Is Your Emotional Foundation Shaky?

by | Aug 10, 2012

Fortifying or rebuilding your foundation starts with assessing how solid or shaky it is

Our emotional foundation is the personality structure we operate from, much of it formed in childhood. Some of us are fortunate—born into families that shower love on their children, protect them, provide opportunity, and model solid character, citizenship, and relationship attributes. I am always appreciative when I run into people with solid foundations who are thriving, passing on their love, building great intimate relationships, families, and networks of friends, and contributing to the world in positive ways. It\’s what we all wish for our children, friends, and associates. And while all lives have their challenges and pains, those fortunate people provide a good balance and hopeful models for those in constant struggle.

Unfortunately, many of us grapple not just with difficult problems of the present, but with foundations made shaky by childhood traumas, a lack of consistent love and good role models within our early family life, and sometimes child abuse. Those disadvantages are analogous to serious nutritional deficiencies in early physical development. They present people who have not had a strong foundation with lifelong challenges.

But there is a way to build, rebuild, or fortify your foundation. It starts with recognizing what your strengths and weaknesses are and then building a life that takes advantage of your strengths and minimizes or fortifies your weaknesses. To start this process, first take a look at the components of your foundation. Let\’s start with events that shake the foundation.

  • Loss or abandonment. The death of a parent, sibling, or grandparent. These events shake a child to the core and require a long period of mourning, as well as understanding and love from those who remain, in order to help a child through. If those things do not happen, a child can carry the shock, pain, and numbness for a long time and grow up with a shaky foundation. In addition to the shock of the loss, children can take on guilt at the death of someone they are close to—however irrational that may seem to us as adults.
  • Abuse. Child abuse—mental, physical, or sexual—can have the most soul-destroying effect of any childhood experience. Children naturally look to parents for love, affection, caring, and a model for appropriate behavior. When all of those are shattered in one or a series of cruel acts, children often retreat into a numbed mental state. These acts are impossible to process or emotionally resolve for a child, so the damage can linger a lifetime.
  • Trauma. A bad accident. Witnessing a violent act. These things can shake a child\’s foundation at any age. Yes, children are resilient and can recover from many difficult experiences. But they do not do that on their own. If a child receives little or no understanding, support, or guidance after a trauma, the effects can linger into adulthood, even through a lifetime, leading to both anxiety and depression.
  • Alcoholism and drug addiction. Substance abuse or addiction take many of the other experiences mentioned here and add chronic irrational behavior, unpredictability, and extreme emotion. The result can lead to a life of anxiety, low self-esteem, and substance abuse.
  • Cold parenting. There are parents around who are not drug addicts, who provide all the right physical comforts, who do not physically or sexually abuse their children and who keep a stable household—yet do not offer any degree of warmth or affection that a child can use as a model for future relationships. Cold, unemotional parents can communicate a profound message that expressing a feeling is inappropriate or unsafe. And that message, internalized, can result in an inability to form or maintain intimate relationships.
  • Parental incompetence. Some parents do very little that appears to be abusive to a child, yet still confer a lifelong disadvantage. These parents simply do very little right, from being self-absorbed rather than nurturing, to having little perspective on child rearing and making wrong decisions and mistakes at every turn, to not reading to or cooking for their children. Unfortunately, sometimes such poor parenting is simply passed down from one generation to the next.

While all of the above experiences damage a child\’s foundation or prevent it from being fully formed, the real question for you as an adult is: What can you do about it now? Thankfully, the answer is: A great deal. Here are some of the top strategies for building or fortifying a strong foundation for the rest of your life:

  • Find good models. Be clear about your lack of an early foundation. Then look for solid people to bring into your life who can share your experiences as you build a stronger foundation. Make friends who are understanding, reliable, and affectionate without being inappropriate. Form intimate relationships with people who are likely to sustain a commitment in the long run.
  • Stay clear of toxic people. Listen to and hone your instincts. Does an interaction with a person often result in anger, depression, or other debilitating feelings? Find a way, any way that works, to end that relationship. Your job in life is to move on, not to be stuck in the past. Unfortunately, the list of toxic people can sometimes include family.
  • Get connected, move forward. Get involved with forward-moving work and after-hours activities. Join a meetup of foreign film lovers or hikers to augment your mind or body. Take an evening course so you can take on a greater challenge at work.
  • Commit to long-term change. If one or more of the difficult experiences above is familiar to you, seeking professional help can be one of the biggest steps you ever take toward a healthy life. A counselor can help you assess your foundation and set you on a growth path. Longer-term therapy has the advantage of building a deeper relationship with a therapist, in which you partner to build a better foundation for the future.

Orange County depression counseling and  anxiety counseling can address many of the symptoms of a shaky foundation as you work to fortify it.

Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional.  If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch.  You can reach her here:


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