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  • Dr. Lalit Chawla

E#37: How Childhood Affects Your Self Identity


In this week's episode I'll answer some listners's questions on how our childhood influences us and what questions to ask in a clinical interaticon.

We never know what a person carries from their childhood and how it imprints them in their present life.


(This is the core of the transcript from the podcast. The Intro has been removed and some areas improved for reading ease.)


I want to thank the people who contacted me regarding the previous podcasts and how they found it helpful. And one consistent question that I had from several people who have asked me to comment on is: how does our childhood affect our adult actions and form our self-identity?


And I think that is a very thoughtful and essential question. And it's also useful not only to answer that question for one's knowledge and well being, but it is incredibly helpful for when you are talking with others that you are trying to help, especially in the clinical setting. I also have a very important self questionnaire at the end of the podcast that I think will serve you.


And as always, I have two meaningful real life stories that are quite compelling, and I'm confident that you find them helpful as well.


As in the past episode, I shared with you the four influencing factors that influence our self-identity. The first being the things we consistently see, the second influencing factor, the things we continuously listen to, the third is the language we use, as was discussed in the Disgusting Patient Episode 31. Finally, the fourth influencing factor is the people we consistently associate with.

And as always, I have two meaningful real life stories that are quite compelling, and I'm confident that you find them helpful as well.

The people we associate with—especially those whom we encounter in our childhood, such as our parents and teachers—produce the most significant impact on our identity. How and what those interactions were and the meaning we gave them significantly affects us in all that we do.


Let me be more specific: children's self-identity, which affects our current identity as an adult, are also impacted by four factors:


1. Our Key Role Models

When we look back on childhood, we can see how we were shaped by key role models, such as our parents, peers and educators. Nothing means more to children than what their caregivers said, and how they behaved with us in that time. Mostly because children are so dependent on them for their physical survival and also their emotional well being. So the first influencer in a child's identity is the caregivers and primary role models in their early life.


2.The Language

The words and actions they used and also the intensity of the language they used. For example, did they say "go clean up your room please" vs. with an angry tone and volume? So that's referring to the intensity of the language they used. Not to mention the actual words that were used. Did they use words that were affirmative that built up a child's sense of self-worth vs. words that degraded the child?


3.Repetition of the Language

The frequency with which they used these elements as discussed in the previous paragraph. In other words, repetition. Was the child praised consistently or reprimanded consistently. Being scolded once such as "gosh you're so lazy because you don't keep your room clean" vs. having that phrase repeated, again and again, day after day can shape a different outcome because of the repetitive exposure. This repetitive use of language intentionally or unintentionally implants a character trait. In the example, I used that they might be lazy; say that enough times and then maybe the child believes they are lazy and doesn't feel they can or should do anything because its who they are.


So the repetition is important because that is a conditioning factor. Repetition of an emotional experience, whether it's positive or negative, creates a powerful and often lasting impact.


4.The Social Context

What was the social settings and situations? In other words, the social context that the caregiver displayed or conveyed the language or behaviour? Was the exchange in a private vs a public setting, with other people around? In a public setting this amplifies the pride in the child or shame depending on what the language that was conveyed by the role model. The social context has a tremendous influence on the development of our self-image.

The people we associate with—especially those whom we encounter in our childhood, such as our parents and teachers—produce the most significant impact on our identity. How and what those interactions were and the meaning we gave them significantly affects us in all that we do.

And as mentioned, if the emotional display of praising or shaming occurs frequently, it impacts a child's identity even more so.


For children, the need for love and acceptance is a natural predisposition and part of their development. Manipulating this need, intentionally or unintentionally, can have a long-term effect on a child's life choices. For example, a friend of mine, Jamie (whose name I've changed), was told by his mother that he wasn't smart, which absolutely wasn't the case if you looked at his academic achievements. But one day, a couple of his friends and I were hanging out at his home during the eleventh grade. We were all talking about what we wanted to do for our careers. Unbeknownst to Jamie, his mother was right behind him when he said: "he wanted to become an engineer." Upon hearing that, his mother unleashed a violent rant on him in front of us.


"Who do you think you are, young man, thinking you can be an engineer! Don't you remember you couldn't even fix the connection on the toaster? You'll never succeed in something so difficult. You have to be super smart. Don't set unrealistic goals."


"Who do you think you are, young man, thinking you can be an engineer! Don't you remember you couldn't even fix the connection on the toaster? You'll never succeed in something so difficult. You have to be super smart. Don't set unrealistic goals."

Needless to say, we were shocked at the outburst and he was embarrassed. My friend's eyes welled up with tears. His mother had expressed her opinion in a social context, amplifying the intensity of the negative self-image that she'd projected onto him.


This is an example of an important role model expressing an important belief in a public way, with the potential of leaving a lasting impression on him. Unfortunately, the outcome was that Jamie didn't pursue a university education, even though he'd been a high school honour student.


Whether his mother had actively stopped him from pursuing his aspirations, or he'd simply been discouraged by her opinion of him, I cannot say. However, the primary parental figures are a child's leading source of self-perception and self-worth. Children look to them for guidance, approval, and protection, especially in the early years.

As children, we have a limited cognitive understanding of why our parents behave or think in a certain way. We don't comprehend their motivations and cannot appreciate their behaviours.

As children, we have a limited cognitive understanding of why our parents behave or think in a certain way. We don't comprehend their motivations and cannot appreciate their behaviours. I don't know if Jamie's mother spoke to him this way because of her fears of failure. Did she want to protect him from disappointment, or for a different reason altogether? I don't know and I don't know if Jamie knew, either. From what I could see, she did care for him because he wasn't overtly abused or neglected, and she wasn't a mean person because she was kind to his friends, and I also saw many displays of affection towards him.


I do know that Jamie's life changed because he believed what his mother believed. He adopted the self-identity that his mother had given him. Unfortunately, none of his other role models, such as his father or teachers, challenged that limiting belief that the mother held, and if they did, it wasn't in a consistent or impactful way. So that's important.


So I'll ask a question to you the listener:


Is there a significant role model that shaped your beliefs about yourself?

Was the shaping done in a positive, negative or neutral way?

How did you interpret those interactions?

Is there a particular event you still think about?


These are some tough questions, and you might pause to reflect on them.

For adults who have experienced difficult times in their childhood, it's not always easy to understand why their role models behaved the way they did. Some of their caregivers' behaviours may have resulted from personal fears, incompatible values, lack of awareness of what they were doing and a lack of empathy. What's more, they may not have been ready or able to respond more eloquently because of their lack of awareness, knowledge or level of consciousness because of their own childhood experiences; they more than likely their own gaps and struggles.


Whatever the reasons, their actions served as a poor vehicle for meeting the child's need for self-worth. Depending on the meaning the child gave to the actions and words directed at them. Some children may have moved forward positively, some may not have.


Giving too much power and significance to the past can hold us back from generating harmony and peace in the present. It's never too late to change the way you view your childhood and the way you see yourself currently.

Why their role models behaved the way they did may not be right or justified, but trying to understand things can help open the door to forgiveness and towards recovery in the current state. Giving too much power and significance to the past can hold us back from generating harmony and peace in the present.


It's never too late to change the way you view your childhood and the way you see yourself currently. The past does not have to equal the present and the future; and that choice of reformulating our perspective is in our hands.


For those of us whose parents were kind and inspiring, we don't always appreciate their impact until much later in life when we have a more comprehensive understanding of the world. We appreciate our parents' capabilities and the effects they had on us once we're able to compare them to our own ability to overcome challenges or simply when we observe how difficult it is to overcome similar situations; especially when you have children of your own.


Many of our emotional ties, and even our relationships with money, people and God are influenced by our childhood experiences.

Role models have a massive effect on a child's self-identity. Many of our emotional ties, and even our relationships with money, people and God are influenced by our childhood experiences.


But there's one more significant factor I want to emphasize again, which is how a child interprets the observations and interactions experienced during childhood.


For example, one child may be motivated to avoid becoming like her inattentive caregiver. At the same time, another may feel he is doomed and destined to be like his unsympathetic caregiver and then models his behaviour in the same manner. Both of these responses echo the sentiment of "I am where I am because of the way my parent(s) behaved."


How long any individual carries their emotional baggage depends on two elements. One is the tools available to help reach a healthier, broader perspective; in other words, tools to help reshape our self-identity.

The second is the level of awareness that allows the individual to redefine his or her past memories and experiences.

How long any individual carries their emotional baggage depends on two elements.

As a doctor, I've seen the emotional baggage people carry with them and how they can be unaware of what's in that bag. I've seen well-established, outwardly confident people who appear to have everything—a loving family, friends, great career, joyful health—yet they cling to past identities that prevents them from feeling joy and serenity in their present life.

Particularly, I'm thinking of Jessica, a kind, energetic, elderly lady who still feels a sense of melancholy towards her parents (who have passed away) and sisters because they didn't display a more meaningful level of affection when she was a little girl.


Jessica had struggled with feelings of neglect and inadequacy when comparing herself to her sisters, whom she adored. These feelings kept Jessica from experiencing complete joy and freedom in her adult life, even though she was the only one of the siblings to enjoy a nurturing, holistic work and home life. By all measures, she was successful with happy children and grandchildren in her adult life.


Her sisters rather admired Jessica for the treasured life that she had created, and wished they'd had even half the success that Jessica had. Jessica, however, had been blinded to her gifted world because she continued to wear the foggy glasses of the little eleven-year-old girl who seemed to be the "forgotten middle child."


After some self-reflection and reframing, she forgave and let go of her "forgotten-little-girl" identity, realizing she was not that child of yesterday anymore. Once she did so, the fog lifted, metaphorically speaking, from her glasses, and she was able to fully engage with the present and her full, spirited self. She felt greater joy at the age of 78 and continued to do so. And it was admirable that she had the courage to work on that reframing of her self-identity.


So in summary,

Childhood experience and authority figures are important influencers in our life. But they needn't be consistent identity shapers forever. After all, we are all evolving and hopefully shaping a greater sense of self with new goals and aspirations. Getting stuck in the past "truths" and experiences doesn't have to be part of the present and shouldn't define us.

This approach applies not only to negative or hurtful things that may have happened but also to triumphant moments. Think of the high school athlete who persists in re-living the memory in which he scored the winning goal, never really moving forward to score new goals or create new challenges.


Letting go of the past and generating new, empowering memories is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves. It's a great way to expand a more meaningful and contributory self-identity. Ultimately, we are the creators of our self-identity; the power is in our hands to choose accordingly. Sometimes we need help in dissolving our past identities and creating new ones.


To help open dialogue, especially in a clinical setting, there are a few meaningful questions that can be asked, such as:


"What was your childhood like with your parents? How was your interaction? Was there anything in your childhood that you think influences you today?" You can create similar open-ended questions that help open up the conversation. These issues can be deep and personal; they definitely require a trusting atmosphere and courage and expertise in being an effective counselor. It's not for everyone to engage in if you don't have any experience or support in dealing with this, especially if there have been significant past traumas.


Thank you for listening.

I hope this podcast served you in some way, if you've enjoyed listening to this podcast, please share with a friend or colleague and subscribe to us Apple podcast, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. And if you go to the TheIntrovertedDoctor.com and sign in there, you'll get my weekly emails about the podcast episode that's coming out.


I'm Dr. Lalit Chawla and thank you so much for listening. Let's together make a greater, more effective community so that you live with greater passion, harmony and magic in your life and help others do the same.

Have a fantastic weekend!

Lalit


I would love to hear any comments about this podcast and what would you like to hear in future episodes?





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