Childhood messages play an outsized role in our adult lives. These are the messages we heard – either literally or perceived – as a child and internalized to be fact. Often times, these messages do not serve us. They are unhelpful and typically harmful to our growth and mental health.
These messages mirror the messages we learned as a child, either through observation or experience. When I was 7, my parents divorced and my father left. There was no explanation. No one sat me down to explain why my father was no longer there, or why long stretches of time would pass by between visits with him. As a young child, I believed that my father left because of something I did.
The message I carried with me into adulthood was I’m not good enough. This infiltrated every aspect of my adulthood – my career, my relationships, my self-image. That thought was always there, subconsciously, telling me that I was not good enough.
I didn’t take risks. I played it safe with a mediocre career believing that I would never amount to anything. I sabotaged relationships – intimate and friendships – before the other person could hurt me, because I truly didn’t believe that I was worthy of a healthy relationship. I believed it was only a matter of time before the other person realized I wasn’t what they thought and would leave.
How do you uncover your childhood messages?
Similar to becoming acquainted with our inner child, we can uncover our childhood messages by paying attention to situations that cause a reaction in us and journaling about them. When we are triggered by something, it is important to take note.
Why? What about that particular situation was triggering? What were the actual words that were said that caused you to have an internal reaction? What did you perceive those words to mean? How did you feel when you heard those words?
Sitting with your childhood messages
Once you have a clear picture about the situation, it is important to sit with the feelings as you journal about them. Think back to your childhood and ask if you have heard this message before, particularly the meaning you perceived the words to be.
For instance, suppose you are in the kitchen loading the dishwasher. Your spouse comes in and starts reorganizing the dishes you just placed in the dishwasher. Immediately, you feel your face flush and your chest tighten. Your breathing becomes heavier and more labored. Your spouse didn’t say anything to you, but you throw the sponge into the sink and yell, “Fine! You do it then!” and storm out of the kitchen.
Your spouse is left in the kitchen speechless, not understanding what happened. They were merely trying to make more room in the dishwasher, knowing the sink was still full. They thought they were being helpful.
Write it Out
When you sit down to journal about this, you might think to yourself, “my spouse thinks that I can’t even load a dishwasher properly!” or “They clearly think I’m an idiot!” But if you are looking at the situation carefully, you will be able to note that they didn’t say a single word to you.
As you explore the situation further, you begin to ask yourself why this was so triggering. Why was your spouse reorganizing work you had just done so triggering? Has something like this happened before in your past?
Perhaps as a child, you were often told that you were doing things incorrectly, or that how you did something was not the most effective way to do it. Maybe one of your caregivers or siblings frequently said, “Oh, I’ll do it myself! You’re not doing it right!”
The message you received, then, as a child, is that you are not capable of doing things correctly. Someone else will always do it better.
Moving on from our childhood messaging
It is possible to rewrite our childhood messages. It takes effort, practice, and a commitment to recognize that we are human and we do make mistakes. We have to forgive ourselves (and the person who gave us the message), and give ourselves the permission to heal.
I have found that enlisting support from a trusted friend, your spouse, or even an older child, is helpful in rewriting those messages. Using the example above (because this is a real-life example from my own experiences), my husband and I discussed the situation in detail. We discussed the intent of my help and the impact my “help” had on him, and allowed ourselves to be vulnerable, sharing our childhood messages.
Example of Rewriting Our Messaging
My childhood message, being the one who was helping, is that we don’t waste water by running a half-full dishwasher. My message was of financial constraint. His message was that he is incapable of doing anything right. When we say our childhood messages aloud to someone else, they become easier to bear. The message carries less of a punch, and the other person is aware of how we perceived the situation.
It then allows for us to approach future situations similar to this one with an eye on how our help is being received, and we are able to talk through the message in real-time. Eventually, the message fades away or is rewritten, because we’ve been able to prove to ourselves that it is not true.
Childhood messaging does not have to rule your adult life or your parenting. Exploring our childhood messaging is important, particularly in our parenting relationships, as it is likely that much of our messaging resurfaces when we are with our children. Pay attention to these triggers and use your journal and communication with your family to help you rewrite those messages.
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