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There Are No Mistakes
Becoming Comfortable with Life As It Is, Not As It Should Be
By Eleanor Wiley, Caroline Pincus
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2006 Eleanor Wiley
All rights reserved.
Honor Where You Came From
A man I once knew told me he didn't want to go into therapy to find himself because he was afraid he would find nothing there. That kind of sums it up, doesn't it? So many of us live with a profound fear of looking at who we are and how we got to be this way. No matter how often our patterns come back to bite us, we're afraid to look at them. But no one becomes comfortable with life as it is without somehow grappling with the ways they carry around their pasts, either by replicating them or desperately rejecting them, or even—and often—both.
I'm not just talking about the social or economic class we may have come from, or our race or ethnicity or religion, although all of these have certainly played their parts in shaping who we are. I'm talking about the emotional climate within our childhood homes and what we learned about ourselves and the importance (or lack of importance) of our needs and all the little peculiarities of the way we were raised. I'm talking about the family secrets and the shame and all the particular circumstances and people that shaped our personalities. I'm talking about the painful stuff and the good stuff.
Laughter may have rung through the hallways of your home, or you may have heard shouting all the time. You may have been encouraged to speak your mind, or you may have learned that that was a terribly dangerous thing to do. You may have a very definite sense of "home"—the place where you lived, perhaps, for your entire childhood, or you may have no idea what it means to feel physically and emotionally at home. The point is, although you did not choose the circumstances of your birth or upbringing and you did not control what tribe or tribes you were born into, those circumstances and conditions made their mark on you and undoubtedly have a profound effect on you still.
Becoming comfortable with life as it is involves honoring where you came from—all of it. Not necessarily liking it, mind you, but coming to seeing how it shaped you, and making adult choices based not in ignorance and denial but in courage and awareness of your past. You see, what happens when we try to ignore the lingering effects our starter kit has on our lives, we end up walking around in a world of illusion. We may think we're not very bright or that we don't matter or that we don't fit in, but it's not true. Once we can let go of those illusions and face how we became who we are, we can develop the capacity to be alright within ourselves, to recognize that no matter where we came from or what happens, we'll be alright.
Let's say you grew up in a climate of financial instability or chaos. If you don't pay attention to how that fear still affects your worldview, you can easily be eaten up by anxiety. And even if you end up having more money than God, you may stay wound up with worry; you may never feel comfortable or able to enjoy your good fortune. By contrast, you may have grown up quite comfortable, with all the trappings, but chose a profession for which the pay isn't all that great. Perhaps you still don't own a home or have any of the other markers of "success." You can fret endlessly about not having the luxuries to which you were accustomed, or you can decide that money isn't the defining factor of life and commit to enjoying your life without the benefits of a big bank account. In order to be a really sound choice, however, the second option requires making peace with what money meant in your childhood and making a conscious choice to shift that meaning now. It may take years of ongoing inner work to let go of certain judgments and feelings of shame. But the outcome is that you will know that your choice to live differently is a sound one—not just a rejection or rebellion but a choice based in your own adult values.
Tuning In to the Subtle Stuff
The messages we pick up from our starter kits can be subtle or quite overt. I come from a big family and very early on picked up the subconscious message that I was just one big mistake. Although you wouldn't have known that if you'd met me—I always looked like I had it together—I didn't feel like I fit in anywhere. Until pretty recently, in fact, I carried around this sense of not belonging, of being a mistake. It wasn't until my granddaughter asked me one day,
"Momo, what was it like to be the youngest of nine children?" that I faced this part of my starter kit dead on. Hearing myself say to her, "It was very lonely and I didn't feel very important," was a revelation to me. I had never seen it quite so clearly before: That really was my core feeling about myself all these years: I didn't feel very important at all.
I didn't even realize that was how I was feeling. I just thought I was some kind of a misfit. Coming to terms with myself and my role in my family, for example, has been a lifelong process. But hearing myself articulate these buried feelings to my granddaughter, I could feel how real they still were. I decided I would make a set of prayer beads representing each member of my family and focus on connecting with them in my heart. I then strung all the beads onto a cord, along with the Sacred Wheel of Peace I had created as a meditation tool, and put them in my living room, where I'd see them often.
Since then I have moved the beads around my house and studio, but each time I come upon them I pick them up and say a prayer for each person. It hasn't changed the persons, but it has changed how I feel about them and about me—and that's the best I can do. As I pray over the beads and think about my family of origin, I continue to discover the influence my early life had on what I do and how I feel as an adult.
Discovering Your Core Description
Part of honoring your starter kit has to do with discovering your core description, that genetic and emotional blueprint we get from childhood. No matter what it is, whether you were taught to feel entitled to everything or nothing, your core description is worth looking at, because it is affecting everything you do, and it will bring you low at some point if you don't face it. For example, my core description was alcoholism, at least for many years. It included being the youngest of nine and not very visible or important; it also included a strong sense of justice and loyalty to community and a "You can do anything" ethic. But part of that was also a sense of inadequacy. In every core description there are conflicting messages, and part of getting in touch with that core is about seeing those conflicts and trying to heal the splits within ourselves.
Another aspect of my own starter kit was that I lived in a very, very small universe, a closed realm. Until I was sixteen, I never traveled more than 60 miles from home. I went to a strict Catholic school where you didn't ask questions and the rules were spelled out. I'm still afraid of not following the rules; such was the power of my upbringing. And I felt really lonely.
My friend Jo also felt exquisite loneliness as a child. She was born in Africa, where she was free to roam and explore. A wonderful African man took care of her from the minute she was born. (In Africa it is not unusual to have a male nanny.) She always felt loved and protected by him. She felt safe.
When Jo talks about her childhood, it sounds incredibly exotic to me, but to Jo it was just the way life was—until she was torn away from everything she knew and loved and moved to Australia, where she felt disconnected and was incredibly lonely and homesick.
Part of what drove Jo for years, as it did me, was a search for belonging, a search to overcome a core loneliness that had stayed with her well into adulthood. Recognizing that our profound sense of isolation and loneliness comes from early childhood has been very liberating for Jo and for me. We still feel the loneliness sometimes, but now we can bring ourselves out of it more readily. And that's really what becoming comfortable with life as it is is all about. We can't go back and change those forces that shaped us, but we can choose how to go forward with them.
Jack's starter kit was very different. From the time he was born he was expected to get a sports scholarship to his father's alma mater. That was just the way it was going to be, and Jack knew it. And he worked hard at it, too. He did indeed get that scholarship and was playing by the family rules—that is, until the day he dove into a swimming pool and injured his spine. Good-bye sports, good-bye scholarship, good-bye identity.
Jack took a long detour into alcohol and pain pill addiction before he was able to become comfortable with his life. And he couldn't become comfortable until he gave up the image of life that came with his starter kit. He could never have imagined doing anything "less than" becoming a successful sports figure and had no idea who else he could be. It took a lot of work before he realized that there are other valid choices. He had to become comfortable with his disability and realize that he could develop other talents. Once he did so, he discovered a passion for writing, and now he is a wonderful teacher and writer. This certainly wasn't in the family script. And even in his writing life he is not the BIG man his family had always imagined. But now he knows that the size of the man (or woman) isn't necessarily measured by how well you follow the script. Sometimes you have to throw out the script and start over, but you have to know the script first to ensure that you're not just blindly following along.
No matter what class or race or background you might come from, you bring with you values and attitudes and expectations that have been in some sense defining you all your life. And when you honor where you came from, things just aren't as scary. You no longer have to carry the heavy baggage of the past or be as haunted by family demons.
On the physical level, you might discover that you have a family history of diabetes. Knowing this, you can take preventative steps or seek help and make wise choices. Choosing to ignore your starter kit, on the other hand, could land you in the hospital, completely unprepared.
On the emotional level, you might look back and see if there's a family history of anxiety or depression or bipolar disorder. Whether you subscribe to the view that we are our genes or are molded largely by environment doesn't matter. What matters is that being aware of a family pattern of mental or emotional disturbance prepares you to watch for signs, to become informed, and to be less afraid if you end up inheriting the family trait. Remaining ignorant of your starter kit won't help you. Honoring your roots, by contrast, enables you to make choices and helps you develop a capacity for resilience that will be useful for the rest of your life.
Beyond the physical and emotional, there is also the level of spirit. Some of us were taught to question and stay curious about life and meaning; but many, like me, were inculcated from very early on, both in church and at home, that everything has an answer. We weren't allowed to question. Life had its right and wrong, good and bad, black and white. Many of us who had to follow those rigid rules and learned that all the answers come from on high have had a great deal of difficulty learning to trust our own insights and instincts and answers. Not that the Catholic Church was all bad—not by a long shot. It was from the church (and, by extension, my very Catholic mother) that I learned great respect for mystery and a strong sense of service and gratitude to others. My interest in justice, my desire to be generous and giving—all these flow directly from my Catholic upbringing. But learning to trust my own mind and heart took years.
Honoring your roots, by the way, has nothing to do with shifting blame or placing responsibility for your difficult life onto the people who "made you that way." You are responsible for your own actions. But how much better it is to accept that responsibility with your eyes wide open. Honoring your roots simply means working with what you've been given and not feeling so utterly responsible for every choice you make and word you utter. It means recognizing that all of us are a gorgeous mix of inheritance and intention.
Practice: Remembering Your Starter Kit
Find an old picture of yourself, preferably from your early childhood. Sit with the picture for a few quiet moments and see what feelings and memories surface. Look into your childhood face and see what you find there. What do you remember about yourself as a little girl or boy? What do you remember about "home"? What was the defining emotional current? Were your parents always tense or stern? Did they worry a lot? Was there enough money, as far as you know? Was one or both of your parents a drinker? A depressive? Was there a lot of screaming at home? Did you have a lot of fun? Did you laugh a lot as a family, even when things were hard? Did you feel safe?
Think about how the emotional climate within your childhood home still defines you and what things you could begin to do to honor that old skin but move on.
Take the time to explore your physical, emotional, and spiritual roots. Be aware of what has stayed with you; think about what you learned about being human in your earliest childhood. Keep an attitude of openness and curiosity about your past. That's all you can ask of yourself—and it's plenty.
Approaching your life as an archaeologist would, you will experience the excitement, if not always the great joy, of discovery. You may discover that even after all those years of rebelling you are still just like your mother. But isn't it better to know that, and then choose how to deal with it, than to just become more and more like her each day, but oblivious or resentful?
When we honor where we come, we discover that we are neither wholly independent of our roots, nor do we have to be controlled or constrained by them. We have many choices about how to live. And we simply can't become comfortable with life until we make peace with how we got here.
Own Your Own Pain, Hurt, and Vulnerability
Our culture puts so much pressure on us to be tough and strong. It's considered bad taste to admit to feeling pain, and it often feels like there's no room at all for doubts, for feeling hurt and vulnerable. But every life has its share of pain, and people who are comfortable with life as it is know how important it is to be open and honest about their limits and about what hurts or makes them afraid—in effect, to own their pain.
How do we find the right balance? What do we do when we're not quite up to the task or feel vulnerable? How do we know when to push ourselves and when to go easy? How do we admit that we can't do everything?
You know that old saying, "No pain, no gain"? Well, I'm not convinced about that. Yes, we all have to learn to accommodate some pain and discomfort into our lives, but we also need to mind the difference between accepting our pain and inflicting pain on ourselves by ignoring discomfort and pushing ourselves past our own limits.
I am sure you have watched people destroy their knees because, in the name of cardio fitness, they ignored the pain that came from running on hard surfaces in the wrong shoes, or from forcing their legs into the Lotus position for meditation in the name of spirituality. It's so easy to get caught up in striving for a goal and forgetting that we are whole people, with bodies, minds, and spirits that need to be cared for equally.
A friend of mine was watching a gymnastics meet recently and observed a twelve-year-old girl competing while she had the flu. The child had apparently thrown up all the way to the gym. Now she was doing her routine and then heading for the bathroom and throwing up, and then returning for the next exercise. What was this young girl learning about pain? Where do we draw the line between owning and ignoring pain and discomfort?
It's a matter of balance. People who are filled with pain, hurt, and vulnerability simply can't move forward in life. Everything scares them to death. They have to find appropriate outlets for talking about their pain. They have to learn to reach out and ask for help without wallowing or becoming too self-obsessed. But when we push ourselves beyond our limits or are unwilling to acknowledge our limitations, we can't expect others to honor our limitations either.
Asking for Help
Asking for help when we are in pain is very difficult for many people, so we don't do it. But we often expect others to read our minds and know what we need. Recently I was having a conversation with a group of women who had all had hip replacements, and we got to laughing about what we are able to ask for and what we expected others to imagine we need—and God help them if they imagine the wrong thing! Then the discussion turned to the problem: the need to "pay back." If we accept others' help when we are in need, are we going to be able to pay them back? Does always having to balance the scale prevent us from accepting help? What have we created in our wish for independence, our need to keep things balanced?
Excerpted from There Are No Mistakes by Eleanor Wiley, Caroline Pincus. Copyright © 2006 Eleanor Wiley. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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