My confusion about whether I had a happy childhood began a few years ago. It is not as though I have many unhappy memories of my life before eleven years of age. In fact my recollections are mostly positive – top boy at my primary school, one of the best two athletes, a prefect given responsibility over other kids, a leading light in school drama productions.
Apart from a vivid, embarrassing memory of choking during a Christmas pageant when the wise man became conspicuously silent as the words “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume” got stuck in my throat, my childhood memories are mostly free of drama. It was too early for me to develop much conflict with my father over religion. Even refusing to attend church one day was greeted with a much milder punishment than anticipated. (This was likely mitigated by me hiding under the bed and clinging on to the bed frame for dear life as my father attempted to apply retribution.)
My overall memory is a sense of unlicensed freedom and independence from a very young age. My mother had little time to worry about me with two other younger siblings around. However when sharing my recollections of this independence and happy childhood, a psychotherapist friend of mine sewed seeds of doubt in my mind. “That’s not right” she observed, “you are not supposed to be independent at the age of six. It means your needs as a child were not being met.”
I took her seriously. Her insight combined with eminent Jungian analyst James Hollis’s perspective that much of our adult patterning stems back from the past and led me on a journey of exploration to discover the impact this may have had on my adult life.
With my mother unable to meet my needs at such a young age, I did my best to cope with the changing environment. The result was I took control of my life; I made the best of it and did very well.
The false assumption I made was that this led to an unhappy childhood. It was reading a fascinating book titled “Resilience” by Boris Cyrulnik, a neuropsychiatrist and psychoanalyst, who researches how children manage to adapt to absolutely horrendous environments – like being a child soldier and killer. Only when the resilient façade comes up against the questioning as an adult then things begin to implode.
In a much milder way my resilience to feeling abandoned to what James Hollis calls “the overwhelming other” was to do something that in hindsight astonishes me, I took control and became independent at the age of five or six. It may not have been “right” but it was sure effective at helping me cope with my situation.
It is only as an adult that I began to unravel the Gordian knot and became aware of the reflexive and reactive behaviours that impacted so much of my adult life. My need to take control is both a gift and a curse leading to impatience, manipulation, my need to be right and anxiety while helping me manage many business challenges.
It has been pleasant to reclaim my childhood as a positive memory. It stands in stark contrast to the time at the age of eleven when my illusion of control shattered and my world really did fall apart but that’s another story.