A difficult childhood doesn't (and shouldn't) always translate into a difficult adulthood.
Have you ever wondered how your childhood has affected your relationships in adulthood? Read on to learn why and how your history determines the decisions you make today and how to make changes if necessary.
When life is difficult during childhood, we make some judgments about the reasons for those difficulties and the meaning of them. Due to lack of life experience and the natural self-centeredness of childhood, we often assume that somehow we are causing the troubles in our life and that this is the way life is. So, for example, if we have an abusive or neglectful parent, we conclude we are doing something wrong; somehow we must deserve it or, for some reason, we are not loveable. As adults we can see most of these types of conclusions are immature and false, but as a kid we believe them and internalize them.
In order to cope with the difficulties we face as children and the judgments we make about them, we make some choices about how to manage life. Many times these are unconscious decisions, or at least decisions we don’t remember as an adult. Some of them become key decisions that determine how we engage with some aspect of life and we carry it forward into adulthood. These key decisions are about how to protect ourselves, how to cope, and how to compensate for what we experience and feel. There is a positive intent behind these decisions and in their original context serve a purpose, but in the context of adulthood they become self-limiting and dysfunctional.
Key decisions often take the form of rigid and absolute beliefs. Here are some examples you may recognize:
- It is not safe to trust people in authority
- It is not safe to let anyone get too close or really know me
- I must try to please key people in my life in order to be loved
- I must be the best or achieve high marks in order to be acceptable
- Life is unpredictable so I must control as much as possible
- People don’t like me if I say what I think or feel so I will keep quiet
Recently I had a couple I am working with write out their life stories to identify key decisions. The husband emigrated with his family as a child from another country. He was the youngest in a large family and they did not speak much English when they arrived. To make matters worse, his father basically abandoned the family, leaving his mother to cope with raising a family in a new country. His mother and older siblings remained isolated from the new culture and struggled to support the family. My client had to grow up fast and take on responsibilities for helping his mother and family interact with the larger society. He learned to work hard, get good grades, and value creating a better life here in the USA.
In coping with life as he knew it, my client made the key decisions to not be like his father and to work hard and go after his dreams. These became his driving forces as he got married to his high school sweetheart, put in long hours to achieve success and had children of his own. What he never really learned, however, was how to be emotionally connected and open with anyone. Now, several years into his marriage, these dynamics were creating serious problems. The good news is that he and his wife made the commitment to work on learning the skills they needed to improve the quality of their marriage.
This article is the first of a series of three on key decisions. The next article will focus on helping you identify your key decisions and the third article will teach you how to change key decisions that no longer serve you well.
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