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If we had a troubled childhood, it is not unusual to find we become preoccupied with certain elements of it or even obsessed. In this way, we can let it define who we are now in a way that is not good for us, preventing us from enjoying the present, and stopping us from feeling any optimism regarding the future.
We become, essentially, prisoners of our past.
However, freeing ourselves from this darkest of prisons we have constructed around ourselves is not easy; in fact, it is a process that can be both long and arduous.
A very important part of this process is to allow ourselves to fully experience the feelings that the memory of our traumatic childhood gives rise to and not to repress them. In other words, we must allow ourselves to grieve for our past and for our lost or stolen childhoods.
KUBLER-ROSS’S FIVE-STAGE GRIEVING MODEL:
Kubler-Ross’s model, which can be applied to the grieving process that relates to remembering a lost or stolen childhood (although the model was originally intended to describe the grieving process following the death of a loved one) involves five stages we may need to go through before our grief can heal. These five stages are shown below:
1) Denial – during this stage, we find it hard to believe our loss has actually happened; it can seem unreal. In the case of childhood trauma, for example, we may find it very hard to believe that our parent/s or primary caregiver had/have betrayed us.
Instinctively, we do not want to think ill of our parents, especially when we’re children.
This is why many children who are mistreated feel guilty; they (irrationally) turn the blame that should be directed at the parent/s onto themselves to protect themselves from the knowledge that their parents are bad/have behaved badly.
2) Anger – once such denial has been overcome, anger about one’s lost childhood can follow (to read my article about childhood trauma and anger, click
3) Bargaining – not everyone experiences this stage but it may include trying to make ‘deals’ with any particular deity one believes in through prayer (eg ‘ if you just get me through this, I promise…’ etc).
4) Depression – now that the reality of one’s loss really starts to sink in, together with its accompanying implications, one can finally allow oneself to feel the sadness evoked by the loss. It is important to allow oneself to fully feel this sadness, as it is cathartic in that it allows one to work through and process one’s pain.
5) Acceptance – finally, we reach a stage at which we have processed what has happened to us, have psychologically integrated the experience, and accepted it as part of our life experience. We have come to terms with it and no longer let it control and hinder us – we are ready to move forward in our life.
It is important to note, however, that not everyone goes through these exact stages – therefore, when we go through the process of grief, we need not worry if our evolving feelings precisely mirror this model.
After coming to terms with our adverse childhood experiences, there are various things we can do to help us move forward in our lives:
1) We need to stop seeing ourselves as a victim.
Clinging on tenaciously to our sense of betrayal, our anger, and our blame of others serves mainly only to hurt ourselves. Whilst we cannot change the past, we can change our attitude to it and, by doing this, we can prevent the memory of it from inflicting further serious damage on our progress in life.
For example, we can start to consider what we may have gained from our experiences – perhaps it’s made us stronger or given us the empathy any insight to help others experiencing various forms of psychological distress.
2) Take a step back from life and consider what we really want from it, and then start setting ourselves relevant, challenging, but achievable, sub-goals and goals to help us to achieve our desires, whether these be to run our own business, help others, study or whatever else we set our heart on.
3) Surround ourselves with positive, like-minded, empathetic, and supportive people (as far as this might be possible). This may involve joining a particular club, group, or society or changing our social milieu.
4) Seek out opportunities, however small, to help us to achieve our sub-goals and goals. We are much more likely to achieve our goals if we choose something we really like doing and for which we have an aptitude. Whilst most of us need to make money, the importance of doing a job/having a career that is intrinsically rewarding cannot be over-emphasized.
Indeed, studies show that once we’re reasonably comfortably off, having more money, even vastly more, makes very little difference to our happiness in the medium and long term. Some people waste a lifetime learning this, becoming trapped upon what psychologists refer to as a ‘hedonistic treadmill’.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)