by: E.B. Johnson
Coming back from a toxic childhood is hard, but it is possible. Recovery takes time, and it takes a journey of self-discovery that’s as painful as it is beautiful. When you start to heal from a difficult childhood, you begin to discover your own personal strengths and tap into the power that allows you to change your life and take the world by storm. Bouncing back from a toxic childhood is a beautiful thing and brings some beauty to our lives that is both new and transformative.
Even when it feels like you’re still mired in the mud and the muck of your past, there are definite signs that you’re beginning to heal and move on from a painful childhood. It’s important to recover from the pain of our former experiences, and it’s important to understand that pain and how it impacts who we are and how we live. From learning how to manage our emotions to practicing a new and radical form of self-acceptance — you’re often doing better than you think you are, when you just take a step back to see it.
What a toxic childhood looks like.
Not everyone’s painful childhood looks the same. Toxic experiences can include traditional forms of abuse, but they can also include things like an overbearing parent, emotional distance and major loss or grief. Terrible memories look different for everyone, but their effects are the same: they undermine our happiness and follow us for decades to come.
Traditional abuse and neglect
This type of abuse and neglect occurs when any caretaker or person of authority over you inflicts injury either emotionally, mentally, physically or sexually. There doesn’t have to be a bruise, or a cut, or a scar for this type of abuse to have taken place. Some of the deepest wounds in our childhood bear no scars at all, but leave marks that follow us through the decades.
The overbearing caretaker
Parents who are overly controlling — either physically or emotionally — cripple their children and suffocate them with a deteriorating type of care. This overbearing approach to care can leave relationships strained and a greater distance between parents and offspring.
Emotional neglect is a big one, but also one of the hardest to realize and accept as adults. When our parents or caretakers fail to give us the love we need, it can make it hard for us to come to terms with and recognize our emotional highs and lows. If your caregiver fails to give you the nurturing and connection you need to thrive, this is emotional neglect.
Scapegoating is a classic in the toxic household, and one of the most common ways by which we — as abused children — are forced to internalize our trauma and take responsibility for it. When a parent, caretaker or other abuser is forced to come to terms with their abuse, their shift the blame to the child, telling them things like “if you just behaved differently, this wouldn’t happen”. There is no excuse for toxicity and abuse when it comes to our children. Our decisions are never their fault.
Major physical and emotional loss
Losing a parent or caregiver is another devastating event in any child’s life. Even when you are hardly old enough to remember it, the effects are far-reaching. Losing a parent is hard to understand and makes us vulnerable in ways we do not always realize. Likewise, living through a natural disaster is traumatic for everyone, but these events are especially traumatic with young, developing children. Fires, floods and hurricanes cause trauma in a different and unexpected ways.
Why it’s important to heal from childhood experiences.
When you experience childhood trauma, your life and your soul are altered forever. Those who suffer loss, abuse or neglect early-on in life can often suffer from serious psychological and emotional disorders for decades to come, changing who they are and destroying their ability to foster caring and nurturing relationships even decades after the traumatic event.
Childhood trauma holds us back and bricks up our potential in truly unimaginable ways. When our hearts are damaged at such critical developmental stages, it makes it easy to put up walls and harder to find the healing that we need. Healing the harms and injuries of our childhood is one the hardest things we can do, but it’s necessary for us to create the life we want. If you want to get over the past, you have to start by facing it — bravely and one step at a time.
Signs you’re starting to recover from a toxic childhood
Even when we feel as though we’re still drowning in the pain of our toxic childhoods, there are some definite signs that we’re starting to win the battle, and come back from those negative experiences. By applying a few basic precepts to our lives, we can slowly rewrite our narratives and create a story that helps us to thrive.
1. Learning how to manage emotions
Growing up in a hard-to-navigate, or toxic household can make it hard for you to recognize your emotions, and even harder for you to manage them. More often than not, our caretakers become toxic because they don’t know how to deal with their own emotions. Only by learning how to confront our emotions can we deal with them efficiently and get back to the happiness we deserve.
When we find ourselves in a stressful event, we often feel a flood of emotions all at once which makes it hard to process and orientate ourselves. Though we are often told the best way to deal with these emotions is to ignore them, we actually gain more benefits by learning how to identify each emotion as its experiences in a technique that’s known as emotional differentiation.
Differentiation stops negative emotions from getting worse by building up our confidence in facing them. It allows us to identify what we’re feeling and (eventually) why we’re feeling that way, which leads to true resolution and clarity and, thus, higher levels of happiness and contentment. When we learn how to see our emotions for what they are — and where they come from — we can accept them and then get better at managing them. It’s like being a manager in a restaurant. If you really want to be effective, you have to get to know your staff and figure out what works best for everyone.
2. Speaking up for yourself
When you’ve grown up internalizing years of guilt and shame, it can cause you to shut down and become insecure, leading you to lose your voice. Learning to speak up for yourself is a sign that you’re finding yourself again, and it’s a sign that you’re (slowly) coming into your own. Finding your voice takes acknowledging your trauma, but it also takes something else…realizing that your needs and desires are just as valuable as anyone else’s.
Begin, but master the art of standing your ground by first getting comfortable with living transparently and authentically. Only when you are truly yourself can you channel the power you need to speak up and speak out when it really matters. Find your truth and stick with it. If something upsets you, clarify it. Start facing up and being deliberate about expressing what you want — both to and for yourself.
No one can invalidate you unless you allow them to, but that can be an uncomfortable truth to embrace when you’re recovering from a toxic childhood. Be compassionate when you backslide, and understand that this is a Lord of the Rings-type journey, not a 30 meter dash. Getting assertive takes time. Give yourself the time you need to bloom and be patient. If all else fails, you can fake it until you make it. All the best ones do.
3. Dropping the blame game
A toxic childhood is never your fault. Emotionally distant or abusive parents are broken children, just like us, but it can be hard for us to see this through the haze of our childlike admiration. Parents struggle with their emotions and their traumatic pasts just like we do, and this can lead to them becoming distant and unable to love us on any deep and meaningful level.
When you feel frustrated or guilty, remember that you are not the one to blame for the distance or dismissal your parent inflicts on you. Rather than ignoring the negative thoughts, let them come and replace them with positive self-talk that helps you feel better about the whole situation.
Instead of thinking, “It’s my fault he / she treats me this way. If I would just…” try replacing it with a more positive thought like: “I’m trying my best and that’s all I can do. I’ll cover my part and they can cover theirs. I’m not my mother’s / father’s keeper. Nor am I responsible for their behavior, emotions or viewpoints.” If you find that thoughts like these are already a part of your daily routine, it’s a sure-fire sign that you’re starting to heal and making a change for the better.
4. No need to ruminate or second-guess
Rumination and second-guessing are two of the most negative consequences of a toxic childhood. When we ruminate, we focus (overly-so) on the negative things in our lives, and allow that negativity to disrupt the flow of our happiness. Second-guessing, likewise, allows our inner critic to destroy our self-esteem, and prevent us from taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. Their dangerous patterns to fall prey to, but leaving them behind takes practice.
Try to spot the things that trigger these thoughts in you and stop them before they start. Remove yourself from situations that might cause you to spiral down a negative thought look, and replace those second-guesses and heavy thoughts with something more realistic and possible. After all, there’s no reason things won’t work out.
Letting go of the need to constantly criticize yourself or second-guess the decisions that you make is a sign that you’re learning how to stand strong in your power. Standing strong in your power allows you to unlock new opportunities and reaffirm the boundaries you set to protect yourself and the things you want for your life. Over time, this new positive outlook will allow you to change the way you see the world around you.
5. Resilience to rejection
When we start emerging from the darkness that is our toxic childhood, we can discover strengths we never knew we had. That point takes time to get to, however, and it takes knowing (and accepting) that there will still be plenty of heartache and rejection along the way. When we finally start to heal our childhood pain, we actually become more resilient to these hardships.
Drop whatever delusions you had about the healing process and understand that it’s something that will come, it just takes time. Learn how to love yourself, especially in the face of difficulty, and refuse to let anyone come between who you are and who you want to be.
Finding yourself gaining the strength to keep going — even in the face of a certain “no” — means you’re learning how to stand on your own, and starting to heal from the trauma of your childhood. Only when we can face rejection and denial as bravely as we can face our greatest joy can we start to balance our needs against our desires, and manage the shadow feelings that keep us chained to the past.
6. Recognizing the triggers
When our parents are emotionally distant, abusive or neglectful, they often coerce us into the behaviors they desire by engaging in emotional manipulation that leaves us raw and feeling insecure. Overtime, those negative feelings compound, to create new insecurities that follow us into adulthood, long after our caretakers are gone. The key to managing the far reaching effects of this type of toxic childhood damage is to recognize the triggers that bring you back to those traumas and put a stop to them before they cause you to spiral.
Catch those moments when someone is being manipulative, or something causes you to disengage. Notice the feelings it brings up, and notice how those feelings cause you to react. Does it cause you to blow things out of proportion? Or shut down all together? Keep a small journal and a record of the moments that really get to you, and compare them against childhood experiences. Is it those experiences that are keeping you stuck and scared?
Recognizing triggers is a critical part of the healing process. Learning how to identify our triggers allows us to exert greater control over both our environments and our emotions; no small feat when you’re coming back from trauma, loss or grief which removed your power from you. Getting back takes getting real, and learning how to eliminate the things that don’t serve our emotional health and wellbeing in the longterm.
7. Setting boundaries
If you don’t carve out the mental space you need to detach from who and what was, you won’t be able to break free of the shackles your family past has over you. Toxic childhoods never go away. They follow us, manifesting again and again in a number of different manners that undermine our overall mental and emotional health. We have to set boundaries in order to let the healing process come full circle.
Have enough respect for yourself to set boundaries with those who injure you more than they lift you up. Do whatever you need to do to protect yourself, and honor your worth by letting others know what you will and will not tolerate.
Embrace the emotions that make you uncomfortable and recognize the people and the triggers that bring out the best in you and your psyche.Learning to love ourselves takes time and effort, but knowing our worth isn’t difficult. As a human alive on this earth, you’re worth all the happiness, love and effort in the world. Only you can allow someone else to deny you that. When you start to recognize this, you’re on the path to being whole again.
8. Able to celebrate the small wins
Recovering from childhood trauma or heartache is incremental, as is learning how to thrive in the wake of seriously destructive thought patterns. Things take time, and sometimes our recovery happens slowly. If we want to stay on track and make sure we find our way back to lasting and authentic happiness, we have to start small and accept our mistakes and set-backs along the way.
Celebrate your progress — one day at a time — and take a little time each day to appreciate the steps you’ve taken (no matter how small) and the improvements you’ve intstituted. Zero in on your strengths and find what adds beauty or courage to your life and the new world you’re building around yourself. No one is perfect, and we all make mistakes. Those mistakes don’t define us, or our recovery, so we have to focus on the good and make that our mission.
It’s always easy to be critical. It’s always easy to focus on what you did wrong rather than what you did right. That’s the old you, though. The you that was sad and lonely and had nothing and no one. Have the courage to stand up for the new you and acknowledge each new and beneficial thing that adds color and passion to your life. If you’ve managed to climb that mountain, give yourself a break and celebrate. Feeling like you can breathe a little easier or take some time to revel in your wins means wholeness, healing and happiness.
9. Practicing self-acceptance
The final sign we’re finally coming back from a childhood plagued by toxic parents, siblings or experiences, is learning how to accept those experiences (and ourselves) — radically and unabashedly. Once we’ve learned how to see our emotions for what they are, we can start to drop the judgements and reservations and with it our need to run from the way we feel. Part of being able to differentiate between our emotions is accepting them for exactly what they are and who they’ve shaped us to be.
When faced with an uncomfortable emotion, jump back and give it the space you need to name it. Sit for a while with the feeling, and pay attention to the physical and mental sensations it gives you. Now, close your eyes and imagine literally picking that feeling up and placing it 5 feet away from you. Give it a form. What does it look like? Is it as scary as you thought it was, or is it sometthing else? Is it bigger or smaller than what you expected? You might be surprised.
After you’ve had some time to observe the strange emotional creature from a distant place, open up your arms to it and let it return back to its home. Its a part of you afterall, no matter how strange an uncomfortable it might be. Once your feeling is back where it belongs, take some time to reflect on what you’re feeling now. Is is easier to accept that emotion as a piece of you when you see it for the creature that it is? Chances are, it will be. Repeat this exercise for 30 days, and record how your feelings change over time.
Putting it all together…
Recovering from a damaging, limiting or toxic childhood is a process that takes a lot of time and self-reflection. By discovering ourselves, we can discover the strength to overcome the pain of our pasts, but even then — it can be hard to see just how far we’ve come. Whether it’s learning how to manage our emotions better, or just learning how to say no when we second-guess who we are and what we want, there are a million little victories along the way when it comes to recovering from a toxic childhood. Learn how to spot those victories in your life to achieve true happiness.
Even when it feels like we’re still struggling, there are many signs that you’re actually recovering from the childhood trauma that once held you back. Learning how to manage your emotions and speaking up for yourself are two early indicators of a life lived more freely, and they’re often followed by dropping your need to ruminate or second guess, and a release of your need to constantly internalize. When we’re recovering, our resilience to stress and rejection improves, and learning how to recognize our triggers, too, can be a signal that you are slowly improving the internal conditions that once left you scared. Celebrate the small wins and set boundaries that help you maintain your own personal sense of mental (and physical) safety and security. Overcoming a toxic childhood takes getting to know ourselves and understanding the pain that holds us back. Embrace that pain and start learning how to live again by accepting who you are and who you want to be.