I’ve been captivated by the extensive research that explains how childhood experiences shape our personalities and impact our ability to cope with life’s inevitable adversities. It intrigues me on several levels. One, it helps me unpack a lot of mystery and confusion about relationships I have had since childhood. And two, it fuels my advocacy for children, mental health and the importance of personal growth.
I’m extremely grateful for the work that Dr. Bruce Perry, Brene Brown and many others have been doing over the past several decades that is culminating in a greater awareness and deeper understanding of our hard-wired need for love and belonging. Research is shedding a lot of light on all the ways people go about trying to fill these deficits of worthiness, trust, and connection — and what goes wrong more often than not.
The cause of these feelings of deficit are often rooted in our childhood experiences and even the culture of the time.
Acceptable and normalized punishments for “bad behavior” from my generation have thankfully evolved. As is so often the case, because we did not understand basic brain functions, we were making things worse — for ourselves and our children. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. We are now beginning to understand that a child’s bad behavior is not a choice, but a natural limitation due to childhood brain development.
Our personalities and our behavioral patterns are all shaped in early childhood. They are a direct result of our lived life experiences. We develop our coping mechanisms and behavioral patterns as a child to to keep us safe all while also seeking to be accepted, to be valued and to be heard. We need love and belonging to grow and thrive.
As we make our way into the adult world, we subconsciously take these childhood experiences and patterns with us.
Imagine how many relationship problems could be resolved in a supportive and meaningful way if we actually addressed the “right’ problem. Between the armor we have all piled on to protect ourselves from childhood trauma and insecurities — and the behavioral patterns that become walls to scale, we truly do get in our own way of achieving a wholehearted life.
When I left a failed relationship six years ago, I decided I needed to unravel whatever it was that I was doing that was blocking my success in rebuilding my relational life after Skip’s death. I had no idea how invaluable that broken relationship would become as a reference point for educating myself about the complexities of living an authentic, wholehearted life.
One of the most revelational tools I discovered was the Enneagram.
The enneagram was the equivalent of having an MRI to uncover my learned behavioral patterns and the core motivation driving them. When I took my first enneagram test to determine my type, I found it to be remarkably accurate. It dovetailed perfectly with my childhood experiences, and the people pleasing skills I carried far into adulthood. It was a helpful starting place for me to unpack the “why” questions. Why was I a “rescuer”, why did I avoid conflict and why was I so afraid to express my own needs.
As I began to recall childhood memories, I saw the pattern of frequent occurrences of painful experiences. In order to navigate the chaotic uncertainty, I developed coping skills to mitigate adverse consequences. I was also witness to the experiences that my two younger brothers had and as the big sister, I felt a responsibility to protect them.
The enneagram evaporated all the beliefs I had that I was somehow irreversibly flawed. It allowed me to realize that the behavioral patterns I’d developed were simply coping skills intended to protect me. These now irrelevant behavioral patterns were the product of my environment. I was not a product of my environment. At the core, I was a big-hearted, tender, spirited girl.
My personal growth work was to reconnect with that girl — and step out of the armor I no longer needed.
I don’t think my story is all that unusual. A hardship or a heartbreak causes pain and self-reflection. Some of those events bring about change that cannot be avoided, like me having to get on with life after Skip died. Some become the catalyst for proactive change and that can be a job, a divorce, a diet, a move — or personal growth. Self-awareness, personal accountability and acceptance can all feel very vulnerable and overwhelming.
It is often a family member or close friend who becomes the emotional glue when we are in that vulnerable state. They care for us through the healing. They encourage us through the transition. It just takes one trusted, caring human being to make a meaningful difference.
Dr. Bruce Perry has repeatedly stressed the value of having one trusted person that we can confide in, who will provide the scaffolding we need as we work through the awareness, the healing and the growth. In fact, professional therapy may not even be required for most people.
I was so blessed in this department — for some unknown and incredible reason, my friend Judy and I reconnected at that very vulnerable point in my life six years ago. Although our lives had taken remarkably different paths, we found ourselves in the same place at the same time. We both were knee deep in some personal development work. We initially stuck our toes in the pool of vulnerability and self-disclosure and once we discovered how safe and therapeutic it was, we took deeper dives.
Honestly, we didn’t know then just how helpful and transformational our deep friendship would be for our personal growth. We did not know about Dr. Perry’s research. We bumbled along for a while without the benefit of the enneagram, peeling back layers with the encouragement of Brene Brown, daily devotionals, inspirational quotes and self-help books. Our trust in each other grew organically and our healing came naturally. We forged a rare sisterhood built on our mutual commitment to become better versions of ourselves and we held each other accountable to the work, to our progress and to continued learning.
I was recently listening to a podcast with Dr. Bruce Perry where he was describing a “teaching” experience he had twenty years ago, but didn’t realize it at the time. He needed to have more experiences, more knowledge, more insight to extract the wisdom from that teaching moment. This really resonated with me because I too have very recently become aware of the master class I was enrolled in during chapters of my life.
It is only now, as I sit on the other side of a lot of hard personal introspection and the work done to heal and transform, that I can look back and see others through a much better lens. If I step way back from those confusing, dysfunctional relationship issues, I am aware that we were often addressing the wrong core problems. We were attempting to treat the consequences of behavioral patterns. We should have been addressing the key motivations.
This is precisely why it is so imperative that we each “do our own work.”
I was often puzzled why people in my life could not see and feel how much I loved them. I would wear myself out, doubling down on my efforts to help, to rescue, to solve, to soothe. The truth is, they were not in “receiving” mode — they could not take in what I was offering and accept it unconditionally as proof positive that they were loved, valued and seen. All the armor they wore, all the core beliefs they had about being unworthy, unloveable and not belonging blocked any possibility that they could absorb these affirmations and confirmations. It underscored my belief that I was a failure. Two people trapped in old history, false narratives and blind spots. Mother and daughter, husband and wife, brother and sister. Nobody wins in these scenarios.
Dr. Perry talks about how the wheels get set in motion in early childhood years — a disregulated stress response system contributes to poor coping skills and emotional regulation later in life. Learned behavioral patterns close us up to receive what we need the most, so that even when we get it, it is foreign to us and we feel vulnerable. This is the root cause of emotional triggers, PTSD and panic attacks. Left unaddressed, these factors will set us up for a cascade of problems throughout our adult lives.
Overlay Brene Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability on top of Dr. Perry’s findings and you get a profound sense of why her work resonates with millions of people all over the globe.
Brene has taught us that when we numb all these hard emotions in an effort to get some relief, we also numb the joy in our lives. This is yet another example of not being in “receiving” mode. Numb the pain and check out for a while. It means we “disconnect” so we just double down on what causes the problem. Disconnection, isolation, not being present in the moment — we are treating our pain with the very stuff that causes it.
Sitting with our real feelings, even the hard painful ones, is our brain and body’s way of processing. It builds resilience and it helps us self-regulate in a healthy way. We use the phrase “No pain, no gain” for our physical health, but we shy away from it for our mental health. As Dr. Perry says, no one gets out of life unscathed. We will all suffer loss, health issues, heartaches, adversity. We can — and we should — do hard things.
We have the tools to do this in a safe, healthy, productive way. It can start with a trusted friend. Asking for help is not an admission of weakness — it is a sign of strength and a desire to overcome whatever is holding you back from enjoying life and building resilience. This is precisely why Brene calls vulnerability the birthplace of courage and creativity.
I believe that the enneagram is another invaluable tool for self-discovery. Just as it evaporated my false beliefs about who I am at the core, it can have that same impact for others. It diffuses all that negativity and heavy emotional investment we have around our sensitivities and needs. It turns the spotlight onto the core motivations and that gives way to clarity and understanding. I believe we all really do want to support and help each other, but it gets so hard, so frustrating and self-defeating if we put all our time and energy into solving the wrong problem.
The more I learn about all nine types in the enneagram, the greater my awareness of what makes others tick. I have a clearer sense of what drives their behavior especially if I am familiar with some of their life history. A little awareness, coupled with a healthy dose of empathy can go a long way in creating the scaffolding for anyone who wants to get a foothold on their own personal growth.
Life is always providing lessons for us. The more we know what we don’t know, the greater the motivation to discover. I started out just trying to make sense of my own life six years ago and now I find myself a part of something that will greatly benefit my children and grandchildren. Imagine how we can all benefit from these game-changing, transformational shifts in how we raise children and how we support with each other.