People sometimes tell me that ‘Oprah’ and other popular ‘self-help’ shows leave them with the impression that their parents are to blame for a lot of their problems. Maybe so, maybe not—but daytime TV is not the ideal place to go looking for answers.
The (not made for TV) truth is simple: You are responsible for your own actions. You are NOT responsible for the actions of your parents when you were growing up. Parents can shape some of your thinking, because as a young child you’re too impressionable to think for yourself. But I cringe when I hear people say, ‘When I’m faced with a problem, I always tell myself I’m stupid. I can’t help it.’ This ‘automatic self-talk’ has to start somewhere, and the unpleasant fact is that it most likely begins with a parent.
And it works both ways. Some emerge from childhood with a sense that ‘I’m special, I’m great.’ That’s fine, but young people with this attitude are sometimes convinced that things should come easier than they do. They’re surprised when it doesn’t work out that way. Their challenge is to cope with the real world in spite of a good start, emotionally speaking, from their parents.
As we approach young adulthood, we become more capable of examining and perhaps questioning our parents’ beliefs and attitudes—as well as our own—to the extent that our beliefs might be mistaken. The sooner a young adult starts this process, the better. They can stand back from their family and ask questions, such as: ‘What do I think of my family? How did they train me to think about myself, others and the world? Where do I agree—and disagree—with them?’ It’s called introspection. Others call it self-awareness, self-reflection, or ‘dealing with’ the past. Either way, it’s essential.
Is it your fault that you might have internalized faulty beliefs encouraged by your parents? No! Is it your fault that you never looked inward at these beliefs and questioned them? Yes! But, not to worry. You’re never too old to introspect.
We’re so fortunate to live in a society of constant innovation and improvement. The same attitude applies to our inner lives as well. Don’t be afraid to try—and think—new things. Don’t let yourself coast along on stale assumptions that may be just plain wrong. You can change your life situation, and the mere fact that it’s a change doesn’t make it invalid. I know that sounds like common sense, but when somebody feels stuck or depressed, they often presume subconsciously that change is not an option, when it might be exactly what they need. I see this happen as people get older (and by “older” I mean not 20 or 25 any longer). It’s a shame, and it doesn’t have to be.
Of course, not all change is automatically good. But to routinely rule out major life changes until you’re so miserable that you’re depressed, having panic attacks or worse just doesn’t seem like a reasonable solution. Beware of what I like to call “silent premises” that reveal themselves as the ‘automatic self-talk’ I mentioned earlier. You’d be surprised how they can lurk back there in your mind, and how wrong so many of them can be.
One example of a particularly insidious silent premise is the underlying belief that, ‘I’m such a klutz! I can’t figure anything out.’ Actually, all of us are capable of figuring some things out. We all have untapped potential, and even the greatest geniuses are capable of error. So give yourself a chance. Focus. Trust in your mind, and approach your abilities on a case-by-case basis. If you can’t figure something out, then move on and try the next best thing. Look a little closer, perhaps, or ask somebody. It takes intelligence to do this, and it’s just as important as figuring things out on your own.
People often ask me about the central purpose of life coaching. I see it as encouraging people to develop a more positive, ‘can do’ attitude about things that come up in everyday life. I try to help them internalize the belief that ‘There’s a solution for every problem. If I don’t know the solution, I can probably think it out, or I can find someone who does know.’
Sadly, a lot of emotional damage is done to children in their early years. Though I believe much of this damage is unintentional, many of us emerge from childhood with less confidence in our ability to solve problems than we deserve to have. I don’t see any purpose in dwelling on who did the damage and why. What’s done is done. It’s more important, more powerful—and more healing—to concentrate on the business of restoring that confidence in yourself.
Look at the natural happiness, optimism and easy resilience of a young child. This is their natural state. Unhappily, it takes an adult to undo it. But we CAN put it back. It all boils down to attitude. We can’t choose our parents or our childhoods, but, as thinking adults, we CAN choose our outlooks and beliefs.