Nobody had a perfect childhood, at least nobody I know.
But some had much more supportive situations and families than others, and this had a gargantuan effect on their mental health and self-esteem in life.
For those who received a lot of criticism and messages of unworthiness as a youngster, the wounding words and actions can cut deep.
You may not even be aware of how much you were criticized or how deeply it affected you, whether that negative feedback came to you from parents, peers, authority figures or siblings.
Here are the signs to watch out for that show that too much criticism left a wounding mark on you in your formative years, and needs to be confronted and healed.
1) You feel a hole inside
The first worrisome sign that you were criticized too much as a kid is that you feel a hole inside.
For as long as you can remember, there’s a sense that you’re missing something. What exactly is that “thing?”
When you try to put your finger on what’s missing it eludes you, but on deeper reflection you realize that what’s missing is a real inner sense of contentment.
What’s missing is this simple and crucial knowledge: “I am wanted and safe here.”
2) You are convinced you’re unworthy and not good enough
This feeling of unworthiness dogs you everywhere you go.
No matter how many degrees you have on your wall or how much praise and love you receive, you feel fundamentally not good enough.
No amount of reassurance seems to be able to plug that gap I wrote about in point one.
You’re just going through life on autopilot, smiling and nodding.
But inside those early voices that didn’t give you the support you needed growing up and told you that you’re a burden are still making themselves heard.
You try to drown them out but you don’t know how.
3) You find yourself seeking validation and approval in many ways
When you didn’t get the support you needed as a youngster, your life becomes a search for that missing validation.
Self-awareness and inner work can begin to heal that inner child, but it’s not easy.
Your tendency as a kid who didn’t get validation is to seek it in those around you:
Work colleagues, friends, family who never gave it to you before, and also relationship partners. This brings me to the next point…
4) Relationship partners complain that you’re too clingy or too distant
When you were criticized too much as a kid, you tend to have serious relationship issues.
This usually means some form of codependency where you are needy to get confirmation of how much you’re wanted or distant to avoid being hurt.
This search for validation from a partner or closing off emotionally to a partner tends to result in one of two things:
- It attracts other people who are lost in their own codependent patterns and the relationship is very difficult and painful;
- It attracts somebody with a secure and healthy relationship style who ends up not feeling able to be with you because of you being unwilling to open up or too needy.
5) You have trouble asking for what you want and need
When you got too much criticism as a youngster, you were told in one form or another that there’s something wrong (or lacking) with you.
This creates a deep fear that you are broken, flawed, ugly, “bad” or unwanted.
As a result, the adult you is deeply afraid to state your simple needs or desires. This can manifest in many ways including:
- Fear of being disliked by others for standing up for your beliefs
- Shame over sexual desire or shame about being interested in somebody romantically
- Shyness and fear of drawing a line at somebody else’s aggressive or unacceptable behavior.
6) You always put yourself last and sacrifice for others
There’s definitely an empowering aspect to sacrifice and generosity, but it can be toxic too.
Those who only know how to give, serve and sacrifice themselves are often locked in deep childhood wounds. They believe they are only good when they deny themselves.
If that sounds like you, then it’s likely you did not receive nearly as much support as you needed (and deserved) growing up.
The pain of that is very real and very visceral, and hits the psyche at its most formative and vulnerable stages.
Wanting to help others is wonderful, but when it comes from a place of “if I do this I’ll be truly needed” it can actually be quite toxic and self-destructive.
7) You engage in self-destructive behavior and addictive patterns trying to fill the void inside
One of the saddest things about a teen or adult who was criticized too much growing up is that they often engage in self-destructive behavior.
I’m talking about everything from intentionally failing in academics to pushing away those who love them to getting hooked on drugs or booze.
Does every addict have childhood rejection and trauma they’re trying to kill?
Clearly not. But many do.
In fact, an estimated two-thirds of addicts seeking treatment have suffered significant childhood trauma.
8) You struggle with even the simplest decision, feeling unable to choose between options
Decision-making is tough for everyone, but for somebody who was criticized a lot growing up they are almost impossible.
The reason is simple:
When you don’t feel good enough and valid in yourself, you don’t feel like your opinion (even regarding your own life!) has much validity.
How are you supposed to know where to move?
How should you know whether to take the job or turn it down, to break up or stay in the relationship?
You’re not even worth much anyway, your inner critic tells you. There’s no way you’ll make a sound choice.
9) You suffer from imposter syndrome and constantly feel you’re a ‘fake’
Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you’re just playing a role and aren’t “really” worthy of doing something or being someone.
In the gym, you are convinced that others are far above your fitness level or judging you…
In the boardroom, you think folks in the company are looking at you and trying to hide their smiles as they laugh at your inexperience…
You’re convinced everyone secretly looks down on you and that you are at the absolute bottom of the totem pole.
This ties in directly to the next sign as well…
10) You doubt the sincerity of compliments and usually think it’s just flattery or an ulterior motive
In psychology, confirmation bias is the cognitive tendency to notice and perceive signals and parts of our environment that correspond to what we believe.
When you have internalized childhood criticism about your value, you tend to notice confirmation that you are indeed unworthy and worthless.
So when you get evidence to the contrary such as awards, compliments and kudos from other people, you often dismiss it.
“They’re just trying to flatter me or get in my pants,” you think; or “they must want something from me, I’m sure they aren’t just giving a genuine, spontaneous compliment.”
11) You feel socially uncomfortable and like you never belong
When it comes to your social life (or lack of it), you feel like you never truly belong.
No matter how kind and welcoming people are, there’s this cold edge you feel that tells you to move on. You aren’t really meant to be here.
You feel, as Radiohead sings in “Creep” that you are a “creep” and a “weirdo” who nobody truly wants around.
Even if they say they do value and care for you, that core part of yourself that feels like a void laughs and says “yeah, right.”
This leads me to the final point…
12) You seek belonging in many different groups but always feel like the odd one out
You’ve found yourself drawn to spiritual paths, religions, political activism, creative groups, peer groups, all sorts of things!
You may have been well-liked and even been told you belong, but part of you kept feeling it wasn’t quite right.
You always felt like the odd one out, and you still do.
No matter how enthused you get about being part of a group or a cause it’s like your inner critic still whispers:
“You know you’re still nobody, right?”
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