How Your First Three Years Shape Your Adult Life
[And Why it Matters]
When you look back on your life, there are probably a few experiences or influences that obviously shaped your life how it is today. This could be your college major, the city you chose to live in, or your relationships.
But to really understand yourself and your behavior patterns, you actually need to go back way further.
Like, back to the first three years of your life.
Those first few years are a formative time in your life that impacts your everyday perspective, the way you approach relationships, your comfort with boundaries, and how you feel seen and heard.
Here we'll explore the reasons and science behind this phenomenon and look at why this knowledge is so important and impactful for your life today.
Your First Three Years: Why They Matter
"Inner child work" has catapulted into popularity in recent years, especially on social media. But what is it?
In short, it's a way to address your needs that weren't met when you were a child. The foundational idea is that, though we all grow up, there are thoughts, feelings, and memories from childhood that still impact you today—often in a negative way.
In fact, there is significant research on the long-term impacts of adverse childhood experiences, and healing the inner child is a way to improve quality of life.
Licensed therapist, the late Cathryn Taylor, discusses these ideas in her book, The Inner Child Workbook. In it, she discusses the ages of 0-18 months and how bonding with our caretaker is instrumental in learning about nurturing and trust.
Think about it this way:
- Are you confident in yourself and who you are? This could stem directly from living with a close, caring family in your early years where you formed secure and healthy attachments.
- Do you find it hard to connect with others or feel emotionally safe? This may be the result of neglect or lack of care in your earliest years, where you formed insecure or anxious attachments.
- How's your relationship with boundaries? Are you people-pleasing all the time, or do you feel comfortable with them? This also stems from early bonding and relationships where you felt like you weren't "good enough" and had to always keep the peace.
How you were nurtured and loved—or, conversely, neglected and ignored—impacted you as a child. And, you carried some of that into adulthood. Your brain has become more rational, but it doesn't eliminate those negative thoughts and feelings from your earliest years.
Sometimes I like to think of it as a bike path through a meadow. The first time you bike through that tall grass, there really isn't a pathway. The more you go down that same route, the bike wheels create a little rut in the ground that gets deeper and deeper over time. The same could be said of those emotional comforts or triggers over all the years of your life. Like the wheels on the bike, those pathways are built without even trying or even noticing.
All of us can benefit from increased self-awareness and taking stock of how our early years impacted us and our actions today.
But diving into your past and focusing on inner child work may be particularly useful for some. Here are some guiding questions that help indicate whether it may be useful to you:
- Do you often feel like a victim?
- Do you let others dictate how you feel?
- Do you struggle to set boundaries in relationships?
- When you get upset in situations in the present, are the feelings you’re having all about that day—or related to things from your childhood?
- Do you frequently find yourself reliving experiences that already happened?
- Do you feel safer when you put walls up?
If you're nodding along, know that you're not alone in this. These are common experiences for many people and—more importantly—they're something you can overcome and move forward from.
Your Next Many Years: How to Make Them Matter
At this point, you might be thinking—but I can't change the first three years of my life. Or any time in my past! I don't have control over this!
And it's true—you can't go back and change the past. You can't have different parents or teachers or experiences or events. But what you can do is learn from your past and grow in self-awareness.
The more you know yourself, the more you can grow, thrive, and live today. It just takes intention. Just as it would if you wanted to create a new bike path. When you get curious about your past and how it impacts you today, you can heal from the past and adopt healthier patterns and behaviors that help you make good decisions for your future.
Before we dive into the practical steps to take here, I'll share a bit of my story:
"I've recently learned some things about the first few years of my life and, I'm not going to lie, it was very difficult to process. But it's also been eye-opening to how I process things, what my emotional responses are, and how I handle situations. It's helped reveal to me why I've reacted to similar triggers time and time again—both in my marriage, prior to my divorce, and in my business. It's helped me understand myself better and give myself a little more grace.
Even more importantly, it helps me pause so I can check in to ask myself if it's really the current thing that's affecting me so strongly or am I so strongly affected because of deep-rooted wiring—which gives me control back to re-wire that (slowly, but surely). As I continue to unpack this in therapy, it helps me learn better ways to move forward in strength to make better decisions in my life moving forward."
- Jamie on episode 39 of Determined AF podcast
I share this to encourage you. If you're feeling shame around your past, or any other negative emotions, stop and take a breath. I want to remind you that it's because you are uniquely designed. You are different from everyone else. Your first three years—and the years following—shaped you in a unique way that has impacted who you are today.
And that's okay. That's beautiful. It's what makes you, you, and it's what gives you your superpowers.
So, this is just about increasing your own self-awareness in order to grow and thrive. Here are four practical steps you can take to get there:
1. Reframe Your Thoughts
The entry point into inner child work or, in fact, any self-reflection or self-awareness practice, is to get comfortable with the fact that you're on your own journey and reframe it as a positive step that is only going to lead to healing and wholeness. Remind yourself that you were born deserving of love and care. That worth has not gone away.
Going back into your past and sitting with traumas, challenges, or vulnerabilities is hard. It takes time. It's not an easy journey to go on and it's why a lot of people don't. So start the process by owning this journey and accepting it as part of who you are.
Some helpful practices around this include:
- Journaling: Spend time writing about how you're feeling and processing everything. It's just for you, so be honest and get it all out on the page.
- Meditation and mindfulness: Whether it's sitting in silence or using guided meditation, bringing stillness to your being through these practices can help you prepare for a self-awareness journey. It helps you become more in touch with how you're feeling and aware of how you're thinking, which is helpful for emotional regulation.
- Affirmations: Speaking truth and encouragement to yourself is impactful for shifting your mindset. Your mind believes what you tell it! So work some affirmations into your day to prepare for this self-awareness journey. You can try something like, "I can't change my past, but I can learn from it" or "Everything I experienced makes me who I am today and I honor that."
2. Educate Yourself
Another practical step you can take is to educate yourself further about inner child work or the impacts of your early childhood. I've already mentioned (and recommend!) the Inner Child Workbook, which has a step-by-step guide to reparenting the child within.
Some other resources to explore include:
3. Work with Someone
Essential to your healing process is working with a therapist or other mental health professional. Not only can they support you with resources and education about what's going on, but they create a safe space for you to be vulnerable and raw with the deepest parts of yourself.
If working with a professional is not possible for financial or other reasons, make sure you are surrounded by a supportive community of people. You don't want to go at this all alone because it's near-impossible to process such deep stuff independently. Others can help you see things you can't and they can gently hold you accountable to growth and action steps you want to take.
4. Practice Self-Care
It's important to ramp up your self-care during this process.
I'll repeat—you need to increase your self-care during this process.
Not leave it to the side because you're too exhausted and it's easier to scroll on Instagram instead. Part of inner child work is parenting yourself how you needed to be parented, and part of that is doing the things we don't feel like but know are good for us.
So self-care like eating healthy, moving your body, and connecting with others is so, so, so important. But beyond that, find things that fill you up and light you up. This could be any number of things—here are some ideas:
- Creative: Painting, photography, dance, writing, fashion, sketching, sewing, baking.
- Movement: Dance, yoga, team sports, walking, climbing, jogging, training for an event, hiking.
- Outdoors: Catching the sunrise or sunset, forest bathing, walking on the sand, collecting leaves or shells, outdoor activities, camping, reading a book in a park.
- Relaxation: Sauna, cozy blankets, reading, movie nights, candles, warm baths, music.
- Beauty: Experimenting with make-up, putting a new outfit together, mani-pedis, facials.
- Community: Eating a meal together, going for a date with your significant other, girl's night out, family board games.
Healing from the traumas or pain of your early years is not an easy process, but it is so worth it. Just like that original bike path, with time you'll carve out a new pathway. Only this one will reduce the triggers rather than intensify them. Knowing yourself through intentional self-discovery and awareness is the building block of every area of your life.
This work will impact you on a personal and professional level. Your newfound self-awareness will impact both your inner healing but also your external world.
If you want to dive deeper into this topic, check out episode 39 of the Determined AF podcast. In it, I go through why the first three years of your life are so influential and more of my own personal journey of self-awareness through this.
To new pathways,
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