Experiences we have from childhood leave us lopsided in our reactions—likely to overreact or overcorrect depending on the stimulus. We are too shy or too bold; too firm or too accepting; too focused on getting to the top or infuriatingly apathetic. We are obsessively eager to succeed or painfully wary and nervous in the face of our own desires. We are naive or pessimistic; we shrink from taking a chance or run toward risk with wild abandon; we are fixed in our belief that going it alone is wisest or are desperate for another to complete us; we are in white hot pursuit of knowledge or impervious to new ideas.
The spectrum of lopsidedness comes in many shades, and more are always being added. What is known is that these lopsided behaviors come at an enormous cost. They leave us less likely to make the most of our opportunities, less able to create or find satisfying lives, and generally make us less fun to be around socially or professionally.
Because we are reluctant scholars of our emotional histories, we conclude our lopsided nature is something we cannot change—that they are fixed. “This is just how I am,” we think. I am controlling, or don’t get my satisfaction out of work I get it from my family, or I am not good with people, or don’t trust my peers, or not good at office politics. These stories we hold about ourselves are not initially adaptable or up for consideration.
The truth is things are much more hopeful. While challenging to us in the short term, lopsidedness (by its very definition) is in fact able to be brought into balance. Our lopsidedness is in response to something specific that happened in the past. We are a certain way (controlling, not good with people, not trusting, etc.) because a primal wound knocked us off a more fulfilling course years ago. Having to contend with a competitive parent, we took refuge in underachievement or extreme overachievement. Dealing with a parent disgusted by the body, being seen or noticed, became frightening and hard to negotiate. Being forced to reckon with financial instability, we had to overachieve professionally, seeking economic and social gains. In the face of a distant or dismissive parent, we fell into patterns of emotional avoidance and reactive violence. An explosive parent might have moved us toward extreme shyness and aversion to attention or limelight. Constant hovering when we were young could have encouraged nervousness and, around any complex and intense situation, abject panic. A continually busy, distracted parent might have planted the seeds for energy-draining, attention-seeking look-at-what-I-did-or-learned-today behavior.
There is a logic to our lopsidedness if we look to our histories.
In the presence of conflict (dismissiveness, explosiveness, hovering/suffocating, inattentiveness, etc.) a trigger was established. A way of thinking developed as a result of how we coped when we were children. And this isn’t meant to be harsh, but our lopsidedness enables a way of being that trends toward immaturity—they take us in the opposite direction in which we mean to move. Our first reactions, therefore, are not our fault. They are merely the remnants of our younger selves’ attempt to deal with something beyond our capability—at that time.
When a child suffers at the hands of an adult, they absorb the result as a reflection of something that must be wrong with them. They think they are not enough. If someone humiliates, ignores or hurts them, it must be because they are stupid, unacceptable and worth abandoning. It can take many years, and a lot of patient inner examination, to understand the truth: that the hurt was undeserved. As adults we learn the importance of context: there were many other things going on, off-stage, in the parent’s interior life for which the child was innocent.
Also, because children cannot leave the big people which they relied upon and were vulnerable to, children succumb to a deep longing to fix the broken person they clung to for security. Children often conclude that it is their obligation to fix all anger, addiction or sadness of the grown-up they love. They aim to please. It could take decades of inner exploratory work to determine that we might feel sad about, but are not eternally responsible for, those we cannot change—and even longer to decide, perhaps, to move on.
Communication patterns are plagued by similar childhood legacies. When something is wrong, children have no language or logic to understand the cause. They lack the confidence, self-management and verbal skill to get their points across calmly and with authority. Children err on the side of overreactions: begging, insisting whining, exploding, screaming. Or, conversely, to excessive underreactions: moping, resentment, silence, avoidance. It might not be until middle age that we start to shed those initial reactions of screaming or sulking from those who misread our needs and more carefully and calmly try to explain them instead.
Another less helpful quality of the family template is that it provokes large-scale generalizations about how people operate. Just as we are unbalanced by those early experiences, so are our heuristics. This happens because we don’t live life in generalities; we live our lives in the particulars. Our wound was formed in highly individualized contexts: with one particular adult who incessantly picked on a certain family member or shouted at their particular partner late at night in one particular three-story house in one particular main road through town. Or the wound may have been caused by one specific parent who responded with fear and disbelief, followed by intense contempt after one specific job loss from one specific company. But these scenarios give rise to expectations of other people and of life more broadly like the partners we choose or the bosses from whom we accept job offers. Over time, we expect that everyone will become violent, sooner or later. We think that every partner will turn on us, eventually. We assume that every money problem will unleash a deep depression and then disgust for the other person. The character traits and mentalities that were formed in response to one or two central actors of childhood become our templates for interpreting pretty much anyone and using those templates prohibits our ability to see alternatives. For example, the reliability, focus and determination to succeed at any task that we evolved to keep a deeply depressed and angry mother engaged becomes our second nature. Even when she is no longer present in our lives, we remain individuals who need to shine at every meeting, who require a partner to be continually focused on us, and who cannot listen to negative or discouraging information of any kind. In these situations, we both in the past and the present. When we work our template with others, our sense of the particulars for a given situation, we are standing in the wide-open doorway of the present, peering through a narrow keyhole at drama of the past. Without awareness of this dynamic we both watch and re-enact that drama over and over.
A child in the presence of parents that fight, for example, can carry that experience well into adulthood. One outcome of that could be a desire to avoid (in the extreme) conflict altogether. While the original cause of our avoidance is no longer in the picture, it can carry a heavy price.
Dealing with our lopsidedness can be thorny because we don’t always know why we have them or how they came to be. Sometimes we explain them away as not affecting us. That marital affair happened between our parents, we think, that did not happen to us. As a result, we might not acknowledge them as having any significance in our own minds. So we don’t know why we run away from a boss who is actually looking out for us to a more abusive boss, or why we get deeply angry at small things we think shouldn’t affect us, or are defensive, or adopt an easy come, easy go relationship to success, believing in the end that it was never really ours to have anyway. Because the meaning behind our reactions remains hidden, we miss out on benefiting from important sources of possible sympathy. Meaning, if we lack the context for why we react the way we do, so does everyone else because we are judged by the behavior and decisions our wounds inspire, not on the wounds themselves. The hurt we experienced might have started by being let down by a parent or bullied by a peer, but today we show up as a micromanager, or demand a kind of loyalty from our teams that crosses a line. It might have started with a competitive mother. Maybe a father had an affair and left the family. It could have been a peer we looked up to or made ourselves vulnerable to and who later betrayed us. Today, it manifests as shyness, inability to make decisions or take a strong stand.
Ultimately, it comes down to us to make our lives easier. Instead our paths are tougher than they should be because of the beliefs we hold that people are incompetent, mean and unreliable rather than (as is usually the case) fellow wounded soldiers of what we have all travelled through, a complicated early history.
This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.