How childhood trauma affects us in adulthood

According to research, two-thirds of us have experienced at least one adverse event in childhood. Did you know that these instances of childhood trauma continue to affect us as adults?

A trauma not only describes the nature of an event, but also how it affects you. So the same event can affect people differently depending on their unique needs and temperaments. Trauma is not limited to physical abuse or neglect. It can show up as emotional abuse or witnessing something that is too much for a child.

You would be surprised to learn that your deficiencies or perceived weaknesses may actually be symptoms of unresolved trauma.

Here’s a look at how childhood trauma affects us as adults.

Table of Contents

  1. Signs of childhood trauma in adults
  2. Final Thoughts

Signs of childhood trauma in adults

1. Relationship struggles

Your attachment style affects the quality of your relationships. How to connect and communicate with friends, family and love partners.

People raised in healthy homes generally have a secure attachment style. They feel worthy of love and seek intimacy in their relationships.

If your emotional and/or physical needs were not met during childhood, chances are you have developed an insecure attachment style. There are many signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults, and the two main insecure styles are those anxious style and the avoidant style.

Avoidant style

If you have an avoidant style, don’t like asking for help. You’ve convinced yourself that you don’t need intimacy in relationships and come across as self-sufficient.

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In your childhood you may have learned that emotions don’t bring people closer. In fact, they pushed your parents away. As a result, you are uncomfortable with being vulnerable and sharing your feelings.

You could get hot and cold in dating relationships. For example, you pursue someone until things get closer and then back off.

Anxious style

On the other hand, if you have an anxious attachment style, you can come off as “needy.” They fear abandonment and put others above themselves. You may overestimate them and think less of yourself.

You spend a lot of time dealing with your relationships and getting your needs met. This has the opposite effect of pushing people away, which feels extremely painful to you.

overcome avoidance behavior

If you have an avoidant attachment, question your habit of distancing yourself from others. Reciprocate next when friends share their problems with you. Step out of the listening role and share your feelings and struggles with others.

You may worry that opening it will lead to rejection and contempt. But you will find that many people will understand you better if you let them in.

If opening it feels threatening, it may hark back to your childhood, bringing up feelings and moments of abandonment. Remind yourself that it makes sense to feel this way, but you’re an adult now.

overcome anxiety

On the other hand, if you have an anxious style, seek out committed partners. Let go of relationships with insecure people as this will only increase your pain.

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Although being alone can feel scary, it is worth facing that fear. Perhaps you decide to take some time off from romantic relationships while you work on nurturing yourself.

Develop self-validation instead of seeking approval from outside sources. That means finding ways to meet your own needs rather than relying on a partner to meet them for you. Talk about your feelings with others besides your partner. Practice relying on friends or counselors to help you regulate your emotions.

2. Self-sabotage

Self-sabotage is a symptom of adult childhood trauma and can occur at any time. So your inner child tries to protect you in a way that actually holds you back.

These self-destructive behaviors may have worked in the past. For example, staying calm and small has helped you avoid trouble with your caregivers.

As an adult, that same self-protection prevents you from speaking out in meetings or promoting yourself. This results in you being passed over for promotions or failing to attract customers. As a child, you may have been rewarded for hiding your needs and feelings. Hiding helps you avoid the risk of being rejected for who you are.

Another outcome of childhood trauma in adults is the difficulty in meeting one’s needs. As a result, you’re prone to burnout because you don’t know when to stop en route to a goal.

When self-sabotage presents you with the next distraction or forces you to give up before the finish line, it may be meeting your need for rest.

3. Perfectionism

Perfectionism shares many of the characteristics of unresolved childhood trauma in adults. These include setting inappropriate standards for yourself, becoming a harsh inner critic, instilling a fear of making mistakes, and having trouble trusting others.

With this in mind, perfectionism is more shameful than many of us think. It can be a conditioned response to a childhood where “good enough” wasn’t an option.

You have a loud inner critic that never seems to let you off the hook. You compare yourself to others and cut yourself off. It doesn’t matter if they have decades of experience, you don’t. You feel like you have to get things right the first time.

The need to be perfect paralyzes you because of your fear of making mistakes. This leads to underperformance and disappointment in yourself. While others throw things against the wall to see what sticks, you resent any criticism that might come if you put yourself out there.

overcome perfectionism

Strive for “good enough” rather than perfect. First, allow yourself to do things badly.

These are some of the best lessons writers have learned from writing “crappy” first drafts. You can edit a draft, but you can’t improve what doesn’t exist.

  • Celebrate your trials and failures as well as your victories. These are growth opportunities and necessary steps on the road to success.
  • Get out of your comfort zone.
  • Say yes when you normally say no.
  • Stop thinking too much and getting upset about what might happen.
  • Don’t congratulate yourself for your accomplishments, congratulate yourself for taking the risk.
  • Value courage over achievement.

4. Social isolation

If you ask, “What does childhood trauma look like in adults?” Social isolation is one of the most common symptoms.

Chronic feelings of loneliness and a tendency to avoid social interactions are other signs of unresolved childhood trauma in adults.

You may decide that being alone is easier because others are triggering you. If you grew up without learning how to manage your emotions or resolve conflicts, dealing with others can be uncomfortable.

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It’s not other people you’re avoiding, it’s your reaction to what they might say or do. We cannot predict how others will behave and can easily be misregulated by a comment or an opinion.

That’s why being with others isn’t relaxing or comforting, it’s challenging and counterproductive. It feels better to be alone where you can rest safely and know that no one will trip you up.

Overcoming social isolation

As an adult, you’ve probably learned to suppress your emotions. Instead of giving yourself compassion, you criticize yourself for your feelings.

Shame about isolation overrides the primary feeling of loneliness. This only makes you want to hide and prevents you from reaching out to others. Instead, acknowledge your feelings of loneliness. Give yourself the care and compassion you would give someone else in the same situation.

Reach out to someone you trust. Tell them the truth about how you feel instead of pretending everything is fine. You may be surprised at how your honesty leads them to open up about their insecurities.

If you don’t have someone safe to share with, consider speaking to a therapist or joining an online group that allows you to anonymously vent your feelings.

go out every day Hiking and being close to nature are balm for your mental health and can improve your mood. Interact with someone in low-stakes ways, such as petting their dog or making a friendly comment.

Final Thoughts

The effects of childhood trauma on adults manifest in a variety of ways. If you’ve blamed yourself for these results, it’s time to take a break.

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With the tools in this article, you can overcome the symptoms of these unmet childhood needs. No matter how long you have suffered, you can easily find your way to a life that supports itself rather than destroying itself.

Featured Photo Credit: Annie Spratt via How childhood trauma affects us in adulthood

Sarah Y. Kim

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