It is vital for us to test our intellectual comfort zones in order to shift our paradigms and perspectives. The level of consciousness that created a problem will be unable to fix it, according to Einstein. We need new levels of consciousness; we need to see things in new ways, to embrace apparent paradoxes. Our level of consciousness creates resentments and judgments about the past in a futile effort to stave off any inevitable future pain.
This makes it challenging for us to be truly present, to be authentically in the present moment and temporarily—or maybe permanently, through atonement—shed our fears and prejudices. Why not? Why does this seem so far-fetched? Is it possible that being awakened is synonymous with being present? With focusing on what is occurring in the present moment and not allowing our minds to drag us back into the unchangeable past or forward into an imaginary future?
To our minds, a glass of water is either half empty or half full. The glass of water is what it is. We are the ones who label it half empty or half full. The human prefrontal cortex is designed to categorize phenomena in a binary manner: Black and white, good and bad, short and tall, good and evil, empty and full. But reality ‘out there’ is what it is. Half full or half empty, good or bad, it all depends on our perceptions. And it is within our power to reframe our perceptions. Particularly about our childhoods.
Letting our minds tell us things ‘should’ have been different—things we cannot go back in time and change—is an absurd waste of time. Wishing we could change something we cannot is a resentment. And resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for someone else to get sick. We cause only our own suffering. Rather than bitch and moan about the distance between reality and our expectations; about how reality should have been, we need to ask ourselves what we need to do to clean up our stories about our entire pasts, including our childhoods. Why? Because our stories probably contain judgments that tell people about our expectations, rather than convey an accurate portrayal of our pasts.
We Did the Best We Could
On the other hand, before we try on some new phrasing, let me introduce one more paradox: I believe that all children should say their parents did the best they could and that all parents should tell their children that they, the parents, could have done better.
If parents tell their adult children: “We did the best we could as parents,” they inadvertently invalidate the children’s experience of childhood. It tells them: “We did the best we could, so if you are not psychologically perfect, then it is your fault, not ours.” Though it is not intended to further wound the child, saying “We did the best we could” to your child is narcissistic and lacks empathy. Even if parents did do the best they could (and of course they did—only a psychopath would make an effort to be a lousy parent), it is offensive to say it to your own children. However, children actually should tell themselves: “My parents did the best they could” (even if their parents were abusive, emotionally withholding, demeaning, suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, pressured them to get good grades or be religious, or did not know how to attach and connect in a loving, positive manner).
Specifically–although we may have learned inferior attachment skills from our primary caregivers–it is of no benefit to blame them for anything. Blaming parents, siblings, and other caregivers is just another resentment. We may disagree with the choices they made, we may not be able to condone their behavior, but now that we are adults, we are 100 percent responsible for who we are and whatever wounds we need to heal.
Owning Your Life Exercise
Please try this ‘owning your life’ exercise on for size: find a mirror, look into your own eyes in the mirror, and say the following to yourself:
- I am supposed to be me.
- I am supposed to look exactly as I look.
- My life is supposed to be exactly the way it is.
- My childhood was supposed to transpire exactly as it transpired.
This act of ‘owning your life’—embracing every single moment that has transpired because every moment contributed to you becoming exactly who you are today—is a way to release all of your mind’s resentments. ‘Owning’ who we are, including our childhoods and everything that brought us to this present moment, simply means radically accepting reality and ‘giving up all hope of having a better past.’ And once we have stopped being victims of the stories our minds created, we can decide which daily tools—gratitude, loving relationships, helping others, healthy living, exercise, authentic communications, meditation, eating correctly, being in nature, and so on—will give us our adult version of ‘the good life.’
Making Our Outer World Congruent with Our Inner World
The main tool we are going to explore here, to help us be as authentic as possible, is congruence. Let’s spend a few moments deciding who we should be and how we can make our outer worlds congruent with our inner worlds.
For example, we might decide the following:
- I enjoy life more when I am involved in an intimate relationship.
- I need to spend more time in nature, hiking, surfing, and sitting on park benches.
- I am going to make an effort to live a more balanced life.
- I love expressing myself through art, dance, theater, music, writing.
- I have outgrown some of my friends.
- I need to make amends with…
- I need to communicate more authentically with…
- The way I earn money would be more fulfilling if…
- I need to figure out a way to make my relationships more harmonious.
- I need to stop stressing myself out by rushing around—it is okay to relax.
We are fairly myopic as a species. We tend to think in terms of months—mortgages, rent, credit card bills, and so on—when it may behoove us to think otherwise. For example, the average human lives 27,375 days. How many days old are you today? Statistically, is your life likely more than half over, and you are still complaining about things that happened 20,000 days ago? Conversely, even if you have another 20,000 days to go, have you already planned what you would like it to say on your tombstone? Wanting our tombstones to read ‘Beloved, Loving Husband’ or ‘Beloved, Loving Wife’ or ‘Beloved, Loving Father’ or ‘Beloved, Loving Mother’ or ‘Beloved, Loving Sister’ or ‘Beloved, Loving Brother’ exponentially increases our tolerance around our loved ones. We need beacons. We need long-term goals. Long-term goals help guide the daily choices we make. Isn’t it time we committed ourselves to having more compassionate, loving relationships? If we want to be grateful about our finite existences, all we have to do is pick up a newspaper and read about the scores of people who became nonexistent today, many of whom did so unexpectedly (although, whether it is better or worse to be conscious that death is imminent is debatable).
Questioning the Realities We Create
If we let our minds go on autopilot they tend to run amok. It’s important to become conscious of the many assumptions that we consider ‘normal‘ and to persuade us to question the realities that we create. Once we can see the realities we have unintentionally created, then we can consciously decide who we want to be—that is, set an intention—and match our actions and our way of being to those intentions. Sometimes, who we know we are and should be, and the facade we choose to show the world, are vastly different. For example, if we do not want people to objectify us sexually, then we should not dress sexily; if we do not want people to want to hang out with us only because we have money, then we need to stop offering to pay everyone’s tab. We must learn who we are, know who we should be, and be that person.
If we suffer from impostor syndrome—meaning that deep down we are terrified that people will find out we are a fraud and will humiliate and leave us—then we need to learn congruence. Our culture has a narrow bandwidth of emotions; we need to cultivate real relationships, in which we can feel free to express ourselves and not be judged. This is one of the ways psychotherapy works. I am not suggesting that all relationships be therapeutic, but that we avoid relationships with people who show their love for us by relentlessly judging and criticizing us.
Compassion over Competition
Moreover, our society embodies a zero-sum mentality, originating from the concept of ‘survival of the fittest.’ Even though human beings have the technology to produce and distribute enough food to feed everyone on Earth, many people will go to bed hungry tonight. Such competition was extremely useful when there were limited resources, but now that we can create abundance, we must learn to choose compassion over competition. Hoarding or wasting does not make sense.
The Hedonic Treadmill
Similarly, we know that ego gratification is fleeting and that the mind is akin to a hedonic treadmill. Our long-term goals, then, must include loving relationships rather than more property ownership that, for most people, entails more debt and more stress. When given the choice, we must choose love over ego gratification. No sane person wants it to say “He Was Right” on his tombstone. We want it to say “Beloved” and so must make our daily actions and interactions with others fall in line with that goal.
Telling an Authentic Story
Finally, there is little long-term benefit in seducing people into liking our facades. Many people come across like walking billboards or résumés. Listing our accomplishments when we meet people does not engender the kind of loving relationships that we truly crave. We must choose authenticity and authentic communications instead of the one-upmanship that many of us engage in when we are conducting busyness/business. I am not advising you to march into your boss’s office and show your authentic self, but I suggest that we all spin our stories less. “There was a car accident” sounds much different than “I was almost killed in a car accident.” Now that we are adults, we are responsible for our way of being in the world—the way we stand, talk, sit, look at others, dress, choose subjects to discuss, and so on. Let’s consciously choose who we want to be and then make our way of being as congruent as possible with what we have decided.
This piece is an excerpt from Ira Israel’s upcoming book, How to Survive Your Childhood Now That You’re an Adult, and is reprinted with permission.