Recently I was back in my hometown where I spent over a half century of my life. So much of my history is woven into the streets, the houses, the buildings and businesses of this now expansive community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I marveled as I drove through city and countryside recalling memories of the younger me. I surely must have had a dozen lives to have such a vast collection of experiences and metamorphoses.
It is cathartic to return to my hometown as a much different woman than I once was. I’ve shed the childhood armor that I carried far too long. I’m beginning to recall and recognize the courageous moments in my younger life where my true nature was pushing through all along.
Maybe that is the way that our growth spurts occur over our lifetime — little nudges pushing us out of our comfort zone and into evolving version of ourselves. Most of it is just the natural, organic process of maturing. Some of it occurs through change — unplanned and unwanted, and some of it through change we pursue.
I grew up in the heartland of Amish farm country — nutrient-rich soil, verdant green fields, seasonal harvests of the best local produce, warm summer sunshine and drenching nourishing downpours. The farms and gardens of Lancaster County represent what is possible with the right environment in which to grow and flourish. This metaphor is not lost on me as I reflect on all that I have learned through my personal growth journey. What insights can I share with younger generations to help them in cultivating a healthier, nurturing, supportive environment in which to reclaim their true nature and embrace their full potential?
We are all products of our environment at some level. The earlier in our adult lives that we claim agency about what that environment needs to be in order for us to be our best selves, the better equipped we will be to handle all that unfolds in our lives. Driving through my hometown, reflecting on my life from childhood through 50+ years, I saw things much differently than I did before my deep dive into personal growth. I could readily recognize the origins of behavioral patterns, insecurities and false narratives that made my life harder than it needed to be. At the same time, I found myself feeling an overarching sense of gratitude for all that I was able to accomplish in spite of those tethers. This awareness fuels my motivation to help others untangle themselves from the impediments that hold them back from living their best wholehearted life.
As I drove through Lancaster County, I was often accompanied by my brother or a longtime friend. We’d share our memories with each other as we took in the things that remained the same and those that had changed dramatically in our hometown. It was often in these stories that we would unravel some of our personal history. Our perspective has broadened over time. Our renewed appreciation for each other’s complex lived experiences deepened our empathy and our connection to each other. My brother touched my heart when he shared with me that he hadn’t truly realized just how quickly I needed to grow up, assuming adult responsibilities for our family much too soon.
Some attributes we honed as children served us well. Other attributes became stumbling blocks or major road blocks. It occurred to me that in many cases, we changed our physical environment by moving out of dysfunctional homes when we were 18, but we brought with us unconscious behavioral patterns and childhood baggage. Our emotional environment was still tethered to our past.
We entered marriages with fairy tale-like visions of what we anticipated, but completely unaware of how our family histories and unhealthy coping skills would tear at the seams of those dreams.
Is it any wonder then that well-worn unhealthy familial patterns get unknowingly passed from one generation to the next? This was especially true of my parents’ generation who preferred the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it came to hard truths.
Long and deep conversations with my friends revealed that many of us operated believing the limiting and false narratives that originated in our childhood. Those narratives became the voices of our inner critic telling us that we were not worthy, not lovable, not smart enough, or we were too much. Our childhood circumstances did not define us, but in many cases, we blindly accepted that others judged us as though it did.
My close circle of friends have worked hard to break free from unhealthy behavioral patterns that stunted personal growth and shrouded authenticity. People pleasing, shape shifting, conflict avoidance and stuffing emotions did not serve us well as we tried to build a network of genuine friends, foster our marriages, raise children or advance in our careers.
Through many of the conversations I was blessed to have on this extended visit, one thread that weaved its way through consistently was that none of our lives turned out exactly as we had planned or anticipated. We all had highs and lows. Yet we got through adversities, with our inner strength, with the support of family and friends, with love and hope. We rebuilt our lives — often.
I believe that this is also the natural, organic ebb and flow of life. As Dr. Bruce Perry says “none of us gets through life unscathed.” Dr. Perry teaches the value of having a relational web and how that web provides the scaffolding we all need to pull us through hard times and show us what is possible. Relational webs are those people who have our backs, who show up and sit with us in our darkest hours, who help us reframe things with a fresh perspective, who help us discover our inner strengths and who encourage our potential.
My friends and I talked a lot about the hard lessons we learned about the people who were in our lives that we wanted to be part of that web, but who often let us down, or made matters worse. Over time, we learned who we could trust. We began to be more discerning about the people in our inner circle. We learned the value of setting boundaries. We now recognize that this is a very important component of a healthy environment in which to grow, mature and flourish. We need to be surrounding ourselves with people who support us in positive ways. That old adage that you are most like the 5 people you spend the most time with is a sound guidepost.
The gold in my visit back to my hometown was in the warm embrace of all those connections I’d made over 50+ years with family and friends. We talk with ease about some of the hardest moments of our life and what we learned from them. I marvel at the strong women I have known most of my life who have overcome so many hurdles and big setbacks and how they are thriving today. They are incredible mothers and grandmothers. In many ways, we’ve become “advance scouts” for others who want to live life more authentically and with a lot less baggage.
I’m so encouraged about the future for our adult children and our grandchildren for one compelling reason. It is awareness. There is a growing awareness of how our childhood experiences, unprocessed trauma and mental wellness can negatively impact a person’s quality of life. There are so many fantastic resources available to us to support our healing and personal growth. And there are a lot of really awesome grandmothers and grandfathers who are doing their own work and in turn, shining a light on that path for their adult children and grandchildren.
Many young adults are hungry for deep conversations, for mentors and supporters who will listen without judgment to their trials and their dreams, for role models for navigating divorce, co-parenting and rebuilding life. I think of these young adults like the starfish on the beach. I envision my incredible friends making a difference in the lives of others in their families and in their communities by taking the time to hold space for the younger generation and to offer the supportive environment they need to heal and flourish.
This incredible book underscores the importance of being truly present for our children, and how repairing our relationships when we mess up contributes to resilience, trust and healthy emotional attachments.
The key problem in relationships, particularly over time, is that people begin to lose their voice. Despite decades of assertiveness training and lots of good advice about communicating with clarity, timing and tact, women and men find that their greatest complaints in marriage and other intimate relationships are that they are not being heard or they cannot affect the other person, that fights go nowhere and that conflict brings only pain. Although an intimate, long term relationship offers the greatest possibilities for knowing the other person and being known, these relationships are also fertile ground for silence and frustration when it comes to articulating a true self. And yet, giving voice to this self is at the center of having both a relationship and a self. Much as she did in The Mother Dance, Harriet Lerner will approach this rich subject with tales from her personal life and clinical work, inspiring and teaching readers to speak their own truths to the most important people in their lives. (Harper Collins)