I was about six-years-old the day my father grabbed me by the arm, yanked me over his knee and launched into a classic, 80’s style, ass whoppin in the parking lot of the Cherry Hill Mall. My punishable atrocity: losing the five dollar bill my abuelita had just given me only one hour earlier.
Knowing how adult frustrations work now, in a weird way, I’m sympathetic to his response. Probably freshly agitated from a long week of politcal nonsense at work, followed by an early morning of teaching sixty, rowdy-ass kids the art of karate (while the other sensei’s were busy trying to get sexy with the moms in the back office), we had just left his parents house — where he undoubtedly heard how his life “is a disappointment”, or how “his wife shouldn’t be black” or that he “isn’t doing xyz correctly.” By the time we got to the parking lot an extra twenty miles away from home, for a Barbie doll that I really needed to have, without the money I had just gotten to pay for it, I think homeboy just snapped. And my ass, amongst all the things he could not control in his life, was the grass that got cut.
Since that day, my dad has made a hundred more mistakes with me, as well as a million and one great choices. And despite that brief Puerto Rican flare up, a reaction he surely learned from of his own father (and before he understood how to become an even better father), I know that my dad has always lived for my happiness. The sacrifices he made and the successes he worked hard for were all so that I could live a better life than he was able to.
And yet, despite every great memory that came after that day, I can still feel the shame and fear of disappointing him in that moment, almost twenty-two years later. I’m not angry at him for it. Nor do I believe that I deserved that reaction. But in writing this down, I’ve realized that my brain placed a drop pin on that particular memory. And I have built my whole life around that pin as a measure of how to be a “good girl” – and what happens when I’m not.
A Complex Computer
There’s a really good reason therapists make us dig through our past. The brain is ingenious at archiving the experiences of our lives, especially those that are painful. And like a computer, without much work on your behalf, whenever another painful incident arises, the brain will automatically run a program of defense. Like touching something really hot for the first time — afterwards, you instinctively know to avoid doing that again and how to respond if accidentally you do.
But there’s a catch. A computer will do it’s thing for years and years with all the data it’s collected until it just conks out. However, there’s no real way to evolve what the computer knows, expand on what it can do or to delete old programs without an engineer.
That’s where you come in. While your brain is a tool (and quite sophisticated), it’s you, the engineer, that has the final say on what’s possible.
I mean let’s face it — I’m pretty sure no one will ever beat my ass for losing a five dollar bill again. And it would be weird to respond to every similar situation where I lost something or failed to do something correctly as if there is the danger of experiencing that same level of consequence. However, brains on autopilot don’t work like that — especially when you’re a kid and don’t know that what’s happened to you is so disproportionate. The brain reads that painful experience as law and fact and then quickly builds a program to avoid feeling that pain ever again. So despite all the things I now know as an adult, without even realizing it, I’ve been running that guilt-ridden program for the past twenty-two years. With every deadline I’ve missed, or lover I’ve accidentally pissed off, I experience the parking lot all over again; sending me in a panic to prove that I’m not really a bad girl and avoid the terrible consequence (which has never, ever been as bad as it was that day.)
But it’s common. The brain does this. I know people who have expensive drinking habits, impressive shoe collections, fanciful sex lives and secret bouts of self-imposed loneliness — all because of a brain on autopilot. They’ve never gone in and deleted the programs that can’t handle present day conflicts. Thus blocking themselves from the lives they want, without even knowing why it’s happening.
Rebooting The System
I’ve been aware of this line of thought for quite a few years and have slowly chipped away at the habit. The process comes with a lot of tears, a few more disappointments, but ultimately a life I more or less recognized as good enough for me. And last September, on a family vacation just outside of Barcelona, my dad recognized it as more than good enough for him, too. Under the stars of a Spanish sky, we sat down and talked about how different my life turned out to be. He never anticipated that I’d step out so far from the things he tried in his lifetime, but he loved that I was brave enough to do it all anyway. And he was deeply and sincerely proud of me. He didn’t remember the parking lot incident, but at the same time it didn’t seem important to me that he did. It was just something that happened to us, but not everything that happened between us.
It would be such a mistake to continue to use an old way of thinking, made from an old experience that can no longer hurt me. I don’t friggin use Microsoft 5.5 DOS to write my articles. Why would I use an old, fear-based program to write the rest of my life with?
If there’s a pattern that causes a tremendous amount of suffering and doubt in your life, push up your sleeves and read the damn code. Be the engineer. See what’s been hurting you and then let it all go. Reboot the system and write a new program that really works for you. Grab a therapist, a self-help book, or whatever it may take. But for the sake of the rest of your life’s happiness and all the loved ones in it, deleting the old programs that limit you it’s the most important work you can do. Your actions are big and they leave an impression. Do all of them on purpose.