Recovering from a Difficult Childhood: 5 Steps to Reclaim Yourself

Woman with open arms

“Our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as being able to remake ourselves.” ~Mahatma Gandhi

Recently, I had one of those flashes of insight that burn away the illusions I learned as a child in a dysfunctional family and help me see myself in a new light. I saw through an invisible belief that I’ve held for a very long time—the belief that I am not in control of my life.

Standing in line in the grocery store and twiddling my thumbs, my monkey mind ran through the list of what I could be accomplishing if I didn’t have to wait in line doing nothing. And like a bright gift from above, an idea flew into my mind: If our thoughts create our reality, then I could be creating my next experience of reality right then, while I waited.

In that moment, I realized that even when I feel like I’m not in control of a situation, by letting go of resistance and choosing to create the next situation with my thoughts, I can be more in command of what happens in my life.

I grew up with no understanding whatsoever that I could create my life the way I wanted it to be. My father was very rigid in his beliefs and actions, and my mother was very impulsive. Consequently, my world swung back and forth between needing to follow rules and regulations, and suddenly having the rules change mid-stride so that I had no idea what to do next.

I carried the assurance that life could fall into chaos at any time into adulthood, and though I have consistently moved forward in my life, I have never felt truly in control, because of the way I grew up. 

The Law of Attraction and the Unconscious

As a long-time student of the Law of Attraction, I’ve had varied success with my attempts to create my own reality. Sometimes it has worked; sometimes it hasn’t.

I wasn’t able to figure out why until I realized that on some deep, subconscious level, I still expected my mother to come along and spoil everything I’d worked for.

That half-buried expectation made it difficult for me to believe in my own creations and receive them, because my “inner child” continued to feel very vulnerable in the face of uncertainty, even if what was unfolding was positive.

I know my mother had a good heart, and I have no doubt that she was well-intentioned, but her own childhood was challenging, and consequently she was a rather unstable person—certainly an unstable role model for me, as the only girl in the family.

My early experience created a general feeling of instability in my life, which made it easy for me to fall under the illusion that I had no control at all over what happened to me.

When we pay attention to the relationship between how we experience life now and what life was like as we grew up, we begin to see correlations between what we learned early on and what we’re experiencing in life now. 

By developing the “witness” aspect of our inner selves (some might call this “soul”), we can simultaneously feel what’s happening in the moment, and also get a larger view of what’s really going on deep within the psyche.

This allows for a process of “sorting through” the tangled web of beliefs, behaviors, and self-images we wove as children in order to get along in a dysfunctional family, and allows us to uncover our authentic selves.

Trapped in the Mirror

Sometimes, habitual feelings, actions, and responses are nothing more than an imitation of someone who needed us to be like them. We may have learned early on to “mirror” someone else in order to be safe.

I’m reminded of the incredibly liberating observation I made one day several years ago after experiencing depression for most of my life: I discovered that I didn’t have to be depressed.

I had only developed the habit of being depressed because my mother needed someone to keep her company in her misery. Mirroring her state of mind made her more comfortable, and thus made my life easier.

That realization totally changed my life, and hoisted my self-esteem a few notches as well.

If you’ve ever had a moment where your response to a situation is unexpected and over the top, seemingly out of proportion to what happened, you’ve probably been triggered by an unconscious memory in your psyche left over from childhood. 

We don’t generally become aware of these “hot spots” until we spend a bit of time paying attention to why we do what we do, and who we believe we truly are.

So here are five steps that can help you blast away some of the illusions you grew up with and reclaim your authentic self:

1. Pretend you’re a person of the opposite sex, and review your early life from that perspective.

Focus on how the way you were treated in childhood might still be affecting the way you live now. This helps you to truly step outside of your own identity and see the scope of your life from a totally new perspective.

2. List three difficult situations that seem to keep recurring in your life, no matter how hard you try to do them differently each time.

Do those situations remind you of anything (or anyone) from childhood? Uncovering an unconscious constellation of emotions from the past can help you free yourself from persistent difficulties.

3. List five qualities of your identity that you’ve always wanted to change.

Now take some time to consider whether you feel they’re actually part of your authentic self—or whether you “adopted” those qualities in order to get along, or because someone needed you to be like them.  Who do those qualities remind you of?

4. The next time your reaction to a situation seems out of proportion to what happened, try to figure out whether the situation felt familiar in any way.

Over-the-top emotions can be our psyche’s way of calling attention to old unhelpful beliefs and illusions that no longer serve us. If the situation felt familiar, try to get a bead on why—what does it remind you of?

When you’ve got the answer, release the emotion (I like to grit my teeth and shake a sofa pillow, or open a window and shake my hands), and imagine that you’re releasing that old previously unconscious experience at the same time. Eventually, you’ll notice that the triggers don’t have as great an effect on you.

5. Whenever possible, find a way to express the emotions you’re feeling.

Most of us stored a lot of unexpressed emotion as children, which we may turn against others, or against ourselves in self-sabotage or self-disgust.  I like to express the bigger emotions in private—that way, I’m not “dumping” them on someone else.

The more you can release your pent-up feelings, the more of the past you’ll clear away.  Go to a sad movie and cry buckets, or whack a bed with a plastic bat—whatever works for you. Releasing emotions releases energy, which you can then use to create a more authentic life.

Healing from a difficult childhood is not a quick-fix proposition. In my case, because I experienced emotional abuse, I’ve had to work for many years to let go of the negative self- and world-views I developed.

But with every strand of the dysfunctional family tapestry I unravel, I get more clear on the ways in which I learned to interact dysfunctionally with the world, and as I allow myself to let them go, my life gets better and better.

We can only become enlightened by acknowledging and releasing what weighs us down: the less conscious aspects of the psyche that carry the burden of the past.

Photo by Freckles Photography

About Katherine Mayfield

Katherine Mayfield is the award-winning author of a memoir about recovering from emotional abuse in her family, The Box of Daughter: Healing the Authentic Self. She’s also written several books on dysfunctional families, including Stand Your Ground: How to Cope with a Dysfunctional Family and Recover from Trauma. She blogs on dysfunctional families on her website, Twitter: @K_Mayfield

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  • Fiona C

    Great post Katherine and I looked up your blog too which from what I have read so far is tremendous. A great tool to help you address learnt patterns. Thank you

  • Like yourself, I find my childhood coming back to bite my subconcious and unconciously it results in self sabotage behavior. I am working threw them with the help of a Life Coach I hope to stop the vicious cycle with my own daughter. Blessings

  • HannahBWYA

    Hey Katherine,

    Thanks for writing this, I enjoyed reading your post and insights. Number five in particular is *so* important in my experience. I really admire your courage in addressing how your past affects your present and I look forward to checking out your blog and book.

  • Katherine

    Thanks, Hannah. I’m glad you found the article helpful! #5 is a big one for me, too, but I think it’s one of the best tools for getting clear and moving forward.

  • Katherine

    I think it’s great that you want to break the cycle and not send it along to your daughter as she grows up. Hope your work with the Life Coach goes well!
    Best, Katherine

  • Katherine

    You’re welcome! And thanks for your kind words. I’ve spent a lotta years gathering those insights… : )

  • Carlos Chavarin Jr.

    After over five years in therapy, I’ve learned to say, “That was then, this is now.” I try to remember that when I’m faced with difficult situations.

  • MathildaMoon

    Whoa. Just, whoa.

  • lv2terp

    I love this post! This is something that I have recently realized is a possibility, and that a-ha moment has really done wonders for me! Thank you for sharing, and wonderful tips/advice to be able to be aware of that conditioning, and assess what to do! 🙂

  • Katherine

    Excellent way to think of it! I’ll have to remember that.

  • Katherine

    Nice response. Thanks, MathildaMoon!

  • Katherine

    You’re welcome! So many people have helped me, I’m happy to help others. There’s a new post on my blog at about getting over the conditioning of desperation and angst. Ruled my life for many years!

  • i loved this. i think this could help so many. thank you!

  • Kelsey Harding


    I recently moved out from home hoping to leave the dysfunction there, but was disappointed to find the problems followed me. I couldn’t put a finger on why they were so frustrating to the point of paralyzation, worse than any personal problem I had had before. After reading your post, I realize this was because they were never my personal problems in the first place! I simply mirrored the actions of my mother to a tee, therefore the struggles felt unsolvable because they were never mine to solve. I can’t thank you enough for posting this. I feel like I have the tool to leave behind these patterns and start living my OWN situations, struggles, and successes.

  • This is a challenge. A friend of mine had a difficult childhood and he was abused as a child. It’s quite difficult to let go of things like these especially when your parents wronged you. No matter how many times your parent says their sorry for what they did, and even if you forgive them, it will still crawl back to you especially if you and your parents aren’t in good terms. I think it all boils down to talking it out, understanding, and being kind to one another.

  • Katherine,

    Thank you for sharing your insights with us. Growing up into such a role and internalizing it can lead one into a lifelong struggle to let go of self-harming habits. It’s far easier said than done, but it takes people like you with the courage to speak about the damage and break the cycle for their own children. I thank you and wish you the best in your journey.


  • Katherine

    You’re welcome! Thanks for your comment!

  • Katherine

    Thanks, Faith. I’ve had many readers of my memoir tell me that reading it was like reading about their own lives, and that is very validating as an author. I hadn’t realized how many other people had similar experiences, so I’m very glad I wrote the book.
    I wish you the best in your journey, too!

  • Katherine

    You’re right, Jorge — it all still crawls back even if you forgive your parents. I’m very sorry your friend had that experience. I’m sure he didn’t deserve it.
    My parents never understood how their behavior made me feel, or what it did to my life, and in their last years were even more critical and abusive than in childhood. I think a lot of caregivers experience this, and it makes the caregiving experience so very difficult.
    If you think it would help your friend to read about emotional abuse, here’s a page on my website you could refer him to that offers information:

    I will send healing thoughts, and my best wishes to you as well.

  • Katherine

    It’s amazing how easily we can take on someone else’s struggles. I’m so glad my words helped you figure some things out!
    I wish you all the best as you dive in to living a life that’s more truly your own!

  • Hi Katherine. Thank you for the response and the link. I’ll share it with my friend. My friend’s parents are the same. Now that he’s older, instead of making up for their faults in the past, they’ve become more critical towards him and I feel the reason why is because they don’t REALLY understand that they’re child is what he is right now, that he’s emotionally imbalanced, because of their abusive behavior when he was a child. They just continue doing what they did, minus the physical abuse, and think it’s their son’s fault all the time. That’s he’s the one at fault, that he’s a difficult child as if he was born with it. Sorry for the long rant, it just saddens me that my friend is going through this, that a lot more people are going through this. No one deserves to be abused, physically or emotionally. A child deserves only love and should feel that, plus all other positive feelings, from their parents.

  • Nelly C

    Thanks for a great article I especially found it helpful to think about difficult situations in my life now and think about how they might relate to my childhood. This was a huge revelation – my healthy relationship with my husband might sometimes be hurt by my unhealthy relationship to my dad! Good ideas – thanks again.

    List three difficult situations

  • Wow! I have been struggling against a particular issue for weeks now and I couldn’t quite get a handle on why it infuriated me so much – in fact, it wasn’t even logical to me that I got so angry! This article was exactly what I needed in this moment because it made me consider how that situation related to my childhood – and bingo! There was my answer. The situation has a huge impact on me because it brought back feelings of feeling ‘second best’ throughout my childhood. I always felt second to other relatives and overlooked and it’s a pattern that I often feel has followed me into adult life. But this article will make me now stop when those moments occur, step back (maybe even literally!) and ask myself, ‘how does this relate to your childhood’. Amazing article and very helpful!

  • Dan Sullivan

    is that you (from carver)? i was reading tiny buddha n saw ur post. found ur twitter too. if so good to see

  • Alicia Marie

    This came to me at just the right time. Thank you for the insight and help.

  • Katherine

    You’re welcome, Alicia! I’m glad it was helpful.

    You might check out my blog on Dysfunctional Families for more insights into recovering from a dysfunctional family:
    Best wishes,

  • Katherine

    Thanks, Michelle! I can totally relate to that “second-class citizen” feeling — that’s what kept me feeling like I was living in “The Box of Daughter.” It took me a lot of years to get over that and feel just as deserving as anyone else.

    It always amazes me how current situations can bring up that old stuff so strongly. Good for you for figuring it out! And I’m glad my words were helpful.


  • Katherine

    You’re welcome, Nelly. Dads have a huge influence on women’s lives, especially our relationships with men. I’m in the process of writing my next memoir, about my dad and his relationship with money, and how it affected me. Huge!


  • Katherine

    Thanks for your insight. I’m so glad you’re there for your friend.

    That is part of what makes emotional abuse so horrifying, and so deeply affecting — the victim not only has to take the abuse, but is often also blamed for it or otherwise convinced that he/she is the problem.

    I’ve had many excellent reviews from men for my book “The Box of Daughter” — lots of guys seem to really relate to the story. You might mention the book to your friend. Sometimes it helps just to know that someone else has gone through the same thing and come out the other side.

  • Hi Katherine. I’ve introduced the book to my friend and he relates well to it. Thank you for sharing it with me. 🙂

  • Kristine

    Great post! I loved the questions for people to ask themselves – very insightful.

  • Katherine

    Thanks, Kristine! I would love it if you’d share the link. So many people are struggling with these issues. Thanks for reading!

  • Katherine

    You’re welcome, Jorge! Thanks for sharing the book! I hope it helps your friend to heal.
    Best wishes,

  • Katherine, I would like to congradulate you for your courage to express the motions of your healing and creating a “SAFE” place for so many others to connect and join with you in your process of healing!! Blessings to You!!

    You have discovered through your “WANTING TO UNDERSTAND” the complexities that “SO” many of us have suffered through “ALLOWING” ourselves to be conditioned by the “SIGNIFICANT OTHERS” in our lives! You have revealed and taken note of this “PATTERNING” that “WILL”, without doubt, continue to plague so many of us until each and everyone of us develops an understanding of our own “PATTERNING”.

    The truth is, we are on this earth to participate in the expansion process and those that are “TOO STUCK” in the past, live a repeated pattern of hurt that mirrors the past! Mirrors the SUFFERING.

    I believe that the answer for healing and growth will start with the EXACT steps you have taken in your life, that is:

    1. Wanting to understand why we feel such pain in our lives

    2. Understanding that we have been subject to and allowed this conditioning to permiate our energy field, our emotions, our soul.

    3. Look at the repetative patterns in our lives and seek healing by forgiving where the pain has come from. This stops the wheel of continued patterning re-emerging by making choices instead of reacting in a negative emotion.

    4. Knowing that the significant “OTHERS” in our lives hold a pain that they are not able to remove in a negative energy, eg. resentment and fear. This knowing will enable us to raise our emotions to the higher vibration of Compassion, Love, Joy, Gratitude.

    Then more of us will be able to give as freely as you have to us.

    Peace to all.

  • Ruby

    To put it lightly, my father was around, but he didn’t parent me. He didn’t teach me anything about life, he was always drinking, complaining about money, never really held me, or talked to me. Into my teens all he did was criticize my social anxiety. I’m 18 now, and I really hope this works.

  • sarvij

    Jorge, I wish I had friends like you.

  • Mysty

    Excellent post Katherine. Learning to let go of so much hate and anger has allowed me to see all the love that was in my life. This has finally freed me from the negative childhood.

  • Olivia

    My troubled childhood still haunts me from time to time no matter how hard I try. I find the step-by-step exercise was helpful. Thank you for this article, it is well written and very insightful!

  • Geoffrey

    Just like EVERY other article of its type, this is useless and unhelpful.

  • Geoffrey

    I have no idea how to let things go or how to ever trust, I also don’t know how generic, trite advice will help anyone; this article is useless.