20th October 2019

Childhood Memories That Still Hurt Today

How to separate between the past and the here and now

When childhood memories still hurt (c) KarinSieger.com
When childhood memories still hurt (c) KarinSieger.com

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.

Finding closure (C) KarinSieger.com
Finding closure (C) KarinSieger.com

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.

Separating past from presence (c) KarinSieger.com
Separating past from presence (c) KarinSieger.com

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.

Feeling safe (c) KarinSieger.com
Feeling safe (c) KarinSieger.com

We need to put some distance between the “then”, the past, and the here and “now”, our reality now.



Coping with difficult family gatherings

Living in peace: why and how?

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  1. Hello everyone,

    I suppose my 40 something odd yr old pain resurfaced tonight because my 17 yr old daughter needed me, and I couldn’t get to her right away! This old hurt, even today, makes me cry as if it is happening now.

    I can’t recall my exact age. I’d guess 12. My older brother (whom I was extremely close) and older sister. Also shared a close relationship. Decided to take (steal), my mother’s station wagon to drive my sister to see her bf – whom lived in another city. It was wee hours, whilst mom and everyone else slept. We took the vehicle, drove there, and my sister (in love I suppose), stayed longer than we’d planned. Well, my older siblings who I’d committed this crime w, didn’t live w us. You guessed it – I was the fall guy. Faced the music alone, and although I couldn’t drive, sat in backseat, and this wasn’t my plan. My 2nd oldest sister wanted mom to call the cops on us, have us whipped, or, something. She was livid as if her car had been stolen. Mom opted against it as I explained I basically just went along for the ride, like many a dumb kids would’ve. My livid sister waited for my mother to leave (a week after incident), came to me, told me to pack all my things and GET OUT. I did reluctantly, placed all my belongings which fit in two large garbage bags. Called my sister in crime. She walked over to get me, helped me carry my bags to her place. Later, when mom returned, my livid sister told my mother I’d run away. Her, along w my mom and another sister, arrived to get me. Not before being whipped senseless w switches (fresh tree branches). My sister set me up. All because there were to be no consequences for our actions. She wanted someone to pay.

    I cried like a baby tonight thinking back to that horrible time in my life! I have not thought of that moment in probably 2 yrs.

    Still hurts like yesterday!

  2. When I was 5 years old my father beat me until I wet myself all because I was excited that I had just learned to ride a bike. Since both of my parents loved to take any joy I had away, I was forbidden to ride the bike. In an act of defiance, I did it anyway. Not only was I beaten until I wet myself but a couple of days later, my parents went to have coffee at a froend’s house. I was in the next room playing with blocks and heard my father bragging about beating me and the urine running down my leg. He was laughing. About a year or two later, my brother who is five years older than me, put his penis in my mouth and continued to molest me for, I can’t remember how long but I’m guessing a couple of years. My mother caught something inappropriate going on and wagged her finger in my face as if I had the power to be molesting him. Then let me continue to get molested. Now that my kids are going through their childhood, these things and more are coming back to me. At 45 I cut my family out and I no longer speak to them. I wish I had done it sooner. Raising my children and remaining sane with these flashbacks is getting more difficult.

    • Hi Sandra, the experiences you describe sound distressing, to say the least. You are right, bringing up children (or grandchildren) can trigger our own childhood memories. The fact that you chose to share here some of what happened to you, and how it affects you now, makes me think this might be the time to talk to someone independent about it – a counsellor or therapist. It might help to work this through. My very best wishes. Karin

  3. I was 5 years old, the afternoon kindergarten teacher brought a paper mache’ lamb to school. She put it out in the play yard to dry. It got broke, someone hit it. The boys were gathered up and our hands were hit with an 18 inch ruler. We were falsely accused as a group. She punished all the boys, but not the girls. It could have been any child. I have felt violated for 50 years. The hurt from the false accusation has never left. I try to shake it but when I am very tired and stressed, the pain comes to the surface. I want peace, I will never get revenge so, I want peace. No one understands, I don’t understand why this 50 year old assault and punishment for what I didn’t do still hurts. I have even lied to myself that I did it and deserved punishment just so I could settle it in my head. It did not work, I still hurt. What can I do to stop this painful memory? I should not hurt but I still do.

    • Hello Jeff, Thank you for sharing this difficult moment and experience in your life. I don’t want to make assumptions from afar, but based on that you are saying: I wonder whether one clue is in the sentence “I will never get revenge”. Perhaps there is part of you that is (unconsciously) connecting “revenge” with “putting an end to your suffering”. I think it is really important and helpful to have the insights you have. Perhaps take one step further: You were victim of an unjust act. There has been no apology and you are seeking justice. You also know you won’t get this justice from the other. You will have to do justice by yourself. How? Understand this have affected you, and that in moments of stress (and perhaps further injustice) the old pain manifests itself. You are the victim. When “the old wound” from 50 years ago shouts for justice. It is the old pain that distorts what is happening right here and now. Eckart Tolle calls it “the pain body”. By keeping yourself in this circle of pain you keep yourself a victim of the old memory and pain. I wonder whether sharing your comment is an important part of stepping out of this circle. You deserved better then, and you deserve better now. Therefor release yourself from those shackles, that are seeking revenge. Its distracts you from peace and perhaps even fulfilling your true potential and gaining happiness. It may take a bit of work and focus and concentration. My best wishes. Karin

  4. In 2015, the end to pain occurred upon my return home. I agree childhood hurts keep repeating until you can forgive them. From 2013-2014, I was trapped with being disrespected by coworkers and the guilt of being not good enough when compared with others. Since then, I’ve learned all the pain and the hurt has all to do with me. Now I’m working on assertiveness and valuing who I am, making peace with the childhood incident so that it’s influence stops.

    • Thank you for sharing your own experience, KC. It sounds like you have achieved a huge piece of self awareness and change in your life. I find, that echos of difficult childhood experiences will never fully disappear, how can they. But we may learn to separate ‘then’ from ‘now’and for the pain, disappointment and anger to be less intense. My best wishes for you. Karin

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