The Practice of Learning Who You Are & What Happened (Part 2 of the GWNI ‘Raise Yourself Up!’ Series)

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In this post I’m focusing on Practice #1, the practice of discovery, and taking a deep, deliberate look at who you are in the context of what happened in your past.

The Four Practices to Raise Yourself Up!

1. The Practice of Learning Who You Are & What Happened
2. The Practice of Therapeutic Work
3. The Practice of Taking Care of Yourself & Making Changes
4. The Practice of Being Present in the Happiness You’re Creating

Here’s a compass point for your future (which starts here and now):

“Experience isn’t what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you.”

Those are Aldous Huxley’s words. Huxley’s words aren’t just apt for us, but really, for anyone at any point in their lives during which life doesn’t operate in a way that seems helpful.  In other words, if the Universe puts a sinkhole, quicksand, tar, or a toxic river in your path—do you walk into it, cursing the Universe (or corporations) for doing this to your plans?  Or do you accept that unhelpful entity for what it is—and step around, build a bridge, or reach out for someone’s hand?  (Step around! Build a bridge! Reach for the hand!)

These four practices will make sure that living that belief—it’s what you do with your life—really stick.

Make the Leap from Survival Thinking to Action-and-Change

In the first post in this series, I wrote about the cycle of chaos that we’re all familiar with and which we grew up with: there are long enough stretches of peace (or seeming peace) in the household that we’re “cool” during those times, but then, there’s just enough chaos—terror, often—to keep us living on a bed of nails, walking on eggshells, living life cocked.

This cycle is in our bodies (for now)—so we tend to be unconsciously drawn into the chaos cycle, and become its agents of repetition. And this is true on various levels, subtle levels, not just the chaos that might be obvious to outsiders.  We’re also accustomed to talking ourselves down, to reminding ourselves that ‘things will be better…in the morning,’ we’re accustomed to rationalizing insane circumstances. Crazy, childlike people expected us to think in the opposite direction of our truth when we were children, so our brain is used to adapting to alternate realities.  We’re—survivors.  If you’re reading this, you’re fighting for a better life.  The key is to make that leap.  A habit to break is not acting on your ideas.  Have you ever noticed that when you’re frustrated about your life, or a fight, or some drama into which you got entangled, that after you give the problem some thought and make a decision about how to avoid the frustration in the future—and you feel calm again—that, for whatever reason, you fail to actually implement the change you thought about, the change that brought you a return to calm?  Have you ever noticed that you used your mind to feel better, but—just within the moment?

What I want is for us to make the leap from thinking ourselves down from panic to actually remembering—no matter how safe and calm we feel by comforting thoughts—to go a step further and actually make the change that will prevent the need for talking-down next time.

If you can move beyond thought into action, you’ll transform from a survival into a changed person, and a self-reliant one. These four practices are a journey that will require not just remembering, but also consciousness and action.

The Practice of Learning Who You Are and What Happened

It’s essential to understand, fully, what happened to you.  Go there.  It’s not a waste of time, it’s not “digging up old useless bones,” it’s not just “the past” that you can’t change—no, no!

It’s essential to excavate your childhood.  And your parents’ childhoods, too.

Read & Research

 Find out what it means for people to grow up without having one’s self-esteem nurtured—like reading blogs like this one, and reading books about dysfunctional childhoods, childhoods with abuse, alcoholism, etc. Joining a twelve-step group, group or individual therapy is important, too.  Talk to others, too, to find out what it has meant for others who share your experience.

Then, secondly, think about and write and what it meant for you in particular, given your unique circumstances, to have grown up as you did.  It’s essential that you dig deep to remember, articulate, and reflect on your own story and unique situation and reactions. Only if we look at what happened can we become truly free. This will begin to dissolve the burden that you carry—whether you realize it’s there on your shoulders or not (you’ll certainly feel it lifting!)

Learning where you came from and who you are in a honest, formal, and committed way will be painful at first but will bring tremendous relief (It will! It will!), and it will begin to provide you with a blueprint for healing on which you can actually take action.  Look at pictures from childhood.  Talk with your siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles, and whoever will talk (you’d be surprised who WILL talk!)  Research other people who had unhelpful childhoods—read their biographies or research them online.

Be sure to examine, too, the coping behaviors—especially addictions to food, excitement or work—that have become habits for you, habits that have taken the place of actually feeling your feelings.  (You won’t need those habits when you learn to “sit” with the actual feelings you have inside.)  Your bravery in taking this investigative look at yourself will bring you that much closer to freedom.

Lead An Examined Life – Questions to Ask of Your History

When you question yourself, consider asking questions based on how you act rather than your assumed characterization of yourself. (Like, “Does my behavior reflect the self-esteem of someone who knows herself/himself?  Do I act, and talk, from the standoint of someone who believes she/he has a right to be heard?  Are my behaviors actions, or re-actions?”)

You’ll come up with your own list, this is just a starting point –

What was my room like as a child?
What were my survival behaviors?
What was it like to fall asleep as me back then? What was around my room?
What were our family dinners like—when I was young, and a teen?
What did I sacrifice to survive?
What kind of foods did we eat?  (When I visited my mother, she fed me sugar—I remember her eating ice cream straight out of gallon buckets!)
How did I feel during your childhood—what do I remember about my feelings?
Did I play with friends?
How did I play with friends?
Did I see my parents do nice things for one another?
Did I have any adult role models who modeled good, honest love?
Was anyone in my family loving, warm and cuddly?
Did I dance, run—what did I do with my body, was I at home it my body?
What did I think about other families?
Did I take care of my parent, or did they take care of me?
Did I wish I had a different life?
What books did I love as a child?  Which movies mattered to me?
Did I visit grandparents or other relatives?  Were they stable?
What qualities of my parent’s personalities do I share?
What kind of parent am I (of myself and also of my children)?
What did I do after school?
What did I love doing as a child?
What kinds of things do I wish I’d push myself to do?
What were the dreams I didn’t allow myself to have, but still want to make come true?
Why am I friends with the people I’m friends with?
What attracts me to people?
Do I bond with people over insecurities or a shared bad attitude about the world?
How do I characterize my weekend, when colleagues ask how it was?
What kinds things do I tell people about myself?
Can I be confident around my friends?

Well, you get the idea.

Try to stretch your mind past two things:  one, the memories you’ve always had, but never looked at from a different angle—try to come at those memories from a new angle, and two, try to remember other things by asking these investigative questions about the various years of your childhood.

Blending the Practices

These four practices aren’t mutually-exclusive.  Just as you can’t walk up steps without bending your knees and raising your legs one after the other, success in any one of these four practices requires using all four in concert:  in practicing this investigation of your heritage (the first practice), you’ll benefit from a therapeutic environment (the second practice), one that feels safe, with the right therapist for you, one that will help you create borders around the old pain and present reality so that you don’t feel too overwhelmed.  While you’re doing those two practices, you’ll naturally start to be inspired to make changes to your life (the third practice), and you’ll also feel new happinesses (the fourth practice).

Stop Going it Alone!  Hire a Therapist 

Again, this practice really requires support—the support of a therapist or a support group.  The kind of emotion, the stories, that this personal investigation will bring up in you is too much for others to handle without adding their own aspect or judgment to it.  A therapist will know how to listen to you without shock, judgment, distraction—and, most importantly—a therapist knows precisely how to bear witness in a way that will support your healing in the best way. (Ideas for how to be absolutely sure you hire a good one are next, as part of Part 3 in this series!)

Be kind to yourself.


  1. NS says:

    As usual I loved reading this post! I am not sure if it is still okay to comment on it since it is over 2 years old, but I suppose it can’t hurt??? It mentions that there are some benefits to talking with family and others who are willing to talk about your childhood a bit. I am curious though, do you ever get frustrated with what they have to say? For instance, if they acknowledge that they were troubled by the environment they saw you growing up in? I have had people tell me that there were times that they saw something was wrong and because I don’t want to 1) acknowledge that I am any different then they are, or 2) make them feel bad, I brush it off and tell them that everything was just fine and I turned out just fine. Ha! What I really want to do is ask them why they were the ones that usually ended up disappearing. Also, you seem to highly recommend researching and examining what happened… I have a friend that I really trusted and one day when she asked if I had finished a paper I joking told her that I had found myself in a blog and had been reading that. She took one look at GWNI and responded by telling me I was crazy to go back and think about the past and that by doing that I was just being “over-dramatic”. I was called a drama queen sometimes when I was younger (usually when I was crying because I had gotten hurt) and I am terrified that is what I am doing now. Is that ever the case?

    • Amy Eden says:

      I was reading the first part of your comment, about talking with family about the family, and I remembered a line from the film Fight Club: The first rule of Fight Club is never talk about Fight Club. The same could be said of (a) living inside a dysfunctional family and also (b) surviving one and then attempting to discuss it with other family members who haven’t done any personal reflection on what happened. So, the question is, what do you have in mind when you say “talking” with them? Talking about how you experienced things? Talking about how messed up your parents’ were? Or…? That matters. I grew up with two of my siblings, and when we talk about our family (our parents), we have very different versions of the degree to which (a) it was dysfunctional and (b) how “well” each of us survived. So, I tread lightly in those conversations.
      What do you mean about the ones who usually ended up disappearing?
      There’s value in telling your truth to family members, but the trick is to be prepared for…anything. (Other family members don’t arrive at the Ah-Has at the same time as you do.) So, you can say, “I think our family was dysfunctional,” and that’s your truth. If they agree, great; if not, fine. More important that talking about what happened with other members of the family, though is to be able to be your real self around them (whether you interact with them frequently or hardly at all). The psychologist Roberta Gilbert wrote that we can really re-wire or iron out our dramas by going to the source; so, if one has trouble saying No to a spouse, to go and say No to the parent we most had trouble saying No to. (Yikes, right?)
      It sounds like your friend really hurt your feelings in a moment that was pretty raw. While she probably had no real idea what you were reading, calling you crazy just isn’t kind. She missed an opportunity to get to learn about you, and comfort you. The question is, do you think it’s crazy or wasted time, or looking for drama, to think about the past?
      Your opinion is the one that matters most.
      I find thinking about the past extremely painful; the way that I regard the past is often quite analytical and that cushions the blow. I have to remind myself to feel the feelings at times. There are a couple of ways to see it — imagine a crime scene investigator (sorry for the violent analogy!) or forensics expert. They look at what happened and draw conclusions and piece together what happened. It’s a human story they’re piecing together, but it’s to reach a higher conclusion. (As opposed to looking at a crime scene and replaying the worst most painful moments and enacting the screams…that’s not productive!) So, maybe people assume that when a person examines their past, they’re clinging to the saddest parts and replaying them…when actually they’re trying to examine and draw conclusions.
      Great comment, by the way!

      • NS says:

        Thank you for the response to my questions! I think my comment may have been a bit off (so not a great comment at all), as I will not be speaking with any of my family members about this issue. I don’t feel that it will in any way be productive or beneficial to anyone, and might actually be counterproductive at this point. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate everything you said though, because I truly do, and I find it to be quite helpful. I’m not sure this is right or if this statement is even allowed, but I thought your Fight Club reference was great and it reinforced my decision not to talk to family at this point.
        I also enjoyed your example about the crime scene investigator. My goal would be to look at the whole story and like you said, reach a higher conclusion. My childhood wasn’t only made up of bad times and by looking at just those experiences I would be missing a big part of the story. I have really just recently figured out that I need to work on some things and don’t really know where to begin (it is quite confusing!). With that said, I don’t feel that if I were to start examining the past that I would be wasting time, nor do I feel it is in any way crazy. I hope mentioning that in my first comment did not come across as me doubting what you had written. That was definitely not my intention! When someone tells me I am being crazy it is hard for me not to wonder if I am! :)
        Thanks again for the response, and especially for all of the information your blog provides!

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