Denial, blocked, and stuck

Photo by  Tomas Tuma

Photo by Tomas Tuma


Our childhood experiences are the single greatest cause of how we function emotionally as adults. Therefore, what is surprising and unfortunate is how little of the past we can really remember. We can recall the basic facts and a few occurrences here and there, but in terms of grasping detail with camera-like precision, how our present is influenced by the figures and events of our early years, we are often beginners or simply skeptical as to the point of examining the past. In many cases, it would not be too strong to speak of kind of willed mental block.

The tendency, and sometimes desire, to forget the primal wound of childhood is not hard to understand. To be presently impacted by events so far into our past feels implausible and crushing, but also humiliating. To subscribe to the notion that our personalities might remain forged by incidents from before our sixth or seventh birthday leaves us feeling helpless. No amount of blunt (“just get over it”, “let it go”) or cliched-sounding mental health determinism (“think positive”, “reach out to more people”) denies our hopes for a more dignified life of adult autonomy. We would like to make sense of our moods in terms of what is happening in the present. If we feel angry with someone, we would like to believe the cause lies with them and their actions, rather than something tripping a low-lying frequency laid four decades ago rendering us especially sensitive and flinty.

Over time the lens on the past softens. What was a challenging norm becomes and endearing exception or quirk. This is aided by family photos, almost always capturing happier moments, even if they were staged. There is much more likely to be an image of one’s mother going down a playground slide with a carefree expression than of her yelling at her children about the misery of everything she gave up for her current predicament; there will be a shot of one’s father genially posing with the children or family friends in very on-trend plaid pants, but no visual record of his long, brutal mealtime silences. A lot of editing goes on, encouraged by all participants, anything to be remembered as a softer version of themselves.

As we age, we lose the idiosyncratic and peculiar perspective of a child and instead view the world through the pragmatism of an adult. An adult observing a toddler’s tantrum in a bookstore is judged as frustrating, dramatic and bad-tempered. While that one perspective has merit, it might be harder for us to access the support or empathy and attempt to recreate the strange inner world of a small person (an inner world we once had) in which he might feel tired and confused, exasperated that naptime is so far away (even though admitting that he’s tired is admitting some kind of defeat), or lonely and shy by being the smallest person in a large store with beige carpet and books that have no dragons in them, far from his teddy bear, left by mistake in the car outside.

When an adult locks the door to the spare bedroom to ensure silence for an hour-long business call, we don’t typically picture the scene from the perspective of the young child on the other side, for whom this repeated exclusion may seem proof that everything magical and good has suddenly gone. Or when the parent has after-hours obligations that help raise her profile at work and she misses opportunities to support after school activities. Or when the parent is incessantly on his phone, laptop or other gadget—checking in on it like a digital pet—ignoring the needs of the small child seeking connection in the here and now. Adults’ professional responsibilities are no small thing, they maintain a livelihood and enable opportunity for each member. At the same time, these slights to our self-worth and self-esteem, if too numerous, have a cumulative effect. It becomes difficult for us to keep in mind how much in our respective personalities was marked by what are (from a grown-up perspective) almost laughably minor yet hugely potent incidents.

It is not merely that we have forgotten the past. We could in theory re-enter the mental spaces we once occupied. We have our reasons for pushing aside, ignoring the memories and willfully limiting contemplating on our histories.

We maintain a safe distance from our inner selves because what we might learn about ourselves or the people the hurt us will likely be uncomfortable. We might learn that we were really angry with, and resentful about, certain people we were only meant to love—or worse yet, that our anger has been misdirected toward innocent people trying to protect us. We might discover how much ground there was to feel deeply anxious, inadequate and guilty on account of the many errors and misjudgments we have made. We might find that, we held illusions that went in other directions. We might come into recognition just how much happiness was nauseatingly compromised and needed to be changed about our relationships and careers. And we would be faced with needing to take responsibility for our current outcomes.

So we hide. It is part of the human tragedy that as such creative beings, we are such natural self-deceivers of our own unique greatness. Our methods for camouflage are many and we do much to escape being noticed.

We become addicted to the kind of numbness that comes from opting out—a kind of floating above the surface of life. Our addiction isn’t to drugs or liquor (although that can happen to), but to the mundane, everyday activities that keep us busy and distracted. We watch television or clean the house, exercising or continually start mew projects at home or work. We might cook or can food at odd hours, or reorganize the garage.

We tell ourselves we are being productive. To the world, it might even look that way, but our compulsiveness has motives. We watch the television to focus on news or narratives to avoid learning about news and narratives about ourselves; we take on projects around the house or raise our hands for new projects at work as a way to avoid really losing ourselves in something we are passionate about—as much as we crave meaningful work, we run from it. Addiction is not about what someone does, it that they do what they do avoid feeling what they feel and knowing what they know—about themselves. We are addicts whenever we develop a twitchy reliance on something—anything—to keep us from encountering the dogs locked in the basement of our minds.

We lie ourselves first, and later others, by being overly optimistic and cheerful. There is a fine line between optimism and happiness that is hard to detect. Optimism doesn’t contain any remorse. It is insistent and upbeat, aggressive even in its persistence but doesn’t necessarily fulfillment. Optimism can’t tolerate any other emotion, especially sadness. So negative emotions are left unexplored to the point where they have the power to overwhelming us with disappointment and grief.

We lie to ourselves first, and later others, by going on the offensive. We attack and demean what we love, virtually guaranteeing we don’t get what we so deeply want. We let go of the people we once wanted or even had as friends. We watch the careers we hoped one day to have pass us by. The lives we tried wanted to match and learn from fade into a fog in our consciousness. To prevent ourselves from feeling the loss of what we might never achieve, we allow desired but painfully intangible goals to erode.

We lie to ourselves first, and later others, by embracing cynicism and calling it pragmatism. We are preventing, we believe, future misery and disappointment. To preserve our dignity, we tell ourselves that all humans are terrible and every activity is likely to fail so that the specific cause of our hurt does not attract examination and feelings of humiliation.

We lie to ourselves first, and later others, by filling our minds with lofty ideas, putting our intellect on full display in such a way that suggests we have little left to learn, thereby stunting what development our personalities may require.

We write dense books on big topics. We earn advanced degrees. We seek positions on boards. Our minds are crammed with esoteric information—facts interesting at cocktail parties and dinner conversation. But we don’t remember much about our own lives, how things really were, back in the old house, when dad lost his spark, mom stopped smiling, our sibling started exhibiting anxious behaviors and our ability to trust in happiness broke into tiny pieces.

Our great tragedy as human beings is that we are such natural self-deceivers.

We acquire and share knowledge and seek new ideas that garner respect but also protect us against the essential knowledge from our emotional past. That knowledge that, if left untended might attempt to interfere in our path. That knowledge that bubbles up and inopportune times threatening us to wake up. We bury our sensitive, personal stories like a time capsule beneath a mountain of knowledge and skills. The possibility of a deeply significant and intimate enquiry is consciously judged as weak, frivolous, and inconsequential compared with an allegedly more impressive task of securing an executive for an important meeting, or addressing a conference.

We prop ourselves on the glamour of being knowledgeable ensuring we won’t become too knowledgeable about ourselves. We learn about anything outside of ourselves to avoid the pain of self-awareness and true wisdom.

We lie to ourselves first, and later others, by suggesting that people are really just simple beings. We tell ourselves that too much psychology might be just a little too much static and complexity. We rely on a version of robust common sense denying ourselves deeper connection our own awkward complexity. We imply that not thinking very much is evidence of a superior kind of intelligence and elevated emotional state—when really it is the blankness of ignorance and lack of deeper thinking or curiosity.

When we are with others, people who will judge us, we vigorously ridicule more complex perspectives on human nature. We discount personal investigation as unduly fancy, bizarre, or weird. The very desire to lift the lid on our inner life could never be yield anything of value or good. This kind of sprightly self-ordering is most likely at the start of the week. Our sense of practicality is most keenly felt at 9am on a Monday morning as we muster our aggressive optimism toward our goals. But this energy eventually softens in the late evening when we are confronted sometimes harshly, sometimes by surprise, with more complex insights as when the path we have walked through our life and the choices we have made and the impact we have had on others, and the lost opportunities for happiness and contentment come into relief for the first or perhaps the umpteenth time—all pouring through the nighttime window toward you as you stare into the stark moonlight. With an attitude of forceful common sense, we strive to make our moments of radical discontent seem like outliers rather than anchoring moments of insight they might actually be.

We want to believe that our personalities are non-tragic, simple and easily understand so we can reject the stranger, but more useful, facts of our true, more complicated selves.

Being honest with oneself, and eventually others, has nothing to do with morality or righteousness. Seeing reality and ourselves with greater clarity is actually listening to a cautionary tale. We all could use much more of the truth because we pay too high a price for our believing our own lies. Our deceptions cut us off from possibilities of growth. Large portions of our minds end up uncreative, argumentative and defensive, while others around us have to suffer our touchiness, pessimism, artificial happiness or defensive rationalizations. Neglecting our own awkwardness buckles our very being, manifesting as insomnia or impotence, weight loss or gain, stuttering or depression; revenge for all the thoughts we have been so careful not to have. Self-awareness and an increased self-knowledge are not luxuries. They are preconditions for sanity and inner contentment.


This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.


Photo by  Eduardo Sánchez

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.