Of all the red flags I’ve learned to detect, there’s one that really makes my “uh-oh” radar go off, and that’s when a grown man or woman says “I never want to grow up!”
Maybe you’ve tried to date someone like that, or maybe one of your parents was like that.
Or maybe (forgive me for being so direct) you are someone like that.
I think I understand what people mean when they say this: What they mean is, they want to feel carefree and authentic and not turn out bitter and burdened, like (maybe) a negative parent figure in their life.
But, if you’re having a hard time creating happy, stable relationships, and if you’re spending a lot of time broke, angry or disappointed with other people — or like you’re unfairly rejected and overlooked, childhood trauma could be in play.. It’s possible that early abuse and neglect have kept you stuck in some old childhood mindsets that could be blocking you from having functional and equal relationships with the people in your life.
Like many of you, I had to grow up really fast in some respects. I was exposed to a lot of things that kids are not supposed to see — grownups using drugs, hitting, sexual stuff, a kitchen with no food in it half the time… I had to help with childcare, sometimes late into the night because no adults were in the house. Long before I was even a teenager, if I wanted any money I had to earn it myself, even for basic stuff like clothes, food, or taking art classes at the community center. So, I started a whole series of little-kid businesses to pay for that. And there were some good sides of that — things that made me stronger and more capable. But of course there were downsides.
The funny thing is, what they call “growing up fast” is not really growing up. It’s a kind of toughness, but it’s not maturity.
That’s why I sometimes call Childhood PTSD a kind of developmental delay, which is usually used to refer to a long timeline for learning to talk and walk and read. In those of us with Childhood PTSD, it can take an extra long time to develop emotional maturity. We can be hugely street-smart, but still a little vague on how to take responsibility for the direction of our lives. Some of us stay in a never-ending battle with our parents –an extended adolescence where we’re trying to get them to see how hurtful they were, and make right what they did. Or, we try to drag out of them the approval and love that never came while we were kids.
Healing from all that is part of maturation too. It’s hard but it doesn’t have to take a lifetime. It starts by just opening up your mind to the possibility that the hurt kid in you is compromising the adult you need to be today.
So how can you tell this is happening? There are a few important markers of adulthood, and we can start by asking questions about those. The first question is: do you have an identity that is independent of your parents or their influence? We might choose to live in a similar way to our parents, with the same values or affiliations with religion or politics, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But part of adulthood is discovering what we really believe and how we want to participate in the world, even if it’s a departure from what we learned at home. It doesn’t have to be done with anger or criticism of our parents. You might have criticisms, but now that you’re an adult, you’re free and they’re free. Everyone gets to be themselves.
The second question is: Are you still dependent on your parents? Some of us stay in a childlike state because of this dependence, whether it’s for money or a place to live or just emotionally, we’re very caught up from day to day in what they did, what they said, how they judged us or disapproved us, in the past or just last week.
If you’re holding on to that stuff and it’s affecting whether you can be happy or not today, I’d say the child in you is blocking you from full adulthood.
You can spend your whole life very focused on those hurts, but to start enjoying the freedoms of adulthood, it’s important to start facing not just what happened, but your own limitations that may be connected to that. It’s not your fault you got hurt as a kid, but today, if you want to start having good, real, fulfilling connections to other people, you’ve got to climb up out of that identity of a person at war with the past.
Still, a lot of us get stuck in the psychological bonds and beliefs that what happened in the past dictates who we are now. It can be this never-ending fantasy that it’s the parents who have to do something so that we can get free, even when we’re 30, 40, 50 years old! We think they must apologize, or they have to acknowledge what they did, or they have to help us get on our feet because the trauma was so debilitating.
This is a war where, whether you win or lose, you lose.
There’s a tiny chance your parents will change or give you the love they couldn’t in the past. If they do, it will be through some shift in their own hearts, and almost certainly not because of pressure from you.
Fake apologies never hit the spot. (Can you think of one that did?) The miracle that you’re really looking for is the one within yourself, where you’re free of what happened, and you start making the happy life you deserve.
For a few people, that means cutting ties with parents. For most people that’s not necessary at all. When you have less fear and resentment (I teach exactly how to achieve this in my courses), you have more flexibility to enjoy people who used to make you angry.
I’ll be honest with you: Everyone likes you better when you put down your sword, when you stop trying to make anyone apologize or compensate you or validate you or change in any way. They are who they are, and we are who we are. We can make requests, but we can’t force change and that’s a core meaning of what it is to be an adult. We work on ourselves.
Adults have freedom to change or not change, and, to create their own identity distinct from their parents, which is a very powerful freedom. There are the simple freedoms of doing what you like, behaving how you like. You don’t even have to be polite or cooperative (technically) as long as you follow the law. You can wear t-shirts that say the f-word on them. You can troll people on the internet, you can eat junk food all day. If the people in our lives don’t like it, we can push them away. That’s a certain kind of freedom that comes with adulthood that I call “casual freedom,” but it’s not the kind I’m suggesting you stretch out of your comfort zone to obtain.
What I’m really talking about is the kind of freedom that comes with a cost — that always entails responsibility. This includes adult privileges like having sex, earning money, creating a home, forming a partnership or even a family, serving your community… If you long for those things, but you can’t seem to have them? Then it could be that the child you is controlling the adult you
It may be time to take a step up and into the responsibilities and freedom of that comes with setting the past behind you, and blossoming as your full, autonomous grown-up self.
I think that consciously, we all want that. But what can happen with Childhood PTSD is we’re not doing what it would take to get there. It feels like too much; the responsibility is exhausting just to think about. What if you try but totally fail? What if you succeed but then make some mistake and everyone’s eyes are on you? What if your Childhood PTSD symptoms overwhelm you, but you’ve taken some big job and you don’t have the option anymore to stay in bed all morning, or get in your car and drive all night to get away from it all, to flat out avoid whatever was too painful to face?
Everybody thinks these things sometimes, especially people with Childhood PTSD. But the quest to avoid that “triggered” feeling takes too much away from us.
There comes a time when what happened in the past doesn’t explain all of your problems anymore. Sure, we have obstacles: We can be socially awkward, we have money problems, a lot of us missed out on a full education, we’ve got health issues, we we’ve got depression or ADHD, we don’t know the right people, we don’t know how you’re supposed to act in a job or on a date. That’s all real, and it’s not our fault we grew up in that void but you know what? We can learn!
Every day we spend throwing up our hands in helplessness is a day wasted. You want to know how to do a job interview? Get on YouTube right now. Read a book on dating, or take my online course on dating (it’s just for people with Childhood PTSD)! Don’t just give up now!
Your instinct for self-protection has served you well. But now it’s keeping you from becoming your real self.
We can protect ourselves now in a new and better way by opening up those capacities, and practicing and learning and reaching for those milestones of adulthood like work, financial independence, learning and social participation, intimate relationships and a family, if that’s your heart’s desire. There’s no guarantee that you’ll achieve all of these things in your life, or that you’ll handle the responsibility without a few bumps in the road. But don’t let your good self collapse into bitterness and helplessness.
You can reach for your own freedom. You were made to grow and take your place among the strong people who lift up peoples’ lives all over the world.
It’s hard. It takes emotional courage and it’s going to be triggering sometimes. That’s why my videos and all my courses are here for you. But even when you fall short of your goals, the journey — the journey of trying — makes life fun and real.
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If you think you may have Childhood PTSD, take my quiz here.
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