Had a Tough Childhood? You *Can* Move Past It — Here’s How

teddybear on chair alone

Getty Images

Your trauma doesn’t have to determine your future.

I’ve been thinking a lot about generational trauma over the last several months. It’s often discussed when talking about the descendants of enslaved people or Holocaust victims and survivors.  But not all trauma is borne from such catastrophic circumstances:Ssomething as simple as a parent who doesn’t meet your emotional needs or is constantly berating you can have a lasting impact. 

Terry Real is a renowned therapist who has worked with a number of high-profile clients, including Bruce Springsteen, who wrote the forward to Terry’s book, Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship. Bruce wrote:

“At thirty-two I hit an emotional wall and realized I was lost in a deep dark forest, largely of my own making, without a map. So began forty years of trying to find my way through the shadowed trees, down to the river of a sustaining life. With help I realized, in early middle age, that I was subject to a legacy that had been passed down from generation to generation in my Italian-Irish family…. I’ve worked hard, and I’ve been lucky. Over the years I’ve found some very good guides through that dark forest and down to that river of life. For my wife, Patti, and me, Terence Real has been one of those guides, and this book is a map through those trees.”

I’ve learned so much reading about how our childhoods shape us: The patterns in how we’re raised are often carried on well into adulthood, and coping mechanisms we develop to deal with flawed parenting can later surface in our relationships with our partners. (Don’t worry, I’m wondering what I did to my girls, too.) 

The so-called “adaptive child” shows up during times of stress or re-traumatization and is often in conflict with what Terry calls “the wise adult.” Understanding this dichotomy has helped me have more compassion and a deeper understanding of people I’ve met along the way. It’s also made me even more grateful to have had parents who loved me unconditionally.  

Terry and I had a fascinating conversation about all of this — if you missed it, you can watch it below. (And I highly recommend his book, too.) Behavior that’s been almost Pavlovian your entire life can be unlearned — as long as you’re willing to face it head-on and train yourself to respond differently. I think a lot of people will benefit from the wise adult who Terry has become.