I’ve wanted to write about this idea for a long time.
You see, in my work as a therapist and in my personal life, I watch something happen really, really often:
People who come from traumatic childhood backgrounds comparing themselves to peers who didn’t and beating themselves up for not being further ahead in life or at the same level as their peers.
This, obviously, is super painful for those who are comparing themselves to others and finding themselves lacking.
But it also doesn’t and cannot make sense for physiological and psychological reasons.
In today’s post, I want to tell you why this doesn’t make sense and share with you what kind of comparison (if any) is going to make more sense instead if you yourself come from a traumatic childhood background.
What Is Childhood Trauma?
Childhood trauma. Those words, for many of us, evoke a sense of heaviness and somberness. And rightly so.
But they are also sometimes very misunderstood words.
In my experience as a therapist, the idea of what defines trauma is often not very well understood.
Trauma, by definition, is an event or series of events that occur and where one’s coping abilities fail to metabolize and process the emotional impact of such events.
Childhood trauma isn’t “only” isolated, more easily-pinpointed events like a kidnapping, a car crash, a scary surgery or being assaulted by a parent. (I say “only” because I don’t intend to diminish any of these events in the slightest! Rather, I want to highlight the singularity and traumatic obviousness of such events.)
Childhood trauma can also involve more complex, protracted, less easily “pin-pointable” traumas that come in the form of repeated, persistent, prolonged events involving physical, emotional or mental abandonment, neglect or abuse most often by a caregiver or by those in a position of authority over the child.
For example, parenting that consistently made you feel physically and psychologically unsafe, chronic poverty, disownment by a parent figure, perpetual emotional, mental and physical boundary crossings by guardians, coaches, grandparents, your church leaders, etc.
The Impact of Childhood Trauma
Trauma — whether isolated and singular or protracted and complex — can have very profound effects on the physiological and psychological development of the child who undergoes it, especially when and if parent figures, authorities and caregivers are the perpetrators and/or fail to recognize what has happened and help the child process and metabolize the stressors.
In their attempts to cope, survivors of childhood trauma often have a host of physiological and psychological impacts that can last into adulthood including, but not limited to:
1. Loss of safety and trust
Especially in your parents if they were your abusers. But also a loss of safety and trust in the world, believing the world to be a dangerous scary place where anything can happen. As well as a loss of safety and trust in relationships in general.
2. Flashbacks and re-enactments
Actual memories of traumatic events and/or disproportionate responses to triggering events that unconsciously remind you of/reenact past experiences.
Trauma survivors often deal with high levels of anxiety, depression or both as a result of their experiences. For those who experience complex, protracted relational traumas, there is an increased possibility of PTSD and possible personality disorders developing.
4. Loss of self-worth
An underlying belief system may develop in which you see yourself as unworthy, and/or alternately as grandiose and better than others. You may see-saw between these feeling states, both of which compensate for the absence of a stable sense of self eroded by childhood trauma.
5. Heightened stress response
A hyper-aroused nervous system that makes you jump at the slightest noise, an inability to relax, a depressed immune system, a dysregulated body system or a disconnect from your body altogether.
6. Loss of a sense of self
Not knowing who, at your core, you are and what your most basic needs and wants might be. A hollow or false sense of self.
7. Use of distorted coping mechanisms
Compulsively using food, alcohol or other substances or repetitive behaviors (exercising, shopping, gaming, sex, gambling) to cope with the intolerable feeling states you may be feeling and/or developing emotional responses or life preferences as a reaction to traumatic experiences such as compulsive aggression responses or isolation tendencies.
And this is really just the tip of the iceberg.
The impacts of a traumatic childhood will be subjective and differ from individual to individual. So while the above list is just a sampling of some of the ways that childhood trauma can manifest and continue into adulthood, it’s by no means comprehensive.
The Playing Field Was Never Level to Begin With
But even with this short list of symptoms, one thing is probably very clear to you as you read it: Those who have lived through traumatic childhood experiences often have to deal with a host of complex and painful issues and symptoms that their peers who did not live through childhood trauma do not have to face.
So from this perspective, the proverbial playing field between those with traumatic childhoods and those with non-traumatic childhoods was not and cannot be level earlier in life.
Why? Because it takes an enormous amount of life energy and time to cope with and then, hopefully, and ultimately, heal from childhood trauma.
For example, because of the above list of symptoms, childhood trauma can arrest psychological and even physiological development and inhibit survivors from accessing the energy and capacity to achieve certain developmental milestones that their non-traumatized peers might more easily be able to do, such as dating, exploring interests, forming close friendships, clarifying and working towards a career paths that feels authentic and fulfilling to them.
If this is you, if you had to spend a majority of your life surviving an abusive childhood, and then later coping with the lingering impacts of it, and now you find yourself looking around at your peers — folks from childhood, college or on the news or TV screen — and feeling jealous and upset that you’re “far behind,” please recognize that it’s utterly unfair to compare yourself to someone who had literal developmental advantages over you.
A Better Comparison to Make
Look, we all get jealous.
It’s a normal and natural human emotion. And contrary to popular belief, I actually think that jealousy can be an important clue for us.
But what’s really unhelpful is to have jealousy about and compare yourself to others who didn’t have the same early childhood disadvantages that you did have.
And while I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to compare ourselves at all, if you’re going to do it (and let’s face it, we’re all human so you probably will at some point) I think it makes more sense to compare yourself either to:
- People who had the same set of early childhood traumas/disadvantages as you.
- Or, better yet, you from one, five, or 10 years ago.
When we compare ourselves to people who had the same set of early childhood traumas and/or disadvantages (think siblings or peers whose similar life stories you know well), we can level the proverbial playing field a bit.
But, of course, even if you had the same childhood as your sibling, how children cope with traumas subjectively differ so you may see different outcomes even as adults. So please just be mindful of that.
And certainly, the comparison that I think is the most helpful to make (if you’re going to make one at all) is comparing yourself to you a year ago. Or five years ago. Or even 10 years ago.
Compare yourself to your past self and reflect on and appreciate how far you’ve come, what you’re now capable of that you may not have been back then. Reflect on your own growth and progress and use that as your benchmark, not the achievements and “progress” folks who did not have your childhood experience seem to be having.
It takes tremendous courage to face your childhood trauma.
Acknowledging the truth about our pasts, how our past continues to be present, and then being willing to do the hard work of grieving, processing and moving forward in life requires so much bravery.
Overcoming a childhood of trauma is not easy, but it is doable. And certainly, no matter where you find yourself on this journey, nothing will beat working with your own trauma-trained therapist, but if you’d like some additional resources to support you in your healing, here are some of my recommendations:
- “Journey Through Trauma: A Trail Guide To The 5-Phase Cycle of Healing Repeated Trauma“ by Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD (book)
- “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma“ by Peter Levine (book)
- The Trauma Project (Facebook page with excellent resources and information)
- “Guided Imagery for Post-Traumatic Stress: Healing Trauma“ by Belleruth Knaperstack (audio)
- ACEsConnection (website dedicated to understanding and advancing knoweldge of the impact of childhood trauma)
- These PDFs of the effects of childhood trauma and how to support trauma responses in kids from Echo Parenting (downloadable PDFs)
- “What does it mean to remother yourself and why is it so critical for our growth as women?“ (blog post)
- “Stop going to the hardware store for milk!“ (blog post)
- “Neuroplasticity and the Critical Practice of Speaking More Kindly to Yourself“ (blog post)
Now I would love to hear from you in the comments below: What’s one tip or suggestion you have for others who have survived traumatic childhoods who may compare themselves to those who didn’t? What’s been one resource that’s helped you in your own recovery and healing journey? Leave a message in the comments below so our community of blog readers can benefit from your wisdom.
And until next time, take very good care of yourself.