They simply cannot survive without a responsible adult providing the necessary care. Besides basic needs for food, shelter, clothing and safety, there are emotional needs for attention, validation, support and company. Those lucky babies born into families that expect them and are prepared to look after them get most of their needs met. However those who are born into experiences of abuse and neglect may get their needs met only partially. For example, some children may have enough food and have a safe home during childhood, but seldom received a hug or a kind word from their parents.

Often I meet clients in my practice, who do not classify their early childhood experiences as traumatic. They claim that they had “normal” parents, who provided everything necessary for their development. For such clients, to explore whether their emotional needs were met would mean being ungrateful and judgemental towards the parents who provided so much to them. However, if these people present with relationship issues or workplace conflict, I strongly recommend exploring how they related to their parents in the formative years as the dynamic can shed some light on how they relate to people in their current lives.

I believe that (whether you consider your childhood as traumatic or not) if your emotional needs were not met in your formative years, this is bound to leave marks on your personality that are very difficult to treat. These marks are like emotional scars, hidden deeply within and often not visible to others, but nevertheless causing pain to the person. Sometimes, if all these scars cluster together in one person, it might manifest as a personality disorder or an attachment disorder.

Significant, repetitive and prolonged traumatic incidents in childhood leave all these scars, but even fairly stable and uneventful childhood histories, that are marked with neglect, will leave some of them. I recently read a famous book by Hanna Yanagihara “A Little Life” and I was stunned by the accurate and lively description of the main character, Jude, who is a childhood trauma survivor. Even after working with people with similar histories for many years, I was still devastated to read about Jude’s suffering, who, despite being respected and loved dearly  by so many people around him, still grappled with the deep seated emotional scars, that have been ingrained into him since childhood. What are these scars and how do they manifest in our adult lives? Here are some examples that you may recognise and even relate to.

Deep Sense Of Insecurity

Childhood trauma survivors often grow up as independent and self-reliant adults. They often have to take care of themselves (and sometimes of younger siblings) and learn to survive, which in turn helps them to develop into successful people. However the success and self-assurance that looks like confidence on the outside, often hides the insecurity and fear on the inside. The emotional scars from childhood often raise self-doubts and leave resistant feeling of never being quite good enough. Questions like “Am I good enough?” or “I am afraid I don’t deserve good things in life” arise and pose barriers for full engagement in life choices or relationships. These insecurities can manifest in different ways. For example, insecurities are often behind doubts in couples relationships, when an insecure partner feels not good enough and is convinced that they are not worthy of love. Whichever way the insecurity impacts an individual, it is a crippling and unpleasant aftermath of adversity in childhood.

Difficulty With Trust

It is hard for a childhood trauma survivor to trust others and it always takes a lot of work. Where someone with stable childhood grows into a confident individual who perceives the world as a safe place, the trauma survivor will be vary and alert most of the time. Trauma survivors, like all people, want to connect and long for trusting relationships, but it doesn’t come easy. A remark from a friend or colleague that was thrown in passing, can leave a trauma survivor with a sleepless night of doubts. A small event can grow large in the mind of worry and suspicion. I had clients writing dozens of emails over an issue of trust to lifelong friends only to discover that despite years of close friendship they never entirely trusted their friends. It is sad and heartbreaking to see.

I am often asked this question by clients: How can I trust? I always respond saying that trust is not based on facts, you just do, you have to, in order to form close relationships. You just expect the best of people, of friendships, of yourself.

However I do understand that it may be nearly impossible for a childhood trauma survivor to achieve this state of being, namely a “trusting state of mind”.

Ambivalence In Relation To Others

Just like everyone else, and perhaps even more strongly than an “average” person, a childhood trauma survivor wants to connect. Particularly since they rarely have satisfying family relationships, they may long for creating good friendships and strong partnerships. Just as vividly the book “A Little Life” demonstrates, it is incredibly difficult for childhood trauma survivors to build satisfying relationships with others. They often doubt that others want them as friends and they often jeopardize relationships by keeping people at a distance. It can manifest as fear of being seen as needy or demanding, asking too much or being too much. Just like Jude in the book, they always feel completely alone. I should note that in the book people around Jude loved him unconditionally and insisted on being close despite his repeated attempts to push them away. Jude was lucky to have so many devotees around him. In real life we seldom have such luck.

Trauma survivors that push others away are at risk of being isolated, if they don’t happen to meet dedicated and committed friends.

It takes much work to form relationships and sustain them, so if you’re not proactive in this (and childhood trauma survivors often are not), you are at great risk to remain alone.

Confusion Over Love

For people who did not receive much of it in childhoods, love is often a foreign concept. A child who seldom enjoyed praise, support and attention from the parents grows up starved of love. He/she is not sure what it looks like when someone loves you and cares about you, but is craving this feeling nevertheless. Unfortunately this craving often leads people into abusive relationships, as they often confuse power and control with expressions of love. Even after they begin to realise that abuse from a partner isn’t an act of kindness, they continue to cling to the relationship because they cherish the moments when the partner can give some breadcrumbs of love: a hug or a caring word. Moreover, being at a low point in their self-esteem, they often feel like they do not deserve any better treatment. This is a dangerous and often deadly dynamic.

When presented with partner violence in counselling I often screen people for childhood trauma and aim at identifying where and how they learned that accepting violence towards themselves from someone who is supposed to care for you is okay.

Until this fundamental belief is shifted in a person it is very hard for them to leave the relationship or seek a more loving and respectful one.

Raising Awareness

It is important to raise awareness of these emotional scars and point out that they are just leftovers of an emotional abuse or neglect in childhood. Perhaps if you are a childhood trauma survivor and you recognize them as they play out in your life, you can learn to put them aside as a symptom, and proceed with trust and security despite them. Psychotherapy can teach you to identify them and can teach you not to allow these emotional scars guide your reality at present. However it may not be possible to eliminate them entirely. Earned security and confidence as an adult cannot remake your childhood. Secure attachment and unconditional love in childhood make a world of difference. Look at those people who (as you might believe) had that available when growing up. How at ease they seem to make friends, speak up, trust and give! This ease is an envy to the trauma survivors. By contrast, childhood trauma survivors may look aloof, distant and disinterested in friendships, wary of connection and often suspicious. Remember that these are the scars and not the whole of a person. Like scars on the skin, they can heal to a certain degree and soften over time. Meanwhile being aware of them for each particular person is the key to being in charge of their behavior.

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