We all struggle in our lives from time to time, and some of us struggle more than others. We might tell ourselves it’s because we’re lazy or stupid or incapable. But most of us have very little awareness of what the real reason is. Whether we had an unhappy childhood, or one that was just ‘OK’, we all live with the consequences of our past childhood experiences. We don’t realise that those things continue to affect our thinking and behaviour, which leads us to struggle as adults. Once we start to realise the impact that our past still has on us, we can start to shift how we think about ourselves. And we can change what’s possible in our lives. 

As adults we can struggle in so many different ways. Maybe it’s procrastination, over-eating or drinking too much, or having a constantly busy mind and not being able to relax. Maybe it’s lack of confidence, over-giving or over-working. There’s an endless list of things we seem to do that sabotage our lives and stop us feeling happy.  We might look at other people who don’t seem to struggle and see that they have ‘normal’ lives and families.  In comparing ourselves to them, we assume there must be something wrong with us because we can’t get our act together. 

Exploring childhood experiences

The word ‘family’ is key to understanding why we are the way we are. When we are young children we rely on our parents and caregivers to look after us and keep us safe. Some people had a very difficult early childhood, living in a family environment that was neglectful or abusive. If that was your experience, then you’ve probably spent your life trying to push it out of your mind.  But even if your childhood was ‘OK’, and your parents looked after you well, there will be situations where you felt unsafe and/or unsupported, and where your needs were not met.

For example, perhaps your parents argued a lot, or your Mum had bouts of depression. This meant you were never quite sure what would happen when you came home from school each day. Or maybe they didn’t listen to you, so you had no-one to turn to when you were bullied in school. Maybe their love was conditional on you getting good grades. Or there was always an unspoken pressure on you to ‘try harder’. If your parents were working all the time, you might have memories of being alone a lot or having to look after siblings. 

I’ve written more about the consequences of difficult childhood experiences here.

What happened in your past still affects your thinking and behaviour.

No matter how much we might want to, we can’t easily ‘leave the past behind’ because it has such a huge impact on us. When our needs are not met as children, we experience negative emotions. This leads us to develop certain behaviours to try to get our needs met and stay safe. These behaviours continue into our adult life, and this is what we end up seeing as unhelpful or ‘bad’ habits. I’ve written more about how this might show up here.

For example, if you felt pressure from your parents to achieve and excel as a child,  you would see this as a natural way of attaining love and feeling safe. So you might develop the habit of being a perfectionist, or ‘giving 110%’ at work, which leads to burnout. If your parents were working all the time, leaving you alone and feeling abandoned, you might develop the habit of overthinking everything (as your subconscious way of trying to stay safe).  You might think these behaviours are ‘just the way you are’. But if you delve under the surface, you might find that your behaviours originate from your childhood experiences.  And you might not recall the whole of an uncomfortable situation, but short memory fragments are just as powerful.

Your adult struggles can be mapped to your childhood experiences.

If you look at the struggles of your adult self, and compare it to your early childhood experiences, you might notice a pattern. For example, I worked with a client who was starting to date again after a recent divorce. He struggled with his confidence in conversation with women he liked, and felt he just couldn’t ‘be himself’. 

When I asked him what his childhood was like, he told me he’d never bonded with his mother. He recounted one incident that stuck in his memory from when he was about 6 years old.  One day in late summer he’d tried to get her attention by deliberately falling backwards off a wall in their garden. As he thudded to the ground, his back and head jarring against the hard mud, he cried out in pain. He shouted louder and louder, hoping to see her come running to help him. 

But she never came. 

As he lay on the ground, blinking away the tears, he made a realisation based on his unmet need. He thought, “She’s not coming to help, and that means I don’t matter.” 

What happened in the past stays with you.

My client’s unmet need “to matter” could be masked in various ways, and it went unnoticed for many years. But when his wife wasn’t around to help him meet that need, it resurfaced and became a problem again.  In dating conversations he would overthink, get tongue-tied and not know what to say. 

In our work together I gave him an experience of having this need met. To know at his core that he did matter. That transformed his confidence in stressful dating situations, and enabled him to be much more relaxed and ‘himself’ again. 

This kind of thing happens all the time beneath our awareness. When our needs are not met as children, we adopt ways of thinking and behaving in order to get our needs met, and to stay safe.  It’s likely that some of your unhelpful behaviours or ‘bad habits’ have formed because of your childhood experiences.

Looking into your past will help you change your unhelpful behaviours.

The first step in changing this pattern, is to start to get some clarity. To identify the kinds of childhood experiences that could have had an adverse impact on you. Here’s a few suggestions on where to start looking:

  • Think about your childhood and who looked after you and/or you spent a lot of time with. 
  • Think about how you were treated as a child. How were you praised or punished? 
  • How did you relate to your parents?  
  • Think about your experiences in school, both in the classroom and in out of school activities. 
  • Make a note of times in your life where you felt uncomfortable. What was happening and who was there? 
  • Think about your family set up, and how your family members interacted with each other. I recommend looking up Patrick Teahan’s work on toxic family systems.

There’s no need to think hard about it. If you set yourself the intention to remember, your subconscious will bring you the important fragments. I’d suggest doing some journalling about this. When those fragments of memory bubble up you can capture them on the page.  Don’t worry about capturing everything exactly. Trust what comes up and that it’s enough for now. 

This is just the beginning of exploring your childhood experiences. It’s the start of you reconnecting with the possible causes of your current struggles. It’s a big journey but give yourself permission to take it slowly so it doesn’t overwhelm you.

Embracing hope and possibility.

For those of us who struggle with ‘bad habits’, we often assume we’re just lazy or stupid or incapable. We tell ourselves that’s why we can’t get our act together. But the truth is, our past childhood experiences shape who we are and how we behave. If you look closely, you’ll see there’s a correlation between what happened in your past, and your current struggles. It’s not your fault you are the way you are. This alone should be reason for hope. What happened in your past does not need to define your life. You can take back your power and learn how to meet your own needs. You can let go of the struggle one baby step at a time.

(To read more about discovering wants and needs – click here)