Self-Determination: 'Finding Yourself' Starts With These Five Words
Here they are: "That's not what I want." Please, feel free to use this sentence as often as you'd like. This is an especially important gift if you've ever people-pleased, or felt the tug of obligation, or duty, or societal pressure to become a lawyer, get married, buy a house, have a kid, adopt a cat, etcetera. If someone else has ever stepped into the garden of your mind and planted a seed that, later, you came to realize—hey, I didn't put that there. And now that I think of it, I'd rather grow basil. If you've ever felt the weight of a pressure you’re not the conscious owner of—please, feel free to use "That's not what I want."
Perhaps you are an oral surgeon and going on nice vacations in the Maldives. Your father wanted this for you, and you are quite happy because you are in the Maldives and also you help people smile. So it's not unsettling, exactly, that you were preened for this profession because ultimately you grew up and decided that you liked the idea. Fantastic! Or your mother wanted you to take over her art gallery when you grew up and you actually idolized your mother and were pleased to inherit this gem. All I'm getting at is: Carry on if the CHOICE was ultimately yours. Otherwise, ”That's not what I want" may set you free.
When we are born we are fairly clean slates (akashic records aside). Then from ages 0-3 we are neurologically hardwired and learn to identify ourselves based on what the adults in charge mirror back to us as true about ourselves. Our emotional blueprints are drawn up to near completion by the age of 8. So if we are gifted a toy gavel at age 3 and our parents call us “the little judge” our whole childhood, or if we are told again and again just how good we are at math but steered far away from the arts, we listen. We program. We learn from what is mirrored back to us. If we are dressed up as a princess and hear again and again how exciting our inevitable wedding day will be—we learn that this is of utmost importance.
Another factor: Many are caught in an unexamined, inherited chain of what Swiss psychologist Alice Miller dubbed the "poisonous pedagogy." Such pedagogy refers to a dysfunctional system wherein a family is ruled by a rigid, authoritarian model. Often times in such a system, there is no room for the child’s innate self to bloom. Often times, children in such a home are unable to focus on getting their own needs met because they unwittingly pick up the slack of their parents' unmet needs. Children need love, they need to be seen by their parents, and they may sacrifice their own needs in order to serve their parents’ covert emotional needs. This is why is it vital that we all take responsibility for our own emotional health.
More often than not, children adapt. They develop coping mechanisms. It’s difficult to break away from a chronically dysfunctional family. “Shame corrodes the soul,” as Elizabeth Gilbert put it. Dysfunctional family systems have implicit codes and rules that are not to be broken. It is imperative that we process the grief of any unmet childhood needs so that we may move forward as mature, self-differentiated adults who can intelligently hold space for both our own thoughts and feelings, free from resentments that keep us reacting far into our own purported adulthoods.
Too many of us forgo our authentic selves to fulfill the needs of our parents. Then, we carry this on to the next generation because our own needs remain unmet and the cycle continues. Can you see why "That's not what I want" has such power?
It's all about choice. It's about examining our own lives, our own feelings, noticing the areas where we tend to have trouble and pulling those areas apart to get to the center of what's happening. Our true selves are at the center. Much of the time, people become parents when they have quite a bit of unfinished business from their past. Much of the time, unconscious wounds remain unconscious. When this is the case, a parent can not cleanly mirror for their child. The mirror is too fogged up with old stuff of their own that mottles the reflection. There are too many unfulfilled needs, too many unprocessed traumas from childhoods past to create space for the next generation to fulfill its authentic potential.
Some people enjoy outside contributions to their gardens. Some people ultimately agree with the original adults in charge. If you've made a conscious choice to engage in a profession and lifestyle that feels suitable and rewarding, congratulations. If you have been on a conveyor belt that somebody else labeled "Destiny" since a young age, or find yourself in a swirl of chaos because the pain of being who you’re not AS WELL AS the pain of being who you are (i.e. tribal shame) is incapacitating, take this with you: "That's not what I want.”
Slip it into your pocket just in case you need it later. Use it when you’re ready. Use it if you ever change your mind, or your idea of who you are, or what you want—crazier things have happened. It's a versatile gift, multi-use, multi-purpose. "That's not what I want" could set you free.