CONTENT WARNING: Childhood trauma, challenging family dynamics
DISCLAIMER: Please keep in mind that this is about my one experience of childhood trauma and unique relationship with my primary caregivers. I acknowledge and respect that some folks may not have a relationship with their primary caregivers in which they feel love or loved, and where that may not be something they are seeking given their experiences.
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Chances are, most people have experienced some kind of trauma (however "big" or "small") in childhood that continues to affect us as adults. But exploring one's childhood traumas can seem like an overwhelming, scary journey to take. It can also spark some curiosity in us, especially if we're seeking to understand how we can live in the present without it being dictated by the past.
On my Healing Trauma series on the podcast, I've mention some of my experiences of childhood trauma – like chronic emotional misattunement, unpredictability in a caregiver's parenting (including instances of what I internalized as abandonment), etc. – that led to me developing a hypervigilant orientation to the world, a deep-rooted sense of unsafety and fear of abandonment in relationships, and a belief that I didn't belong and that my needs were unimportant.
It's a lot to unpack. And it's taken a while to understand that certain things that were just the norm for me actually impacted me in not-so-great ways. Especially given that there were also moments of joy, play, and connection within my family home.
Layer into that the common misperception that childhood trauma is only about the most severe cases of abuse or neglect (I certainly believed that for a long time). But as Dr. Gabor Mate says, "Trauma is both when bad things happen when they shouldn't, but also when good things don't happen when they should."
So reflecting on those adverse experiences, naming them as trauma, grieving what I've needed to grieve, and unlearning my associated trauma responses has been a long journey that isn't over yet.
But while grief and pain have certainly come up during this exploration, I have also felt relief from finally understanding how these and other experiences explain many of my deep-rooted insecurities, coping mechanisms, and relationship dynamics in adulthood. Also, it all does get easier along the way, evidenced by the fact that I can now talk about this stuff without getting triggered, depressed, or feeling unloved.
But to be honest, part of me still feels a bit guilty when I discuss childhood trauma on my podcast or elsewhere. It's tough being a parent, and I have a lot of compassion and awe for folks doing this mighty hard job.
We live in a world where parents are oftentimes overly busy, overly stressed, and lack adequate support in raising their kids (it really does take a village). Also, if parents haven't healed their own traumas – and if you're around my age (39), you know our parents' generation especially didn't have ready access to the knowledge and supports to do that kind of self-work – then their own trauma responses are likely to get expressed in their parenting and thus passed down to the next generation.
In having deep empathy for what my parents have gone through – the immense amount of trauma they endured growing up in a time of war or under threat of war, each losing at least one of their parents early on in life, the enormous pressure put on them as immigrants trying to build a new life in Canada, etc. – exploring my own traumatic experiences within my family home can bring up a lot of guilt. I have often had the knee-jerk reaction of: "But they went through so much. But they did their best given what they had. But I caused them so much pain with my anger and rebelliousness. But they really did love me."
And I genuinely do believe my parents love me a lot, and always have. So can't I just leave it at that?
I want to talk more about this piece, because I get the sense that it can be a big reason why many people shy away from the conversation about childhood trauma. Now, I'm not advocating that everyone go work through their childhood traumas this instance (I would never push anyone into trauma-healing work or therapy). But I do think it's important to bring some nuance into the conversation, in case this is something people are interested in and want to know if exploring childhood trauma can be done without completely falling apart or harming their relationships with their primary caregivers.
There are a lot of details about my childhood trauma that I haven't shared, out of respect for my family and for my own privacy, but I also don't believe in complete silence around this topic. If no one talks about this (especially, let's be frank, in Asian culture), how do we even begin to normalize our confusion, shame, or even curiosity around it? How do we even open up the possibility of healing childhood trauma, if that healing is something we want to explore?
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Our childhood wounds often don't stay restricted to the past. In addition to our early trauma responses seeping into our later relationships, triggering dynamics between us and our primary caregivers often continue long into adulthood if left unresolved.
Without getting into super personal details, a few months ago I spoke up to one of my parents about some boundaries I wanted to have respected in our relationship. I had gone a LONG time leaving things as status quo because of my long-standing, deeply internalized guilt of being "the black sheep" when I was younger, and not wanting to rock the boat or cause a rupture in our relationship.
Things had been going well overall with this parent for quite a while. We spoke frequently, kept up-to-date on each other's lives, and expressed our love for each other often. Having their consistent presence in my life was really important to me. So, in many ways, I had a lot invested in maintaining the status quo.
But I found myself being continuously triggered with a recurring situation that had been ongoing since I was a teenager. Every time this specific situation reared its head (which was often), it would activate old childhood wounds of unbelonging and feeling unaccepted for who I was.
I could sense the resentment growing, and I no longer felt in integrity with myself to keep pushing it away and letting the dynamic continue. I wanted to have a more authentic relationship with my parent, not one in which I felt I was walking on eggshells around this continuously resurfacing issue. So I spoke up.
The boundary-setting didn't go over well.
Putting your foot down with family and introducing change you know will inevitably cause disruption (maybe even some separation) is a HARD decision to make. I knew I was probably going to lose something very dear to me in doing so. And I did.
But this was so much more than just about this one relational dynamic. It was about breaking the cycle of suppressing my needs in order to avoid creating conflict and being overwhelmed by my immense fear of abandonment (a childhood trauma response), which had affected – rather, infected – most of my other relationships, for years.
It was about interrupting the pattern of denying myself the need to be unconditionally accepted for who I am by the ones I love, instead of once again reinforcing my deeply ingrained belief that my needs weren't worthwhile and my authentic self wasn't all that lovable.
It was about attempting to have an even more genuine relationship with this parent, where we could speak the honest truth with each other, however difficult, and not drop one another in the process.
But sometimes, others aren't ready to have that uncomfortable conversation with you, much less make a change they feel goes against their own core needs and values. Maybe you've been in the same boat as me, where you've had to decide: Should I rock the boat, or keep steering away from the choppy waves? Even though deep down inside you know the latter will keep you smooth-sailing in the wrong direction.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to any of this. I just made the most honest decision I could for myself at the time, and it did cost me a lot. But I also ended up gaining something essential to my healing in the process: upholding a newfound promise to myself that no matter if others lacked the capacity to meet my needs and accept who I was, I wouldn't be the one to drop me. I would be the unconditionally loving parent to myself that I had always needed.
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Interestingly, despite this being one of the worst moments in my relationship with this parent, I have never felt more unconditional love and acceptance of them.
Several factors have contributed to that, including:
1. When you learn more about trauma and do your own self-work around it, you can't not gain more compassion for others and notice when they are coming from their own wounded places. Even if things still hurt, they feel less personal and less about you being unlovable, not good enough, etc.
2. Learning about my family history and intergenerational trauma also helps me understand my parents' specific wounds and why they are the way they are. Enter more compassion.
3. Doing the trauma-healing work means building greater capacity to be with really hard emotions and being less likely to become traumatized by new stressful experiences.
It doesn't mean I haven't felt angry or in total grief about the situation (and everything associated with it), because I have. But what would have most definitely traumatized me if it had happened a few years ago did not dismantle me at my core. And I knew that no matter how hard repairing the rupture would be, I would ultimately be okay.
I didn't completely lose touch with this parent. And during our most recent interaction, we had as good and normal of a chat as we could have had under the circumstances. I was immensely happy to hear from them, and they offered words that encouraged me to reach out again in the future. I feel that we are both doing what we can to maintain a connection, and that is good enough for me for now.
And also, I still grieve. I could feel the tears well up as I saw my parent's face on the screen and felt that longing to be in greater connection with them. As soon as I got off the phone, I cried me a river. The grief that things have not been fully repaired continues – and I accept that too.
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One of the most beneficial things about doing this trauma-healing work has been developing the greater capacity to hold two truths at the same time:
That I love my parents and know they love me (and did their best given their capacities) AND ALSO I have been adversely impacted by certain childhood events and relational dynamics that I experienced as traumatic.
That I am a full-grown adult who is her own self-sufficient, separate individual AND ALSO I will always have a biological/developmental attachment to my primary caregivers and a deep desire to be loved and accepted by them.
That I have a genuine sense of acceptance of where my parent is at in their capacity to engage with me AND ALSO I feel sadness, grief, and sometimes anger that this is the way things are.
That I have immense compassion for my parent and don't take what's happening personally AND ALSO I have the right to assert and maintain my boundaries to honor my own needs and be in more authentic relationship with myself and even with my parent.
Learning how to hold multiple truths at once has helped me explore my past adverse childhood experiences without getting completely lost in them. It's helped me to walk into the shadows and identify my childhood traumas without drowning in shame or guilt or looking at my parents in a negative light.
I know from my own experience that it is more than possible to do this hard work of healing childhood trauma. I do recommend going through this exploration with the guidance of a trauma therapist as there is the potential for re-traumatization, and a skilled therapist will know how to decrease the likelihood of that happening.
Ultimately, taking this exploration and healing journey is a decision that only each individual can make for themselves. I just want to normalize the conversation and hopefully offer a glimmer of hope that not only can we do this work without letting it break us, but we can also move through it gaining greater self-empowerment, breaking free from decades-worth of unhelpful patterns, and developing a deeper acceptance and love for ourselves and quite possibly for our primary caregivers as well.