“The experiences we learn to survive become the experiences upon which our continued surviving will depend.”
– Carl Buchheit
We often recreate our childhood and the way the world imprinted itself upon us unconsciously as we move through life. We can recognize where our past shows up in our present in how we raise our kids, how we are in relationship (with cofounders, significant others, parents), how we set boundaries and ask for what we need, how we handle conflict, how we take care of our wellbeing, how we regulate our emotions, and our addictions. What one experiences at those junctures often points to what we have known or have come to believe about life. The conditions we have survived become the conditions necessary for our survival, so we keep recreating them, until we adjust our settings so that change becomes possible.
Personal and lineage history can only repeat itself until you make the unconscious conscious and choose something else. Part of growing up, then, is the endless task of seeing where the limiting beliefs we have acquired are limiting our choices here and now. We learn how to look honestly at ourselves and see through the ingrained patterns of behavior and get clear about what we really want to be choosing or creating in our life experience.
My mentor Carl Bucheit, author of Transformational NLP: A New Psychology, sets up a way of understanding how we are complicit in creating the conditions we say we don’t want from the perspective of our neurology. “The experiences we learn to survive become the experiences upon which our continued surviving will depend,” he writes.
He explains how what we survive, regardless of how unpleasant it may have been, becomes the most assured option on our menu and therefore becomes our default:
“Alone and lonely and abandoned. These are experiences that a much much much much younger version learned to survive. And they became, alas, prerequisite for continuing surviving. So when one gets into kind of questionable operational territory, into those places where our system is not able to predict what’s coming next, then it defaults over to alone and lonely and abandoned. Because that’s 100% guaranteed not to be fatal. 100% guaranteed. Joy, accomplishment, fulfillment, these are questionable. Alone, lonely, abandoned, this is guaranteed to be survivable in the creature neurology level of patterning.”
In some mysterious way, perhaps, we recreate these ‘survived’ moments in our lives so that we can solve them by healing them when we find they aren’t working anymore. These can feel like invisible forces until we see clearly the imprint of the life we grew up in and how that plays out in our current lives. First, we need to see the patterns or feel the constriction of the old limits, beliefs, and choices. Our life mirrors that back to us. Often, the choices we made and how we made those choices are running on the old programming. Therefore, what we create in our lives looks like the product of that, bugs and all.
Once we see the patterns, we can break the patterns and begin something more generative. Danny Feltsman is the CEO of Lina, an app that allows parents to easily share valuable words and wisdom with their children. What he discovers in this week’s podcast conversation with Jerry is that what has been transferred to him by the generations before him might be at play in his frustrations and situations he’s experiencing at work and home. He explains the struggles with the company, how it’s going, and how hard it is feeling like there is no ‘home’ and he’s far away from his son. Growing up, life was a snapshot of a similar situation for the much younger Danny. “What’s true for you is that your child brain said that you were alone, that you wanted a relationship with your father,” Jerry reflects back to him.
I remember when I first started diving into my “stuff.” I used to say I had an idyllic childhood. I knew I had a good childhood, but at the same time, much was kept from me or not explained. I didn’t really have the whole story of what went down back then, nor insight into all of the processed and unprocessed emotions that were in the air in the home I grew up in. While some part of me knew that some things didn’t feel right, even though everything seemed fine on the outside, I didn’t even know how to begin to unpack all of that historical imprinting (and emotional invalidation). I wouldn’t have known how to unpack that without a trusted guide. It became apparent that it was necessary to reach back and look at what my younger self was holding onto and remembering, and how it made sense of all that I was growing up in.
Restoring and re-storying the stories we hold of our past can be a spot we want to resist. Who wants to say their parents were deficient? We want to remember and believe in a better image of them. Who wants to say we carry deep hurts, that our needs went unmet, that we didn’t feel heard or seen or like we even had a right to be here? And yet, in our very malleable years, from ages “in the womb” to age six, our nervous systems were like a sponge, absorbing everything from the people present in our lives, even if by their felt absence. Our nervous system learned what it needed to survive in those years. And, if you’re reading this now, it was successful at its job of keeping you alive.
At the same time, some part of us may have been emotionally untended to, or have had unmet needs, or may have internalized that what was happening back then meant something about us (even if it had nothing to do with us), all of which still linger, lodged in our very prudent and astute nervous system. Call these wounds, call these bugs in the system–what we carry with us all depends on the situations we incarnated into.
The thing is, it happens to all of us in one way or another. Poet Philip Larkin captures this poignantly in his poem This Be The Verse:
They f^*k you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were f^*ked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
What’s passed on isn’t necessarily a life sentence. We can shift history differently than Larkin suggests. We can begin to reach back into the past and heal the parts of us by raising them up in ways and with resources we didn’t have back then. We can look at the edges of our limitations, where we feel stuck in life, and find the threads to the past by looking back in our historical rearview mirror. With conscious work, we can create a feedforward loop that allows us to make new choices for ourselves and the life we would like to experience.
Buchheit tells us: “With regard to the past, let’s operate and relate with ourselves and each other as if we had no choice. With regard to the future, let’s operate and relate with ourselves and each other as if we have nothing but choice.”
What are the options you’d like to see on your menu of life?