Why Your Childhood Matters to Your Mental Health as an Adult
We all hear that our childhood experiences impact our lives as adults — to varying degrees based on who you speak to and what you believe. But wherever you fall on the “nature vs. nurture” spectrum, one thing is undeniable: we all have childhood experiences that creep into our memories as adults, whether good or bad.
If you grew up with a physically abusive or emotionally abusive parent, for example, that tends to stick with you into your adult years and affect your mental health. That’s not to say that people who were abused as children can’t or don’t grow up to be perfectly functioning human beings — they do. It just means that they may have different baggage than other people. Let’s face it, we all carry around baggage of some sort. What it looks like and how heavy it is will change, that’s all. Regardless, no matter what the circumstances of your upbringing were, you were affected.
So what do you do about it?
There are a few things you can to support your mental health. And I am not a trained mental health professional, so I’m just speaking from experience.
- Acknowledge it: if you pretend it isn’t there, it can eat you alive from the inside. It can creep up on you one day and just hit you in the face like a brick. You don’t have to love it, but it is important to recognize it’s existence.
- Accept it: it happened. Believing it didn’t or shutting out those memories won’t help you heal.
- Learn from it: understand that you are who you are because of your experiences. Your past doesn’t wholly define you, but it does play a part in who you are. That’s unavoidable. Learn how your past affected who you are and grow from it. Become a stronger person because of your experiences, not in spite of them.
Personally, I suppressed negative parts of my past and they caught up to me in my 20’s: unexpectedly and with such force, it took me out of commission entirely. I was paralyzed. It impacted my physical and mental health, my relationships, my job, every aspect of my life. And that’s when I realized I had things in my past that I never dealt with and never wanted to deal with. I hoped they would just disappear if I ignored them long enough. Well, that didn’t happen.
Fast-forward a few years, I sought help, was diagnosed, got on medication, and saw (still see) a therapist (I sought help at the request of a loving family who supported me, no matter what — my eternal thanks). Note: Everyone who seeks help is an individual use case and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Be mindful of what you need based on your situation. I can’t even venture a guess as to where I’d be if I didn’t get help. But I’m glad I did. It changed my life for the better. Now, I’ve acknowledged my past, accepted it for what it is, and have learned from it. It still creeps up every now and then, but I’ve learned skills to help cope.
Okay, psychoanalysis time!
Again, from my personal experience, one of the biggest tools I’ve learned is to recognize what part of me is “in control” at any given moment. As a hypothetical example, I’m feeling unrecognized at work and am looking for positive affirmation. You typically can’t just walk up to your boss and ask him to sing your praises (at least not my boss). Maybe as a child, I didn’t get recognized when I did “good” things: got good grades, cleaned up after dinner, made a sports team, won a competition. So maybe my desire for recognition stems from there. The child (say, 8 years old) part of me is likely taking control at that moment and my emotions are driven from those experiences, not really the present ones. And maybe what I need is just to feel valued.
This could be solved by having a frank conversation with your significant other, family, or friends, and letting them know how you feel (which is not easy). More than likely, you’ll get all kinds of positive vibes coming your way. You will feel appreciated, valued, and recognized for your role in those relationships. Regardless of whether your boss sings your praises, you’ve filled that desire and satisfied that emotional need.
It doesn’t always stem back to your childhood, but sometimes it does. And acknowledging, accepting, and learning from those experiences is monumentally helpful in order to stay in a good mental state.
Also published on Medium