Discover how it is affecting you as an adult.
To know ourselves today, we can return to the beginning. To understand why we do what we do, we must first greet our much younger selves. Then we can tease out the adult behaviors that no longer serve us and replace them with ones that will.
Charlotte Joko Beck, beloved Buddhist teacher, in Ordinary Wonder, says, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
As children, we are trained covertly and overtly in the image of our primary caregivers. Inevitably, we will drag some of those learnings — ones that benefit us and ones that don’t — along with us into adulthood, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Here’s a four-step process to understand how we end up making decisions that may not resonate with who we want to be, and how we can re-parent ourselves even in adulthood.
Step One: Who was I trained to be?
List everything that comes to mind when you think of how you were trained as a small child.
“I was trained to be (fill in the blank). Write down every word or phrase that pops into your head.
For example, I was trained to be ‘nice’ — the quintessential good little girl — never show anger, get good grades, and have a STRONG work ethic.
Maybe that resonates for you, or instead, perhaps you were trained to be a screw-up — nothing you ever did was good enough, and you learned to stop trying.
Or you were groomed to be a caregiver to your brothers and sisters. Mom was depressed, and dad was working all day. You learned to take care of everyone but yourself.
Make a list of all the words that described you as a child: belligerent, caretaker, bully, irresponsible, friendly, compliant, adventurous, cautious, bold, shy, outgoing, angry, happy.
Step Two: What’s showing up in my life now?
From your list, identify the behaviors that are still showing up in your adult life, either as strengths or weaknesses.
First, list the benefits of each characteristic that impacts you in a positive way as an adult.
In my case, there were pros to being nice, managing anger, getting good grades, and having a strong work ethic:
- I can fit in almost anywhere and manage myself around challenging people.
- I have a killer work ethic.
- I read other people pretty well and handle stressful situations without losing it.
Now identify the behaviors that may no longer be serving you. Behaviors that are acting as barriers to your best self.
For me, the downsides to dragging those mostly unexamined characteristics into my adult life made for some poor decisions that had lasting effects:
- I repeatedly lost myself in relationships.
- For many years I worked to the point of exhaustion.
- I didn’t know how to be authentic because I didn’t know who I was — I only knew who others wanted me to be.
Step Three: What’s good about who I am?
Now, allow yourself to appreciate the strengths that came from your childhood.
Don’t skip this step. All our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses and vice versa. Remember that when looking at the limitations you’ve dragged into your adulthood from childhood. In both cases, they have a lot to teach us.
Step Four: What would I like to change?
Look at the cons closely to determine if you want to make some changes.
In my case, one example on the con side was that that being ‘nice’ could at times mean I was inauthentic or a doormat. I have had to work hard to take responsibility for myself rather than letting the voices from the past run the show. I continue to work on identifying the behaviors that have gotten me in trouble, replacing them with behaviors more in sync with what I want for my life.
I began to transform ‘nice’ into the characteristic of being unapologetically honest, with kindness. I don’t do it perfectly. But I take responsibility when I misstep, and that makes me feel clean and strong, with a sense of power. Not power over anyone else — personal power to steer my life in the direction I want it to go.
I hope you’ll give these steps a shot. Sometimes exploring things with a friend who knows us well can help us uncover more than we can see on our own.
We’re all in the same boat — trying to get as much out of this brief time that we’ve been given. We need all the help we can get.