If your life really is not anywhere near where you wanted it to be, it could be all to do with what you were taught early in life. So early, you cannot remember the lessons that were sometimes so subtle that they remain almost invisible, even though they are some of the most important ‘facts of life’.
There are many such lessons, of course, but there are four that are fundamental to so many issues, and often delivered so badly that they are of immense importance:
- How do we fit into the world around us?
- How likely we are to succeed – at anything?
- What happens when we make mistakes?
- What happens if we say what we want?
This short article can’t provide a detailed analysis of every way in which those and other childhood experiences may affect our adult life – but they can certainly open your eyes to some of the ‘stuff’ you might’ve taken on board without question.
A self-help process later in this article might even reverse one or more of the negative effects that have become part of the way you think you are.
How do we fit into the world around us?
Our earliest experiences in life can easily result in us feeling anything between the two extremes of (a) being almost apologetic for existing and (b) as if we are up there with the very best, fighting our corner with a real chance of winning.
They come not from what was said but from what was shown. If you were an only child with doting parents, you might be the latter. But if there was grumbling almost every time anybody had to do anything for you, or there were siblings who you were certain were favoured (even if you’ve been told over and again that this wasn’t the case) and especially where you got punishment or criticism when others didn’t, then your sense of self will probably have been affected.
Side effects include feeling unlovable, being over-apologetic, settling for second best, poor self-worth, suppressed or unadmitted anger, a feeling of being cheated, bitterness, people-pleasing behaviour, and neediness.
How likely we are to succeed at anything?
Some parents delight in giving encouragement, urging their children on and revelling noisily in their success.
At the other end of the scale, it’s as if they are anxious about their offspring should not do better than they ever did and make remarks like: ‘You’re not as clever as you think you are’, ‘You’re getting way too far above yourself’ or ‘You’ll never amount to anything the way you carry on’ all delivered dismissively.
Even worse is that when achievement of some sort is made, it is met with disinterest or ridicule – ridicule can be a most destructive weapon.
Side effects include lack of effort in anything, including relationships and career, a general feeling of inadequacy, a belief of being ineffective, feelings of inferiority, low mood, self-sabotage, self-doubt.
What happens when we make mistakes?
All children and young people make mistakes, and good parenting is where perhaps after some admonishment, unconditional help is given to resolve or mitigate the issue as far as possible.
But some parents instead deliver ridicule, laughter, and comments like ‘I told you, but you just don’t listen’, ‘Idiot’, ‘Don’t come running to me to sort it out’, ‘Not my problem’ and similar, and might even seem to be enjoying the situation with sarcastic remarks like: ‘Let’s see you sort that one out then!’
The worst situation is where this is delivered from a very young age, and a ‘fail’ of any sort is met with mirth or jeers, purportedly to ‘teach you how to get over stuff’.
Side effects include being anxiously risk averse, settling for less, suppressed anger, and general uncertainty, depression, dependency, lack of motivation, procrastination, and poor self-belief.
What happens if we say what we want?
This is one of the most common childhood difficulties that can affect adult life severely. Almost all children are taught that ‘I want doesn’t get’. Where ‘I want’ is mostly met with responses like ‘Well, behave yourself and we’ll see’ or ‘All right, be good for a week and I’ll think about it’ and especially where the ‘want’ is at least sometimes fulfilled, there’s not usually any problem.
But if instead, the ‘I want doesn’t get’ is a constant response and often ramped up with increasing irritation or anger and such statements as ‘The more you go on about it, the more you won’t get it’ or ‘Right, that’s it. You’re definitely not getting it now; it can have profound effects.
Side-effects are many: inability to say what is wanted even when asked, tolerance of unfair treatment from others, inability to say ‘No’, cannot seek promotion or self-improvement, low assertiveness, difficulty with decisions, and feeling undeserving.
In addition to those side effects listed above, there are many other difficulties that have their origins in poor parenting, and perhaps the worst is repeating the behaviour. We learn to be a parent by being a child, and unless we reject the lessons, we simply pass them on, just as they were passed on to us.
Some of the other difficulties are:
- Excessive compliance
- Generalised anxiety
- Separation anxiety
- Excessive greediness
- Hoarding behaviour
- Imposter syndrome
- Social anxiety
- Feeling like a child in an adult world
If you’ve recognised yourself somewhere in the foregoing, don’t despair – this self-help routine can help you do a bit of repair work.
Before beginning, it’s important to let go of any anger, resentment, wish to get your own back, or ‘show them what they’ve done’ associated with your parents or anybody else. It will only get in the way of sorting things out for yourself and even if you tried to address it with them, you’d just get more of the same.
Also, if you have a sneaky enjoyment of being a ‘victim’, which is not at all unusual, the repair routine might not work as well as if you really want to get the best out of life.
So, here we go:
- Step 1. Vividly imagine how you would be if you’d had the perfect childhood. Would you stand taller, be smilier, more confident, more ‘together’ that sort of thing Create an active image in your mind of what you would become if you could go into a special shop and buy the ‘new you’ you really want and wear it instantly. Like, now! See it in your mind’s eye as if it were real and store it in your thoughts.
- Step 2. Now think of a clock with an hour hand, a minute hand and a hand that shows the seconds so that you can see the clock is working. It can be a small bedside clock or a huge one, perhaps on the side of a building somewhere. Make that vivid in your mind, too (you don’t have to think of this image and the first one simultaneously).
- Step 3. Next, think of a time when you were feeling at your worst – it can be yesterday or years ago – and try your hardest to capture that feeling right now. It doesn’t matter if you find you can’t feel it because just trying will send the right message to your subconscious. Imagine how you might have looked from the outside and make that vivid too.
- Step 4. Now, imagine you can stop time somehow so that image is locked in the past, frozen solid in time so that it can never move, and you can see that even the clock has stopped (or stopped it in your mind if it hasn’t already). Everything has stopped – except you.
- Step 5. As you stare at that frozen scene, you see yourself walking out of it and quickly becoming that vibrant new self you created in step 1.
- Step 6. Now zoom right in to become that vibrant new self and feel it filling your mind and body from head to toe and fingertip to fingertip. You feel it so strongly that it’s for all the world as if you’re on the inside, looking out through your eyes as you see the clock is working again, and you remember that frozen scene for a moment.
- Step 7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 four more times – if you can learn it and do it quickly and urgently with your eyes closed, it’s even better.
The more vividly you can ‘see’ the images in your mind’s eye, or maybe even just think of them, and the more strongly you want this to work, the better the result. You can repeat it every day for a while if you feel the need, though some people will discover they only need to do it once to get a lasting result.
Ignore any feeling (or advice!) that this is far too simple to do anything worthwhile – it’s based on BWRT, one of the world’s most powerful therapies.
Terence Watts is the creator of Brain Working Recursive Therapy (BWRT).