Reconciling with traumas in childhood: How do we transform negative family experiences?

Pixabay/Creative Commons

During a late-night talk, one of my younger friends cried while talking about her family. She told us that her parents struggled with their marriage while she was little, causing her to first develop a strained relationship with her dad and later become estranged from her whole family. She felt that all her other friends had happy and “normal” experiences growing up in their families and that she saw herself as the one with “abnormal” family relationships. Envious of how harmonious other families seemed, she became ashamed of the negative experiences she had with her family and determined to hide them in front of others.

But I’ve heard enough troublesome family histories, from strangers or close friends, to realize that no family is perfectly happy. There is no such thing as a “normal” family in which all members fit together in perfect harmony. Besides the positive strengths, every family involves some negative dynamics or traits — even subtle ones that the family members themselves are unaware of.

In “The Family Idiot,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “all of us are constantly discussing the child we were, and are.” Early family experiences during childhood have significant and complex effects on the way we function and develop relationships with others throughout our lives. It’s important to recognize both happy memories and underlying scars while reflecting upon these experiences with our families.

But I’ve heard enough troublesome family histories, from strangers or close friends, to realize that no family is perfectly happy. There is no such thing as a “normal” family in which all members fit together in perfect harmony.

The story of my family is hardly impeccable. Both of my parents were born in northern China during a time of national impoverishment and difficulty. And both are traumatized by their own scarred childhoods and distorted relationships with their own parents, which is partly the reason why I never got close to my grandparents from either side.

My dad never finished high school and spent most of his time running away from my grandparents’ whirling leather belt and humiliating slaps. Under frequent scolding from his parents, he developed a severe stammer that accompanied him throughout his adult life and only mitigated in his 40s. His sense of inferiority and insecurity, however, never really went away. Having a wife with a college degree and a competitive daughter who never openly expressed admiration for him, he seemed to have a hard time achieving emotional stability.

My mom’s childhood story was more unconventional. Right after she was born, she was sold to her adoptive family for money because daughters were deemed “less useful” than sons in rural China. As she grew up, the incessant brawls between her alcoholic dad and bitter mom tore her childish smile apart. She became reserved and vulnerable, disheartened by unpleasant living conditions, financial difficulties and a bleak relationship with her parents, who tended to put their own interests before those of their adopted daughter.

Both suffering from a deep-rooted sense of insecurity developed in early family experiences, my parents frequently fought when I was little. My mom was constantly suspicious of my dad’s friendships with other women and once, quite theatrically, resorted to a phone-detective company to look up all of his contact history. Many glasses and porcelain plates have been smashed to pieces while they quarreled.

After I left home to study abroad, however, they finally had time to communicate with each other and succeeded in mending their precarious relationship. Both of them learned their lessons through years of fighting and realized their responsibility to construct a healthy family life for their only daughter.

As I grew up, my relationship with my parents became quite unconventional. Compared to others, it is paradoxically characterized by both nonintimacy in a physical and explicit way, and overintimacy in an emotional, intellectual and implicit way. This contradiction arises from their own estranged relationships with their parents, which protracted through generations and impacted our relationship.

For one, I haven’t called my parents “dad” or “mom” for more than eight years, starting from my rebellion as a seventh-grader. Even after that period, we became physically estranged from each other. We never hug. We never say sentimental things such as “I love you” or “I miss you.” We barely ever touch each other. I am so unaccustomed to contact with them that I hit my mom’s hand by reflex whenever she makes an attempt to touch my arm.

On the other hand, my parents and I have treated each other more like friends ever since the end of my adolescence. My mom and I share our most private thoughts with each other. With me, she discusses problems in her married life, while I consult her about my confusions or even hormonal desires. She inspires me to reflect positively upon my past experiences and learn lessons from them.

And my dad, who used to be an absent father figure, has been trying to fulfill the once-hollow shell of fatherhood. From time to time he pours me drinks and lights my cigarettes while we engage in conversations about current affairs or philosophy of life. Our relationship came to resemble how Nick Carraway, the narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” describes the one between his own father and him: “He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that.”

In our relationship, my parents have been resituated as my friends for emotional and intellectual support. Yet we retain our physical distance from each other and remain expressionless about our deep mutual love, deliberately shunning our roles as parents and daughter.

All of these experiences in my childhood influenced my way of perceiving, thinking, acting and interacting with others. Throughout high school and my first year of college, I was very emotionally unstable and resorted to unhealthy means to alleviate depressing feelings, including smashing things and self-harm. I felt like I was floundering in a stormy ocean and being hammered by one crashing wave after another, having no self-control over what was happening outside and inside myself. Every time troubles came upon me, my first reaction was to indulge myself in agitation and unbridle my emotions physically instead of calmly looking at the bigger picture and rationally searching for a solution. In fact, I was subconsciously modeling my parents’ impulsive and irrational behaviors while being trapped by my unawareness of this underlying cause of my emotional instability.

I felt like I was floundering in a stormy ocean and being hammered by one crashing wave after another, having no self-control over what was happening outside and inside myself.

One of the other most visible impacts lies in my interactions with men. Lacking parental affection and physical intimacy as a young girl, I developed strong desire for caresses from them. I constantly wished to be hugged and kissed on the forehead by a man as a little girl would be by her father. But after observing the volatile nature of my parents’ marriage, I also became extremely sensitive and prone to jealousy in my own relationships. My own insecurity eventually led to the repression of affectionate feelings, lack of confidence, constant mistrust toward the other person and consequently, my difficulty in sustaining long-term relationships. These two conflicting forces — desire and repression of desire — led to most of my relationship problems and emotional outbursts.

It was not until a recent talk with my mom that I started reflecting upon these negative family experiences in the past. Having walked out of her own childhood shadow, my mom told me then how she felt a great relief after finally recognizing traumas associated with her family and making an effort in mending them. She began searching for her biological parents, even though one of them has passed away and the other has yet to be found. She healed herself by genuinely recognizing and realizing what she had always wanted to do deep inside, overcoming the fear of confronting an ugly scar. She reconciled with her past and moved on. She said she hoped I could do the same. And I have — partly by writing this essay.

I know it is painful to dig in to our most agonizing and shameful experiences in our personal histories. It is discomforting to directly stare at the ugliest scars inside ourselves. By bravely confronting our unhappy experiences in the past, however, we can change from being passive and subconscious to being active and conscious. We can directly tackle the underlying problems that haunt us until today.

A genuine recognition is only the beginning. We also need to break out of the illusion that we have become helpless victims of unfortunate family experiences — in fact, as we grow up, we are capable and responsible of shaping such experiences in our families. We also have the power, therefore, to consciously transform relationships within our family as well as the impacts they have left on the present.

After recognizing my problems in intimate relationships, I told myself that I should not project my parents’ relationship onto my relationships with other men. I have to become a mature adult with stable self-awareness in order to build stable and long-term relationships. I have to quit acting in the role defined by my family experiences — a woman controlled by insecurity and jealousy — and instead realize and become who I really am. I need to learn to be affectionate, despite my lack of physical affection with my parents. I need to learn to trust someone who is worthy of my trust.

This process of transformation is all about reflecting and restarting. It’s about reanalyzing our family relationships and observing their impacts in our present ways of thinking, acting and interacting. It’s about getting rid of old thought patterns inflicted by negative experiences and relearning new ones.

It’s all about acknowledging and examining our personal histories in an authentic way so that we can fully reconcile with the past, converse with the present and carry on with the future.

Contact Raina Yang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rainayanglw.