How to Survive Your Childhood Now That You’re An Adult: An Excerpt

In an effort to individuate, we sometimes date and marry people who are the exact opposite of one of our parents. Rebellion is an essential part of the individuation processes, but it can also be inauthentic if it means merely moving away from something, rather than also moving toward something. As I see it, people individuate the first time when, as babies, they recognize their reflection in a mirror (as something distinct from their mothers); then again when they go to preschool or school for the first time while still living in their parents’ homes; then again if they go to college away from home but are still financially supported by their parents; and then again when they live away from their parents and learn how to independently support themselves as adults. There is tension between having to obey and depend on parents and wanting to be autonomous agents. Note the spate of young people in the last thirty-five to forty years who tattooed their bodies early in life; I see this is a subconscious declaration: “This is my body, and nobody can tell me what to do or what not to do with it anymore (even if you are still paying my rent)!”

In addition, we are living in fascinatingly complex and often confusing times regarding gender roles, the ways we expect men and women to act. We all agree that women should be paid salaries equal to those of men, yet many people still think men should pay for meals, a gesture in which they symbolically enact the role of provider and protector. For some adults there is even tension between wanting to be independent and wanting to be taken care of or demonstratively cared for. We live in a society that has objectified women as sexy secretaries, waitresses, librarians, bank tellers, store clerks, nurses, and so on. That archetype of the damsel in distress, who needs to be “saved” or taken care of is—thankfully!—dying. Women are becoming more and more empowered. But how do we move into the next paradigm of compassion, respect, equality, and love?

One way is through conscious loving and authentic communications. This is when we are mindfully aware of our wounds and how we learned to compensate for them as children. Usually there is some level of inauthenticity regarding the “assets,” or false selves, we developed to get our emotional and psychological needs met as children. We must be aware of how we learned to seduce people into liking our false selves, facades, and personas and be brave enough to be authentic and vulnerable (which can be scary). And the first thing we need is loving, nonjudgmental relationships with people who are empathetic and who accept us wholly, not just the glitzy exterior that we were taught to show the world—in particular, the way most of us choose to present our lives through social media rarely gives a balanced, authentic portrayal of our lives.

Ram Dass said, “If you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your family.” Although Americans enjoy more privileges and freedoms than people in many other countries, we grow up in a highly competitive society, where children are constantly pushed to get good grades and “achieve” various goals daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. Whoever pushed us—usually our family members—wounded us by subconsciously informing us that whatever we did was “not good enough.” Even positive statements like “You’ll do better next time” may have unintentionally informed us that we were failures in some way. In adulthood, all of that (totally unintentional) wounding during childhood adds up to low self-worth, low self-esteem, and feeling unlovable or only conditionally lovable because we “do” certain things or look a certain way or have attained certain goals or a certain status.

Ram Dass’s famous quote becomes particularly poignant later in life whenever we actually do visit our primary care-takers, because that is often when we get triggered and our childhood wounds, or core wounds, are reopened. If I receive emergency phone calls from patients during the holiday season, I usually end up telling them: “That fight you are having with your mother/father/sister/brother is not about what you think it is about.” And then we discuss things that happened during the patient’s childhood—abandonments, betrayals, violations, humiliations, frustrations, feeling unheard, resentment for being told what to do and who to be, and so on—and we figure out what is going on at a subconscious level and at least develop a more interesting narrative.

The best tool I have found for these situations is mindfulness, because it teaches us to cultivate nonreactivity. Not reacting to dynamics that were established twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years ago is definitely the best way to modify them. And then we can make healthier, more compassionate long-term decisions that bode favorably for peace, love, and harmony.

The next time you are with family members and the situation gets heated, try thinking phrases to yourself such as: “Wow ... isn’t that interesting! All of my daddy abandonment/withholding [whatever your core issue is] buttons are being pushed right now! I thought I had resolved that issue a long time ago! This is so interesting!” And then you can decide to take a walk or do something healthy instead of reacting and exacerbating the situation.

In particular, all “observing thoughts meditations” can be helpful. You can think of it as exercising a muscle, as going to a gym for your mind. Once we learn to sit and observe how our minds operate, then when we are in situations that trigger us, we can make healthy choices—like choosing just to observe the triggers and being proud of ourselves for not reacting. For example, let’s say we are visiting our parents and our father or mother asks us to drive him or her to the store. Everything is going swimmingly until we have to park and our parent starts looking around nervously, then tells us: “More to the left, no now to the right—I said more to the left ... no, more to the right.” He or she is trying to help us parallel park, but the wounded child in us hears: “I can never do anything right.” Mindfulness helps us direct our attention to the present moment, be in the present moment, and ignore and dissipate the negative voices that stem from our childhood.

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Excerpted with permission from How to Survive Your Childhood Now That You’re an Adult, © 2017 by Ira Israel.

Ira Israel is the author of How To Survive Your Childhood Now That You’re an Adult: A Path to Authenticity and Awakening and creator of the best-selling A Beginner’s Guide to Happiness, A Beginner’s Guide to Mindfulness Meditation, Mindfulness for Anxiety, and Mindfulness for Depression video series.

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