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.