Most people today understand that our childhood shapes how we see, experience and respond to the world around us. So much so, it’s easy to assume someone who’s subjected to a challenging upbringing is at risk for carrying unwanted protective “baggage” into adulthood. And yet, we now know that a design flaw of the brain can easily misinterpret even the most benign of childhood experiences into scary memories that can hold us captive for a lifetime.

In the simplest terms, the design flaw is tied to the fact that humans are born with a fully functional old brain at birth. This part of the brain does many things, but most importantly, it contains the primitive hardwiring for protection and safety. In other words, it is always on high alert for threats. This mechanism is exacerbated in the precious and formative years of a child, when the absence of the yet-developed new brain leaves a child without logic and reason to counterbalance the protective tendencies of the mind. In fact, most people are surprised to learn the cognitive abilities housed in the new brain will not fully mature until the child reaches their early twenties.

This natural wiring causes our little protective mind to translate benign experiences into significant events. For a small child, a stern warning on the dangers of snakes can easily morph into an uncontrollable snake phobia by adulthood — as was the case for one of my clients. And, it makes scary events even scarier. A locked door at naptime in the child’s eye is a devastating sentence of trapped. The moment is seared into the unconscious mind in a collage of pictures, sounds, and feelings that tells the child what to avoid in the future. And as the child moves into adulthood, she is inclined to make a series of decisions meant to keep her safe from ever being trapped again. I know this because my client brought this scenario to my office just this week, which is probably why this morning’s circumstance seemed so poignant.

It was just 6:52 a.m. when the blood curdling screams made their way through my hotel door, “Mommy! I…WANT… MY.. MOMMY!!”

A minute passed with escalating volumes and intensity, and I knew this wasn’t an ordinary tantrum. I entered the hallway and saw a frightened little girl who couldn’t have been more than three. It appeared she had somehow been locked out of her room, which is what I surmised from her huddling body in the doorway. Her face was red with fear as she attempted to catch her breath in-between cries for her mother.

A minute or two later her mother made her way down the hallway. Her approach was nonchalant and her explanation irreverent, "I left her in the hallway to give her a timeout. Sorry if it woke you up."

Though I didn’t ask and she didn’t volunteer, I’m sure she had some rationalization for the decision she made to momentarily leave the child: her sanity, exhaustion, ill-advice given to her. After all, I had a million “excuses” for all the poor choices I’d made, but that didn’t stop me from voicing my opinion. I was mortified, and said just as much.

After all, I was now fully aware of the potential repercussions of how this event could impact her adult life. Just like the woman in my office this week who’d spent half of her life trying to avoid being abandoned or trapped again in incredibly well-intentioned ways, the experience of this little girl has the potential to change the trajectory of her life. The chances she won’t surrender to the protective inclinations seared into her unconscious mind created in that small five-minute window will be dependent on conscious choices that will feel totally foreign and contradictory to her instincts. It could happen, but it is equally probable that she will move through life making limiting decisions meant to keep her safe from similar circumstances.

So, you see anyone who experienced a childhood is at risk for having baggage. If words of caution can grow into a phobia, then making fun of a small child for coloring outside the lines can translate into a lifetime in search of perfection. Being reprimanded for crying on your first day at school becomes an unconscious prompt to avoid any situation that could feel emotional. A brief experience of feeling abandoned or trapped becomes a charter to stay in control at any cost, because the old brain makes the scary…scarier.

Author's Bio: 

Susan Crampton Davis has been coaching and guiding individuals to success for more than twenty-five years. Today she focuses on helping people to identify and remove the limiting beliefs that stand in the way of greater happiness and success.

Susan is a graduate of Evergreen State University, a master-level NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) practitioner, a registered hypnotherapist, and a practitioner of Belief Reconditioning Therapy™, which is a client-centered therapy that involves several healing modalities. Prior to starting Awakening Works, Susan held senior leadership roles at some of the best companies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Getty Images, Staples, Amazon, and W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc.