“What was essential for your survival as a child is detrimental to you as an adult.” I first heard these words at a lecture in 2008 by Pittman McGehee, a Jungian analyst and national speaker. I have been witnessing the truth of these words as I listen to my clients and observe my own life.
When we were children our authority was based outside of us. We learned ways to get the attention we needed from our primary caregivers. At the most basic level, we figured out how to keep the food coming and a roof over our heads. We learned to appease our caregivers. Perhaps we figured out how to look adorable, be precocious, or do whatever else was expected of us. Maybe we learned the best way to get attention was to go into an emotional fury, or act helpless. We came up with these creative and unconscious strategies that kept us alive.
The words author and authority come from the same Latin root word: auctor, which means to command, to influence, to master. As adults, we want to be the authority of our lives. But we keep using the behavioral patterns ingrained and unconscious in us that were based on us not being in charge. Now as adults those childhood patterns kick in before we realize it. When certain external stimulation comes at us we already have a programmed reaction that travels down the same neurological pathway from years of repetition.
Ready to Change
How do we recognize that our strategies and automatic pilot behaviors are detrimental? We may observe ourselves feeling disempowered, confused, or unappreciated. We may feel resentful and irritated from acquiescing to our parents, boss, older sibling, or neighbor. There is a sense that we aren’t living our lives. Perhaps it is a weariness, or a knot in our gut, or feeling defeated.
I hear these complaints from my clients: “I have to take care of everyone; I don’t have time for myself.” “My parents told me I’d never get a man, so I end up with any drunken bum that will take me.” “I don’t even know what I want.” Acting confused to hide one’s own intelligence or unnecessarily apologizing are examples of detrimental behavior. So too is disrupting conversations or raising one’s voice because in the past that was the only way to get heard. Anytime we get caught in an “always” or “never” pattern, it needs to be reexamined. It may be an unconscious habit that drives us to say “yes” when we mean “no.” And we may have been trained to say “No, thank you” even when we really want something. As we tire of these patterns, we know we are ready to change.
Our job is not to get rid of our ego, which developed all those strategies in the first place. Our ego serves us to function in the world. We do, however, want to let go of its outdated strategies. Our job as healthy adults is to redirect our ego to serve our highest good. Our highest good doesn’t mean acting in a way that seeks approval from the people around us. It does mean connecting with a higher power, however we define that, be it God, Universal Energy, Jesus, Buddha, Mother Earth, Spirit, Allah, etc.
When we can begin to recognize that some of our suffering comes from our own childhood survival strategies, we can begin the journey of self-empowerment. Mental clarity emerges from raised awareness; we can be mindful when we catch ourselves getting annoyed, irritated and frustrated. At that point, we can reflect to see if we are using old behaviors. Are we giving our power away or withholding the expression of our power from habit?
We no longer have to numb ourselves. Our feelings do not have to define us. They can inform us. By using discernment, we learn to choose when and with whom to share our feelings. When we get stimulated by what life throw at us, we do not have to react from our history. With raised awareness, we have the opportunity to pause, notice our feelings, and choose to respond or not respond from a conscious and empowered place of self-connection.
I’d love to receive any feedback or reflections that you may have. Do you see yourself in any of the examples mentioned? If so, you are not alone. The nature of being human is filled with contradictions. I encourage self-compassion and humor as an antidote to our imperfections. We can let go of the striving for perfection. The outcome may feel like self-acceptance and taste like freedom.
A beautiful aspect of life is our ability to try new things, experiment, make changes and grow. In my next blog, I will describe three aspects of learning that adults often forget. In the meantime, have fun being the author of your own life.