“The child is the father of the man” wrote William Wordsworth in 1802, and it’s still true today. Childhood experience shapes the man or woman we are today. As children, we first learn behavior in the family setting, then later, as we try to make sense of things, we form beliefs around those behaviors. We receive both helpful and unhelpful things from our families and childhood friends and mentors, who may not always understand what they’re doing. Analyzing this legacy, diffusing the negative parts, and being thankful for the positive can help you have more control over your unconscious motivations.
For example, if being sick meant getting a lot of attention, which was hard to come by normally, you may find you tend to get colds when you are having a difficult time in life and need some reassurance. When you understand this, you can find better ways to get positive attention.
How Your Mind Reacts to Stress
Within the limbic brain system (toward the back of your head) resides your emotionally responsive, childlike mind: the part of your brain you were using as a young child, before the more complex, pre-frontal cortex had matured. Within this system is a small brain organ called the amygdala which has the extraordinary power to override your rational thinking brain, in any situation perceived as an emergency. This is very important to survival. If a car is coming directly at you, you don’t want to have to debate (or even think about) the issue before you jump out of the way. If you touch a hot stove, you will jump back before you are even aware of the pain. Your nervous system takes over and creates an instant response.
This amazing life-saving system can become a problem when it takes over in non-threatening situations. When you feel threatened or overwhelmed, stressed or anxious your unthinking responses can take over and cause you to respond in ways you wouldn’t choose as an adult.
These responses are primitive, behavior and interaction styles you learned before you were able to choose your reactions rationally. So, if someone makes you angry, you may find yourself reacting just like your raging father, (which you swore you’d never do). Or, when stressful problems arise, perhaps you avoid talking about them and pretend nothing is wrong, the way your parents did. Understanding how you were programmed by childhood to talk too much, drink too much, overwork, get sick frequently, feel depressed or anxious, or overreact even when you know better is a key to making changes.
The influence of early beliefs
Everyone has some leftovers from childhood, ranging from wonderful traditions, talents and knowhow to silly little annoying habits to major dysfunction. The same family who taught you dysfunctional patterns might have modeled a great sense of humor or how to comfort others. Each person’s family legacy is different, even children from the same family. The key to getting in charge of your life is to find out how you were influenced from your childhood, deciding what you like and don’t like about what you learned, and then learning how to change the problem aspects.
In the same way that your family can program your emotional brain to behave in certain ways; it can also program you to be drawn to or repelled by certain types of people.
Family members who were significantly painful for you or loving toward you become examples of character types we all recognize. Their behavior and your interactions with them can form patterns that influence your relationships today. Because these examples are familiar, they can feel comfortable, even if they’re actually toxic for you. You can easily find yourself attracted to people who are similar, and then interact with the new people according to old patterns.
Such attributes, character flaws, strengths and weaknesses can be found in both men and women. People can be controlling, addicted, co-dependent (addicted to a toxic person), unreliable, dishonest, loving, supportive, trustworthy, affectionate, cold, mature, immature or behave in many other ways that stand out and become a focus for the child mind.
If you had an aunt who was very loving toward you, but had a drinking or overeating problem, you may (as an adult) find yourself drawn to women who are like her, or find yourself acting like her. If your father was angry and punishing, in adulthood you may find yourself attracted to angry men, or very reactive toward them, and unable to walk away.
When you unwittingly leave your emotional, childlike limbic brain in charge of your relationships; it can cause you to be attracted to familiar types of people, or to interact in familiar ways with them; which means that you are not really in charge of your own actions and choices. When life is uncertain in childhood, and parents or other family figures are unreliable and unpredictable, a child learns to be vigilant, constantly watching others for clues. This child grows up to be an adult who is “outer-directed:” that is, an adult who lives his or her life in response to others. While such people are usually very good friends and wonderfully responsive and thoughtful, the problem is that they may not feel as if they know who they are, what they want, or who is in charge of their lives and decisions.
Difficult early relationships wind up running adult relationships. As adults, we are compelled to keep searching for the love we weren’t able to get as children, and drawn to familiar people: those who remind us of family.
Early bonding and models can work in positive ways, too. When, as a child, you bond to relatives who are loving, supportive, trustworthy and functional, you are attracted to similar people as adults. When you have learned healthy interaction skills as a child, your grownup relationships are easier, and more successful and fulfilling.
Realizing the power of early experience can be discouraging. You may be asking,”Once I have identified the source of my adult relationship problems in my childhood, am I condemned to keep repeating these patterns for my whole life?” “If I learned early to be outer-directed, will I never feel in charge of my own life?” Fortunately, the answer is no. As powerful as this early experience is, it is still possible to change the patterning in your subconscious, limbic brain.
Crossing the threshold from childhood dependency to adult autonomy is the key to growing up and out of dysfunction. Once you can recognize the childhood patterns and role models that run your unconscious reactions and responses to others, you can learn to change those patterns and make choices instead of reacting.
Leaving Childhood Exercise
Sit quietly for a moment and imagine that you’re leaving your childhood today. This is a ceremonial occasion, and you’re packing your bag. Consider the aspects of childhood, both tangible (material) and intangible (qualities of life, feelings, etc.). Then discuss the following questions:
What would you take?
What would you like to leave behind?
Are there any surprises?
When you consider your childhood baggage, can you see how you took it with you into your past relationships?
Exercise No. 2: Thanking the Past
Imagine yourself as a child. If you have a photo, you can look at it to do this.
Tell your child-self that you grew up, and you’re here to help him or her understand.
Ask if he or she has questions for you.
Answer those questions, then tell your child-self what you think is positive about him or her.
Was your child-self brave to survive some childhood difficulties?
Was he or she loving and caring?
Was he or she smart and resourceful when things went wrong?
Did your child-self know how to make people happy?
Is he or she grieving any losses?
Have a conversation with this early part of you, and let him or her know you’re the grownup they wanted to become.
Thank your child-self for everything he or she did or endured to allow you to be who you are now.
Keep the conversation going, to help yourself become more fully aware and empowered.