I was nine years old and my mom had a new boyfriend. He wasn’t my favorite guy in the world. That’s putting it mildly.
After weeks of mental rehearsal and self-directed pep talks, I decided to sit her down for a heart-to-heart about finally kicking him to the curb.
In my mind, this conversation was definitely going to change things. Who can resist the thought out, logical appeal of a nine year old? My arguments were fool proof. My reasoning was very sound.
The big day came. I made my case and was promptly informed that she will date who she wants, thank you very much, and I’d be smart to get used to it. I was shocked.
In that moment -- I can still remember exactly where I was (in my very purple bedroom, knees drawn to my chest, surrounded by stuffed unicorns and walls donned with Tom Cruise and Patrick Swayze posters) and the look on her face (matter of fact, somewhat sympathetic but not about to compromise) -- I said to myself: “My opinion doesn’t matter here so there is no point in sharing it. I’m not putting myself out there like that anymore.”
And so began a pattern. Of hesitating before speaking my mind. Of only sharing my views when explicitly asked. Of being quiet because it felt easier and safer than having a voice.
This is how our way of being in the world gets shaped. Something happens and out of a perceived need for survival, we define ourselves in relation to it.
Our little kid mind spins a quick story about how we need to operate in the world from now on in order to prevent similar disasters in the future.
That’s the moment we lose a little piece of ourselves.
Our natural self is not good enough. The world is suddenly dangerous. We’re vulnerable…but it’s okay! In our infinite wisdom as 5 or 6 or 9 year olds, we formulate a plan. We’ll just be different.
We’ll adapt ourselves to the world around us—silence that part of us that caused the problem or deny that part of us that leaves us vulnerable, and all will be well.
With that, a part of our true self is buried and a new way of being is born. Decisions made in an instant by a child go on to be lived daily by an adult.
Peeling Back the Layers
One of my favorite definitions of enlightenment is “removing the dimness or blindness from one’s heart”. Our hearts become dim when they are covered with layers upon layers of beliefs, expectations, and assumptions.
Layers of stuff we wouldn’t necessarily choose today, as free-thinking adults. Yet by not examining those beliefs, we sort of are choosing them.
Thoughtlessly living out our programming keeps our hearts blind. Removing the dimness begins with awareness and ends with a choice.
In my case, from a place of awareness my empowered, adult self is on the lookout for when I’m quietly trying to fade into the wallpaper, biting my tongue because no one asked for my opinion.
I push myself to challenge the beliefs on which that tendency was built with questions like: Is it really true that no one wants to hear what I have to say? Can I know that just because they haven’t asked, they don’t care? Do these old beliefs serve me in any way today?
And then I make a simple, very conscious and deliberate choice over and over again: Speak up, or be quiet.
Each time I do question my beliefs and make a conscious choice, I discover my own truth. I unearth a part of the real me that I buried that day in my ninth year in that purple bedroom.
Peeling back the layers of hand-me-down beliefs and setting them aside allows you to explore how you think and feel, today.
If this were the first day of your life—if you had no expectations, no standards, no rules, what would you love? Feel for it, don’t think about it.
If all hobbies were equally acceptable, all foods equally caloric, and all careers equally respectable, how would you play, what would you eat, and whom would you serve today?
This is how you uncover the real self that has been tucked away.
We are all shaped by our past. We’re not stuck there, but it is imprinted upon us, to be sure.
Enlightenment is about accepting those imprints. Not only noticing your programmed beliefs and setting them aside when you can, but acknowledging that there may always be aspects of your personality that were born from past scars.
It’s about having compassion for yourself in the face of those knee-jerk protection strategies.
It’s about continuing to excavate the real you and celebrating what you’ve uncovered, even when you know you’re not quite there yet. Even when it’s apparent that there is more digging to be done.
It’s about living the big paradox: Accepting yourself exactly as you are today and still striving to be more. More aware. More conscious. More at choice. It may seem paradoxical, but expecting more of yourself is the natural consequence of unconditional love and acceptance.
It doesn’t get much more freeing that that.
Join the conversation: Did you have an experience as a child in which, out of survival or perceived vulnerability, you lost a little piece of yourself? Have you been walking around with hand-me-down beliefs and antiquated rules? Share your story in the comments section below.
Dr. Amy Johnson is a psychologist, master certified life and relationship coach, and motivational speaker. She is the author of Modern Enlightenment: Psychological, Spiritual, and Practical Ideas for a Better Life. To find out more about her coaching services or to inquire about booking Amy for a speaking event, visit www.DrAmyJohnson.com.