Reflections & Inflections Upon Turning 40: Making Peace with the Past
Updated: Oct 20, 2018
As I blew out the candle on my 30th birthday cupcake, I felt rather clever, believing I had myself pretty well figured out. Over the course of my 20’s, armed with books from the New Age section of my local bookstore, I had put myself and my past under a microscope in an attempt to understand what had given rise to the person I saw before me in the mirror. Who was she? Why did some things trigger a cascade of unpleasant emotions, while others didn’t? What were the dramas I seemed destined to repeat? How could I truly be happy?
In an essay on turning 30, I sketched out the basic narrative I had crafted about my childhood—my story of how I came to be me. With this as the backdrop, I reflected on my decision at age 18 to drop out of college and travel the country with just a backpack and a hefty load of ideals. I shared one of the core lessons and realizations that emerged from that time of my life—that the key to finding freedom and happiness wasn’t in “smashing the state” or going off-the-grid and disappearing into the forest, but uncovering the unconscious patterns and scripts that kept me trapped in a hell of my own making. With a buoyant optimism, I staked my future on a new way of being that would allow me to live my truth and find the freedom I so desperately craved.
Ten years later, I’m sitting on my couch thinking about what it means to be turning 40. Despite entering my 30’s with a lot of hard-won self-awareness, I lost my spiritual way. I turned my attention to external pursuits, namely my career, and channeled my curiosity and drive into professional success, at the expense of my spiritual growth. I sacrificed my nights and weekends to get my MBA, which decimated my yoga practice, and steadily took on new jobs that demanded more of me, whether that was more travel, greater responsibility, longer hours, higher stress or some combination of them all. Add to that getting married and undertaking a whole house remodel and I’m not surprised I strayed from my path and allowed negativity and neuroses to creep back into my brain in a major way.
Over the past few months, various events and circumstances emerged like stones before me leading me back to my path. I started thinking about my narrative again, believing that maybe further growth meant going deeper into my past to uncover and unpack the most fundamental root causes of my pain and bring them to light so they could be burned away. Perhaps if this time I could correctly identify my most buried wounds and desires, I would magically emerge from the ashes a new person—someone who didn’t get so agitated when confronted with things out of her control, who had a positive inner voice instead of a nagging pessimist, who felt happy and content. With this goal in mind, I was like Indiana Jones setting out to find my holy grail.
Freud would have been proud of me. With some additional reflection, I postulated that all my pain, all my anguish, all my acting out could be traced back to the loss of an exclusive relationship with my mother. As a twin, one could argue that I never really had one to begin with, but as a small child, I felt close to my mother. While our parents shared their attention between my brother and me, there was one parent for each baby. As is not uncommon, my dad was more naturally inclined to my twin brother and I was more attached to my mom.
That glorious four-year stretch of life was abruptly ended when my mom gave birth to triplets—two boys and a girl. Three more babies! Naturally, there was less attention to go around, which was already becoming a touchy issue for me. And with my sister demanding a lot of my mother’s attention and my dad being extremely busy trying to provide for an exponentially larger family and generally leaning toward his three sports-obsessed boys, I felt I was in a chasm, suspended in space.
As a child, I created circumstances to test this hypothesis and prove to myself that I was as unimportant as I felt. When our playmate sat in my favorite chair at the dinner table, I stormed out of the house in the winter and hid behind a snow bank. No one came. If I didn’t come home from school, no one called for a search party. I even got lost in the crowd at Disneyland as my family wandered off without me. Ok, that time it didn’t take my mom too long to notice I was gone. But you get the point—I felt invisible. In the battle for my mother’s attention, I felt like I lost and my sister, in particular, had won.
The Phantom House
With this new theory in hand, I was just about to congratulate myself again on cracking the case. But then I talked to my sister (yes, that sister). In a conciliatory talk following some creative differences in planning our parents’ 70th birthday party, we started talking about our individual journeys to make sense of our childhoods and heal old wounds.
You can imagine my surprise when she told me she felt invisible growing up—that she didn’t get the attention she needed. My immediate (and fortunately silent) reaction was something along the lines of, “Well, that’s rich. How could you possibly think that?” But then it hit me. This whole narrative I crafted, this house I’ve built of memories, anecdotes, and secret childhood wishes, may be without a solid foundation.
There is the distinct possibility that I’ve been influenced, shaped, and ultimately hurt by things that were more about creating and fulfilling my own drama and a product of the anxious pulses of my mind than any dire problems with the way I was raised. In that instant, I understood in a very visceral way what Buddhists mean when they say “self is a fiction.” What we experience as our "self" is just a collection of stories borne out of the “holes in our emotional experience.” They may be what we needed to adapt to or protect ourselves from challenging situations or to feel better in the face of pain, but may not be rooted in objective reality.
This is not to say that my memories are false or insignificant and I certainly don’t want to make light of the real, life-changing trauma that some people go through. My memories are very real; it’s in how I processed and took meaning from them, and how my psyche integrated them into my personality that is problematic. It’s also very subjective. What can be significant to one person and leave a deep imprint on one person, can be so unimportant to another it doesn’t even register or is easily forgotten. It is one reason why children from the same family, even families like mine with twins and triplets, can turn out so differently from one another.
Despite being a product of the same environment, being treated more or less the same on average over time, and bearing witness to many of the same events, my siblings and I have a different mix of memories that stand out and seem to have processed many of our shared experiences differently. For example, our father set very high standards and could be critical of our mistakes, sometimes calling us names when we messed up or didn’t understand something right away. One reaction to that hurt is to develop thick skin to dull and deflect hurtful remarks. Another is to get angry and match or pre-empt insults anytime there is a perceived slight. Yet another is to take those insults to heart and question one’s self-worth. I predominantly chose the first path, making myself numb to criticism and insults—playful or otherwise.
But there are other things I am hyper-sensitive about and get me upset. Which led me to wonder: who is really writing the script of my thoughts? Who is directing the narrative I tell myself and to what end? I know there is a voice coming from my soul, but the live streaming in my head isn’t it. This is the voice telling me that someone doesn’t like me or I did something wrong when an email goes unanswered or taunts me that all my friends are out having fun without me. It is the voice that second guesses what I know to be true and thinks about all the ways I can fail at something before I even try.
I gave a name to this director behind the scenes—I call it “Shitty Mind,” because, well, it is a shitty companion, a shitty advisor, and a shitty predictor of future events. What the Shitty Mind is excellent at is overthinking, jumping to the worst case scenario, and making it all about me and what I need to stay trapped in my storyline. And it is nearly always wrong.
That unanswered email? I sent it to the wrong address. That gathering of friends I wasn’t invited to? Everyone’s sitting at home staying out of the cold just like me. All that chatter streaming through my mind day in and day out is total garbage. And it’s been with me all along. Maybe all those whispers growing up about my sister being my mom’s favorite, that no one would miss me if I disappeared, that no one liked me as much as I liked them were coming from that same neurotic source, that same Shitty Mind. And why would I take that for truth?
As I turn 40, I know better.
Befriending the Past
One of the biggest problems with buying in to what the Shitty Mind has to say is that you can miss or overlook the true gifts of what it meant to grow up as you in your particular family. For me, being part of a family with insanely busy and accomplished parents and battling for attention against a horde of siblings is what created the conditions I needed to grow into who I really am and do what I’m on earth to do. Instead of lamenting my childhood or wishing it was different, I should be thanking it for planting the seeds to what will bring me the greatest joy.
All those things that forced me inward and caused me to retreat unto myself, led me to a wonderful discovery—my soul. Being one of many gave me the space and freedom to get to know me and find solace in being alone. As a little girl, left to myself, I wrote poetry, mused in my journal, and talked to the universe.
After school, I would ride my bike to a big meadow behind one of the other elementary schools and lay in the grass until dinner time, just looking up at the sky, listening to the birds sing, and pondering big questions like why we die. It was my favorite thing in the whole world.
Being largely on my own and not having someone available every time I needed a little help also taught me to be independent and strong and solve my own problems. Even in second grade, when I fell and broke my arm trying to skip too many bars on the swing set in our backyard, I tried to fix it myself in the bathroom. Needless to say, that didn’t work, but I took pride in not needing much help with homework or other normal parental intervention, which gave me confidence that I was smart and capable of navigating the world on my own and instilled the courage to be different. That alone has helped me immensely as I make my way in the world.
Seeing my childhood in this new light, framed by the gifts it offered, shifted the mental conversation and is breaking any remaining hold it had over me, setting the stage for a genuine letting go. I can appreciate my past, including my own seemingly poor decisions, for what they taught me and for their role in creating who I am today and will become in the future.
In the spirit of being grateful for those lessons and remembering all the good things that are so easy to hide behind the bad, I am closing the book. Was it helpful to examine my past hurts and patterns? Yes. But I don’t need to understand everything about my past to let it go.
My future growth is not to be found by looking backwards and defining myself by old feelings and experiences, but by being anchored here in the present with eyes to the horizon. I can’t let the past and the narration of the Shitty Mind be a distraction from what truly matters. Only my soul, my true voice can answer my deepest questions—What is my calling? How am I going to show up? What will be my legacy?
As I enter the next decade of my life, I hold that little girl in my heart. A girl in love with leaves, trees, and the trickling of a slow-moving stream. A girl who felt at one with everything around her and had a personal relationship with the heavens above. I call out to her, knowing that I’m bringing her with me. I apologize to her for being away so long. But together, we are walking through the gate to the rest of our life.