During the first six years of our lives, the entire scaffolding of our perception is built. Ever wonder why two people can have totally different memories about the same event? That’s because our perceptions and experiences vary. Every we experience we have throughout our lives is viewed through the lens shaped by our childhood experiences. Here are some of the ways that your life is being affected by your childhood:
1. Gender Roles:
We learn gender roles by observing our primary caregivers and early role models. We learn where we fit in our relationships with people of the same and different gender based on our observations. The patterns of behavior and interaction we learn become an unconscious driver of our expectations and interactions with others. This doesn’t mean we will replicate what we see, although more often than not that’s the case, it could be that we go the opposite direction from our caregivers in an attempt to be as unlike them as possible. Have you ever noticed that you have tendency to date someone similar to your opposite gender parents? Most likely you aren’t attracted to that parent. Instead, they have shaped your view of an ideal partner.
2. Social Hierarchy
In childhood every subtle interaction, slight, or advantage is noticed. While these aren’t always conscious memories, we learn when our parents are given extra care by customer service staff or slighted and disregarded. We notice when our friends have more or less than us. We recognize where we fall in the social hierarchy field without consciously recognizing that’s what it is. As we get older, that perception doesn’t change. Do you ever notice yourself expecting a success or a failure without any specific qualifications? Do you ever notice your expectations for how you’ll be treated by customer service staff? These expectations were shaped by your early life experiences.
3. Attachment Styles
Attachment style can be categorized as avoidant, secure, disorganized, and anxious-avoidant. These styles typically last throughout our lives and show up in every relationship. They’re formed based on our relationships with our primary caregivers and how well our needs were met. If our needs aren’t met throughout childhood, it’s likely that we aren’t going to trust others to meet our needs as adults. If we develop a secure attachment style, we are going to experience stability and intimacy in our relationships, and be comfortable with that. Thanks mom and dad.
4. Depression and Anxiety
While mental health struggles aren’t always related to childhood experiences, there is a connection between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and adult depression and anxiety. ACES are potentially traumatic early life experiences experienced before age 18. Without sufficient counter-ACES (benevolent life experiences) a person becomes an adult without effective coping skills, low self-worth and self-efficacy. When we don’t develop the skills to deal with life’s challenges and adversities depression and anxiety can develop.
5. Outlook on Life
Through all of this, the biggest impact childhood has on adulthood is that it impacts every small experience. When someone takes our parking spot, do we see it as a personal attack? Do we view that person as a bad person? Or do we think, maybe they are in a rush and it’s excusable. How long does this slight affect us? Do we get over it as soon as we find a new parking spot with a shake of the head, or do we stew on it and allow it to ruin our day? These thoughts are automatic and the small triggers are what shape our life experience.
So, what can I do about it?
Well, therapy. A therapist can help guide conversation to discover these unconscious thoughts and beliefs. Having a safe space and person to share these thoughts and reactions with can help us make meaning of our experiences and reshape our beliefs about ourselves, the world and those close to us.
But, maybe therapy isn’t in the cards right now. So, self-awareness. Without the awareness of how we think and react it makes it really hard to change our behavior. So many of our behaviors and emotional reactions are automatic, we don’t have to think about them, they just happen. By gaining awareness, we can pause before we act and start to change our patterns. We can look at our experiences and situation through a different lens.