How early life experiences can impact our current lived experiences

‘No one can understand the grown up without first understanding the child’ (Adler, 1992, p.64).

As a Humanistic counsellor, I believe that we all have the potential to change and develop, no matter what stage of life we are at. While I would dispute the deterministic theories of some psychotherapeutic approaches, I do agree with many psychodynamic theorists that what happens to us and how we are treated in early life can impact our current lived experience.

Post-Freudian psychodynamic thinking continues Freud’s theory that what happens in the early years of life can produce later problems. Klein’s Object Relations Theory (1963) emphasises ‘a crucial psychical contact with the first good object’ (Likierman, 2001, p.193) and suggests that even before birth, the infant has some innate unconscious knowledge of the mother, echoing Jung’s concept of the Collective Unconscious (Cashdan, 1988, cited in Hough, 2015).

Together with the work of Ainsworth, Bowlby’s Attachment theory empathises the ‘powerful influence on a child’s development of the ways he is treated by his parent’ (Bowlby, 1988, p.135). This can affect a person’s ability to have healthy relationships throughout life, as their Internal Working Model (Bowlby, 1988) becomes a template of early learned experiences.

Neuroscientific research reinforces Bowlby’s theories (Gerhard, 2015, Schore, 2003), showing how early stressful relationships can damage the formation of neural pathways, cause unregulated cortisol levels and lead to emotional dysfunctions.

The good news is that early attachment disruption can be repaired within the therapeutic relationship and working through past losses can be a vital part of attachment informed therapy (Holmes, 2001). As a Humanistic counsellor and psychotherapist, rather than emphasising the instinctual drive theories of the psychodynamic theorists, I believe that attachment is reciprocal and relational – it is about knowing what is in us and what is between us.

So next time a therapist asks you ‘tell me about your childhood’, you will know why.


Adler, A. (1992) What life could mean to you. Oxford: One World.

Bowlby, J. (1997) Attachment and loss, volume 1. Attachment. Pimlico edition. London: Pimlico.

Gerhard, S. (2015) Why love matters: how affection shapes a baby’s brain. 2nd edition. London: Routledge. .

Holmes, (2001) The search for the secure base: attachment theory and psychotherapy. Hove: Routledge.

Hough, M. (2014) Counselling skills and theory. 4th edition. Abingdon: Hodder Education.

Klein, M. (1963) Our adult world and other essays. London: Heinemann.

Likierman, M. (2001) Melanie Klein: her work in context. London: Continuum.

Schore, A. (2003) Affect dysregulation and disorders of the self. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

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One thought on “How early life experiences can impact our current lived experiences

  1. I have only very recently understood that losing my sister when I was 3 years old ( she was only one,) had a great impact on me emotionally. I remember my mother distraught in her bed, and watching my sister’s little coffin being carried out. No-one realised it had made me very sad, or ever spoke about it afterwards. I was neurotically guarded as though my parents were scared that I. too. might die. This made me frustrated. angry and sometimes anxious.

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