You’re not in Kansas Anymore: Acknowledge Your Past, but Make Sure Your Future is Your Own.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Last week, I received a call from my 11-year-old daughter at school, asking me to bring the P.E. clothes she’d left behind.  P.E. class was to start in fifteen minutes, and she’d receive some kind of demerit if she didn’t have her uniform.  I didn’t have much time to weigh the pros and cons of delivering her clothes; despite some reservations, I grabbed them, raced over to school, and dropped them in the office for her, all the while wondering if this was the parenting decision I should be making.

Being available as a parent is critical for the emotional wellbeing of our children.  Stepping up to rescue them from problematic or dangerous situations is an absolute must when they are young.  However, there comes a time when saving our kids from each and every small disaster teaches them only one thing: that they should forever rely on us and that there is no need to develop strategies of their own for dealing with life’s inevitable challenges.   Maybe next time, I’ve told myself, I’ll tell my daughter a version of “tough luck” (lovingly, of course), and she’ll have to deal with the consequences of a lower P.E. grade.  Maybe then she will figure out a better way to remember to bring her uniform to school.

At some point in our growth and development, we need to become more independent and self-reliant.   We need to take hold of our obligations and figure out ways of following through.  We need to find ways to remember to pack the things we need for our day, to do the things we need to do for school or work, and to say the things we need to say to our friends and family in order to sustain relationships.  We can’t always rely on our parents’ cues, such as “What do you say to Sally and her mom for having you over for dinner?”  At some point, we need to internalize that parental function and regulate our lives for ourselves. This is a complicated undertaking—perhaps as much for parents in letting go as for children in accepting responsibility and accountability.

We are all given a genetic blueprint at birth, as well as an environment in which we are raised.  These two factors comprise the nature/nurture one-two punch that makes us each who we are.  Just as our DNA plays a significant role in who we become, our relationships with our primary caregivers dictate much about who we are as adults.  For some of us, loosening the reigns of childhood experience is a relatively easy task—these are cases in which parenting was “good enough” and psychological insults were minimal.  We may trip up from time to time, but we are generally able to function in the world in ways that allow us to move forward.  On the other end of the spectrum are childhoods where environmental challenges were significant, where basic needs were not met, where psychological stressors dominated, and the trajectory of life was bleak from the start.  Somewhere in between lie most of us: with a background of basic love and support, with normal challenges to overcome, we are doing our best as adults to propel our lives in positive ways as we move forward.

My message this week is to encourage thinking about how to accept the reality of our history while writing our own current and future story.  As I’ve written before, we all have a story to tell.  If we allow our story to be a simple replication of our past, we are relinquishing authorship rights and allowing someone else’s story (our parents, grandparents, teachers, etc.) to become our own.  Forever.  For example, if we hold ourselves back in relationships because our father was stoic and cold, he is forever the author and we are forever the character, victim, and perpetrator.  If we mistreat our children because we were mistreated as children, we are giving more power to the original perpetrators and doing damage to innocent victims.  We must break the cycle, take ownership of the problem, and work to fix it.  In the world of sport, as in life, we can also be tracked and defined by our past. Ever have a soccer coach tell you you’ll never be a starter, based on your performance in a previous season?  Ever work your tail off to prove him wrong and eventually earn that spot?

While we can understand behavior in light of past experience, at some point our lives need to become our own.  If you’re living your life the way someone else wrote it and you’re unhappy, perhaps it’s time to seek help to figure out some meaningful strategies moving forward.  Just as you might call a coach to help with training for your sport, or you might seek a class to learn a foreign language, the time may be right to consult a therapist to explore negative behavior patterns that you’ve always blamed on your mother.  She doesn’t drive your bus any more: take the wheel and forge ahead.

There’s a fine line between acknowledging our past and allowing it to dictate the present and future.  Just as the barbell won’t get any lighter after your margarita splurge last night; or the hills on your trail run won’t flatten out in response to your limited sleep; the people in your life won’t forever excuse your bad behavior, difficult personality, or poor decision making because of your dysfunctional childhood. Buckle up.  Writing your own story takes time and is hard work but is well worth the effort.  You’re a grown-up now—and you need to remember to bring your gym clothes, too.

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