Childhood, Trauma, Personality: How our Coping Mechanisms Affect Us Unconsciously

How and why do our personalities develop the way they do, and what do they have to do with our wounding? Dr. Gabor Mate’ was born in Hungary in 1942 during the Nazi occupation. His grandparents were both killed at Auschwitz and his father was carted off to a forced labor camp, leaving his mother alone with her newborn son.

To hear Dr. Mate’, now a medical doctor based in Canada, tell the story, his mother called the doctor at one point and asked him to come because her baby (Gabor) just wouldn’t stop crying and she didn’t know what was wrong with him. The doctor apparently replied, “I will come, Madam, but I have to tell you that ALL the Jewish babies are crying right now and won’t stop.” 

As babies, or even in the womb, our experiences can be overwhelming for our psyche, and those experiences are then repressed, resulting in coping mechanisms that continue to drive our thoughts and behaviors

The insight behind this, of course, is that babies are attuned to their mothers, and all the Jewish mothers were deeply distressed at that time, including Gabor’s own mother who was alone and living in terror of the future and of what would happen to her loved ones and to her. When we feel and sense stress in our environment or from our caretakers, we are typically powerless as little beings that don’t yet have the resources and tools we need to think about issues and to solve them.

Therefore, this insight offers a powerful invitation to understand how much each of us is driven by the unconscious—not only by those things that happened to us that our ego self has creatively tried to repress, hide, cover up, stuff down, or otherwise distance itself from, but also by the things that didn’t happen that should have for a child to have a safe, peaceful, nurturing experience during which we knew we were loved, that we had value, and not only that we had a right to exist but we have a REASON to exist. 

This reason for existing is related to our own unique perspective, skills, and way of perceiving and being in the world—though often our energy is so focused on repressing our feelings or seeking external authority to give us validation, that we simply don’t know what is underneath the defense mechanisms and coping strategies our ego had to implement in order to feel safe and be seen, accepted, or loved.

Children will do anything to be loved, Dr. Mate’ has observed. As kids, we simply had to adapt to our environment, no matter what it was, and that has resulted in us unconsciously living a life that is not authentic—as an individual who has had to modify our behavior and put on a false front, or turn to addictions or bad habits to fill up what we perceive to be an empty self within which often drives our thoughts and behaviors.

Often described as a personality typology system, the Enneagram provides an effective psycho-spiritual map of the default coping mechanisms we may have adopted as children. The values and behaviors held by each of the nine types is further amplified through our connection to a “wing”—the type on either side of our own, as well by instinctual “stacks” that give us more of a unique character profile. Once we begin to understand how the patterns and behaviors we had to adopt as children can keep us limited or stuck as adults, it becomes easier to “catch ourselves in the act” of spontaneously and unconsciously acting out those old issues.

Enneagram figure with numbers from one to nine concerning the nine described types of personality around a rainbow gradient sphere. Vector illustration on white background.

Once we can learn that we are not what happened to us—that we are not bad, not dismissed or invisible, and not unlovable, we can truly see ourselves for the precious, innocent beings we were as children, and to stand as witnesses to the very creative (and arguably intelligent) ways our ego developed to try and keep us safe. We can begin to see that we are actually divine beings of love and light that have simply had to put up defenses so we wouldn’t get hurt or feel overwhelmed because we didn’t have the tools or capacity for rational thought to help us deal with those profound, life-shaping, initiatory experiences we had to go through.

But with the challenges also comes the capacity for reward; for growth; for learning and insight that can transform the way we are in relationship to ourselves, to our wounding, and to the way that wounding gets triggered in difficult situations or interpersonal relationships. With new understanding, we can see and then change the old unconscious ways we learned to think about ourselves in order to navigate. We can accept ourselves and love ourselves not only in spite of the trauma, but because of what happened to us (or didn’t but should have, as the case may be). We can learn to have profound compassion for that child self who absolutely had no choice but to take on less-than-ideal mechanisms just to survive, emotionally and psychologically—if not literally physically as well.

Here, in this short clip (less than 2 minutes!) Gabor Mate offers a great overview of some of these ideas:

“Gabor Mate – Trauma Is Not What Happens to You, It Is What Happens Inside You”

Dr. Gabor Mate’

And, if this content resonates with you, please look on and search for more from Dr. Mate’. He has an enormous number of talks and interviews available that can be truly life changing.

One such recommendation is entitled, “Gabor Mate: The Childhood Lie that’s Ruining All our Lives.”

Why not take a few minutes today to begin to better understand how you can free yourself of old wounds and regrets and to truly live your life more fully, with creativity and joy, by learning from one of the great psychological minds of our time? Dr. Mate’ has found a way through trauma, both acute and developmental, to embrace our humanity, foster more compassion, and learn to love ourselves in powerful new ways.

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