During my years in elementary school and well into junior high, while the other kids were in gym class or at lunch, I had to go home. I had a neurological problem that made it dangerous for me to be too physically active or get too hot, and so my mom picked me up in the middle of the day to rest.

I hated it. Walking back on campus was awful. I fought tremendous feelings of insecurity as I rejoined the other kids. I’d be tagged as “it” as soon as I reached the playground, not even knowing what game they were playing. And it seemed as if everyone laughed. In junior high, the girls would be huddled by their lockers as I walked back in, giggling about something that probably had nothing to do with me, but of course, I feared that it did. I grew hyper sensitive to whether or not I was accepted, and so I did stupid stuff to call attention to myself.

That wasn’t helpful.

What was your childhood insecurity?

I’ve heard many versions of this same story, going from an insecurity because of parents that were chaotic, embarrassing or downright mean, to being the tallest one, the shortest one, the one with asthma, or the one with big ears. You were the one who got picked last. The one who couldn’t focus. The one who was really, really smart. The one who developed early. The one who wasn’t into sports. The one who was into sports, but couldn’t afford to play. The one who had a different color skin. The one who secretly knew you were attracted to the same sex. The one who wasn’t Baptist. Or Catholic. Or Jewish.

You name it. Insecurity can be found under a lot of rocks. 

Often, those early feelings can seep into your consciousness long after you think you’ve left them behind, and even as an adult still manage to influence your thoughts and feelings. How do you know if (and when) this is true for you?

There’s a sure-fire way to determine when you’re seeing things through the eyes of that uncertain little girl or boy.

The clue is when you overreact or under-react; put another way, when your buttons get pushed. You’re not responding to what’s actually happening in the present, you’re reacting, A deep-seated part of you is being triggered by struggles you experienced in childhood.  

Let’s say you see on Instagram that some friends got together and you, obviously, weren’t invited. If you immediately become angry, or obsess about why no one texted you, then it’s likely that some old insecurity has raised its head. You instantly wonder what you could have done wrong. It doesn’t occur to you at first that sometimes things happen spontaneously and you weren’t left out intentionally. There are endless reasons why you weren’t included this particular time that have nothing to do with you. Yet you take it very personally. If you obsess and worry? You’re overreacting.

Or let’s say there are times when your usually fairly loving partner gets way too angry at you about how you handled a particular situation. You simply did what you thought was right at the time, and you know their reaction is far out of proportion to your perceived transgression. You also suspect that their foul mood is about an issue at the office, and doesn’t have anything to do with you. You’d really like to point out this out… but you say nothing, shoving your unhappiness and sense of unfairness under the rug. What button is being pushed? Your mom always yelled at you, and your answer was to go to your room and avoid what you could. But now, as an adult? You’re under-reacting.

In both instances, you’re not seeing and understanding things through the eyes of your mature self. Instead the little child in you that dealt with schoolyard bullies or angry parents is influencing your reaction today. You’re responding not to the situation at hand, but to times when no one sat by you in the cafeteria, when what you had to wear was dirty or torn, when some boy or girl told you to take a hike, when you didn’t catch a pass or make a goal, or when a parent mocked you or called you worthless.

With overreactions, you make the present too much about you and how you feel. When you under-react, you make the present not enough about you and how you feel.  So how do you change this process?

Three steps to change automatic reactions into more mature responses…

  1. Recognize when your buttons are being pushed.  Do your best to pay attention and see when you’re overreacting or under-reacting. When you recognize what’s triggering your own vulnerability, you give yourself control over your own choices, including how you want to respond to the current situation — not automatically react. Remind yourself that your emotional reaction in this particular moment isn’t necessarily about what is going on right now, but instead could be the result of childhood experiences or trauma that have left you vulnerable to over- or under-reacting in certain circumstances.
  2. Practice compassion for yourself. Confront whatever shameful voice you’ve discovered lies in your head and heart. Look back on that child you were and feel compassion for the strengths and resilience they developed.You did the best you could, given whatever circumstance you were handed. 
  3. Adopt a healthy-mindset mantra that can accept your vulnerabilities. “It’s time for deep self-acceptance, including my vulnerabilities.”  Understand that there can be healing in the present for you, in this very moment.   It can be life-altering to accept that you struggle with self-worth and avoid speaking up because you struggled in school and was embarrassed, or that you tend to get mad too fast because you were bullied, or that you can be judgmental at times because you grew up in a very rigid family that didn’t see differences as interesting. You can accept (not resign yourself to) these things, knowing where they came from, and develop more of an understanding and watch for when those tendencies pop up.

Your childhood doesn’t have to define you any more.

You can define you.

 

You can now listen to Dr. Margaret as she talks about emotional well-being and many other topics on her new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Click here!

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This was originally published on December 10, 2016 and was updated on February 16, 2019.