For quite some time, I have been thinking about all the stratifications that we each have under the surface — the ones that are hidden not only from others, but even from ourselves. These stratifications are biology, biography, behavior and backstory — and they can snag us, keep us stuck or sometimes even pull us under when the seas of life get tumultuous. If you’re curious about how to move through life more fluidly, with less drag, read on.
This image of an iceberg seems fitting for what I’ll be unpacking. The surface is where we believe we are operating each day. The reality is that the stuff below the surface is always present, either consciously or unconsciously. The more self-aware we are, the lighter the undertow of what’s below the surface.
In Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown defines these stratifications as the layers of our biology, biography, behavior and backstory. We are continually adding to these layers as we go through life. Brene implores us to to examine them so that we can become more self-aware.
If we pull back the layers and tease apart the entanglement that occurs as we drag these layers unchecked and unconsciously through life, we begin to more clearly understand the weight and the complexity of all that lies under the surface of each of us. Why wait for a mid-life unraveling as Brene calls it?
I marvel sometimes that we human beings can have a meaningful, interactive conversation with each other, let alone be in relationships, be parents, friends, co-workers and leaders. A peek under the surface at another’s stratifications would be revelational — and even daunting. The buried treasures are the very things we need to make deeper connections, build resilience and move through our lives with greater ease.
In my most recent post, I shared some of the game-changing insights about our superpower, ATTENTION. The entire time I was reading Peak Mind and writing that post, I was thinking about something very profound: If we are already losing 50% of our lives because we aren’t really “paying attention”, what happens when we numb our pain, hide our true feelings and needs, walk on eggshells, and react to false narratives and beliefs? How much of the remaining 50% do we lose with armor, addiction, baggage and unconscious patterns of behavior?
Is it any wonder that there is an urgent call to “find your authentic self?”
Picture Jacob Marley, dragging around that long and heavy chain for most of his life.
The chains are intended to represent his sins in life, accompanied by his guilt for failing to help his fellow man. His lack of compassion.
He forged the chain himself.
This image seems an appropriate metaphor for the stratifications we have under the surface. Quite honestly, some were not of our own doing, but just ways in which we learned to make sense of our world.
Other parts of our stratifications can be attributed to baggage we’ve collected over our lifetime, unprocessed emotions, insecurities and triggers. Hidden underneath all that heavy stuff are the very things we want to be more aligned with — our innate gifts, our strengths, resilience and joy.
Let’s take a deep dive under the surface and explore how biology, biography, behaviors and backstory impact us today. We operate unconsciously because we simply aren’t fully aware of how we are showing up and why. Armed with self-awareness and introspection, we can make informed choices about personal development.
Outgrown behavioral patterns originated in childhood when our brain development did not yet able us to operate in a “top-down” fashion. We were using immature brains to make sense of our lives. Not only that, we had limited language which hampered our ability to articulate complex emotions. All too often, as children we were told to suppress emotions or get over it. Bottled up emotions are bound to explode at some point. So, we developed both behavioral patterns and reactive responses. This hampered developing emotional agility and good coping skills.
Here’s a sampling of typical behavioral patterns: Conflict avoider, people pleaser, shape shifter and perfectionist. We may go through life withdrawn, hyper vigilant, overly anxious or temperamental. We may have a fear of abandonment or of not being worthy; or we may be confrontational or overly complacent.
The coping strategies we relied on to navigate our childhoods rarely serve us well in adulthood. In fact, these “go-to” behaviors hold us back from growing emotionally and psychologically. Very often, these behavioral patterns are some form of armor that we use to protect us from feeling vulnerable. We were most vulnerable as children, especially if the very people we relied upon to keep us safe, did not do that. So, we armored up. We found creative ways to navigate and mitigate.
While they may have worked in childhood, they do not help us function in a healthy, proactive way in adulthood. They become the “drag” that shows up as resistance, a lack of confidence or not even knowing what we really want from life.
Our behavioral patterns are interconnected to our “attachment style”. Simply put, attachments styles are expectations we develop about relationships with others based on the relationship we had with our primary caregiver.
Our attachment style is a great place to start when pulling back the layers of our biography. It offers insight into how we are showing up in our most important relationships.
This chart highlights the attributes of the primary caregiver for each of the 4 attachment styles and the corresponding ways a person will respond in their adult relationships.
The huge benefit of coming to terms with both our behavioral patterns and our attachment style is that we free ourselves from things that no longer serve us. We often go into adulthood with concrete ideas about the things our parents did that we will NOT be doing. But we are unaware that unconsciously we are bringing along the patterns — both our own and those of our family. We lived in a Petri dish of family dynamics for nearly two decades. We won’t shake off old habits overnight — especially if we aren’t paying attention to them.
We can take affirmative steps to untether ourselves and find a better way to go through adulthood. This work starts with self-awareness. It is also how we break unhealthy generational cycles. Dr. Dan Siegel is a great resource for parents who want to understand their own attachment style and develop healthy, secure attachments with their children.
There’s a little more to biography than attachment styles however. Our feelings arise from an emotional experience — and we surely accumulated many emotional experiences during childhood and adolescence (and all with a brain not yet fully developed).
The study of moods and emotions helps reveal the porous boundaries between conscious and unconscious mental processes.
What gets stored consciously in our memory banks are the tangible details of our experience – the one we can articulate with clarity years later. What gets unconsciously stored is the nuanced physiological and emotional responses associated with that story. This is where we find ourselves “triggered” by a present day experience that is quite different from a past event yet feels familiar.
Did you know that our brain might not distinguish between an imagined stressful situation and one that is actually happening? Our brain will produce stress hormones — adrenalin and cortisol — in both situations unless we help it to make the distinction. As Dr. Amishi Jha explains in Peak Mind, our brains are trainable.
New brain imaging research shows that “imagining” a threat lights up similar regions as “experiencing” it does. This research confirms that imagination is a neurological reality that can impact our brains and bodies in ways that matter for our well-being.” — Tor Wager, Director of the Cognitive and Affective at CU Boulder, senior co-author of Your Brain on Imagination, White Paper published December 10, 2018.
If we could take a cross-section of our accumulated emotions and experiences, we would see clearly how the layers formed – from our childhood environment, to how we made sense of it; to the behavioral patterns we adopted and the armor we used for an added safety measure; to our brain and body’s responses, and the memory banks we filled. This is also a heavy “drag” on us as we go through life. These stratifications are our own Jacob Marley chains.
All of this brings us to backstory. Biography, Behaviors and Biology are all intertwined in the narratives we created as children to help us make sense of things; they are equally intertwined in the stories we tell ourselves today when we are feeling insecure, shamed, triggered, uncertain or vulnerable. Our inner critic often engages as a co-author in our stories, much to our detriment.
There is a shadow being cast from our backstory onto the experience we are having today. Most of the time, we are completely unaware of it.
Imbedded in the layers of our biography, behaviors and biology is our history. Brene invites us to get inquisitive, to ask “what brought this on? Because the clues we need to unravel the present moment from our entangled past, lie in this deeper exploration of our layers – the stratifications of emotions and experiences we have accumulated over our lifetime.
For decades, I have combed the shelves of the “self-help” section of libraries and bookstores. I even stumbled across Jon Kabat-Zinns book “Wherever You Go, There You” are back in February, 2000 — but I wasn’t ready to “receive” all the wisdom imbedded in his book about mindfulness and meditation. When I was reading Atlas of the Heart, I marveled that Brene Brown included his work in her own research and writing.
In fact, as I have written in prior blog posts, so many of the resources I have cultivated for my own personal growth work over the past decade are now intersecting. The tool box for self-discovery and personal development is chock full of readily accessible, integrated resources.
One inspiring difference are the game-changing breakthroughs in neuroscience that have become the foundation — and the impetus — for all of us to take self-awareness seriously.
And the serious work of cultivating greater self-awareness begins by pulling back the layers, performing a “Marie Kondo-like” purge of patterns, armors and coping skills that are not sparking joy and harnessing the power of our most phenomenal organ — our brain.
What has me so excited and energized these days is witnessing young parents leaning into all that we are learning from neuroscience, incorporating personal growth and mental well being as a part of their overall self care, and proactively teaching their children to express and process their emotions in healthy ways.
The Enneagram Academy – Behavioral Patterns https://enneagramacademy.com/behavioural-patterns/
The Verdict is In — the Case for Attachment Theory
Science Daily Article: Your Brain on Imagination; It’s a lot like reality
YouTube Video with Dr. Dan Siegel: THE IMPORTANCE OF PARENTS’ ATTACHMENT TO CHILD’S BRAIN INTEGRATION https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsGOyX9WY4k