During a recent coaching session with one of my clients we were discussing his reluctance to find the time he needed to design a new strategy his team desperately needed. After a long line of questioning my client surfaced old thought patterns that were making this strategy development quite difficult. Bottom line, he was (unconsciously of course) associating the success of the new strategy to his inherent value as a human being.
To an objective mind, equating how compelling a strategy is to your inherent value on this planet sounds a bit dramatic, but the kind of paralyzing unconscious thoughts plaguing my client are anything but objective. They were rooted in very old and painful emotional memoires.
When we uncovered my client’s unconscious assumptions, he was courageous enough to explore their origin. With some guidance he was able to trace back to where he “learned” that his performance equaled his value: specifically, it came from his father. Upon this discovery, my client said with much irritation and frustration, “Seriously, I’m 46 years old and I’m STILL dealing with my daddy issues?” Our laughter broke the tension and gave me an opening to explain why there’s a very good reason he’s not “over it” yet.
Dr. John Welwood, author of Toward a Psychology of Awakening, explains that at the time of birth, humans are the least developed mammals on the planet. When other mammals are born their brain and nervous systems are developed enough to walk within hours; they’re therefore less dependent on their caretakers than human infants. One of the reason humans are born so underdeveloped is so they can fit through the birth canal. The downside to being born so small and underdeveloped is that our nervous systems are incredibly delicate and we are completely dependent on our parents to keep us alive. Even with the best upbringing and home environment, a baby’s nervous system goes into shock in the days, months and years after birth. It literally is physically, psychologically and emotionally unable to process its experience.
Depending on the child’s situation, they will experience varying levels of confusion and pain, and if they do not have the capacity and guidance (which many of us don’t) to metabolize their experience, it simply “freezes” in their system. How brilliant is it that our systems are so oriented towards survival that our body literally stores our painful experiences until we are mature and safe enough to process it?
According to Welwood, our nervous systems aren’t mature enough to process our early childhood experiences until we’re in our 40s, 50s, and sometimes even 60s. It’s only when we have enough distance, stability and sense of safety can we go back and metabolize the experiences we unconsciously put on “hold” from our childhood. This is why my client is still experiencing and processing the remnants from his childhood.
The strength, freedom, and richness of life comes from our willingness to go back and metabolize our early experiences that were once frozen. This doesn’t have to take years of therapy (although some it can be very helpful), but it does require courage and commitment. Clients I work with who have the courage to look back and sit with some discomfort routinely not only feel better, but more important, they (eventually) feel liberated. And for my client, the more he has been willing to look at his early life conditioning, the better equipped he is to handle what gets thrown at him (including strategy development), but better yet, the issues that once plagued him are coming up less frequently and aren’t nearly as frustrating as they once were.