Below is part of a chapter out of the book I am currently working on. I think we can all relate. Enjoy!
Adolescence can be seen like a massive hurricane (and for many of us, it was). This hurricane consists of two major tasks, 1) surviving the raging waters of new hormones and emotions, and 2) withstanding the screaming winds of our first taste of autonomy – independence and figuring out where we fit in the pecking order. If we were lucky enough to have wise, knowledgeable, and flexible guides during this hurricane, we are likely to weather the storm quite well, learn a lot during it’s course, and not fear what the next storm might bring because we now have this thing called confidence (one of the greatest gifts good parenting imparts). On the other hand, if we had guides who were gone, mentally checked out, blamed us for the hurricane, or beat us while we tried to find shelter, we are much more likely to get spit out the other side of the storm feeling stunned, surprised we made it out alive, and terrified at the thought of another storm coming, even a small one. The latter can be referred to as “Developmental Trauma”. Developmental Trauma technically refers to the abuse and neglect of a child from birth to age 3, but the broader concept is talking about any traumatic timeframe or singular event that inhibits our ability to develop into whatever stage of our life is next.
The world of adults looks back at this process and gives praise to the children to emerge strong, calling them “well adjusted”, while we slander those who stagger out, ragged and terrified, calling them any number of names that are sure to let them know exactly how “poorly adjusted” we think they are. I ask you – if the child had guides who were abusive or absent, is it really their fault they emerged from the hurricane in such rough shape? I also ask you – can we really trace all our problems with the storms of life back to the imperfections of our parents? The answer to both questions, of course, is “no”. The answer has little to do with getting the “blame game” right, let the psychologists and researchers figure that one out. Our job has much more to do with putting our energy into healing from this developmental trauma and achieving genuine confidence.
What do you think? Are you well adjusted and poorly adjusted? It would be wonderful if it were that simple, but reality shows us that we are more often just like actors – hiding our weak spots in order to appear well adjusted because we know that is how you make it in this world. We might not deal with explosive anger, but we have noticed that constant smoldering resentment which puts us in a sour mood. We might look like we are confident to family or co-workers, but we are inwardly terrified that one day we might be proven as a fraud, worthless, or unlovable. These fears, and many more like them, are commonplace for the human race because most of us endure the hurricane without perfect guides or unshakable shelter.
One fascinating and important aspect of developmental trauma is our propensity to surround ourselves with like-minded people. We are all naturally attracted to someone we can look in the eye, so to speak. If they are poor and we are rich, if they are immature and we are calm and reserved, if they are healed and we are not, then we simply can’t relate and don’t see them as a potential mate. On the other hand, if we can say, “oh, he just gets me” or “she knows just what to say”, then we tend to stay interested and close to that person because they are on the same page as us. This is a very important pattern to notice for two reasons: 1) no matter how many people have broken our trust in the past, we are still hard wired to seek genuine connection and intimacy with someone else, thus, in our natural quest for connection, our unhealed wounds are what filter much of what we find attractive. 2) because of reason #1, we gravitate, usually outside of our awareness, towards the same dysfunction found within us because we can relate and we feel understood – almost comfortable. This is why so many people ask questions like, “why do I always seem to attract the wrong person?!”
Can you see this dynamic playing out in your own life? Are you and your significant other two wonderfully fitting pieces in an ugly puzzle? My wife and I most certainly were. Throughout our dating and into the first two years of our marriage we were a fantastically unhealthy fit together. Feeding delightfully, and quite unknowingly, into the very things that drove each other up the wall. Thankfully, there is great hope for you as there was for my wife and I, and that hope comes in the likeness of two vines planted a few feet apart. Let me explain what I mean: In order to fix this “ugly puzzle” problem, each person must first grow independent of the other, like a single vine clamoring up a wall, focusing like a laser on your own fear, anger, shame, or bad habit. Once you both have done a fair amount of individual healing and changing, then you begin to spread your branches and grow toward each other, forming the thick hedge of two vines working as one and starting to encourage each other in your continued growth. A relationship where one person grows while the other does not tends to look more like two people that fall into the ocean’s current. Over time, that current silently pulls them apart. The larger the gap becomes between their progress, the less the two can relate to each other, leading to questions like, “Do I want to stay unhealthy so the unhealthy relationship can continue or do I want to give up control and simply focus on my healing?”
As you sift through the pieces of your own developmental trauma I encourage you to do two things: 1) Take a good look at the people in your life right now and seek to find out who challenges you to become a better person and who fits your puzzle piece merely because of your shared dysfunction. If you find that someone you care deeply about also feeds into the “ugly puzzle”, you are not automatically commanded to end the relationship. Rather, change the boundaries of that relationship by setting up some healthy rules between each of you and watch for what affect that has. If the desired effect comes to fruition, you have reason to celebrate! If there is no change and the dysfunction continues, consider your alternatives. Consider if the relationship needs to be ended or fundamentally changed. 2) Recognizing the undeserved wounds we’ve received and the bewildering effect they had on us through developmental trauma, we must also learn to accept that same reality in others. The book “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions”, written by the founding participants of A.A., has a line on page 92 that summarizes this point perfectly. It says, “It will become more and more evident as we go forward that it is pointless to become angry, or to get hurt by people who, like us, are suffering from the pains of growing up.” This is not to minimize the horror we humans can inflict on each other, but rather to challenge ourselves to take responsibility for the wounds we now have instead of waiting for the other person to change before we feel able to heal. Take this metaphor as an example: If I am in the theater of war and my enemy shoots me in the leg, I would be a fool to refuse addressing my wound until my enemy comes to repent of what he has done. The heat of battle has no space for resentments, so too with our lives. If you hold others responsible for your own pain and if you take the wrong actions of an immature loved one personally, you are much like the solder that refuses to stop the bleeding himself because the wound is unfair.
Comment Time! What are your thoughts about this? What other lessons have you learned from the “hurricane” of your childhood? Leave your comments here and share your wisdom with the world!
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