The sources of an unhappy childhood are not what you might expect
- being poor – poverty by itself does not guarantee an unhappy childhood.
- raised by a single parent –
- a divorce during your childhood –
- severe physical illness
- severe mental illness
- death of a parent, sibling or other close loved one
These things can contribute to an unhappy childhood. However, in a home with enough unconditional love from caregiver to child, its possible to grow up happy in spite of these obstacles.
What Is Happy?
Happy has become a loaded term in the USA. For the most part advertising that tells us what “happy” is supposed to be. If you purchase the right car, clothes, beer, house, etc. etc. then you will be happy. The subtle message of commercials tells us that “unhappy” is caused by not doing what the commercial says. So get out there and shop your way to happiness!
The appropriate Buddhist term I’d like to replace happy with is equanimous, the experience of equinimity. It can best be described as the ability to experience an even-keeled content acceptance of life regardless of what pleasant or unpleasant thing might be happening at any given moment. Its the ability to experience the full range of human emotion ranging from estatic joy to the deepest sorrow with an even-keeled quality of being present and aware for your experience of your life in every moment with total acceptance.
Research indicates that people are happy when they are present and aware while they are doing whatever they are doing. In other words they are paying attention to their in the moment experience and not worrying about an imagined future, or regretting their memories of the past. These seems to hold true even when the task is boring or unpleasant.
And to those of you who feel that a relationship will make you happy, let me say loudly that happiness is independent of being single or coupled up.
Childhood Experience >> Unhappy Adult
So what kind of things happen during our childhood that causes us to struggle to be fully present with ourselves as adults? What happens to make us tune out with drugs, alcohol, TV etc, to get into a relationships in order to feel better about ourselves, to be anxious, depressed, or unable to be relaxed present around others?
To answer this we need to understand a tiny amount of developmental psychology. Children have immature nervous systems that mature and form based on their interactions with the world and the people in it. The way this happens between a parent and child is through the use of empathy and attunement. Attunement is sort of like intuition. When you can understand what your child is experiencing even when they can’t tell you with words and then reflect that experience back to them, you are attuning. Empathy of course is the ability to respond to another with kindness, compassion, and a gut-level understanding of their experience; absent of criticism or judgment.
When a caregiver attunes to and is empathetic in their responses, then the child feels understood, and valued. It serves as a mirror for them to see themselves as a good person. This helps them develop a positive self-image, to be relaxed and not anxious, and I suspect, help avoid depression later in life. This positive experience with the adult allows a child to feel secure, and gives them permission to be natural and relaxed. The child is able to learn what he/she prefers in life including relationship choices and what they are good at doing with their time and talent. They are able to grow into a relaxed, secure and productive adults.
You Don’t See Me So I Don’t Matter!
This is the child’s experience when they are repeatedly mis-attuned to. As a child they can’t fill in the gap between you don’t see me and I know myself. What the child concludes is “You don’t see me. I don’t matter. I’m not important.” That’s the child’s experience. The child’s developing sense of “I” is deficient. Instead of experiencing his or her “I-ness” as openness, spaciousness, love and acceptance, a wound forms in that place. Deficiency and lack take the place self-love, self-acceptance and self-confidence.
In this scenario something happens during childhood to cause the child to feel like there is something wrong with them. There are too many potential causes. In general it has to do with caregivers who for one reason or another can’t or don’t attune and empathize adequately with the child. Due to various causes and conditions the parent is in some way absent, physically, mentally, emotionally or something else. A few of the many reasons include a mentally ill caregiver, a parent who works so much they can’t spend quality time with their children, or a parent who is so narcissistic that they can’t put the child’s needs ahead of their own.
It may not even be the parents fault. Some outside force such as illness or a death might be the cause. The child misses a lot of positive regard from caregivers and like children everywhere will blame themselves. In a child’s mind they are either good or bad. So the child concludes he/she is bad and internalizes that belief.
The more severe case that we often hear about in the media is the caregiver who is depressed, abusive, addicted, or malicious in some way etc.. When these things are part of a child’s developmental years their ability to believe that others are safe and its possible to feel secure is severely compromised. As a result its hard to trust others in adulthood and the ability to make healthy relationships is severely compromised.
So Here You Are, an Unhappy Adult
and some of these thing plague you:
- You don’t feel secure, you worry about safety or money or something else
- You don’t like who you are and so try to hide it by pretending to be someone you are not
- You regret your past and get down on yourself a lot
- Your mind runs a mile a minute and you are always imaging future scenarios that don’t happen
- You hate your body or how you look
And the list goes on. But what do these things have in common? They are all symptoms of struggling to be present for your “in the now” experience. What happens instead is an attempt to live in a fantasy world of the fictitious future or the regrettable past. In your relationships you are either trying to find the perfect other to complete you and help you feel happy or you are avoiding relationships. You are unhappy.
How can know how to be happy if we don’t have an experience of liking ourselves in our existence? Is it any wonder your unhappy?
Its not Forever!
An unhappy childhood does not doom you to be an unhappy adult. You can fix this. The You is emphasized because its important to understand that you becoming happy is not going to happen because you find the perfect mate, or the perfect job, or the perfect place to live, etc. etc. Those things might help but the primary work is for you to focus on you and work to heal the unhappiness of your youth so that you can be fully present and fully able to be with yourself and then with others.
The steps go something like this:
- Find a good therapist who can help you
- work through the grief and the pain of the past
- Understand the reasons why things were like they were
- Grieve the loss and then let then let the past go
- Come to realize at a gut level that you can be happy.
- Change your self-defeating thoughts into positive ones.
- Learn to love yourself just as you are without criticism and judgment.
If you can learn to do this and then you don’t need to look to someone else to meet my your needs, a completely impossible task anyway. This is the key to happiness and to a healthy relationship. What we think we want from another is actually a desire to connect to some deeper part of ourselves. Learn to love yourself then turn your love outward to others just as they are, appreciating their special qualities and uniqueness instead of trying to use them to fill your own sense of not being good enough. (This article arose out of an interview I did on unhappy childhoods for yourtango.com.)
Do you feel like you had an unhappy childhood? Are you in a relationship with someone who had an unhappy childhood? Let me know what your experience is and what you think. You can leave your comments below.
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