No one has a perfect childhood. I never had a desire to paint mine as a complete disaster, either. For the longest time, I clung to the parts of my childhood that involved holiday traditions; make-believe games outdoors; and singing, drawing, and writing for hours. It actually took 22 years and a psychiatrist to convince me that my experience as a child wasn’t perfectly normal.
I remember the conversation vividly. I was meeting with a psychiatrist at the university where I attended graduate school. My reason for seeing her had nothing to do with my childhood. It was just about my difficulty coping with a recent trauma I’d experienced. She needed a full backstory to understand my reaction to the recent event, so I obliged. By the time I reached the point in my life story when I left home for college, she casually dropped a phrase that caught me off guard.
“You had a very chaotic childhood.”
“Was it?” I asked. It didn’t take much for her to convince me.
As I rediscovered my childhood, I became more equipped to understand my experience as a highly sensitive child in a chaotic environment — and compare it to the experiences of my less-sensitive siblings.
“I remember hiding in my bedroom closet, my fingers pushed as far into my ears as I could manage — because I could not stomach the yelling, the things breaking, the accusations and threats. My brothers slept through it.”
Being ‘The Sensitive One’ in a Chaotic Home
I’m the second youngest of several children, but really only remember growing up with two brothers, one older and one younger. Through four divorces, three new stepfathers, and the constant uprooting from one rental house (and school, and church) to another, I carried the weight of being the only one who seemed affected.
I’ve always known myself to be a sensitive person. In fact, there were countless moments in my childhood in which I would be scolded and shamed for being “too sensitive.” It was a “character flaw” I didn’t seem to have the power to correct.
As an adult, I realize that although I am different, I’m also normal. Like roughly 1 in 5 people, my nervous system processes everything around me very deeply, making me what researchers call a “highly sensitive person” or HSP.
One of the distinctive traits of HSPs is differential susceptibility, which means our environments have a much, much bigger effect on our development than they do on other people — especially as kids. A supportive environment helps us rocket ahead more than the average person, and a troubling environment can have an equally strong effect in the opposite direction.
Before I go any further, I want to stress that being a highly sensitive person has everything to do with your biological makeup and nothing to do with past traumas. I know several highly sensitive people who experienced healthy childhoods, and there are many people with traumatic pasts who aren’t highly sensitive at all — such as my siblings.
In other words, it’s not a disorder, nor is it caused by one. From my experience, however, the leftover baggage from my chaotic upbringing was exacerbated by the fact that I happen to be a highly sensitive person. What I experienced seemed to leave a deeper mark on me than it did on my siblings.
And that was never more true than when there was conflict.
Hiding, Running, and Making Myself Small
Conflict was common in our household. Usually, this took the form of fights between my mother and any one of my step-dads. I don’t remember the details of any of the countless fights, because they always seemed to start with something insignificant — even irrational. When my mother fought, whether with a husband or her children, her voice filled with what sounded to me like pure hatred. The men she married always had explosive tempers. I never understood why she wasn’t afraid; on the contrary, I sometimes wondered if she wanted them to be angry.
I wasn’t as hearty. I remember staying up for hours on school nights, hiding in my bedroom closet, my fingers pushed as far into my ears as I could manage — because I could not emotionally stomach the yelling, the sound of things breaking, the accusations and threats.
My brothers slept through it.
“I was emotionally wrung out from watching an entire house burn to the ground. My family said I was being dramatic, and laughed at me whenever they watched the video they’d captured of the fire.“
If they fought during the day, I’d try to run out of the house — maybe to wait in the garage until it was over. My brothers just played in their rooms. If my mom found out I’d left, she’d scold me for being dramatic and seeking attention, but it was still a necessity for me to escape the yelling.
If they fought while we were driving, I’d push my headphones in as far as they could go and close my eyes. Every swerve or increase in speed would make the knot in my stomach tighten. Sometimes, I’d even let out a small whimper, or take a sharp inhale after holding my breath for too long. My mother would tell me to get over myself or to stop trying to get attention; my brothers called me a baby.
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Why Weren’t My Teachers Worried?
I don’t recall much of elementary school, but I do know the attention I received from teachers seemed to come from a place of worry more than praise. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing to make them see me that way, but I tried my best to stop doing it, anyway.
I recall writing a poem at the start of fifth grade called “My Heart is Blue Like the Ocean.” My teacher read it aloud in class, because I was much too shy to do so myself, and then asked me to talk to her after everyone else left for recess.
“Why is your heart blue?” she asked. I knew right away what she was getting at, and I didn’t want to be pitied. The real reason was that blue was my favorite color, and I thought it was deep and meaningful, but I knew that wasn’t what she thought — and the last thing I wanted her to see me as was a dramatic, attention-seeking child. I shrugged my shoulders and said it didn’t mean anything. We moved twice more before that school year ended.
In sixth grade, I had a teacher who seemed to see right through me, but never interrogated or talked down to me. One night, the vacant house behind our rental home burned to the ground, which meant we didn’t get any sleep and also couldn’t shower before school the next day. Because we technically lived in a different school zone, we weren’t allowed to tell anyone about the fire. I was terrified I’d give it away and we’d be forced to change schools.
My teacher saw potential in me and was trying to build me up, without drawing attention to the fact that I badly needed it. The day after the fire, he asked me to stay behind when everyone else went to recess. He looked at me very seriously and asked if I was okay. I told him I was. I couldn’t have him thinking I wanted attention or pity.
He pretended to believe me, and even managed to look somewhat proud of me, but I knew he was suspicious. Besides being tired, my hair was greasy — and I was emotionally wrung out and distracted from watching an entire house burn to the ground.
I was an anxious mess for days after the fire. My family said I was being dramatic, and laughed at me whenever they watched the video they’d captured of the fire — because you could hear me crying as they marveled over the tall flames and how the heat warped the walls of our tiny camper.
“To this day, I shut down when a grown man raises his voice in anger.“
How I Recovered From the Trauma of a Chaotic Childhood
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I realized that being sensitive was just part of who I was — something I needed to grow into, not out of. As a result, I went through some key emotional development stages in college that I ought to have experienced before leaving high school.
Over time, I adjusted my behavior and developed habits that have helped me learn to cope with being a highly sensitive person (being able to name it helps a lot, too). I’ve even come to realize through self-discovery and a little self-love that my sensitivity is often my greatest strength.
While I’m not an expert, here are strategies I’ve learned for coping with a traumatic childhood as a sensitive person — that I think might work for others:
1. Be patient with yourself as you are.
When I first took steps to both face my past and learn about what being a highly sensitive person means, I made several goals for myself. Unfortunately, most of those goals were meant to hide my sensitivity from those around me. I wanted to be seen as thick-skinned, confident, and strong.
I’ve since learned to make my goals about changing how I respond to stressors, whether it be by breathing or taking extra time to process before moving on to something new. To meet these goals, I have to address the fact that I am not, nor will I ever be, thick-skinned. But I can still be confident and strong. I’ve learned to be patient with myself as I am, which has opened me up for more healing than anything else.
2. Be open with the people closest to you.
I’ve had conversations with my closest friends, relatives, and colleagues about what it means to be a highly sensitive person. I explain to them what it means to me, and how it affects how I interact with the world. I’ve found that opening up that conversation helps people to feel more comfortable addressing their concerns with me, as they’ve been invited into that part of my life.
I also have conversations with the people closest to me about what my childhood looked like, and how that sometimes impacts my thoughts and behaviors. I’ve found that when I open up about my past, even people who met me as an adult can provide insight that helps me understand myself even better.
3. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to draw a line.
I have worked through many of the specific fears and stressors that resulted from my childhood. These include stage fright, trust issues, low self-esteem, and fear of stability. However, one of the most prevailing impacts of my childhood is just as strong as it ever was: To this day, I shut down when a grown man raises his voice in anger. But instead of investing my time and energy into overcoming that fact about myself, I have decided to draw a hard line: I do not put up with that behavior in my life.
Does that mean I never see men who are angry? Of course not. But I tell the men in my life what my reaction will be. I tell them that anger is never the best way to communicate something to me. And, depending on how close they are to me, I tell them why that is. Though I’m sometimes tempted to be, I do not allow myself to be ashamed of it.
4. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help.
It’s so easy for anyone to convince themselves they don’t need professional help, but the reality is that just about everyone can benefit from a counselor or therapist. Everyone is impacted by the traumas they experience in childhood, but highly sensitive people, by nature, are apt to react more strongly. I’m thankful I found my way to a mental health professional who was able to help me see myself clearly, and I urge anyone struggling to move on from a rocky past to reach out.
My biggest regret in life is that I didn’t have the opportunity to develop coping skills as a child. Instead of learning to understand my sensitivity as it first manifested itself, I learned to be ashamed of it — and that showing it would cost me both respect and love. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t, to some degree, still have that fear.
But I’m also grateful that, as an adult, I’ve learned I don’t have to carry this with me forever. Even as a sensitive person, I’m able to heal and grow and move on. Indeed, I think my sensitivity has made my new habits even more effective. And today, I don’t have to run from yelling — because I don’t allow it in my life.