Blog Page

How Childhood Traumas Influence Your Programming

An excerpt from my recent book, Your Mind Is What Your Brain Does for a Living, now available at Amazon


Getty Images : Boy with Radio

Getty Images
Photowork by Thanasis Zovoilis

I’ve noticed that many of us have a single story or trauma from our childhood that both creates and defines the filter through which we see much of the world and that has had a tremendous impact on our path since childhood. The major event in my childhood that influenced my future programming was my father’s sudden death from a cerebral hemorrhage when he was thirty-eight years old and I was eleven.


We lived in a tiny two-bedroom house. I was awakened in the middle of the night by a strange groaning that turned out to be from my father. I went to my parents’ bedroom, where my mom was hysterical. A little while later, I saw my father on a stretcher being loaded into an ambulance. My mother climbed in with him, and the ambulance pulled away. I was left alone in the house with my brother, who was three years older. A few hours later our mother came back, clutching our father’s underwear and screaming hysterically, “He’s dead!”


Up to that time, my home life had already been emotionally chaotic, and in that world my father had seemed to be the only focused, dependable person and therefore the only one I could rely on. My older brother had been introverted and often difficult for the family to deal with. My parents were always mad and upset at him. My mother was exceptionally fearful and frequently emotionally explosive as well, with a flair for drama and hysteria. She and my father often fought. My father’s presence had been reassuring; to me, he had seemed strong and capable. And, despite his occasion­ally being upset with me—which I avoided as much as possible—I never feared that he’d go out of control the way my mother did. I wanted to avoid both Mom and Dad getting mad at me no matter the cost. My childhood mind decided that if I was “super good,” no one would be angry with me and I’d be safe.


I’ve mentioned that the machinery always works the same way over and over again—except when it doesn’t. Not only are our actions sometimes inconsistent, our programming can contain inconsistencies too. One of my programming’s inconsistencies was that even though a major part of it had the goal of making me “super good,” no one, regardless of what they said, could stop me from doing what I wanted if I thought it was right.


Let me describe an incident that illustrates my determination. I was five and had just gotten a new state-of-the-art portable radio, which in those days was the size of a toaster. It came with a leather case and a shoulder strap. We were on a family outing in our car, driving along the highway, when I noticed that my radio’s shoulder strap had gotten caught in the car door. I asked my father to stop the car but he wouldn’t, so I opened the door to free the strap anyway.


The car had what they called “suicide doors” that caught the wind if opened when the car was moving. I was flung out into the middle of the highway. It was a huge drama. I should have been killed but I survived with only scrapes and bruises, and my interpretation was that I was almost invincible. My will was unstoppable! This became part of my default programming.


Another significant interpretation embedded in my child’s pro­gramming came from being told and believing that anger was wrong or “bad.” As part of my mission to be super good and not do anything wrong, my mind drew the conclusion that I should never be angry. I saw what my brother’s anger did to both him and the family, and I wasn’t willing to ever take that chance. I just swallowed my anger and any other feelings that I thought might get me into trouble.


Another factor that contributed to my developing program­ming that caused me to swallow my feelings came from what I observed about my mother’s relationships with her family and my father’s family. I’d seen her cut people out of her life when they’d had disagreements with her, and I adopted the belief that I shouldn’t disagree with anyone important to me. Instead, I should find a way to mollify and give them what they wanted. My interpretation was that if you disagreed with someone, he or she would cut you out and you’d be alone. Given this belief, it became especially important to me to comply with what the people closest to me—the people I was most dependent on—requested, even if it was at my emotional expense.


Thus, even before the trauma of losing my father, I was on a very narrow emotional tightrope, stuck in the role of the “good boy,” giving people what they wanted, always appearing to be happy, hiding my unhappiness—even from myself—and never being angry. (At least that’s what I thought I was feeling and projecting.) All of this was aimed at keeping myself from being abandoned.


Then my father died. I lost the only person in my world who I believed could protect me. The rupture in the bond between my father and me was now real and permanent: He was dead; he abandoned me.


Two days later, at the funeral, in keeping with the Jewish tradition, the rabbi cut my tie in half to expose my heart and to symbolize my grief for the loss of my parent, and I formally entered the fatherless phase of my life. Lots of people came to our tiny house after the funeral. I had no idea who most of them were, and I felt they were treating me with pity, which made me cringe inside.


Upset and scared, I needed my mother, but I couldn’t find her. Finally, I discovered her in our garage, crying hysterically and almost chanting, “I want to die!” My eleven-year-old machinery went into survival mode: If she committed suicide, I’d be an orphan and would have no one at all. The involuntary words shot from my mouth: “Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll take care of you!” (I’d seen children in the movies of the day saying the same thing, so I said it to her.)


That vow to my mother in the garage became my way of life from then on. I began living my life with a new, overwhelming sense of responsibility. The new interpretation that went into my programming was: “It’s all up to me!” Without knowing it, I became a parentified child, the term used in the therapeutic community to mean a child whose role is reversed so that he or she feels the neces­sity of taking charge of a parent instead of vice versa.


My child’s sense of commitment made me feel that I could handle anything that came along, and as each year passed, I became more proficient at it until I became masterful! I took care of my mother when she was emotionally low and reassured her that everything was okay. When I was thirteen, I started making money selling magazines door-to-door, somehow thinking that would help and committing myself, in my mind, to continue making money to support the family. More than anything, I took care of myself so that I would never be a burden on her.


When I was eighteen, my mother was in a fragile emotional state (she didn’t trust herself and feared she would be swindled by a man in her life), so she placed all the family assets in a non-revocable trust and named me as the trustee. Seven years after my father’s death, I became the official financial leader of our family of three.


This programming silently ran my life and I didn’t have a clue it was running me or why I felt that to survive I had to do everything: for myself, for my mother, for my brother, and, later, for my wife and my children. I believed it was my job to take care of everything, which included making the people closest to me happy and never expecting or even asking them to take care of me. Without consciously knowing this, I felt great pressure to please and take care of all of them because I feared that if I didn’t please them, they would cut me off. I also needed to take care of them because I didn’t believe they could take care of themselves as well as I could.


My machinery was quick to scold me when I didn’t live up to my image of being all things to all people. If anyone close to me criticized me, outwardly I would automatically defend myself, but my self-critic would join in the criticism, and inwardly I would beat myself up. That critical voice took the form: something is wrong; I’m not good enough; I don’t belong here; and I’m always going to be on my own. I’d cast myself as being totally responsible for everyone and for pleasing everyone, and I had no idea that I hated it. My machinery hid my anger from my conscious mind. It wasn’t until I was in therapy many years later that I learned how much anger and rage were inside me.

  • 8 Jul, 2014
  • Posted by Steve Fogel
  • 21 Tags

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.