Dr. Dan Siegel invites us to go back and revisit our childhood memories to liberate ourselves from old narratives. I have found this process to be incredibly cathartic. Today, I pull the curtain back to learn what happened in a poignant scene written and produced by the much younger version of me. And then, I pivot….and discover the transforming benefits of accepting Dr. Seigel’s invitation.
The Bully in the Sandbox:
When I was just four years old, I attended a pre-school that was across the street from the second floor apartment my mom, dad and I lived in. I loved pre-school with a colorful round rug for story time or show and tell, the long table full of textured arts and crafts supplies, white school paste and fat waxy crayons. I especially loved the sandbox full of sand pails and assorted plastic scoops. I’d skip the swings and the merry go round at recess and head straight for that sandbox. I had an affinity for scoops (and I still do today).
There was a rough and tumble boy in our class, who was bigger in size than most of us and he didn’t mind letting us know he had the power to take whatever he wanted. For some reason, what he wanted most nearly every day for two weeks was the one colorful plastic scoop that I had chosen. He didn’t want to play with it; he simply wanted to disrupt my fun. Day in and day out, he’d grab my scoop and run away with it, laughing at my tears I was trying so hard to stop. (I never understood why the teacher did not put a stop to this, but I will assume she had her hands full blowing noses, pushing kids on swings and catching the the dizzy ones as they dismounted the merry go round).
One day, I could not longer tolerate the bullying or the volcanic eruption of my big emotions that had been pushed down for far too long. As that boy grabbed my bright red scoop, I jumped up from the sandbox, trembling and sobbing uncontrollably. I ran across the street and up the stairs to our apartment.
I did not find the refuge I was seeking at home or the comfort I needed from my mother. My mom was outraged that I had run away from school and she punished me. She made me sit alone on the stairs in the dark attic, the place in our house that scared me the most. Afraid, afraid to cry, silenced but needing to tell my full story — and all occurring in the dark — all by myself.
At the tender age of 4, the story I told myself was fairly complex which I will credit in part to my wild, creative imagination: keep your strong emotions to yourself, things can most definitely get worse, don’t ask for help, don’t rat out the bullies, take care of yourself, keep your needs and feelings in the dark.
This scenario is not at all unusual with the old parenting model in vogue at that time. As I revisit this childhood memory, now more informed and educated about a vastly improved parenting model, I am able to witness this scenario with compassion for both me — and my mom.
I never expected to discover that compassion would take the place of the anger and confusion I once had; an anger and confusion that lingered like a heavy fog between me and my mother for most of my life. That’s the reality of unhealthy attachment styles from childhood — they become a lifelong tug of war, longing for our needs to be met and afraid to express them.
This revelation became a profound pivot from a broken childhood narrative, to a place of deeper understanding, with more context, awareness and compassion. It is precisely why Dr. Dan Siegel wants us to do this work.
The healing, transformational value in this Pivot Point cannot be underestimated. I wish I had done it decades ago.
This storyline I created from the infamous “bully in a sandbox vignette” played out time and time again in my childhood and family dynamics; even more so when my two younger brothers came along. This how I became a shy but responsible “helper”, a fixer of other’s problems, stubborn (the popular nomenclature for the independent, never-ask for help type) and an enabler in a multi-layered, codependent family dynamic.
As Dr. Rick Hanson espouses “what helped us get through childhood often gets in the way in adulthood.” Those adaptive childhood patterns often looked like worthwhile attributes: reliable and dependable, independent and not needy, capable and hardworking, a resourceful problem solver. The problem was they came with side effects: resentment, feeling unappreciated or devalued, confused over a lack of reciprocity of all my efforts, frequent bouts of exhaustion and anxiety, distrustfulness.
A little sidenote here: the one I distrusted the most was me because I didn’t believe that my needs were important; in fact, most of the time I didn’t even know what my needs were. So I disregarded warning signs and many times blindly trusted others who were not looking out for my best interests. No wonder internally I felt so jumpy and uneasy. I just didn’t understand what those valid feelings were trying to tell me.
Ian Morgan Cron, a well-known expert on the enneagram wrote his book, The Story of You; An Enneagram Journey to Becoming the Real You inspired by his own real life transformation that came from examining his childhood. His pivot point for doing this work came when he was in the 12-step program and had just finished sharing his life story during an AA meeting. A recovered and wise elder pulled him aside afterward and asked him if it was possible that he was “living in the wrong story.” This became the impetus for Ian to fully examine his childhood experiences and learn what was holding him back; even getting in the way of what he truly wanted out of life. Not only did Ian craft a better story for himself, he became a best-selling author, psychotherapist, enneagram teacher and host of the wildly successful Typology podcast series.
Many people who are now renowned experts in their fields have similar stories. Peter Levine, Ph.D, says that research is “me-search”. Dr. Levine is the developer of Somatic Experiencing, a naturalistic and neurobiological approach to healing trauma, which he has developed over the last 50 years. Brene Brown has had a 20+ year career studying shame, vulnerability, authenticity and connection. She originally published her book, The Gifts of Imperfection in August 2010 and in 2020 she re-published it as the 10th anniversary edition. The sub-title of The Gifts of Imperfection is yet another invitation to liberate ourselves from childhood narratives: “Let Go of Who You Think You are Supposed To Be And Embrace Who You Are”
The reason we have a $13 billion self help industry today is rooted in that old dysfunctional parenting model. It stunted our personal growth. We became rootbound by unconscious limitations.
Pivot Point – Overlaying the Better Parenting Template on that childhood memory:
I found that a valuable step in this revisiting exercise is to overlay the whole brain parenting template over the same “bully in the sandbox” scene and reimagine it. This step really opened my eyes and heart. It is precisely what led me to feeling genuine compassion for both me and my mom. I had a much greater understanding of the dysfunctional dynamics and how we got so derailed.
I imagined my 4 year old self being comforted by my mother, my big emotions validated, and resting in the comforting safety of her warm lap til I was calm. I pictured us walking hand in hand back to my pre-school to discuss the bullying incident with my teacher and having a meaningful discussion; possibly even getting an apology from the boy and to learning why he might be behaving poorly. Is it possible that he needed attention and lacked the skills to play nicely with others? Was his home life also stunting his personal growth?
I imagined my mother reflecting at day’s end on the whole experience, feeling really good about herself and how she showed up – for me, herself, my classmate and our teacher.
Here are a few relevant takeaways from overlaying this new parenting template on old childhood memories:
One: This is how we can “reparent” ourselves and unhook from the emotional baggage of our past. Terry Real, founder of Relational Life Therapy, uses this effective “reparenting” skill when he is working with his clients to help release their painful past so they can effectively work on their present relationships with a marital partner and their own children. It is a remarkable experience to release old painful, fossilized emotions from childhood memories that we’ve held onto for far too long; and that often prevent us from seeing what’s right in front of us today.
Two: We readily recognize how much more skillful and grounded we would have been had we been “pre-loaded and practiced” in what healthy attachment styles look and feel like. This is a bit like having a crystal ball that allows us to see how these better relationship skills and tools would have positive impacts on our friendships, our work colleagues, our marriages and our own parenting. Most importantly, we would know ourselves well, and have strong core values to guide us.
Three: We become acutely aware of the valid role our emotions play in our lives. That old parenting model bypassed one of our most vital human operational systems — and the very one we needed most as young children. Our emotional operating system is the foundational component for our developing, complex brains. Being fully integrated with our emotions – being able to name them, to know how they feel in our bodies, to understand their relationship to meeting our core needs, to get the support we needed to be with our emotions — would be a lifetime game-changer.
Four: We can apply some reverse engineering to reconnecting with our most authentic self. While finding our “authentic self” seems like a cliche, the reality is that if our childhood needs for attachment were imperiled by our authenticity (our connection to what we truly feel), then naturally we “closed off” parts of our most genuine self. Perfectionism, rigid role identification, hyper vigilance, people pleasing, harmonizing, defensiveness — they all come from the tension between our need for attachment and our true authenticity. How many times have you wrestled with mixed emotions trying to determine which one was truly your inner GPS? Did you chose the path of least resistance (harmonizing or going along with something) even though inside you did not want to participate? When we gain greater clarity about our true and most authentic self, we become more at ease with ourselves and have greater emotional regulation dexterity and discernment.
The enneagram can be a valuable resource to help us reconnect to our authentic self and rediscover our unique gifts in healthy and productive ways. That tension between attachment and authenticity moved us to the unhealthy end of our enneagram spectrum. The uniquely best parts of ourself contorted into armor and obstacles, often taking us farther away from what we need and want the most. We can reclaim our natural born gifts and begin to use them as they were intended — to enrich our lives, to give us meaning and purpose.
The Launchpad for More Pivots:
Once I pulled the curtain back on that “origin” story of many of my adaptive behavioral patterns, I was curious about other parts of my adult history that might have played out quite differently with the whole brain parenting model. There were many.
I know that it is a familiar refrain to say that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or to say that “we wouldn’t be who we are today without all the choices and events that got us here” but I’d like to offer a different frame for those old platitudes.
What would our world would look and feel like today if so many of us had not been hiding our gifts and authenticity? If we had been skillful enough to use our emotional navigation to stand up for ourselves and others, one sandbox incident at a time. What if our emotions had been accepted as basic human programming and nurtured rather than labeled good or bad, right or wrong, male or female.
You know that familiar refrain that sends us straight to the self help section of our local bookstore: “hurting people hurt people” ? We hurt each other and ourselves all the time because we are so disconnected from our authentic self and we lack the awareness to see that we project our hurt onto others. We could stop this cycle in its tracks if we took the time to go back and reevaluate our childhood experiences and reclaim our authenticity.
Instead of “projecting” our pain, we can learn to “reflect” our similitaries and realities of being flawed, messy, deeply feeling, remarkable, amazing, complex human beings. No more judging or comparing; simply reflecting and sharing.
This pivot would be a game-changer.
Would we have less anxiety, pain and suffering, addictions, physical and mental health issues?
Would we be using our gifts, our time and energy in ways that give us great satisfaction, energize us, foster our resilience and help us see possibilities where we once saw only problems?
Here is an observation so noteworthy I don’t know how we have missed it: Have you noticed the vastly improved energy level of people who have freed themselves from their old stories? People who once were mired in their pain, sadness, limiting beliefs and even addiction are now some of our most dynamic motivational speakers. They energize us! They make us laugh, raise our spirits, help us see our potential, they listen to learn, empathize, normalize and encourage.
That is the tangible transformational magic of all this work.
Pay attention and you will discover that the people who have done this inner work are now using all their authenticity and natural born gifts in empowering, energetic and life enriching ways. Not just for themselves….but for everyone with whom they interact.
If you lean in a little closer, you will also discover that the continual learning and discovery process is amplified — both the teacher and the student sharing insights, experiences and emotions that perpetuate even deeper wisdoms.
Learning from a Master:
One of my most delightful experiences is to discover someone who has integrated all this practical, pragmatic data into a well-lived, well-loved, inspiring story of their own life. Not a psychologist or neuroscientist, not a trauma expert or shame researcher. It is in the magic of someone full of creativity, who followed their bliss and found success doing what they love.
Without further ado, I share with you someone who epitomizes the magic of living life most authentically — the legendary music producer, Rick Rubin, a savant of creativity. How remarkable is it that Rick Rubin let his love of magic tricks as a young boy infused his life journey with the endless wonders of possibility? He believes in that magic.
Rick Rubin has helped generations of musical artists discover their own unique gifts because he was patient, deeply sensitive and keenly attentive to being open to possibilities. He confesses to being somewhat exhaustive about endless possibilities.) His extensive list of clients include Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Adele, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Dixie Chicks and the Beastie Boys.
Rick recently published his first book entitled The Creative Act: A Way of Being. Here is a successful man, in his 60’s, who spent the past 7 to 8 years reflecting on his life, experiences, clients and creativity to write this book. He sums it all up this way:
“I set out to write a book about what to do to make a great work of art. Instead, it revealed itself to be a book on how to be.”
I’ve curated a few of Rick’s profound wisdoms from three podcasts where he was a recent guest. The fact that Rick was interviewed on three very diverse podcast platforms is a testimony to the fact that there is more integration in our lives than we realize. Rick was a guest of Andrew Huberman on The Huberman Lab (the neuroscience of creativity), of Malcolm Gladwell on Revisionist History (generating creative authenticity and finding your voice) and of Krista Tippet’s on the OnBeing Podcast (conversations on what it means to be human and finding meaning in life).
What I love about Rick’s insights is what he says he learned from writing his book — he declares he didn’t know all of this, he noticed it. He noticed the very things that are now being actively taught to us by neuroscience, social science, behavioral science and psychology — the whole ball of wax of self help modalities.
See if you can relate to what Rick noticed:
“We come into our lives as a blank slate. What we take in over the course of our lives is all that we are filled with. Our memories, emotions and subconscious are acting at all times. We never know where it is coming from (our reaction) and it doesn’t always make sense.”
“We need to get out of our own heads, what we were told, what we were taught — being free to experiment, to have fun and experiment and find a new way of doing something. Embrace it instead of thinking we are doing it the wrong way.”
“The fact is that man’s own baggage of beliefs — of thinking we know best — is what was holding man back. There is so much that we think we know that we don’t know. We need to remove the distracting information that we hold true – that is stopping us.”
“I think when you really listen to someone, they act differently. Most people are not used to being heard.”
“Music lets out our inner emotional life. Music has an emotional base to it – even without the words. We feel this energy. You can channel the energy and emotion you have.”
His insights on meditation: “Your life off the cushion changes — because you are building a new reality within yourself — an emotional musculature. You are more in tune with the present as you are experiencing it in this moment — and not the distractions that the world is bombarding us with….but a wider more open, and generous curation — we see more and take in more.”
There’s so much overlap and integration happening in diverse fields and modalities for supporting our overall health, well being and authenticity. My upcoming blog posts will focus on connecting the dots on this ever evolving frontier.