I have this weird thing about eating at certain buffets, where just looking at them makes me never want to eat again. Something about big piles of food seems like a trough to me. And it triggers the reverse effect on my hunger. My strategy in these situations generally is to locate a piece of fish and make a pile of dark greens on my plate then quickly remove myself from the vicinity of All That Food. Blargh.
As I think of it, it might be an aversion I worked up during my first official job ever, as a hostess at the Sizzler: Buffet Court PTSD.
This is absurd, as I hope is obvious. But it’s a microcosm of something we do all the time, allowing a life event or experience to plant triggers in our operating systems, so that we always cringe when we see that kind of car or shut entirely down when we meet a certain kind of person.
This is very normal. It’s the extreme version of learning, but it’s a deeper sort of learning, it’s almost like a spiritual encoding that happens. And taken to great extremes, we can find ourselves defined by a single life event or something someone said to us 40 years ago. This is natural, and maybe even normal, but it can also be very painful, dysfunctional and limiting.
I know it’s normal, because when I meet new people (which I do nearly every day at work), I generally share my own story, then I ask them flat out to tell me their life story. It’s really a Rorschach of sorts, to see how people interpret that question, and where they take it, whether they go general or specific, the overall tone and whether they take a career story or personal story or combined approach. The way we tell our general story drops clues to how we define ourselves, I think. Another set of clues is in the stories we tell about our histories and our lives, over and over again.
I tell the story of my family migrating to California around 50 years ago, with some regularity. I tell it to explain why I am uninterested and uninitiated in the ways of the South and, to a lesser extent, the East Coast.
I tell the story of going from Honors Student to teen Mom and then, to college/grad school/law school, all the time. I tell it to express my gratitude for a life of miracles, and to share how I know God is real.
On the personal side, I tell the story of how I heard a Tony Robbins CD about the Power of Identity and then lost 60 pounds, twenty years ago, at least a few times a year. I share it to help people know that I’m a contrarian. That I don’t always do things the way others do. That my health has played a central role in my life for a long time. And that I am a woman of change, action, power and growth.
I tell the story of my 86-year-old grandmother and her three sisters, all Black women from Texarkana, Texas, all of whom have college or nursing school degrees, as often as I can. I tell this so they know that #blackgirlmagic is real. But I also tell this so people understand that I come from a matriarchal lineage, and to explain why I was damn near 40-years-old before I realized that other people saw being Black and a woman as a disadvantage, while I grew up with the explicit and implicit understanding that being a Black girl meant you could do anything. Literally, anything. Circumstances are irrelevant.
These things, I tell, because they define or, at the very least, depict major components of who I am.
But there are other stories I’ve allowed to define me, too, at various times in my life. Stories of repression. Stories of emotional chaos, allowed to spiral and embed for years and years. Even stories of multi-generational beliefs that were both blessing and curse. And it’s been interesting to see how, as I develop and heal out of some of these patterns, I find myself telling those stories much less frequently. But I do want to share one with you, now.
My grandmother is a force of nature and supernatural spirit. Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother was a saint. After her mother died very young, my grandmother helped her three sisters get educated, then got her own degree, while raising her own four children alone. Her own alcoholic husband had long since left her for the West Coast, and my grandmother gradually migrated from the South (Texarkana), to the Midwest (Omaha), to the Southwest (Clovis, New Mexico) and finally landed in Bakersfield, California, right around fifty years ago. She and my Dad still live there, to this day.
My grandfather and grandmother had not, until that time, been officially divorced, but he had moved on to a series of other women, somehow also winding up in Bakersfield. Because their lives were so separate, my grandmother was shocked and dismayed when she went to buy a house and was advised that California was something new to her, something called a Community Property state. That meant that all the debts my grandfather had run up and reneged on actually belonged to her, too. Which meant that for her to buy the home for her children she’d worked and saved for, she’d first have to pay or make arrangements to pay all of his bad debt. She was able to figure it out, but it was heartbreaking. And she did eventually divorce him.
But the scar of that heartbreak long remained. My whole childhood, my sweet, piano-playing, hymn-singing grandmother dove joyfully into her duties to teach me How to Live a Good Life. She taught me how to love God, how to clean house, how to prioritize school above all, how to balance a checkbook, and how to churn butter (I’m not joking). She also taught me never to rely on a man to support myself or my children. Never to have children unless I was 100% certain I could support them on my own. She was remarkably free of bitterness about it, but she was exceedingly clear and insistent on this point.
And I took the message. In fact, I took it and ran with it. Somehow, her message mixed in with my perfectionism, my own ambition and my own Daddy issues, and showed up in my spirit as an extreme, dysfunctional over-self-reliance. So I attracted in people at the level of my own bullshit, as one does. I married men who had no capacity to be full partners in my life. And I created a life in which there wasn’t much room for deep partnership and interdependence, because I didn’t believe, deep in my spirit, that I could really have those things.
And at some point, after my spiritual teachers and coaches and therapists helped me see that I’d allowed this childhood message to define a whole area of my life, I couldn’t un-see it. I thanked my family for cultivating my independence and raising me to be an unlimited being, because I am that. I honor and will always be independent and impactful. But I also had to release the isolating extremes I’d taken on.
I put an end to the patterns that kept me isolated and unsupported by being extreme and dysfunctional in my over-self-reliance, slowly, slowly, slowly. I started to spend a lot of time with my friends who were in beautiful partnerships, who’d built healthy families and who had created long, loving, two-way relationships. I wanted to experience that model and what it looks like everyday, up close.
I’ve talked with lots of people who define themselves by a thing that happened to them 30 years ago, or something their Mom used to always tell them—even a thing their Mom used to say about herself or, especially, her body. I know people who define themselves by a past failure, a family death, or a victory. I know people whose self-definition is heavily painted by their geography or profession, or the fact that no one in their family has ever been educated/happy/healthy/sober.
Often, we take on an extreme commitment to our defining family or personal history dysfunction. But it can be just as unwise to define ourselves in aversion or opposition to our long-gone experiences, like I do with the Buffet Court. Exhibit B: I wear some version of the same outfit every single day. I do it because it’s comfortable and beautiful and removes so much decision-making from my day. But it also helps that my “uniform” strategy makes my Mom a little crazy. 😀
We’re all in the process of working this stuff out, some more intentionally and effortfully than others.I’ve learned that we have a lot more choice about how we define ourselves than we think. We truly do have the power to decide and shape and rewire who we are, even though our past programming might be encoded at a level of depth that seems permanent and inescapable. It can seem like as much a part of us as the shape of our eyes or the size of our feet.
We get to pick the elements of our past that are expansive or contract us, that spark joy and pride and possibility, or that revert to the sometimes comfortable, limiting storylines we’ve always heard and by now, have started to tell ourselves.
And we also get to pick our todays and tomorrows, and we get to exercise intention about how we define ourselves every single day. “That was then, this is now” means something. And it doesn’t mean you disrespect your family’s trials and tribulations or the people who raised you, to keep what serves you and release or discard what no longer does. That’s what I call wisdom, and what the Interwebs call “adulting”.
P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it’s been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. But I wrote this post on Day 5 of the Challenge. I’ll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.