“Give back your heart/to itself, to the stranger who has loved you/all your life, whom you ignored/for another, who knows you by heart.”
– Derek Walcott, from Love after Love
A mentor of mine once told me that we are many ages showing up at any given moment, despite our chronological age. Many “parts” of our psyche make up who we think we are. These parts are remnants from our infant days, or from when we were three, or six, or 12. Any moment from any age in our historical timeline experiences life (or trauma, or intense feelings) and logs that information in our neurological wiring so we don’t forget. Often, those moments that are burned into our programming become part of the “who we are.” Our parts at once part of us, and make up the whole of “who we are.” They are always present in ways we may or may not be fully aware.
Our parts form our current moments, each one of them joining their cameos together to inform how we meet life. Often, these are forgotten parts of ourselves; parts that at one time, during a substantial moment (big or small), had an experience that causes it to decided something about the world or themselves.
Sometimes, due to their frozen age, it’s hard to keep all of our parts on the same track as we move forward in life, and we can find ourselves in a quandary. If you ever said to yourself, “on the one hand I think/feel/want this, but on the other hand I think/feel/want this,” you know that a few parts of you are showing up with a few differing desires, points of view, and interests in mind.
We have all done this, various times, over and over, growing up as humans. Sometimes, as these new neural pathways form, they are of such importance to the “us” that these pathways cement in and become harder to change parts of ourselves. These are parts that make up our core beliefs about our identity.
Something happened, we decided something consciously or unconsciously at that much younger age, and that program had run until we become aware of it now, in our much older life. That often means that we may have many many programs running our present lives that are operating out of decisions from the past (like, when we were much, much younger). When these programs run in our lives (decided by our much younger selves), and when we start noticing them, we can find that we may be having experiences that feel eerily familiar over and over again.
Take for example a five-year-old who arrives at a new school in a new part of town, awkward as the new kid and a bit shy, desperately wanting to be liked, but having a rough go of fitting into the new crowd. As a man, he becomes a well-connected, extroverted person, driven by the longing to be liked. In general, there’s nothing problematic about this. However, this tendency driven by a fear of not fitting in (and experiencing what happened when he was a five year old all over again) becomes such an important feeling to manage, that it becomes the way in which he orients his life and guides how he shows up and interacts with people, including those at his company.
Another example: a woman who grew up with an alcoholic father and who vowed to herself at a young age to never be like him. She keeps her sh*t together, is efficient, and accomplishes much in her young career. All good things, right? And, there’s still a little girl in there, who prior to determining to not be like her father, is sad, angry, hurt, and staving off anyone or anything that would fall short and disappoint. So, she does everything herself and has a hard time delegating.
In the case of our podcast guest, Adi Mashiach, he was separated out as one of the smart kids in a new school but still wanted to fit in without losing his specialness. As he sets out now to set up his own VC firm in a new country, he finds it hard to break into a new circle and be who he is, in all his uniqueness.
One can think of these parts as if there are many facades to our psyche, or many neurological wire-sets, imprinted from the various ages of ourselves still living out their view of the world from way back when. When parts of us are active, as in the examples above, it’s as if the five-year-old (or whatever age) self-operating in their adult-sized bodies. These younger parts of ourselves need to be cared for and tended to if we’re to become an adult committed to making conscious choices for ourselves.
Often, we’ll find these parts of ourselves when we do some shadow work. Sometimes these parts of ourselves are close to our loyal soldiers. Mostly, they are parts of ourselves that need an update on the current state of the union (you!) and a reminder that they aren’t primary for making decisions anymore.
The important thing to remember is that these parts of ourselves are like young and confused children who have our best interests in mind (according to their understanding of the world), and who have made sense of the world from a place of great duty in service to us, so we don’t do x, y, or z again, or end up like so and so, or avoid feeling [insert intense set of emotions here]. (Sometimes these parts take on a responsibility that isn’t theirs. Sometimes, they create loyalties to others to make someone else’s life better. Jobs that no two-, four- or six-year-old can really ever solve.) These parts of ourselves were perhaps at one time wounded or worried and have made decisions to ensure our lovability, safety, and belonging. These neural wires burned into our psyche in the past, operate fast to protect us even to this day.
From there, with all of these parts of ourselves chattering in our psyche as we go through the days, we may find we are motivated by a child-sized wish to be loved, be safe and belong. These can cause us to find ourselves in roles that aren’t ideal, or invisibly guide us into situations or relationships in life that at some point may or may not feel so great. As the analyst James Hollis, asserts: “In the second half of life, the questions become: ‘Who, apart from the roles you play, are you? What does the soul ask of you? Do you have the wherewithal to shift course, to deconstruct your painfully achieved identity, risking failure, marginalization, and loss of collective approval?’ No small task.”
How can we stride forth with more authenticity, and all of our parts on board with what we want, as the primary consciousness of our mature adult lives?
Once we uncover one of these parts of ourselves present in our lives, we can turn to it like a child and address what it needs, almost literally, in our mind’s eye. When we have compassion for our “little ones” from our current place in our chronological timeline in our life, we can reassure them, love them, remind them that they are safe, that everything is AOK, and quell that fear lodged in that imprinted neurological wiring. They can be thanked for their concern. You address their beliefs by reassuring them what you’ve survived to date, and how the world is now (i.e. how good things are that they don’t have to believe so strongly anymore whatever it is that they are holding onto. And, you put him or her or them right beside you as you go through life (in the co-pilot seat, but not in the driver’s seat). Whenever they are active, your primary self can be the good parent and reassure that part of you that you’ve got this, now that you are [insert your current age here].
When it comes to rallying your parts, author Rob Breszny suggests recognizing and including them all, as well as noting how good YOU are at changing through life:
“Throw a party for all the people you’ve ever been and all the different selves who live within you. Invite the teenager who once seethed with frustrated potential and the four-year-old who loved nothing more than to play. Include the hopeful complainer who stands in the shadows and dares you to ask for more, as well as the brave hero who comes out every now and then to attempt seemingly impossible feats of happiness. Don’t forget any of the various personalities who have contributed to making you who you are, even the “bad” ones. Celebrate your internal diversity. Marvel at how good you are at changing.”
Once they are heard and seen, they don’t need to be so invisibly prominent in your life. This is part and parcel of self-compassion. As the Whidbey Institute’s Beno Kennedy writes, “Do you love yourself enough to listen with the ears of your heart to the other voices of yourself speaking?” Only then can you, as Derek Walcott notes, “Give back your heart/to itself, to the stranger who has loved you/all your life, whom you ignored/for another, who knows you by heart.”