One of the most challenging aspects of growing up with developmental trauma is having to unlearn certain beliefs—beliefs that might’ve served us at one point, but that no longer assist us, yet that prevent us from evolving and healing properly.
What was the first lesson that I’d learned as a human being? It was the lesson of mistrust. It wasn’t conscious learning, and I have no memory of it, but the fact that I was given up for adoption by my biological mother at birth told the baby-me all I needed to know about the dangers of being alive. There’s plenty of research that shows attachment occurs as early as during pregnancy, when even in the womb the baby will react and respond to the mother. For example, the baby’s heart rate can double when the mother is frightened or upset; similarly the baby relaxes when the mother is calm. And what happens during the first 60 minutes of a baby’s life—often referred to as the “golden hour”—can maximize the bonding between mother and child. Imagine then, what happens to a baby who is taken away from their mother and robbed of those precious moments. A baby whose mother, in fact, sets the relinquishment in motion by giving them up. Here’s proof right then and there that the world is scary and that the person designated to protect and keep the baby is the least safe person on the planet. The baby has no way to comprehend what sort of circumstances led to that decision, all they know is that they’ve been rejected and betrayed. I have no way of knowing what that was like for me, but I don’t doubt that one of the first things I’d learned was not to trust. I believe my mistrust was a survival coping mechanism—if I remained on alert for possible betrayal and rejection, then I wouldn’t get hurt again. Again, these were not conscious thoughts, but looking back I see how for a long time I tended to see that my world was shaped by those sorts of beliefs.
Fortunately, I was adopted into a caring, loving family with a mom and dad and siblings, and my childhood was a stable and supported one. Yet, I’ve always felt that there was something wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. And if someone was to ask me back then if I was a troubled child, I don’t think I would’ve agreed—I was provided a relatively safe environment, despite my struggles to attach. I was shy and I often felt lost, and so often felt uncomfortable. And the feeling persisted. As a result I’ve always had trouble connecting to people, whether it was my peers or my family. It was something I learned how to hide, which was another survival coping mechanism: blend in and they won’t pick on you. Outwardly, I seemed well-adjusted and content, but I was not because I instinctively didn’t feel safe. For me, this was rooted in those initial experiences where it had been confirmed that trusting the one person who should have my best interest at heart was what led to all kinds of trauma and disappointment. That’s not how I thought of those things back then but now, I can see clear evidence of this fatalist thinking. Especially when it comes to my own confirmation bias and how I’ve used that as my armor.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values. When presented with a new opportunity to connect with someone, I would instantly try to find reasons why I should proceed with caution, my internal thought process like a searchlight looking for proof that trusting a new relationship would be detrimental to my survival. I know you’re probably picturing a feral little boy who barks at strangers and doesn’t engage with friends and family, but that’s not what that looked like. I had to play a role of a well-adjusted individual in order to survive in the world that expected I would, for example, blindly step into relationships and place my most vulnerable, precious parts of me with others who had in their power to harm me further. Can you imagine the internal torment this created? This constant, endless hamster wheel of looking for proof that I shouldn’t trust while pretending that I was open and trusting the whole time? And when people would disappoint me, this was a time for quiet resignation and also realization that I had been right all along in keeping myself safe. There it was, a confirmation that my bias of mistrust was not a bias at all, but a protective survival mechanism that would ensure my hurt would be lessened and that I could survive in the world that was a minefield of emotions.
It took a lot of work to unlearn this bias and to understand where it came from. I’ve rebuilt a lot of my relationships and today I have rich, deep connections with people that I wouldn’t have been able to be around had I continued to feed that confirmation bias. Also, understanding how my trust was affected by my relinquishment helps me to understand others who are still trying to figure out how to move safely about.