There are so many terrific ways for us to learn about ourselves, and when we have the courage to genuinely self-reflect, there are almost unlimited opportunities.
In my experience, two of the very best opportunities to self-reflect are presented by relationships, and by parenting.
In thinking about past and present relationships (intimate partners) it can be super valuable to reflect on what we found seductive, what we found troubling and if the relationship is over, what we ultimately found too distressing to deal with. The trick here is to NOT get caught up thinking about the other person, or ex or current partner. That is such a distraction from the rich lessons we can learn about ourselves by analysing what feelings were evoked for us in the relationship and why we made the choices that we did.
Similarly, parenting is so important to us, and the ways we react to our children can provide amazing opportunities for self-reflection. Again, we have to be mindful that all feelings arise from inside us. Our children (or anyone) cannot “make” us feel a certain way. So if we cannot focus on what the children are doing, and instead focus on what our triggers are, and how and why we choose to react the way we do, parenting can be another powerful place for self-reflection and self-awareness.
I believe with all my heart that we are perfect the moment we are conceived. What I mean is we are, by definition, the perfect manifestation of our own being. We are the only one of us on the entire planet.
The reason I believe traditional parenting does not result in happy adults is because we’ve been parenting this way for generations, and so many of us are plagued with sadness, anxiety, self-doubt, anger, distrust, etc. Of course, our parents were also perfect when they were born, and surely were doing the best that they could. But our “scars”, the toxic messages we carry about ourselves, invariably come from whatever particular form of traditional parenting we grew up with.
Without criticizing our parents/caregivers, they created the internal foundation we are trying to chip away at in therapy. This is a challenging task under the best of circumstances, but becomes even more challenging when we live with our parents (or very close by) as adults. We feel the same “triggers” as adults we felt as children, and we receive constant reminders of whatever toxic messages we received as children. It’s like moving towards a happy, strong life in the truth of your own beauty and perfection, but having a foot stuck in the door.
None of this means we cannot love, respect, honour and celebrate our parents. It’s not about “blame” and it’s not about anger. It’s about self-protection.
As we journey in therapy towards re-discovering our own perfection, we often find it seductive to try to get the unconditional positive love from our parents we never got as children. We are thirsty, but we are going to a well we already know is dry. And if we can look away from the destructive messages and towards the endless exciting possibilities of a world where we know we are perfect, and then SO many wells are there for us to drink from.
One of the many things I love about my job is the amazing people I get to meet (and who I probably would not have encountered in the “outside world”). Everyday I get to work with people who are bravely confronting all the things in their past that have resulted in self-doubt, self-consciousness and self-deprecation. We are all actually born perfect, and all the messages that we get otherwise are because of other peoples’ “stuff”. Unfortunately, we take it on board as information about ourselves, and it becomes the basis of how we view who we are.
This foundation of how we see ourselves, and how we see the world, is the very basis of why the world looks different through everyone’s eyes. We all have our unique individual “phenomenology”. It was developed over many, many years.
When we are in therapy, we are trying to chip away at this foundation and get back to recognizing, celebrating and honouring the perfect being we always were. But this is a long and slow process. Occasionally people in therapy will get frustrated with themselves for slipping into old thought patterns or old behaviours. I want to say to everyone in that situation: “Give Yourself A Break”! Consider that instead of being annoyed with yourself for “slip ups” you can use every slip up as an opportunity to give yourself a heartfelt pat on the back for all the courageous work you’ve done, and continue to do. Every glass is half full and half empty at the same time, and we can always choose to lament how much of a journey remains, or celebrate how far we have come. And thank you to those human beings who are willing to let me share their journeys with them.
Thanks to my favourite podcast, now called “Build for Tomorrow” (formerly Pessimists’ Archive) I have learned that there was a very popular disease in much of the 19th century called “neurasthenia”. Its invention led to all sorts of things being attributed to neurasthenia: including depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, headache and high blood pressure. It was associated with lonely farm wives and especially overworked business people.
“Treatments” were typically stays at “rest” hospitals and resorts, although later the idea of electric therapy became popular. One thing was always consistent: No one could identify WHAT the disease actually was. What part(s) of the people was/were actually unwell? Yet it was the “affliction du jour”, especially for the middle and upper middle class, for many decades.
This article from Atlantic Magazine tells the story of this “disease”:
Neurasthenia was a widespread disease until people got tired of it and got tired of not hearing an explanation for what it was. People lived and died entire lifetimes with this word “neurasthenia” in their vocabulary. They were certain they had gotten it right – until it turned out they got it completely wrong.
Just as priests in the Middle Ages blamed emotional struggles on “bodily humours” and doctors in 1870 blamed emotional struggles on “neurasthenia”, in 2021 we blame emotional struggle on “mental illness”. In all of these examples, we have no actual proof the thing we are pointing to even exists and many people are making great profits off these ‘flavour of the month’ cottage industries.
And the arrogant part is how sure we are that we are right. Every generation thinks they have “got it right” and points to all the scholars and practitioners who have bought into whatever the current “big lie” is. 100 years from now, if we still have podcasts, perhaps people will be chuckling that an entire world of people bought into a belief, with NO evidence presented, that the struggles they have are caused by their minds being ill. Aside from the obvious part that the mind is a metaphor that doesn’t really exist and therefore cannot be unwell, we all embrace the idea that how we feel emotionally or psychologically is somehow a health issue: “mental health”.
Just as the masses in the Middle Ages would have done well to consider bodily humours with a grain of salt, and the masses in the 19th century might have done well to be a bit skeptical of neurasthenia, we might do well to step back from our current “big lie” and analyse for ourselves whether this concept of “mental illness” resonates with us, regardless of how many others have bought in.
Maybe all of human culture has struggled to recognise that we are all beautifully different and someone is neither a demon, a neurasthenic or a victim of mental illness, just because they don’t fit in with the “normal majority”. If we knew different was beautiful, we could celebrate each other rather than label each other.
One of the most powerful things we can do as parents is to empower our children. Children define their capabilities through our eyes as parents if we believe our children can do something; they are likely to believe they can do it themselves. Consciously or otherwise, our children know we won’t put them in situations they are unable to handle, so if we put them in a situation, part of the message is “you can handle this”. And then they believe they can handle it. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee they will succeed, but it does maximize the possibility they will succeed, because they will believe in themselves.
This comes up quite a bit in early adolescence, Of course, it can be a scary world out there, but this is the world in which we live, and since we can’t protect our children forever, we want them to develop a sense of their own competence to handle themselves in this world. To whatever extent possible, parents have the opportunity to say “yes” rather than saying “no” when children are wanting to “spread their wings” and are asking for increasing levels of independence.
If we really embrace our ability to define our children, we can recognize countless opportunities to empower them to think of themselves as capable, competent humans who have everything they need to create the lives they choose