“Paradigms are like glasses. When you have incomplete paradigms about yourself or life in general, it’s like wearing glasses with the wrong prescription. That lens affects how you see everything else.” ~ Sean Covey ~
I am 6 years old…
I am running and screaming around the small dining table in our kitchen. My sister Annie is chasing her prey, hands and mouth open wide as she tries to catch and then bite me. She is laughing and also serious, enjoying the thrill of tormenting her older sister, but she will indeed sink her baby teeth into my flesh should they find its mark. So I continue to run and scream, pulling chairs in her path and throwing couch pillows at her head. “What is going on in here?” my mother demands, coming in from the yard, covered in sweat and fresh grass clippings. We freeze mid-chase. She looks at us and already has her answer. This incident is not the first.
My mom drags Annie off into our room. She returns to me exasperated. “Why do you let her get away with that?” she asks, frustrated she had to stop the yard work to deal with our childhood nonsense.
“I can’t!” I sob dramatically! “She is stronger than me! I am not fast enough to get away from her, she will hurt me! I can’t stop her!” My mother rolls her eyes and lets out a deep breath. I’m sure she wants to say “just hit her and be done with it, you are bigger than her!” but good mothers do not say such things and I have a good mother, so she takes me into her arms and simply says “I know.”
I am 8 years old…
The tall cement front porch is the side of a towering mountain, the top nearly above my head. I hoist one leg as high as I can manage, the other I push against the nearby steps as I thrust my body to the top, my knee scraping against the rough cement as I scale the rim. I am not an 8 year old girl today. I am an adventurer conquering mountainous peaks. I stand proud and raise my arms above my head in victory.
The crunching gravel in our driveway and a quick, two honk hello distracts me, and as I turn towards the approaching car, my right foot slips and I fall. I am uncertain how one falls in such a dramatic fashion from a simple misstep, but my feet flip over my head and I land with a resounding spat upon my back in the grass below.
I cannot breath.
I lie flat on my back, eyes straight towards the puffy white clouds floating against the brilliant blue sky and think, “I am dying” in all sincerity. The hot panic and fear washes from head to toe until at last, my breath returns in a sharp inhale of air. I sit up and start crying hysterically. The incident utterly terrifying, certain I narrowly escaped death.
My aunt comes out of the car and rushes to my side, unaware of what had transpired but reacts to my panicked sobs. My mother comes outside, my sister on her heels. I am hugged, reassured, and comforted. I tell the story, especially the part about not being able to breathe. My sister rolls her eyes. I ignore her and elaborate upon the fear and helplessness. My aunt and mother listen with interest. I am pampered the rest of the day and given extra hugs and attention.
I am 14 years old…
I hop from log to rock, winding my way along the path attempting to avoid puddles and mud. My sister Annie, four cousins and I are hiking the nearby state park. Mitch, the leader turns off the marked trail and begins to ascend a steep, sandstone cliff face, grabbing tiny roots and saplings as leverage. One, two, three and four others follow suit, walking past the marked “NO CLIMBING” sign to join his ascent. I pause. I am afraid. Signs exist for a reason, they are there to protect us.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” I yell. They all stop climbing to tell me why I’m wrong. They tell me I am a wimp and to get up here already. I finally join them, against my better judgement, tired of being the butt of the jokes. I clench my teeth the entire way but do successfully arrive at the top. For the remainder of our hike, each “NO CLIMBING” and “NO OFF TRAIL” sign is an opportunity for them to mock my fear, my weakness, and my propensity for rule following. It is not mean spirited, but each jab lands with a sting and reminds me that I am not strong or courageous.
In my childhood family of four, I assume the role of wimp, the good girl, the rule follower, the sensitive, dramatic, delicate one who can’t handle pain or her emotions. My sister is wild and tough, she breaks her leg in three places in 5th grade P.E. and does not shed a single tear in front of her classmates. I sob in my mother’s arm when I can’t properly tight roll my 80s jeans. I accept these attributes as idiosyncrasies of my personality, not flaws, but simply who I am.
Our family dynamic is contingent upon everyone fulfilling the roles we’ve all come to play. We behave predictably and grow comfortably into our characters. My dad is the strict one, my mom the constantly in motion, get shit done one, my sister the mischievous one, and I am the sensitive one. I know who I am. They know who I am and every interaction confirms it.
I grow, mature and move through life without questioning or challenging who I am. I not only accept the labels I’ve acquired, but unconsciously seek to validate them through my actions. If something is hard, I give up. If I get hurt, I crave overt compassion and attention. If I am sad, I sob.
My predictable identity keeps me company as I head out into the world on my own at 19, but a college apartment is a different stage. My roommates have their own drama and problems, they don’t need mine. I gradually begin to push against my assumed limitations, stretching my comfortable excuses thin.
It turns out, I can do hard things, without complaint even. I still have strong emotions, but crying at work is frowned upon so I learn to keep them in check. Opportunity, struggle, responsibility, all challenge assumptions about myself I held for two decades.
Here I am, another twenty years later and still working to challenge limiting beliefs and recognize the bullshit stories I tell myself. Most of these paradigms run so deep we don’t even know they exist. Others, we may be aware of but simply accept them as unchangeable parts of who we are, as I did.
Rewriting the Messages
The messages we receive about who we are, what we’re capable of, and who we should be start the day we are born. Well intending parents and relatives pass their paradigms to us. Advertisers play on our insecurities so we will buy and buy and buy. Ex-boyfriends, mean girls, our first boss, and nearly everyone we meet in between contribute to the formation of our own identity, to who we come to believe ourselves to be.
What we believe about ourselves becomes our truth. If we believe we aren’t good at something, then we won’t be. If we think we’re the weak one or the slow one or the boring one or the ugly duckling, then we’ll use every interaction to confirm our biases. Instead of figuring out who we really are and who we really want to be, we keep settling for the limiting lies.
You are capable of so much more than you think. Who you were 20 years ago, or who you believed yourself to be your entire life isn’t actually true. You have the power to decide who you are and who you want to be. Your identity isn’t static, it’s ever changing and evolving as you change and evolve. Don’t let old, worn out stories limit you from growing into the woman you want to be.
Maybe you actually were weak and timid years ago; that doesn’t mean you can’t be strong and bold right now. Release all the bullshit about who you think you are and just be whoever the hell you want to be, regardless of your past, old beliefs, and fears. When you act in accordance with who you want to be, even if you have to fake it ’till you make it, you’ll realize you can do and become just about anything. Anything’s possible when you simply believe it is.
What do you believe about yourself or the world that keeps you from living fully and enjoying life without apology? What limitations have you come to accept as personality flaws? And when is the last time you thought about who you REALLY are inside instead of who the world thinks you are?