Life coach and founder of Abstracted Collective Sonia Alonso grew up not being able to predict her father’s moods or emotions.
“He could go from silence to violent anger in a minute, triggered by the smallest most innocuous things, like someone putting the telephone on its hook ‘the wrong way’,” she says.
Alonso developed a hyper-alertness around the house. She said she was constantly on guard and trying to “feel out” if a fight was around the corner. As a result, she developed childhood anxiety. She would become anxious about the weekends, and anxious whenever her father came home.
“I could never sleep in on weekends because I felt I had to wake up and be alert to a potential fight,” she shares. “To this day, I can’t properly sleep when I’m back in my childhood home. So these experiences leave scars.”
Sigmund Freud said that we have a “compulsion to repeat”. This means that many of us are subconsciously acting out things that are actually rooted in the emotional trauma we suffered in childhood.
Here are six things you might not realize you’re doing that are actually rooted in a childhood wound.
1) The things you get annoyed—as well as angry—about might seem unrelated at first
I remember reading somewhere about a woman who would get annoyed—and even downright upset—with anyone who kept her waiting.
These could be salespeople who didn’t ask her if she required assistance, a long line at the bank to see the teller, a person ahead of her in line at the supermarket who was “too chatty” with the cashier—you name it.
When most of the woman’s time was spent being annoyed, she began to reflect on why these seemingly trivial things bothered her so much and would leave her sulking for days.
She finally realized that the reason she got so agitated—much more than the rest of us would for example—was because her mother almost always kept her waiting when she picked her up after school.
As a child she remembered that almost, if not all, the school kids would be gone by the time her mother finally pulled into the school parking lot.
There was always an excuse: traffic, she had to wait for a train to go by, someone rang the doorbell before she could get out the door, the telephone rang…whatever.
Every minute that passed by made her get more and more anxious.
The woman associated her mother’s problem with tardiness as proof that she didn’t care as much about her as the other parents who always managed to show up on time for their own kids.
But there were other volcanoes of emotions bubbling up as well: anger at her mother for always being late; embarrassment because she was always the last one to be picked up; worry that this time she might have gotten into an accident; but also relief that her mother was okay when she did finally arrive.
Making the connection back to her childhood helped the now-woman to self-regulate (deep breathing, repeating a calming mantra to herself underneath her breath) whenever the triggers popped up. She reminded herself repeatedly that it wasn’t the same situation.
2) You zone out of your own emotions but zero in on other people’s feelings instead
Emotional wounds from our childhood can compel us to distance ourselves from our emotions altogether in adulthood.
“We may struggle to identify our feelings or find it difficult to process big feelings,” says Wendy Rose Gould from Very Well Mind.
Numbing feelings is often a way of self-preservation, adds Aurisha Smolarski, LMFT.
Instead of working through uncomfortable situations, a person “may choose to leave a relationship or situation instead of asking for something because it feels safer than the risk of rejection,” she says.
People-pleasing can be a subconscious strategy that allows us to avoid our own emotions as well.
Smolarski says that if we’ve been emotionally neglected as children, that we may end up becoming the “caretaker” or what she also calls the “burden holder” of our friends and family.
So we tune out of our own feelings and tap into other people’s emotions. We end up neglecting ourselves the same way our parents neglected us.
It might be helpful to check in with yourself routinely and ask yourself how you’re feeling—without judgment and with compassion.
Then do an act of healthy self-care to feel better.
3) You can cry at the drop of a hat
In my line of work as a journalist, I have spoken to many survivors of trauma. This includes people who were imprisoned in countries such as Iran for speaking out against the regime.
One woman I interviewed says her PTSD from being a child prisoner in Iran more than forty years ago will make her cry out of nowhere, even when she isn’t thinking about her past.
She is patient with herself on these days and allows the feelings to pass through her instead of pushing them away.
Crying isn’t a bad thing at all—it’s cathartic and therapeutic.
Crying is a natural way to reduce emotional stress. Ronda Rousey, is a Mixed Martial Arts World Champion and has been called “the toughest woman in the world,” openly shared that she is the “biggest crier, so don’t feel you need to hold those tears in.”
4) You have a harsh inner critic
One way that childhood wounds materialize in our adult lives is when we are very harsh on ourselves much the same way our parents were on us.
We might beat ourselves up for forgetting to pay a bill by a certain date, for example. “No wonder my dad said I was so irresponsible. It’s because I am irresponsible,” you might berate yourself.
Or let’s say you put on ten pounds in the past six months. So you internally shame yourself in a similar way that your mother did.
“What is said or enacted by parents or the primary caregivers gets embedded in the subconscious mind, which grows into harsh self-judgment and criticism,” says holistic psychologist Gena Golden.
Self-help coaches often advise to find evidence to the contrary. For example, if, as a child you had a parent who told you that you weren’t intelligent, then find examples that refute this theory in adulthood.
Maybe your boss complimented you on doing an amazing job on a project at work. Or you helped your partner with a complex problem.
Let the proof come from your own pudding, I say.
5) You might have a tendency to self-abandon
Sadly, self-abandonment is often a common symptom of childhood wounds.
This often comes up in relationships and can look like accepting breadcrumbs, for example.
This means that “a partner or potential partner gives you just enough attention and affection to give you hope and keep you on the hook, but not enough to make you feel comfortable or assured that the relationship is going well, says clinical psychologist Dr. Gemma Harris.
So you might be willing to accept the minimal attention and love because you feel that it’s all you deserve or that “it’s better than nothing.”
Self-abandonment can also be allowing abuse or allowing infidelity.
6) You’re always on guard
Childhood wounds can make us hypervigilant as adults. As related in Sonia Alonso’s story in the introduction, if you had a parent who had volatile moods, you may have had to be hyper-sensitive to any change in energy.
So if you heard Dad slam the car door when he arrived home from work, you knew he must have had a bad day and that things were going to be tense—or worse—that evening.
This might have taught you to be on guard as a grown up. Maybe you’re hyper-alert to your partner’s moods. Or you’re always watching for changes in your boss’ behavior.
Being on guard even when there is no immediate threat is a form of C-PTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), says psychologist Dr. Nicole Le Pera.
Le Pera says that C-PTSD symptoms can come from childhoods that had chronic stressful environments, dysfunctional adult relationships, emotionally disconnected parent figures, harsh punishments, shaming, rejection, financial insecurity, and a lack of boundaries.
It can also come from parentification, which is when a child is regularly expected to provide emotional or practical support instead of receiving that support themselves.
When we have these childhood wounds, Dr. Le Pera says that “our emotional growth is stunted, and survival becomes the goal. We get stuck in a state of hypervigilance where we’re on guard in a defense threat state.”
Reparent your inner child
We have the power to give ourselves what we deserved—but didn’t get—in childhood.
Psychologist Carolyn Rubenstein says that reparenting exercises can allow us to reconnect with our inner child to help us feel, deal with, and eventually overcome past trauma.
One way is to write a letter to our inner child, says Rubenstein.
“This can potentially heal wounds that might be decades old and give your soul peace by reaching a place of forgiveness. The goal is to give substance to your childhood pain, trauma, or disappointment so it can be set free and pave the way for an uplifting future.”
In the letter, Rubenstein says to address the hardships and challenges you faced, while still giving comfort to your inner child.
“Try to banish feelings of guilt or blame…and give yourself the compassion that was missing.”
Ask your younger self questions such as “How do you feel?”; “What do you need from me?”, and “How can I support you?”
This exercise allows you to reconnect with your inner child to help them feel, deal with, and eventually overcome past trauma.
Of course, we always recommend seeing a therapist you feel you can trust who can guide you through the healing process.
Along your journey, you’ll observe yourself falling less and less back on behaviors that don’t serve you.