A recent Typology podcast with Ian Cron inspired me to do a little more forensic excavating into my own childhood story. It was Ian’s comment that we need to go back and uproot that old childhood narrative that no longer serves us well as adults that motivated me to do so.
The striking difference in my approach to this unearthing project had quite a bit to do with gaining a deeper understanding. It wasn’t just about healing from painful events that happened to me, it was more evolved than that — it was shining light on parts of my family’s story that had remained in the dark for far too long. It was the very first time that I could go back and revisit a poignant memory and recognize the deep roots of behavioral patterns when they were merely seeds.
When I was about three or four years old, we lived in a second floor apartment of an old house in a tiny quaint rural area. There was a little square sandbox in the backyard and one large maple tree. Most mornings, my mom would put me in that sandbox all by myself and return to our apartment, cigarette in hand. A neighbor had a nasty little dog that roamed freely in this backyard and I was frightened of this yipping, biting four-legged terror. My mom would arm me with a closed child’s umbrella every time she put me in this sandbox. Then she’d leave me — alone.
In the past, when I would revisit this memory, I would be sad for that little girl. Mostly I would focus on how I would have handled things differently as a mom. I’ve even used those tools of revisiting that memory and imagining swooping that little blonde-haired girl into my arms and assuring her that she was safe.
But today I was on a quest to discover the seeds of childhood behavioral patterns – those patterns we develop to make sense of our world and navigate our little lives as safely as possible. This is the deeper exploratory work that the enneagram inspired me to do. That one little vignette from my early childhood provided many clues.
Picture a few conversation bubbles placed over that sandbox scenario that go something like this:
Why am I alone in this sandbox? My mom can’t possibly hear me or get down here fast enough if I need her.
I am scared to death of this terrifying dog. Who is going to protect me?
I’m supposed to use this umbrella to hit that dog? I can’t hurt that dog even if I am scared to death of him.
Being alone in this sandbox day after day with that scary dog is not my idea of fun. There is no way I can play while I am constantly on the alert for danger.
Why does this same scenario play out over and over, day after day, even when I have told my mom that I am unhappy and afraid? My crying and pleading never bring any changes.
As I teased apart each of these conversation bubbles, I found the seeds for which I’d been searching. I also discovered the familiar framework that I grew up in — a template for the repeated cause and effect of our rocky family dynamics. My childhood behavioral patterns were deeply engrained by unconscious and unchecked parental actions that repeated themselves for years.
I have a vast collection of vignettes similar to my sandbox story where I was either left to fend for myself or that the consequences of asking for help resulted in a punishment far worse.
What I did not intellectually comprehend through most of my childhood was that I was afraid of my mother.
I’m beginning to see one of the ongoing internal conflicts that led to blind spots in my adult relationships. As a kid, I struggled with being afraid of the one person whom I was supposed to trust and who was supposed to protect me. Was this the origin of feeling not worthy, not valued? Was it part of why I found it so hard to hold others accountable for inappropriate behaviors?
I now realize that another parental complication was also in play: I was mad at my dad for not standing up for me and protecting me while simultaneously empathic and understanding that he was in the same boat — he too was afraid of my mother. Unknowingly I may have adopted some of his ineffective coping strategies. Some of those strategies made it easy for both of us to be controlled or manipulated. My mom had “power over” us.
A few of the childhood patterns that I came to rely on were people pleasing, hyper-vigilance, trust only yourself, don’t complain or ask for your needs to be met, keep the peace at all costs. I am a Type 2 on the Enneagram — aka The Helper.
When I became a big sister, most of my early coping patterns were amplified in order to protect my younger brothers. Adding more children to the unhealthy and stressful parental dynamic only made a dysfunctional template stronger. Now I was not only protecting myself, I took on the hefty responsibility of looking out for my innocent younger siblings.
This forensic excavating that I did was so incredibly catharttic for me. I was just a little kid trying to make sense of things that did not make sense. I even gained some invaluable insight about my brothers as I looked back on our childhood. Both of my brothers also found their own ways to navigate our volatile home life which resulted in behavioral patterns and coping skills unique to each of them. For the first time, I think I understand the root causes of my youngest brother’s short and very troubled life.
When I first discovered the enneagram as a valuable tool for my self-discovery and personal growth, a sense of great relief washed over me. I felt seen, heard and even understood as I soaked in all that I was learning about my type. I laughed and I cried as I recognized lifelong behavioral patterns and began to understand why I adopted them. But at the same time, I could see where these childhood patterns had not served me well in adulthood. I let people take advantage of me. I accepted behaviors and stories about me because I believed I didn’t deserve better. It was hard to dispute the fact that I came from a pretty messed up family. That was the hard truth. Yet there was another truth that brought me so much comfort and encouragement to change — We are not our broken stories.
In the recent 3-part Sister Series of Unlocking Us, Brene Brown and her twin sisters, Ashley and Barrett, openly discuss their childhood experiences and the behavioral patterns that they developed as a result. Brene, being the oldest of four, became the “protector” and developed a super power of being able to read a room and moods. She was a hyper vigilant observer of others and always at the ready to do what was needed to protect her siblings from the fallout. This honest, heartfelt conversation between siblings underscores that we all have recognizable behavioral patterns that developed from seeds that were planted in childhood.
The enneagram is a field guide for behavioral patterns. It helps us define them and make sense of our own. With increased awareness of specific patterns, we begin to see, and feel, when they arise in our day to day lives. It is from this vantage point that we can figure out if those patterns are really serving us well in our current stage of life.
This brings me back to Ian Morgan Cron’s podcast about uprooting our childhood stories, and writing a new story. Again, the enneagram is such a helpful tool for crafting this new story — because if you use it to help you move toward the healthy end of your type’s spectrum, you will be cultivating your unique gifts, talents and strengths in a way that fosters your personal growth. Changing our outdated, outgrown behavioral patterns is the uprooting process. It opens space in our inner gardens to give the good seeds –the best parts of ourselves — room to grow. Without the heavy dark shadow of old patterns, light and fresh air fall onto the best parts of ourselves. This is how we get out of our own way! This is how we craft a better story for our evolving lives.
There is another thread to my recent excavation process that is worth noting. I don’t think we go out into the adult world openly stating “I am less than or I am not worthy.” I think those buried beliefs are wrapped up in shame. We are ashamed or embarrassed of our broken stories. At 18, I could not deny that my family history was messy. So two things happened: If someone reminded me of that truth, I relegated myself to the second-hand bin of life. The bar had been set low and I just acquiesced and kept my dreams small; or, I kept my family story hidden and fought really hard to push that bar for my own life beyond those restricting limits. In the middle of those two scenarios was a whispering self-doubt, keeping me tethered to my old story.
Are you beginning to see how old patterns, old belief systems and avoiding emotions are inter-connected?
We have such a rare and inspirational opportunity right now to combine the wisdom of the Enneagram with the body of work that Brene Brown offers on Emotions in Atlas of the Heart. These two invaluable resources have the potential to dramatically improve our self-awareness and our understanding of who we really are and what makes us tick.
This post is part one of my excavation discoveries. In my next post, I will share what I’m learning from my research and my friends about how we can help prevent childhood narratives from trapping our children and grandchildren. I am very excited about all that we are unearthing in our own personal growth journeys that will help others on their own paths.