When severe dysfunctions or significant disruptions are part of one’s upbringing, they cast a long shadow over adult life.
Minimizing or dismissing the effects of these experiences based on spiritual changes is not wise. Being a new creature in Christ, for example, does not erase the impact of a troubled upbringing. Superficial cliches like “forgive and forget” or “just put the past behind you” are equally naive and misdirected.
Consider the experience of Lindy (not her actual name)
One of the things Lindy learned from her Father was that love is earned.
Good behavior merited favor. Disobedience, or even non-conformity to his beliefs, earned his anger and distance. It was all about performance. If she displayed to others what he thought to be right and good, then she would receive approval from her dad. As long as she pretended to be the obedient, respectful child, she was accepted. She grew up in hypocrisy, not knowing her Father’s love. He was absent emotionally, and to this day, Lindy does not know him, though she still clearly hears his disapproval.
Lindy learned that many of her choices displeased her dad. According to him, she did not eat, dress, or date appropriately. Rather than gaining what her heart craved, she lost hope of ever being loved for who she was. She turned to other male relationships seeking affirmation and acceptance. During this phase of her life, the connection with her Father severed completely.
Lindy became a people-pleasing, empty, broken mess. All her male relationships further splintered her soul. When she could not bear the self-deception any longer, she enrolled at a Bible College in one last-ditch effort to ease the overwhelming pain in her heart. Perhaps total abandonment to God would grant her release from her consuming turmoil and please her Father. If she embraced God, perhaps the emptiness of her heart would fade away.
In college, she began to slowly see the layers of her deception and her troubled mind. Lindy became determined to submit entirely to God’s hold on her life. When she finally stopped running, she met a stable, godly guy and married him believing her past would become a distant memory … distant, perhaps but not forgotten.
For the next seventeen years of marriage, however, Lindy was baffled by unexplainable outbursts of anger and almost continual discontentment. What could be missing? She was married to a loving, supportive husband, was heavily involved in youth ministry, had four beautiful children.
Unable to pinpoint the cause of her unrest, Lindy finally broke. She hit a wall and admitted failure…personal, marital, parental, social, and to her dismay, even spiritual. She felt attacked on all fronts. Everything she was trying so hard to keep in balance came crashing down…simultaneously. Depression consumed her for the next three years. Could her problems still be traced to the deep void she felt from her distant Father?
Lindy told me her story when she was in her forties. She lived for years without understanding why she felt and acted as she did. I encounter people all the time who identify. They grew up in homes void of functionally healthy relationships. Many of them are skeptical about the possibility of good relationships because their past taught them not to be vulnerable, transparent, and trusting – three essentials to good relationships.
These people cycle through unexpected waves of sadness, depression, anxiety, irritability, and anger. Many of them do not understand why they battle these emotions. They are also unaware of ways that they multiply pain from their past because suppression and denial played a significant role during their troubled childhood.
It’s difficult being honest about the influences that have shaped our lives. And revisiting the past comes with risks. The journey could lead to wallowing in self-pity or feeding resentment. Such responses, however, only give the past victory over the present. Understanding our past must lead to freedom from the hold it has on our lives.
For the rest of Lindy’s story and a closer look at ways the past effects the future in more real-life stories, check out my book, “The 18-Year Factor: How our upbringing affects our lives and relationships.”