I was recently asked a thoughtful question by an interviewer that I have never been asked before. The question is “When did you start to work on yourself?” I paused before answering, but then it hit me that I remember the moment vividly. I was six years old when I realized I needed to parent myself. I had clarity in that exact moment that my environment at home was not ideal, and I needed to figure out how to be a successful adult and how to grow myself into that person.
Childhood Trauma Trigger
I had this epiphany because I was experiencing a very unstable, chaotic childhood. While I had a very warm, loving, artistic mom who I deeply connected to and loved, she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. When I was just 18 months old, my mother started to be institutionalized in mental hospitals. She would repeatedly go in and out of them for the first decade of my childhood. When she could come home, life would be great. And then I’d come home from school the next day, and she would suddenly be gone. That deep attachment was consistently being ripped away.
My father was terrifying – he was an alcoholic, and emotionally, verbally, and sexually abusive. He was an unstable blue collar worker which created considerable and consistent financial anxiety. Since I was an only child, there was no one to lean on in this dysfunctional environment.
I knew I didn’t want to be like either of my parents. I wanted to be successful, happy, and productive. And so, I started my journey to design who I wanted to be by becoming an acute observer of others. I was already blessed that I was hypervigilant. I had to be a good observer just to stay safe, so I could pick up cues and nuances in the environment. I also turned to television sitcoms where I garnered nuggets of wisdom and values. I paid attention when I went to friends’ houses so I could observe other values and how ‘normal’ families lived.
By the time I was ten, my mom was never again released to come home. She never did come home until I became her legal guardian and was able to take care of her. Amazingly, this traumatic upbringing shaped who I am in very positive ways, some of them applicable to you. At any age, under any circumstances, you have the power to shape your destiny and to design who you want to be. You have the capacity to change the thought patterns in your brain so that you can make profound and transformative change in your life, both personally and professionally. When I look back, I can identify three phases of profound growth in which I worked to become who I am today.
From the Outside Looking In
The first phase was becoming an exceptional external observer, which I did as a child. All the things (studying sitcoms, other families, etc.) were catalysts that shaped me. I learned lessons of empathy which allowed me to connect with people, and that was very important because I was driven to find mentors, people outside my toxic home life that would guide me. Teachers played a huge role in my life! I was both internalizing and learning and externally building relationships that helped me feel valued, loved, seen, and heard. Those were things I was often not getting at home.
Even as a young child, I believed I could control my own destiny and not be a victim of my home life. I later learned that’s called an internal locus of control and it’s the belief that you can design yourself. I worked hard to visualize the person I wanted to be later in life, and I worked thoughtfully to embody the characteristics of my future self. Here are some of the steps I took at that young age:
- I started reading memoirs voraciously to see what other people had done in the world and what was possible.
- I attached to female empathic teachers to replace the absence of my mom.
- I surrounded myself with adults. I preferred being in the company of adults rather than kids my own age because I wanted to learn from the adults. They were far more stimulating to me than my peers.
The second phase happened when my father and I moved to Chicago when I was ten years old. Now that I was alone with my father, I experienced more stressors and far more erratic behavior. I had no other family to turn to, so I started reflecting internally. This is the point in my life where I started journaling, and I haven’t stopped since. I sought answers to questions that I had about myself, about my journey, and about what success was. I constantly contemplated who I was, who I wanted to be, what I would consider important in my life, and how I could ensure I was going to be okay.
As I grew older, I realized I was plagued with anxiety. In my twenties, I sought professional help which I consider phase three of my growth. This was extremely powerful because it’s where I learned to make powerful lens shifts and became more aware of my blind spots.
I engaged in intensive psychotherapy which lasted ten years. I started a daily and deep practice of meditation which was considered fringe and “out there” back then. I also began a rigorous practice of spirituality. I studied Buddhism, Hinduism, Eastern philosophies and through all of this, I ended up building a healthy, integrated ego.
Why Share Now?
I’m sharing my story with you for several reasons.
One is that deep, transformational change is possible often despite a traumatic upbringing. Sometimes people live in the state of their past, and they are stuck there. They don’t understand what’s possible or how they can transform both their personal and professional lives with hard work.
Today, I can look back at the intensity of my childhood environment and consider it positive because it shaped my focus on being happy, healthy, and present in my life.
I also want to shed the stigma of getting professional mental help. You can build your best self with the assistance of therapy, coaching, meditation, anything that allows you to go inside yourself and become more mindful in the moment. When we are self-aware, we can see when and why we get triggered and work to curb those intense reactions.
There is no more powerful way to live your best self personally and professionally than to do a deep dive and reap the benefits for the rest of your life. That’s the beauty of this type of self-work, and it will only reap more rewards as you continue the journey.
Finally, the passion that I had to recreate myself was redirected to build expertise and become a thought leader to help others become better versions of their self. My favorite quote to this day is:
“Life is not about finding yourself; it’s about creating yourself.”
The reason I love that quote is that it is active not passive, and that is key to shifting from who you are to creating and designing who you want to be both personally and professionally.
Put Yourself to the Test
One of the ways to turbo charge your development is to ask yourself powerful questions, which is something I started in phase two of my own development. These questions can be a catalyst in your own journey. To really challenge yourself, ask if your first pass answers are true or whether there is something deeper that could be even more true.
Before I share those questions, I want to share a frightening statistic I read over twenty years ago: Over the course of a year, people spend more time planning a vacation than they spend in deep thought about themselves.
If that research was in fact true, my assessment is the gap is even wider today with the increased distractions of our phones, social media, and everything else that takes us further away from critical deep thought.
Here’s to your evolution and growth!
How to Design Your Life Questions
Dive deep and ask yourself these questions:
- What effect did your childhood have on who you have become?
- What patterns or thoughts do you have repeatedly throughout the day? We have 50,000+ thoughts a day, and most of them are the exact same thoughts, so what are you saying to yourself? Start to listen.
- What has shaped you? Think about your beliefs about money, relationships, success, your future, about all the things you do robotically without thought. Your behavior is shaped by your subconscious beliefs, attitudes, and perspectives. Start to unravel those.
- What experiences either at home or externally were powerful? They help to shape your perspectives. They shape how you respond and react to different situations in your life. For example, people of an older generation who had parents who went through the Great Depression will typically be frugal and thoughtful about money, sometimes to an extreme, because their parents were impacted by it.
- Have you overcome any major hurdles to get to where you are today?
- When you splurge on something, what is it? Where you spend your money will tell you what you value.
- What would surprise people about you?
- What quote, book, poem, movie, or play has made a powerful impression on you? Look deeper as to why. Why did that art touch you? Why did it resonate with you?
- What hidden opportunities are available to you right now? What door recently shut that could have opened a new window of opportunity?
- Take on a new persona. Pretend you are going to a Halloween party and choose a famous person who you want to embody. Who would you pretend to be and why? What is it about this person that makes you want to be him/her for the evening?
- What would you title a book about your life? What are three chapter headings that would be in that book? How will your life be different beginning today if one of those chapters is about your future self?
- All of us have been through adversity, challenges, disappointments, and trauma. Think back over the course of your life and jot down mini or major successes you’ve had where you overcame yourself or obstacles. Are there any similarities to challenges you are facing right now? You may have forgotten how powerful you are.
- How can you take advantage of the person you were in that moment? Channel the person who created those past successes to overcome what you are facing right now.
- If you could have the perfect life you always dreamed of, what activity would you begin now to help you achieve it? What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? If you knew you would be successful, what project would you undertake? What work would you do? What goal would you set for yourself? What risk would you take?
- Write your obituary. How do you want to be remembered?
- What stories do you have right now in your life? What story is stopping you? What perspective is standing in your way?
- What do you avoid? For some people, they avoid silence. For others, they may avoid crucial conversations, confrontations, while others stay busy to avoid feeling. How is what you are avoiding in the way?
- What is at the root of the situation? Ask yourself why you want something or why do you feel that way?
- If you were to write down a list of everything that is important to do but not urgent, what would be on your list?
- Most of us are very aware of our shortcomings, what we tend to forget is our opportunities for development and our strengths. If you made a list of your weaknesses and strengths, you may be surprised to find out that some of them are correlated. How can you over-index your strengths to counter those negatives? How can you transform those opportunities for development into something valuable?
If you aren’t already on the way to becoming the person you’ve designed in this exercise, take the first step today. Start to live that purposeful life!