How Can I Stop Running Away From Childhood Issues?

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Reader’s Question

I grew up in a dysfunctional home. My mother left when I was four. I was raped when I was seven. My father was an alcoholic. I have been married twice. I now am married to a great guy. I have three wonderful children. About three years ago we were having problems, and I had a discreet two-year affair with a married friend of ours. It was more than an affair. We fell in love with each other. When things got rough a year ago, I ran away. I ran away from them both and my children for six months. I am now back at home. I have always had a problem with running away from my problems, and not allowing myself to get attached to anyone. I always keep my distance so that I won’t experience hurt. My question is, how do I get past this? How do I have a normal life. And…how do I not run away again?

Psychologist’s Reply

I wish there were a quick and easy answer to how you might get past what you have been through. Unfortunately, I don’t have one.

You have been through a lot. The loss of a parent and sexual assault are traumatic experiences that, when they occur early in life, can shape how a person experiences relationships in a profound way. You did not become who you are in a one-step process, and similarly, embarking on a process of change is rarely a one-step process either.

You have a clear idea of the patterns that continue to emerge in your relationships: avoiding (e.g. “running away”) and attempting to remain detached in order to avoid being hurt. The first step to solving a problem is identifying that problem. So, good for you; you are on the path to making change. I also noted that after “running away” you are back at home. I am not sure of the circumstances of your return to your family, but I imagine it took some strength and resolve to re-enter that situation. Now that you are there you have an opportunity to look inward, explore what is happening, and make the changes that you decide to make.

The traumas that you have experienced in your life are profound. Children are survivors, and you are no exception. As a child, you came up with ways to survive what was happening to you. It would make sense that the ‘survival strategies’ on which you relied as a child were to put up an emotional wall or to escape when possible. As a child, these were likely useful strategies to remain emotionally safe when faced with unsafe situations or people. If we think about you surviving a tough childhood, we could feel thankful for those coping mechanisms. They kept you alive, perhaps both emotionally and physically.

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As adults, we often apply what we learned as children to our adult relationships. The question that we are all faced with at some point is: which of my relational patterns or habits that I used with or learned from my family of origin are serving me in my current relationships, and which are not? Which are harming my relationships? For example, someone who grew up in a family where disagreements were never overtly discussed may feel extremely uncomfortable in a relationship where his or her partner directly approaches conflict. This person may even choose to leave relationships rather than work through differences, because the implied lesson of childhood was that conflict has no place in relationships. Well, as a general rule, at some point in every relationship differences and even arguments can emerge. It is an important relationship skill to be able to withstand the discomfort that conflict may bring in order to move through and past it to what might be a stronger relationship. Learning how to manage difficult conversations may be something that is learned as an adult, intentionally, to modify the childhood lesson that “conflict is not OK.”

You have identified the change that you want to make (i.e. stop running); that is a first step. Even though you can see that “running away” is not a behavior you want to continue, there may be some work involved in letting go of that defense or coping strategy and intentionally finding a different way to handle pain or anxiety. The process of changing these old, ingrained ideas and patterns can be a long and sometimes difficult one. It can be done, but it may involve examining some painful emotions or memories. I would recommend that you be gentle with yourself as you enter the process of change. You sound ready to look inward and make changes in your life.

A professional therapist may be able to help guide you toward an exploration of where you have been, what is happening now, and where you want to be. If you would like to do some work on your own, there are many self-help books that offer information about ways of healing from childhood trauma. You will find that some address traumatic events and stress more generally, such as Growing Beyond Survival: A Self-Help Toolkit for Managing Traumatic Stress, by Elizabeth G. Vermilyea [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. Others are more specific to childhood sexual abuse, such as, The Courage to Heal 4e: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. As you enter the journey of change, whether on your own or with support, remember to go slowly and be patient with yourself.

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