In this post I briefly touch on child abuse. So please don’t read it if you feel this might be triggering for you.
For me authenticity means living from the core of who you are.
One implication of this is that there are some concerns and activities that are peripheral for you. I am quite indifferent to fashion and sport, these may be quite close to your core.
A famous Australian model (Maggie Taberer) told the story of her crying, at about age 5, because her mother sent her to school with a ribbon in her hair of a colour that didn’t match the rest of her outfit.
Your life will likely be made up of things that matter a lot to you and some that matter a little and some that you are quite indifferent too.
Another implication of the difference between the core of who we are and ‘the rest’, I find a bit trickier to explain. It is the experience we have of doing things, or having ‘parts’ of ourselves, that ‘aren’t really us’. These experiences are things like:
- Pushing yourself to do something that just doesn’t feel right
- Frustration that doesn’t lessen even though it has been ages (perhaps years) – though you can perhaps ignore it or go numb
- Judgements about yourself (or aspects of yourself) – which you can perhaps remember or hear, which still cause you to change your behaviour or make particular judgements about people and activities.
This post is about junking those parts of us that aren’t authentically us but that have been with us for a long time, perhaps as long as we can remember.
Why do we end up like this?
I think there are a couple of ways:
1. We haven’t been aware of alternatives, we just sort of picked it up, or,
2. through trauma.
Perhaps you were bought up in a way that didn’t offer you the possibilities you needed. This could have been because of circumstances:
- lessons in what you were interested in weren’t available
- the lessons you did were just awful and so turned you off what you were interested in (the experience of many a person interested in music. [Check out Kodaly (properly pronounced 'cod-eye', not 'cuddly' – as I prefer) for a good and enjoyable system of music education.]
- there wasn’t enough money to buy the equipment you needed to pursue your interest
- you simply weren’t exposed to some things and so didn’t know about them (I had no idea there was such a thing as a subject called ‘history of ideas’ until well after graduating uni. As it turns out, it seems that it is studied in the most lamentably academic way, so I might have had a lucky escape.).
- a parent was killed in an accident so you didn’t have an ongoing, caring relationship
Or, because your early care givers were different to you:
- they thought what you cared about was wrong or not worth you,
- they didn’t understand your way of seeing or relating to the world
- they believed your hopes were unrealistic
- they thought that pursuing your wishes would lead to bad things happening to you
Children adapt to their environment – it is just natural. And so if your environment didn’t fit with your interests or talents this probably became usual or natural for you. And so you did other things instead (which didn’t turn you on exactly, but there were no alternatives available to you).
And if things went along normally, as an adult, you will feel that it is natural to do things that don’t come naturally for you. That it is usual to feel conflicted and not enthusiastic. There are whole industries that exist because this situation is so usual (yes, including the self development industry).
So sometimes we end up with ‘parts’ of us that aren’t really us just because where we grew up with didn’t suit us or because our parents were clueless about us (however well intentioned they were).
The other way we end up with ‘parts’ of ourselves that aren’t really us is through trauma.
It may be that when you were young you were involved in a natural disaster or some kind of accident. If the consequences took a long time to process (from a child’s point of view), then this shaped your perceptions of what life is like. You may have concluded:
- stuff just happens, so I get on with it; what I want doesn’t matter
- stuff just happens, so there is nothing I can do to influence the world; I won’t get what I want so there’s no point trying
- life is difficult and painful
Most people most of the time (perhaps surprisingly) recover fairly well from accidents and natural disasters.
For most people most of the time the trauma that does the damage is the trauma inflicted by those who were authority figures or meant to be caregivers. Child abuse (physical and sexual) has long lasting effects. For a blog that aggregates news about the impact of “Adverse Childhood Experiences” check out this blog, they have several posts a day.
Child abuse is one reason we develop ‘parts’ of ourselves that aren’t really us. This is because, for the child, the abuse is in some sense ‘normal’ (it is the way the world is. It can help enormously if the child has strong relationships that aren’t abusive – a group like a choir, scout group or sports club, or a relative like aunt or uncle or grandparent.)
And a disturbing implication is that, if they are in the role of authority figure or caregiver, the abuser is a role model. The abuser may be disliked and hated but they are what a father [mother/man/woman/authority figure] is. And the child has no choice but to model themselves on the people who are in their life. We internalise our parents and authority figures to some extent; and if the only one we have is abusive we have no option but to internalise some of who they are (however disliked and hated).
I want to emphasise that this is a normal and usual process. We learn from those around us (and the most powerful lessons are sometimes the ones that are unconscious). We deal with what we know, we respond to the situation that we know. Children are incredibly resilient and deal amazingly well with situations that no one should have inflicted on them.
The result is that we end up having ‘swallowed’ (internalised) behaviours, thoughts and attitudes that are quite foreign to us. They really are not part of who we truly are.
How can you tell?
This is tricky – especially once you realise that you can dislike parts of you that really are you.
Here are some rules of thumb.
If you doubt that abuse happened and that you fear you might be making up stuff (at least the details):
- If there is a scar there was a wound. If you have an unusually strong reaction to a kind of person, type of behaviour or particular occasions there is a reason for it.
- Getting every detail right isn’t what is most important. If you’ve been in a car crash it doesn’t matter that you can’t remember all the details. It happened.
- Children are usually good at knowing when they make stuff up – that they are “pretending”; and will often get upset with adults who don’t know how to go along with this. If you feel that something is real it likely as some good basis in reality.
- Your body reacts for a reason. If you feel instinctive revulsion to particular kinds of touch, or touch in particular places, or to seeing behaviour that you think shouldn’t affect you in this way; there is a reason.
To sort out if your behaviour or attitude is from someone else and genuinely not part of you try the heroes and villains exercise from the previous post.
- If you can hear a voice. Especially if it is of someone you recognise. It is probably from someone else.
- If you can remember a scene (or several occasions) where a behaviour was commanded or an attitude stated. Especially if the memory is of a caregiver or authority figure. It is probably not genuinely you but something you have ‘swallowed’ from the remember person(s).
- Pay attention when you are surprised by the words that come out of your mouth.
- Pay attention to bodily reactions that are puzzling.
- When you think, “Was that me who said/did that?” take the time to pause and answer.
What can you do?
The next post will be about how we nourish ourselves. So there is more detail coming. Here are three ideas in brief.
1. Enlist help from others when you feel that you want to. This can be from friends, support groups or someone you pay.
(Counselling is now available over phone, skype and by email if you are in a remote area, or if you prefer these modes. There are therapists employed by churches and other charities who having sliding scales of fees. There are huge numbers of great therapists around. How to choose? Asking people about their personal experience of a therapist is the best way. Other than that; you look around and go off your gut.)
2.Take small steps.
If you were abused there has likely been enough fear in your life already.
[And those self development gurus who tell you to push yourself, take risks, get out of your comfort zone – you have my permission to, in your mind, tell them to something anatomically impossible of your choice.]
Find something positive that you feel, “Oh well, I can do that; that’s easy!” Then move on to the next thing. In this way you progress steadily toward a better life in an enjoyable way (and learn that desirable change can be easy and pleasurable); which sounds like a recipe for likely success.
3. Do something nice for the child inside every day.
Enjoying the sun, breeze, rain.
Stopping and looking at something beautiful.
Taking time to breathe.
Do fun stuff (just because it’s fun).
This is a long post; I wanted to cover the topic all in one go. I hope it is clear and helpful. The idea that you have ‘swallowed’ other people’s attitudes and behaviours, and that they are ‘not the real me’ can take a while to wrap your head around. (It did for me, even though it made immediate sense too.)
Any and all feedback, questions and comments that you have are most welcome in the comments.
I'm Evan Hadkins. I'm Evan Hadkins. To find out how to live a more satisfying life you can download my manifesto on living authentically. It is a book of exercises to guide you to finding, nourishing and living from the core of who you are.
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