Childhood trauma specifically from lonliness and loss of homes?
February 11, 2024 11:16 PM   Subscribe

Frequent, extreme moves left me emotionally hurt in subtle ways, despite an otherwise happy childhood. Sounds familiar? How to explore / heal / deal?

As I age and mellow (shrug emoji) I am realising a lot of my emotional sore spots could be due to my childhood. I had a very happy one in many ways. Except my family moved country about 5 or 6 times before I was 10 years old. I couldn't put my finger on it before but I feel this loss of contextual and personal connections beyond my immediate family has given me some subtle trauma.

I am empathetic to almost an exaggerated degree, maybe because I was so close to my parents early on? And I find it tough to relax even with people I know pretty well now as an adult, maybe because I'm painfully aware how easily relationships can unceremoniously end? Even though I'm older and more comfortable in my skin, I can also be intense because I almost always take a super long view / deep dive into topics or activities, maybe to compensate for the lack of stability in other areas?

Anyone else felt this way or known someone who has? Suggestions for healing?
posted by KMH to Human Relations (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What you describe seems in line with being a Third culture kid; that page mentions the book by Pollock and Van Reken you might find helpful.
posted by willem at 11:29 PM on February 11 [5 favorites]

Sounds like a great thing to talk through in therapy. It doesn't just have to be for moments of crisis, working on nagging emotional sore spots is the perfect use for it.
posted by penguin pie at 4:10 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

I'd try to work through (by yourself, or with a therapist) what it was actually like for you when the moves happened (from the announcement to completing the move), what you felt (were you allowed to express it? how much were you listened to?), and what "rules of living" you may have subconsciously taken in from that (this is the hardest and most beneficial part - do you think that all good things get taken away unceremoniously? that you need to hide when you're having trouble with a new idea? that you aren't allowed to keep friends and acquaintances?).

No judgement should apply to these subconscious rules, but once you find them (and the feelings that go with them) you need to "reparent" that part of you that holds the old feelings - perhaps you will allow yourself to have a tantrum and then soothe yourself that it's ok now, nobody can make you move home because you're an adult and you run your own life. It sounds like babying yourself, but really you're just going for something age-appropriate to when those feelings came from. Maybe you want a new doll for each new house you had to put up with, or to do a "proper goodbye celebration ritual".

Sounds to me like all the changes triggered you to be hypervigilant. I tell my hypervigilant part every day that their feelings matter, but that I am safe now and I thank them for all the hypervigilance work they have done, and remind them that they can do something else now.
posted by london explorer girl at 4:49 AM on February 12 [10 favorites]

Yes, those are Adverse Childhood Events and they can generate maladaptive behaviors. Nobody is actually spared: children experience a good deal of trauma as a result of not understanding the world very well and also being short on tools for dealing with that, but it does leave us all with shit to grapple with later. You absolutely should spend time exploring this, but don't forget that these are also where many of our strengths come from, so process the events from all angles.

It's normal to re-assess and re-contextualize the earlier stages of your life as you get older, too. I think this process gets a bad reputation because people either frame it as being "hung up" on the past or because people often do open up random doors and cupboards to find surprise skeletons inside - I am in my 50s and just now figured out yet another thing my parents hid from me - and so this re-assessment process can come with some tough blows, but I think NOT doing it haunts you way worse than anything you might figure out.

Even though I'm older and more comfortable in my skin, I can also be intense because I almost always take a super long view / deep dive into topics or activities,

It's worth noting this is also a symptom of neurodivergence. (Which a whoooole lot of middle-aged people are digging up as a fun surprise these days because our elementary educational services sucked, and then have to re-consider their entire lives and that's not traumatic at all.)

Anyway, I'm a big fan of Harbinger's extensive line of mental health workbooks as starting points - maybe you end up taking the workbook to a therapist, maybe the exercises satisfy your toolbox needs - and yep, they've got one for this.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:16 AM on February 12 [8 favorites]

Oh yeah. So been there. So am there.

My family moved seven times before I was seven. As a result:

1) The only permanent thing in my life is me. Homes, relationships, belongings — all of these can be stripped from me with no warning so I don’t get too attached. Twice in my adult life I’ve culled down my whole life to fit in a suitcase and a backpack and it was *easy*; it was just practical things like clothes and a laptop. My baggage (good and bad) is internal.

2) I’ve made a Virtue out of the necessities of the situation. Relying on other people for my emotional needs is anathema and I get really snotty when I see it in other people. Only now, at age 55, am I starting to allow that into my life. I am tentatively allowing myself to be part of a community. I am not just providing support to others but accepting — even relying — on receiving it in return. This is brutally hard for me emotionally and in truth I always have backup plans if it doesn’t come through.

3) "You can make new friends, but you can’t make new friends who have known you for 20 years." As part of healing myself I’ve found the place I plan on staying for the rest of my life. In the back of my head I remember that it would be easy to pick up and go, but more and more that’s not the case. I’m developing not just close friends here but also a circle of acquaintances and a place in the community that I truly value and feel valued for.

In short I am healing myself through relationship. I am exposing the scary vulnerability that is necessary to truly be part of people’s lives. They allow me to help them and I allow them to help me.

Empathy: I was born with significant empathy but the moving about certainly pushed it along. If you watch young children you see them make friends in seconds. As they get older it takes more work, and empathy is an important tool for that. However, a child being over-empathetic with adults can be a very traumatic experience as they have no context for the feelings they are experiencing.

The first truly important thing I learned in therapy (at age 27) was to filter the constant wash of emotions that we live in. I learned to differentiate between other people’s emotions and my own, and I learned how to let their emotions be their emotions and mine be mine. It’s 36 years later and it’s still hard for me to be exposed to strong emotions from individuals or the collective wash from even a small group, but it’s all doable. I learned how to not be constantly overwhelmed.

Therapy has been an important adjunct to all of this. First I needed to learn to how not be constantly overwhelmed and then to let my vulnerabilities show in the appropriate time and place. And I’ve had to learn how not to be snotty about the whole thing. It’s been a long trip so far and there’s a long way to go, but the ultimate destination is in sight and I believe I’ll get there.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:24 AM on February 12 [13 favorites]

I hear you. I hear everyone in this thread, and I appreciate you.

I have an urge to move every few years, and I do not expect other people to miss me when I am not around. I am used to missing others and rarely understand that I should reach out. When I learn I've disappointed or hurt people, I'm surprised and feel terrible. As you say, it's because I expect any relationships can "unceremoniously end" no matter how much they mean.

It's a process, like everything else in therapy. I have to recognize when I'm acting in these patterns, which are almost never deliberate or cynical, and analyze whether it's really the best choice.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:22 PM on February 12 [5 favorites]

that's me, elena. i got defeatist about maintaining relationships as a wee lad. never figured it out.
posted by j_curiouser at 12:41 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

Ooof, I understand this down to my bones. My father got fired from jobs a lot, in bridge-burning ways, so we moved at least a dozen times before I turned 13. I've lost count of the number of times, honestly. Always in the middle of the school year, too, so I really never had a chance to make friends, and I was always lagging behind in school because hey, turns out being uprooted in the middle of the school year is not conducive to learning. It also left us very, very poor, so I was the weird, nerdy kid in the thick glasses and too-small hand-me-down or K-Mart special clothes.

I'm middle-aged now, and have finally started therapy to try to deal with my deep sense of unworthiness and self-loathing. She is doing EMDR therapy with me, and we're working o0ur way all the way back to the beginning of those feelings, which come from both the repeated traumas of having my life uprooted with little or no warning, and growing up with the kind of father who thought absolutely nothing of putting his family through that crap over and over.

That's a lot of words to say: I hear you, I see you, and I definitely understand. Therapy is so, so helpful.
posted by maryellenreads at 10:41 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

I relate and we only moved three times. Interestingly, it's left me more able to maintain a friendship from afar, since I got used to my best friend being someone I wrote letters to. That said, pretty much everyone stopped writing back eventually. Also to some extent I think I always feel a little bit like the outsider.
posted by slidell at 10:04 PM on February 13

My family didn't move internationally but we moved over 20 times (usually interstate) by the time I was ready for college. And we weren't military so I didn't even have the "military brat" identity to latch onto. As an adult, I've felt I've always been perpetually stuck on the "Belonging" level of Maslow's Pyramid and stunted, in a way, unable to achieve higher things because of my forever quest to find a home, belonging, connectedness, etc. I DID have that stability and rootedness in the very early years of my life which makes it worse in that I'll always mourn what could have been if my parents had just chillaxed and let me have a stable childhood in familiar surroundings with family and friends. On the upside, I guess, I'm good at geography and am a social/class chameleon.

Some ways that I've coped are by leaning into a long term relationship with my significant other which provides a great deal of psychological stability, having pets who aren't going to just move away from me, and an obsession with homeliness/coziness wherever I am.

Friendships are hard though because, similar to what you said, I can't ever let myself get 100% close since there's always very real possibility in this mobile world that the person will light out and leave me devastated. At the same time, deep longstanding relationships with people are what I crave more than anything.

I don't know if that's helpful at all but I just wanted to let you know I identify deeply and actually think this kind of childhood trauma is way underestimated.
posted by Jess the Mess at 10:26 AM on February 14

Response by poster: Oh, this was disappointing.

I'll check out the book.

I knew about this name for it but I was hoping at least someone here had a similar experience and a little perspective on the feels.
posted by KMH at 4:45 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oops! Commented before 1000 helpful answers popped up.

Always refresh the page!!!

Thanks everyone!!!
posted by KMH at 4:55 AM on February 17

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