The longer I work as a psychotherapist, the more amazed I am at how we all – myself included – keep doing things that make us unhappy. Call it a pattern or a habit, whatever you call it, we keep repeating behaviors and thoughts that we don’t want to repeat, but feel powerless to change.
Why do we do this? Why can’t we easily break free and change our lives by doing new things, thinking new thoughts and behaving in new ways?
We can’t do it easily because it isn’t our conscious mind running the show, it’s our unconscious mind that’s usually in charge – operating just below the surface of our awareness – telling us what to do, when to do it and to whom.
Ever wondered why it’s so hard to break an old, obviously unproductive habit? You tell yourself, “This doesn’t work anymore, let’s change it.” Sounds good, right? If only it were that easy. The conscious mind knows what would be better, healthier, happier…but the unconscious mind keeps us stuck in the past.
I often ask my clients to imagine themselves with one foot firmly anchored in the present and the other stuck in the mud and muck of the past. They’re trying to pull the stuck foot free so it can join the other foot in the present, but that mud and muck is VERY strong…it feels impossible to free that foot.
Most of our unconscious comes from our early childhood. If you want to free that foot stuck in the muck of the past, getting clarity about your childhood is essential.
This isn’t about blaming mommy and daddy or reveling in victimhood. Quite the contrary, this is about taking responsibility for yourself as a mature adult and unraveling some of the chaos and confusion – in your past – that is still (unconsciously) running and ruining your life.
Where did we learn our first lessons about who we are, who other people are, what love is, and if we could trust people (or not)? Our family. The explicit and implicit messages of our family are some of the most powerful determinants in our adult lives, they constitute the primary messages that we have deeply internalized. They’re hard to change because they’ve been programmed into our (unconscious) brains by daily repetition during the years when we were the more vulnerable, malleable, dependent and impressionable.
These childhood years are also the times when we were the LEAST capable of rational analysis: a six-year-old child, told he is ugly and stupid, doesn’t have the analytical skills to think, “That cannot be true. My mother must be saying this because she is unfulfilled professionally and my father must agree with her because he has unresolved issues with is own mother.”
Nope. No way. Doesn’t happen. Can’t happen.
What DOES happen is that little six-year-old me hears my parents and says, “Yep, I must be ugly and stupid. They’re the grown-ups. They know that’s true and what isn’t.” And I keep playing this out my whole life, unconsciously of course, until I begin to take a good look at this (up-until-now) unconscious pattern and examine its origins.
When we begin to reflect on the patterns that our history reveals, we learn that our unconscious has pretty much been running most of our life. At this point, you might rightful ask: “Whose life is it anyway? Is it mine (adult me) or is the unresolved (childhood me) life that I was programmed to believe?”
When we are living out the unconscious life of our family, we typically repeat the family patterns or find some way to compensate for them, like addictions, overwork or immersion into the pop culture work of distractions.
And we wonder why we feel depressed and anxious.
The good news is that even if mommy and daddy really messed you up, YOU are the one who is continuing to play out these old patterns, going mindlessly through your life, wondering why you keep doing things that make you unhappy.
I invite you to begin the hard – but fruitful – path toward freedom. Internal freedom. Emotional freedom. It’s YOUR life, not theirs. Start asking some tough questions and begin to take it back.
After all, whose life are you living?