Fabulous Bits

The patterns of problems in childhood that recur into adulthood are significant.  They can be found by exploring your past, by looking into the corners of your childhood.  Coming to grips with your childhood will not yield insight into how you became the adult you are: the causal links between childhood events and what you have now become are simply too weak.  Coming to grips with your childhood will not make your adult problems go away: working through the past does not seem to be any sort of cure for troubles.  Coming to grips with your childhood will not make you feel better for long, nor will it raise your self-esteem. 

Coming to grips with childhood is a different and special voyage.  The sages urge us to know ourselves, and Plato warned us that the unexamined life is not worth living.  Knowledge acquired on this voyage is about patterns, about the tapestry we have woven.  It is not knowledge about causes.  Are there consistent mistakes we have made and still make?  In the flush of victory, do I forget my friends – in the Little League and when I got that last big raise?  (People tell me I’m a good loser but a bad winner.)  Do I usually succeed in one domain but fail in another?  (I wish I could get along with the people I really love as well as I do with my employers.)  Does a surprising emotion arise again and again?  (I always pick fights with people I love right before they have to go away.)  Does my body often betray me?  (I get a lot of colds when big projects are due.)

You probably want to know why you are a bad winner, why you get colds when others expect a lot of you, and why you react to abandonment with anger.  You will not find out.  As important and magnetic as the “why” questions are, they are questions psychology cannot now answer.  One of the two clearest findings of one hundred years of therapy is that satisfactory answers to the great “why” questions are not easily found; maybe in fifty years things will be different; maybe never.  When purveyors of the evils of “toxic shame” tell you that they know it comes from parental abuse, don’t believe them.  No one knows any such thing.  Be skeptical even of your own “Aha!” experiences: when you unearth the fury you felt that first day of kindergarten, do not assume that you have found the source of your lifelong terror of abandonment.  The causal links may be illusions, and humility is in order here.  The other clearest finding of the whole therapeutic endeavour, however, is that change is within our grasp, almost routine, throughout adult life.  So even if why we are what we are is a mystery, how to change ourselves is not.

Mind the pattern.  A pattern of mistakes is a call to change your life.  The rest of the tapestry is not determined by what has been woven before.  The weaver herself, blessed with knowledge and freedom, can change – if not the material she must work with – the design of what comes next.

Martin Seligman