Childhood memories can vary. There are plenty or few. We may welcome them or avoid them. They can be uplifting or shatter our spirit. Whatever our age, some childhood memories can still feel painful and real. What to do?
“What is your earliest childhood memory?” Whether you have ever been in therapy / counselling, or not, you may have come across that question. Some people have a real dislike for it. “Don’t tell me, all my problems are down to my childhood … I don’t want to talk about the past.”
I can see the point. Our lives are too complex, our difficulties sometimes too profound to be boiled down to childhood memories. Yet, the question is not meant to do any of that.
The memory that comes to mind, can give us a clue to whatever emotional achilles heel or vulnerable spot we may have developed and why. I know, sometimes we may not (consciously or unconsciously want to) remember a lot, or nothing at all comes to mind.
For the purpose of this exercise, let’s ask the question.
In case you cannot think of anything, I will volunteer a personal example of one of my early childhood memories.
Let’s think of childhood memories that can still make you feel uncomfortable and that may still hurt you today.
Got one? Let’s place the memory gently in this circle.
Now let’s step out of the circle and let’s sit down here to look back at the memory from a safe distance.
Let’s see what the memory is about:
- who was involved,
- how you interpreted it,
- how it might have shaped you,
- what can trigger the memory and the pain it brings,
- and what we can do about it, let it go, put it to rest?
Sounds a bit ambitious and too difficult? Stick with me for a few more minutes.
One of my earliest childhood memories that I have I put in the circle in front of us, is from when I was aged somewhere between 2-4. I cannot remember, neither can my parents.
I was woken up by thunder and lightning. The room was dark and I was alone. I was shouting and crying, but no one came. I was terrified. I don’t remember much more. But even now, I have a slight sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. And I feel cut off and alone.
I have discussed it with my mother many times. Even now, decades later, she remembers it, too. Because I had been so upset.
What had happened? My mother says it had been a weekday evening, probably some time between 1900 – 2100. My parent had gone out for an evening stroll and got caught up in the bad weather. They had stopped over at the local pub, waiting for the downpour to end.
I know, these days we may not leave little children alone at home. But this was the late 60s in a small West German town. Still, part of me feels, it was wrong.
My mother tells me she struggled to settle me down again. I never discussed the episode with my father. And now I wonder why. Now, he is dead. It is too late.
What sense do I make of it? How does this affect me today and how do I deal with it?
Personally, I think this is a story and experience of abandonment.
I had felt terrified and alone. No one came to make me feel safe. The people who I had bonded with (my parents) and expected to be there, they had not been there. That is a fact, a real experience.
If I felt abandoned, then (even as the little child) I will have tried to make sense of it. And I might have tried to take a lesson from it, so I could protect myself in the future.
- Perhaps I concluded that the others are not to be trusted. They had betrayed me.
- I might have thought that this had been my fault, because I am not good enough to be loved and taken care of.
- Then again, I might have decided that I need to cling to the other, because they might want to leave me, and then I will end up feeling frightened again. Later on, I did develop fear around separation at nursery and at school.
- At some stage I might have concluded that because others, even those closest to me, cannot be trusted, I need to be self-reliant and best look after myself.
I think my achilles heel, based on that childhood memory and probably other episodes, is the fear of abandonment and the tendency to assume, that deep down I am better off taking care of difficult situations myself. Others will only disappoint.
In reality, I know this is not so.
But sometimes I catch myself thinking as if it is exactly so, and then I behave accordingly.
What triggers difficult childhood memories?
For me? Not thunder and lightning or being alone in the dark. Strangely enough, I love when thunder happens at night and I love hearing the crackle of lightning.
Like with any memory, triggers for childhood memories, whether pleasant or not, can be anything from a smell, a sound, a word, an expression, a touch, a picture, a location, a situation. It can be anything that we have associated with that moment.
My trigger for that particular memory is when I feel disappointed and left alone, just at the moment when I need help most.
More often than not, I can catch the moment, when the old childhood memory with its overwhelming terror, despair and anger sets in.
I try and keep the memory separate from the here and now.
That is why I suggested we place our childhood memories in the circle and talk about it at a safe distance.
We need to be able to separate between the often so real feelings triggered by the childhood memory and what is actually happening now.
If we do not do that, then there is a risk, we end up in an echo chamber, where the feelings, ideas and beliefs we have developed from the childhood memory reverberate, get reinforced and start to overwhelm us.
While this is understandable and it does happen, it makes it so much more difficult to deal with the here and now.
The childhood memories can distort the here and now.
My mother is horrified at the idea that she might have done something wrong; that she might have hurt or even ‘damaged’ me.
- I don’t blame her. What good comes of that? Nothing
- I had to forgive my parents. I trust and know they had not set out to hurt me.
- I try not to dwell too much on it all. And I have stopped being frightened of that particular memory a long time ago.
Painful childhood memories will have influenced who we are today. There is nothing right or wrong about it.
It is human and not a failure on our part, if we have them in the first place and if we feel we have not resolved them.
Blaming and feeling angry, those two feelings alone, are not enough for us to understand things, work them through and take charge.
When you feel an old painful memory comes alive in you, then why not:
- Let it happen.
- Accept it as part of your past.
- Imagine our circle and place it there.
- Observe how you feel and how your mind may wonder.
It is all the old stuff that is on a roll, like an old film or record playing in our mind and heart.
It is then, that childhood memoris are best played out in the circle.
We need to put some distance between the “then”, the past, and the here and “now”, our reality now.
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Karin Sieger is a UK-based psychotherapist and writer. All rights reserved © Copyright Karin Sieger. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Article do not substitute medical advice.