Excerpt taken from chapter 2, The Personal Problem: Living a Life that's on Auto-Pilot
The world is quite different today from what it was in historical times. Perhaps the most significant difference is how technological we have all become. You can now visit all parts of the world. Perhaps one day you will all be making trips to the moon. You have the ability to stay current, and in a matter of moments, you can know what’s going on throughout the world.
Your life has the benefits of ease and access—with po¬tential for greater relaxation and free time. However, de¬spite having all these benefits, our technology can also work against you. Suddenly, your life seems more harried, hectic and frantic, filled with too many things to get done.
With your lifestyle being so demanding it’s often hard to differentiate the cause from the effect, to tell which is the trigger and which is the result. Does the life you lead create a daily existence that seems to run on "auto¬pilot" — or do you allow such an existence to be maintained because you are not even aware that it is happening? Most of you have come to accept the concept of needing to deal with "the cards that have been dealt to you." You have come to accept the idea of getting through life rather than creating your lives.
So why is it that most people function in this robotic way? Why do you remain in a state of autopilot? Because to go against these concepts means making a change. Change is, at the very least, discomforting. For some, making changes is downright frightening. When you con¬tinue to do the things you’ve always done, even if they don’t bring the greatest amount of satisfaction or pleas¬ure, there is one major benefit. That benefit is comfort.
Because this is what you’ve always done, you know how to do it. A byproduct of living life this way is a state of mind¬lessness—you don’t have to think about it. There are many everyday examples of acting mindlessly. If you’re a good cook, you can make scrambled eggs for breakfast without really thinking about it. If you’ve driven to your friend’s house on a regular basis, the next time you get in your car to go there, you arrive never really paying atten¬tion to the actual drive. Perhaps these are matters of con¬venience. But mindlessness also extends to every aspect of our daily living. Many people can eat an entire meal without really tasting it. Or you listen to your kids as they share the events that occurred in school that day, but you have not really heard what they’ve said. When you’re in¬volved in a relationship with a significant other, or a fam¬ily member, or a work colleague, numerous conflicts or difficulties can arise that are the result of automatic reac¬tions. You don’t feel heard, you don’t feel understood, and/or you don’t feel loved. You get disappointed or hurt or angry.
Another benefit of not making changes is that you feel like you are in control—you know the outcome. Your risk factor is minimized. Furthermore, functioning in this manner releases you from your responsibility. If you’re not all you can be, you can easily blame it on your past— something that happened to you, or something you didn’t get. If you’re out of sorts, it’s because of all the horrible things that occurred that month, that week, or that day. As a psychologist who has spent years helping people heal from their wounds, I have heard countless people excuse themselves for the unhappy lives they have by saying, "I can’t help it, that’s how I feel."
My Own Life
Earlier, I mentioned my abominable formative years. Was my early life the worst environment ever? No. Unfor¬tunately, I’ve had a few clients whose childhood stories were a lot worse. But my family still scored high on the dysfunctional scale.
I was exposed to almost every type of abuse there is. Though I wasn’t subjected to physical abuse directly, I had to witness it over and over. My father would throw things or hit my mother. One time, my mother, sister, and I were preparing to leave our apartment. I don’t remember why my father got angry, but what I vividly recall is that he grabbed her purse and flung it with all his might at her head. To this day, I’m still sickened by the image of her slumping to the floor as he connected with his target.
When my dad wasn’t throwing things, he was raging at one of us. The littlest things set him off. But what trig¬gered him one time would not upset him at another. I lived in total confusion. There was never any way to pre¬dict how to behave in order to avoid his wrath. The phone would ring in the middle of the afternoon during his nap—I’d run and try to grab it, but the first ring woke him up and all hell broke loose! The next time he napped, I dis¬connected the phone. When he woke up and found the phone off the hook, he went ballistic again. How do you please someone like that?
When I was eight, my younger sister was in a highchair in the kitchen and I was told to watch her. My parents were in the bedroom of our three-room apartment. All of a sudden I heard my mom screaming and I instantly knew my dad was about to punch her with his fists. I stood in the hallway, paralyzed — whose safety should I be more concerned about? If I went to protect my mother, my sis¬ter could fall out of the highchair. If I stayed to watch my baby sister, my mother could get brutalized.
As a psychologist, my specialty is in relationships. When people ask how long I have been doing this, I reply, "Since I was eight." And I’m not joking! My father had a string of affairs and I was always trying to salvage my par¬ents’ relationship. Strangely, they would sometimes come to me for help—or they found a way to put me in the mid¬dle. In that same kitchen where I watched my baby sister in the highchair, my parents had an awful fight about his latest fling—her name was June. I stood between the two of them, begging for them to stop yelling. Finally, I cried, "I’ll call June and tell her to stop!" But this time the fight continued, my mother ended up with a black eye and she actually threw my father out that night. The weird thing is, even though I knew she was right, there was a part of me that didn’t want my daddy to go. And when I missed his call because I went out to have a good time with my friend’s family for the day, I was heartbroken. They never thought to have him call me back… it took me years to realize that often I was afraid to "miss out on things" be¬cause of this incident.
As inappropriate as it was, the responsibility for helping my parents was a role I was thrown into more times than I care to remember. I had a second sister who died just short of a month old. I did everything I could think of to soothe them. However, my parents were not able to con¬tain their emotions even for the sake of their other two children. The drama was awful: terrible wailing, banging their heads on the crib. What was totally lacking in my parents was a concern for helping my sister and me deal with our emotions as well, or comprehending such a frightening and confusing event.
The inappropriateness of my parents’ behavior was not limited to times when they were in horribly traumatic situations. I’ve said that I was a victim of almost every type of abuse—that included sexual. Most people, when they hear that term, conjure up visions of rape or moles¬tation. But there are other types of behaviors that also cross boundaries and leave a child feeling unsafe, con¬fused and violated. When I was a preadolescent, my father would bring me to lie in bed with him and cuddle me. My mother simply turned her back to this. At first, I didn’t know how wrong this behavior was. It felt nice to lie up against him—like we had a special secret from my mother. It started to become discomforting as I got a little older. At my mother’s urging, I accompanied him as he did his chores. As we drove in the car, he’d put his hand on my knee. If I objected, he’d make some remark as if there was something wrong with me. It became especially uncom¬fortable when he’d kiss me in the ear. By then I knew it was wrong. But when I stiffened up and didn’t respond, he told me I’d never find a husband if I didn’t stop being frigid.
"Where was your mother in all of this?" you might ask. Well, from what I now know as a therapist, she had the personality that was typical of a mother of a sexually abused daughter. She was neglectful and closed off. For me, of all the types of abuse I was subjected to, neglect landed the hardest. My mother worked during a time in history when most mothers didn’t work. Consequently, she never came to class parties, she wasn’t there on open school days, she was never home to help with homework. I was so envious of all the other kids. When I was really young, my grandmother would have to come to the class parties. Even though I loved my grandmother, I hated that she came—I was embarrassed because she was so much older than the other moms. (Today, when I think back, I feel badly about that—she actually was my saving grace.)
There were many nights when I waited to eat dinner with my parents. They’d call and say they were leaving their office and they were bringing home a pizza. I was so excited and couldn’t wait to see them! But as it usually turned out, they got home so late that I’d fallen asleep—without dinner. The sad thing was, the hours my parents spent at work were for their own business, and so the demanding hours were of their own making.
When the neglect became too much to bear and I finally complained, guess how my mother responded? She’d stop talking to me. And when she was talking to me, it was frequently to offer criticism. My mother would often com¬ment on my legs. She’d feign surprise that she had such lovely legs but mine were so unshapely. Apparently, my mom thought she was offering motherly advice—like the time she took me aside and said that I was the kind of woman who would have to wake up before my husband and put makeup on so he would find me attractive.
Add to all that, they were also horribly strict and never seemed to care about how out of place their rules made me feel in relation to my friends. For one of the school’s boy/girl parties, all the girls were given permission to wear lipstick. My mother not only forbade me to wear it, I wasn’t allowed to go unless she was assured the other girls were forbidden to wear it as well. My parents would give me a curfew before the end of a dance, then refuse to pick me up at that hour. In order to go, I’d have to find another strict parent who was picking up their child early and was also willing to drive me home. And for good measure, my father would frequently pick a fight with me right before I went out, making it almost impossible for me to enjoy myself after that.
As a young adult, my self-esteem was low and a sense of worthlessness predominated my life. I compensated in lots of ways in response to these feelings. Among them were always trying to please people, a constant weight problem as I attempted to nurture myself through food, living in constant drama, getting involved in relationships that reflected the same early childhood patterns. My feel¬ings were intense—I was angry, I was depressed, and with a childhood like I had, who could blame me?
Getting Off Autopilot
But I was strong. I was a survivor. In spite of it all, I got married, had two children and established a successful career. Was my life okay? Sure. But deep down, I wasn’t truly happy within myself. As I worked to deal with my issues, the depression got worse. It was so bad that at one point that I wasn’t sure I could take the pain.
It was that experience that helped snap me out of my mindlessness. I chose to live! I embarked on learning how to create a life that would bring me satisfaction and joy. I no longer allowed myself to merely react to whatever was presented to me. I set out to create the life I wanted as opposed to one that was a consequence of my past. I re¬fused to accept that the unhappy circumstances of my upbringing would dictate how I lived my life. I was deter¬mined not to be held back by a past that dictated my fu¬ture. The die had been cast but I made the conscious de¬cision to break the mold.
It was from this point that I realized how the mindless¬ness of people takes place. When you’re children, the only way you come to know your world is through experiencing it. You don’t yet have the ability to think or understand things.
The most important people in your life are your parents—you are totally dependent on them. They’re the ones with the goodies—they have the food, they have the shel¬ter, and most importantly, they have the love to give. As children, you figure out what you have to do to get their love. When they’re happy with you, you feel good. When they’re displeased with you, you feel bad. Additionally, children are very egocentric as they grow up—they only see the world from their perspective. That’s why when parents divorce, kids think it’s something they did. Here’s another example: when a younger sibling is born, the older child may have some normal jealousy and negative thoughts about the new "intruder." If the baby were to die, the older sib may believe it was his or her negative think¬ing that caused it. Those situations and the accompany¬ing feelings get wired into your bodily memory as a sur¬vival mechanism to help you cope in the future–you don’t have to relearn every experience.
But there is a downside to this survival shortcut. You come to view new experiences based on your past ones. That is, your past experiences act as filtering systems (negative influences on your way of thinking). New experi¬ences are not being seen for what they have to offer as an opportunity to make a different choice.
To be concrete, and present a more typical example, let’s say a mother asks why her son got a B+ rather than an A on a test. Let’s even go further and say that the mother, in her own way, is trying to let the child know that she feels that he is very capable. The child, however, is likely to get the message that he didn’t perform well enough and feel a sense of shame. Now, anytime this same child doesn’t get an A, the same sense of shame comes into play and the child feels like a failure. With that kind of self-judgment, it’s more than likely that his future academic attempts will be negatively impacted. With the filtering system in place, all other similar experiences will be experienced in the same way. To fine-tune this sce¬nario, let’s say that this child generally does good work in a class but has trouble on a particular test. Even if a con¬cerned teacher asks the child in a considerate way if there was some problem, the child may still hear the question as a criticism rather than as a concern. The reaction is an automatic one, again leaving the child feeling ashamed.
For most of you, your life is emotionally frozen because of your childhood filtering systems. You do not stop to consider that you are merely reacting through your behavior, in your thoughts, or with emotions that stem from your past. You do not have this awareness. Furthermore, you don’t realize that the people who raised you were also living out the same process. In other words, the messages they sent you were the result of their limitations, not a true reflection of who you are.
When Daddy yells at you for spilling milk because he’s had a tough day at work, you think you’ve done some¬thing wrong—or that something is wrong with you. You don’t think Daddy’s wrong. The bad feeling gets "wired in" and you carry that feeling into adulthood.
Additionally, negative experiences carry much more weight than positive ones. And since much of what you hold onto is negative, it leads to you becoming restricted as you address new situations. You use your energy to manage your internalized uncomfortable feelings. Most of you try to keep your reactions in check. In order to do this, you prevent yourselves from being in a present state that is open and free; you are, therefore, limiting your¬selves in the ability to consider healthy questioning and creativity.
To become mindful, you have to realize how much of what you do is merely in the service of this damaging process. Only through this acknowledgement does one have the opportunity to change. You weren’t bad children, and you aren’t bad people because you spilled the milk. Now, here’s the tricky part—to be truly free from the past you need to also be aware that your parents were merely playing out their mindlessness. I say it’s tricky because it means you can’t blame then. It means the responsibility for your life is in your hands.
But it also means that the power to have the life you want is within you. You can make the choice to connect with that inner power.
By all accounts, as an adult, I should have turned out to be a complete mess—and almost did, if not for the tools that became The Art of Choice. If I can turn all that around and end up well adjusted and happy, so can you.
Karen Sherman, Ph.D., (www.drkarensherman.com) is a practicing psychologist in relationships and lifestyle issues for over 20 years. She offers teleseminars and her latest book "Mindfulness and the Art of Choice: Transform Your Life" can be purchased by clicking the book thumbnail to the right.