Many of us did not have perfect childhoods. Despite the many blessings that we probably did have, most likely we also had some significant challenges. We certainly had disappointments, but some have had even worse. Some have survived serious conditions such as family turmoil, abuse, abandonment, betrayal, violence, political unrest or natural disasters.

In each case, something did not go right and one or more basic needs went unmet. When a basic need is unmet, there is a loss, such as a loss of security, safety, freedom, trust or love. Losses like these tend to create emotional voids. The question then becomes, what can we do about these voids that were created so long ago?

Partial solution #1: Healing from others

Very often, when there is a void, our first thought is to find a way to fill it. In the case of our emotional and psychological voids, trying to fill them is not a bad idea—to a point. If we were not properly nurtured and protected as a child, it’s only natural that we might seek out partners, friends or colleagues who are nurturing and protective. If we were heavily criticized and controlled, we might gravitate towards others who freely offer praise and personal space. And if we were betrayed and abandoned early on, we might search for those who are especially loyal and committed.

Whether done consciously or unconsciously, these are all reasonable strategies to address unmet needs. And although they can help tremendously, finding ideal substitutes for the imperfect characters in our childhood may not completely fit the bill. Meeting the unmet need as an adult is healthy and wonderful, but it may not quite make up for the fact that the need was not met in the first place.

Partial solution #2: Healing from self

In addition to getting unmet needs partially met by others, a second strategy is to do what we can to meet the needs ourselves. This involves having a heathy relationship with ourselves and, in a sense, being the parent to ourselves that perhaps we did not have as a child. Unless we work on this deliberately, it can be easy to treat ourselves in the same unhealthy ways we might have been treated as children. So we may need to give ourselves that which we may not have received as children—praise and validation, protection and freedom, love and forgiveness.

Partial solution #3: Mourning the loss

Yet even if we are highly successful in surrounding ourselves with heathy people and do a great job in reparenting ourselves, there very well may still be part of the void unfilled. This part of the solution is to be willing to mourn the loss. When there are profound losses of an emotional and psychological nature, sometimes it is simply not possible to make it all better. But it’s okay. If there is part of the void that remains unfilled, grieving that loss is a meaningful and effective way to address it. Grieving the loss means accepting and feeling the pain and shedding the tears, not just once but as needed, and moving forward in life with the loss.

It helps to have faith

As we work on these three strategies to cope with the voids left from childhood, it helps to work on having faith. It’s good to have faith that there are healthy people in the world who, though imperfect, can treat us well. It’s important to have faith in ourselves, that we can certainly learn coping skills and how to treat ourselves more lovingly. It is wise to have faith in the mourning process, trusting that it is a natural process with healing properties if we allow it to unfold. And some use their religious and spiritual faith to guide and support them through it all.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of anitapeppers/ morguefile.com

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Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.