7 signs you grew up in an unhappy household, according to psychology

Every time my friends reminisce about the good old times when they were little, I find myself in that uncomfortable position where you can’t relate at all.

I don’t miss being a child. In fact, I’m beyond pleased that I am now an adult who gets to live on my own, make all the decisions, and love my family from a distance.

If you grew up in an unhappy household, you probably know what I’m talking about.

Here are the 7 signs you and I are in the same boat, according to psychology.

1) You feel you’ve missed out on something

Dinners filled with intellectually stimulating chatter, holidays where no one fights, parents you can confide in, siblings who aren’t constantly in competition with one another, and a sense of comfortable companionship.

I always thought these situations were only real movies. Then I realized that experiences such as these came as part of a happy family dynamic.

…which I didn’t have.

As a result, I’ve always felt like I’d missed out on something important, some vital part of what it means to be a family member.

Some people who grew up in unhappy households suffer even more monumental consequences – they tend to remember very little of their childhood overall.

Psychiatrist Grant Hilary Brenner MD, DFAPA, explains:

“People who experience a very distressing childhood often can’t remember large swathes of their early life. They may remember particularly vivid moments, sometimes called ‘flashbulb memories,’ which don’t have any context to them…

They often don’t have a clear story of themselves as a child, up through adolescence, early adulthood, and sometimes even later in life. This autobiographical sense is called a ‘coherent narrative’ in attachment theory and can be absent, underdeveloped, false, or oversimplified.”

2) You value your independence above all

Now that I’m an adult, I live on my own. I’m in charge of my own income. I get to work from my living room without worrying about an argument erupting out of nowhere.

And every once in a while, it strikes me just how valuable this sense of freedom I have finally gained for myself is.

Growing up, I spent years dreaming of the day I’d finally be able to break free and leave. Now that the future I bet all my hopes on is finally here, I’m still struck by how wonderful independence feels.

Adulthood is such a normal part of life that it seems a common thing to be wholly responsible for yourself. If anything, many people are quite annoyed by it, wishing they could be children again, free of all worries.

If you grew up in an unhappy household, though, there’s a high chance you feel the same as me. You wouldn’t trade being an independent adult for the world.

Your freedom is everything to you.

It’s all about the little things:

  • You can go wherever you want at whatever time you choose without asking for permission
  • Your living room is a safe space
  • You get to choose who you live with
  • You don’t have to fear any random outbursts of anger

…and it feels amazing.

3) You’re highly sensitive to other people’s emotions

The fact that you don’t have to worry about sudden arguments or strong negative emotions floating in the air now that you’re an adult doesn’t mean you aren’t hypersensitive to everything even remotely similar to it.

If you spent years upon years being on guard and trying to gauge how your primary caretakers feel, walking on eggshells and aiming to minimize your presence so as not to upset anyone, emotional sensitivity isn’t something you can just shake off like a coat.

It’s an old habit. And old habits die hard.

Psychotherapist Imi Lo offers some excellent examples you can use as a checklist. Did you do any of the following?

  • “When you sense the energy is low in the household, you make a joke, make a scene, use self-depreciating humour, or put yourself in the ‘class clown’ role to lighten things up”
  • “When you detect stress in the home, you park away your own anxiety, put on a brave face and become the calm anchor everyone else count on”
  • “When you predict the storm of an anger outburst coming, you know to quietly tuck away your own needs and protect your siblings from harm”
  • “When you see your parents sinking into depression, you diligently help around the house or try to elevate the mood”

If so, it’s a sign you used to cater to everyone’s but your own needs growing up. Your emotional sensitivity was part of that – it helped you navigate the chaotic dynamic at home.

4) You’re still recovering from living in survival mode

“As statistics report, many do not grow up with emotionally healthy parents,” says doctor of psychology, Annie Tanasugarn PhD, CCTSA.

She continues, “Children who experience neglect or emotional or physical abuse may grow up living in survival mode, where their inner child has become emotionally ‘stuck’ at the age in which they experienced trauma or chronic trauma.”

If your needs were often unmet growing up, you may have matured too quickly, forgetting your inner child in the process.

If you lived in a tumultuous household where arguments were commonplace, you may have learned to live with chronic stress because your body was always preparing to go into a fight-or-flight response.

If you were deeply unhappy with your home situation, you probably focused on survival rather than curiosity and exploration.

Now that it is all over, consequences remain. You may often find yourself sleepy – this could be your body feeling safe enough to finally relax – or stressed by the tiniest of things because you’re anticipating a disaster to occur at every turn.

Fortunately, it is possible to recover from living in survival mode. Personally, I have found meditation, mindfulness, and inner child healing to be incredibly helpful.

5) You have an insecure attachment style

According to the attachment theory, the relationships you form with your primary caretakers growing up can have a huge impact on your romantic relationships in adulthood.

If your parents’ love was something you could rely on, if they created a safe space at home, and if they were emotionally mature, it’s very likely you’ve developed a secure attachment style (that is to say, you feel safe giving and receiving love).

However, growing up with parents who were unreliable, inconsistent, immature, or neurotic may have led you to develop an insecure attachment style, in which case you might struggle to form deep and healthy romantic connections.

The two most common categories are:

  • Avoidant insecure attachment style (for example, you may find it hard to open up and show vulnerability)
  • Anxious insecure attachment style (for example, you might cling on too tight and constantly fear your partner could leave you)

As someone who has been actively healing the latter, I can confidently say that it is possible to create a sense of security within yourself and have amazing long-term relationships.

It does take work, though.

6) You struggle to set and navigate boundaries

Psychiatrist Judith Orloff MD writes, “Families are living organisms. The health and behavior of its members contribute to its overall wellness.”

She goes on to explain:

“In a healthy family, you learn to identify your needs and feelings; you receive consistent, loving messages from your parents; and your authenticity is valued. 

A dysfunctional family lacks clear boundaries. Shaming and blaming occur. One family member may become a scapegoat, communication is poor, and parents may be struggling with substance abuse or their own emotional distress or trauma.”

Since boundaries can get so vague and blurry in a dysfunctional household, it makes complete sense that growing up amidst all that chaos makes it difficult for us to set and navigate boundaries as adults.

I, for one, used to struggle a great deal when it came to saying what I wanted, calling people out when they treated me poorly, and prioritizing my own mental health.

I was so used to having my boundaries crossed that when someone did it once more, I didn’t view it as something that needed particular attention. I just shrugged it off, internalized a great deal of resentment, and carried on.

Obviously, this approach isn’t very conducive to long-term relationships or friendships. Trust me – I’ve learned the hard way.

You deserve to say no. You deserve to be treated with kindness. You deserve to have your boundaries respected.

7) You can’t seem to close the gap between you and your primary caretakers

…and you don’t have to if that’s not what you want.

While I’ve managed to reach a sense of forgiveness when it comes to my parents, I also know just how difficult it is.

Plus, it’s not always necessary. You can enjoy a wonderful healing journey without having any kind of relationship with your primary caretakers.

The fact that you can feel a large divide between you and the people who created an unhappy and dysfunctional household for you is completely understandable.

And you know what?

No matter what you decide to do, your choice is completely valid. Your well-being is the number one priority here.

Don’t forget that.

Ava Sinclair

Ava Sinclair is a former competitive athlete who transitioned into the world of wellness and mindfulness. Her journey through the highs and lows of competitive sports has given her a unique perspective on resilience and mental toughness. Ava’s writing reflects her belief in the power of small, daily habits to create lasting change.

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