5 Adult Behaviors Explained by Childhood Abuse & How Therapy Help
As a trauma therapist specializing in helping people heal from childhood abuse, some of the more common questions I get asked is, “What if the abuse wasn’t that bad? Can therapy still help?” My answer is always yes! Even if you are coping fairly well as an adult, your past experiences still shape your adult behavior in ways you may not even realize.
During childhood, you form your views of the world and your place in it. Without taking the time to examine them, you naturally carry over these beliefs into your adult life. At the same time, some of the same behaviors that help you survive abusive situations as a child can block you from bonding deeply with others or achieving your life goals as an adult.
Because the connection to past abuse isn’t as obvious, many people don’t even recognize that these beliefs and behaviors have roots in their past trauma.Therapy is a safe place to be supported as you process what happened to you and learn better ways of relating to yourself and others. Learn more 5 adult behaviors connected to past childhood abuse and how therapy helps:
1) You only allow the people in your life to know a part of you. While you may share different aspects of yourself with different people, no one knows “the whole you.”
We all have behave differently in different situations, but survivors of abuse often don’t feel safe revealing too much of themselves to any one person. Some survivors of childhood abuse may also become very adept at becoming “social chameleons” and conforming themselves and their behavior to fit the situation. If you’ve experienced abuse, especially repeatedly over a period of time, you may not even have had a chance to find out who you are. Therapy
2) You are great in emergencies, but fall apart dealing with ordinary annoyances and stressors.
Survivors of childhood abuse have often faced incredibly stressful or dangerous situations, sometimes repeatedly. Some survivors also experience hypervigilance, which is a state of being constantly primed to react to danger.
If you’ve faced danger before, it’s easier for you to call on these survivor skills during intense situations. However, facing ordinary stressors requires a different skill set, including feeling relatively safe in the world and knowing how to self-soothe. Therapy is an effective way to learn and practice these valuable skills.
3) You feel a deep sense of foreboding or worry when everything is going well
There’s a couple different reasons survivors of childhood abuse have a hard time allowing themselves to feel good. If you’ve experienced a lot more bad times than good, you may not be used to feeling happy, content, and safe. Just like with other emotions, we need practice experiencing these feelings.
Another explanation relates to the cycle of abuse. In abusive relationships, there is often a period of relatively safety that builds up to an explosion, followed by apologies, before the whole cycle repeats itself. If you’ve experienced this cycle, you learn not to trust that everything is going well, because, inevitably, things fall apart. Therapy can help you expand your capacity for feeling good and trusting in the good times.
4) Deep down, you feel like you’re a bad person
Most people can understand, on an intellectual level, that the abuse wasn’t their fault, but it still feels awful. One of the most important concepts I teach people is explaining that children can’t tell the difference between “I feel bad” and “I am bad.” In the therapeutic environment, you can challenge your childhood beliefs and learn how how to process challenging feelings without allowing them shape how you see yourself.
5) You feel attached to the person(s) who abused you in a way you don’t understand.
Sometimes this feels like deep love towards your abuser, but it can also take other forms, such as obsessing about their motivations for the abuse, overly empathizing with your abuser’s emotional pain, or believing your abuser understands you in a way no one else does. This attachment is called trauma bonding.
A version of trauma bonding that many people are familiar with is called Stockholm Syndrome, named after victims of a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden who, after they were released, defended their captors and refused to testify against them in court. A connection made through trauma bonding can feel even deeper than the attachment you feel towards people who have been much more loving towards you. You may even feel like you care about your abuser more than your own well-being.
From a survival perspective, trauma bonding makes sense. While you’re experiencing abuse, connecting and even aligning yourself with your abuser(s) helps you survive. Once you are free from the abusive situation, you no longer need to feel connected, but the emotional bond remains. A skilled therapist can help you shift your focus away from the abuser(s) and towards yourself, so you can connect with your own needs, wants, and desires.
The good news is, all of these beliefs can change. And, it’s normal to need help figuring out how to get there. When you’re used to handling challenges on your own, reaching out for help can feel like a weakness. In reality, it’s smart to use all the tools available to you to reach your goals.
If you’re ready to live your life fully now, it’s helpful to shift your thinking from, “My childhood wasn’t that bad” to “I wonder how good my adulthood can be.”