Early Programming

“At the beginning of all growth, everything imitates.”

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesian author, essayist and historian

“You think you know so damn much,” he spat. “You don’t know a damn thing!”

With that, Jerry’s father removed the small engine from the vice where it was secured and threw it against the garage wall. Parts, including the carburetor, broke off and bounced across the shop floor. A handsaw and level hanging on hooks fell from the wall and clattered to the floor. Jerry was only about 12 at the time, but he knew full well what was coming next – a jarring, open-handed cuff across the side of the head. Instead of waiting for the inevitable, he turned and ran. Despite yells and curses for him to stop and return, he kept running – all the way to his secret hiding spot, where he hunkered down and stayed for most of the day.

Jerry’s story is just one of many I’ve heard over the years. People with self-esteem issues often have traumatic stories of abuse from childhood. In Jerry’s case, he loved to tinker, so one day found his way into his father’s workshop, where he placed an old Briggs & Stratton gas engine – the type you’d find on a garden cultivator – into a vice of the workbench. Jerry thought if he could get it working, his father might let him use it to power a go-kart he was building.

“That old engine had sat on the shelf for years,” Jerry reflected on the incident. “When I came back, it was outside in the trash bin. Nothing more was said about it.”   

It’s a given that early childhood experiences – early programming – can tremendously affect our self-esteem. For Jerry, every time he’d begin to feel competent, he would hear his father’s angry declaration that he didn’t know a “damn thing” and lose all self-confidence.     

Though there is evidence to support the idea that some personality traits are genetic – like a hot temper or a shiftless nature – there is even greater evidence to support the assertion that most of our personality traits are the result of experiences we had as children. 

For example, suppose a child grows up in an overly-protective family. In that case, he or she might come to believe the world is frightening and unsafe and develop unfounded fears and insecurities. As a result, the child might fear strangers and find it difficult to meet new people and build relationships.

Our self-esteem reflects how we feel about ourselves and contributes to how we approach the world. Although our self-esteem fluctuates daily, it gives us a general sense of our self-efficacy, personal value and self-worth. This “sense” is reflected in our behaviour, body language, response to crisis and conflict, and overall demeanour.

In a report by the American Psychological Association, it is estimated that one in four Americans suffers from a mental health condition and that low self-esteem is a contributing factor. According to the report, there is a “high correlation between mental health conditions like depression and anxiety and low self-esteem.” The report goes on to say that developing a loving and positive self-image in childhood is a “proactive way to shift these numbers.”

Research suggests that eight factors contribute to negative early programming: disapproving authority figures, uninvolved/preoccupied caregivers, authority figures in the conflict, trauma, academic challenges with little caregiver support, bullying, cultural or religious belief systems, and unrealistic expectations of society and the media.

If your childhood was like most, you probably experienced one or many of these factors. Over time, they have become woven into the tapestry of your life and absorbed in ways you might never imagine. They have contributed to making you the person you are today. The important thing to know is that you’re not bound – as an adult – by these early circumstances. Upon reviewing your history, you may discover that many of these experiences and intense emotional messages weren’t necessarily meant for you. They were reactions and responses to circumstances by the people who delivered them to you – people who were dealing with their own poor early programming. With awareness and time spent in reflection, you may be able to release and forgive or at least dilute the power of these negative messages in your life. Understanding the sources of your self-esteem issues will help you put them into proper context.

One of the first steps toward shifting your early programming is to challenge the negative messages from your inner critic. If you listen to what the critic is saying, the messages are often unrealistic, generalized, illogical or catastrophized/unlikely predictions. Instead, use the inner critic as a means of revealing what it is that you’ve come to accept to be true.

Rebuking the inner critic is a great first step, but you’ll also need to practise self-compassion. Treat yourself gently and with respect and empathy – how you would show it to others. Be mindful of your emotions and watch for your triggers. This can be insightful. Once you know what triggers an emotional and damaging response, you can learn to unplug.

It’s important to talk about experiences that damaged you as a child. I’m not talking about playing the victim or moaning the blues, but to talk, explore and release positively. People with low self-esteem are often reluctant to ask for help, feeling underserving of it. Speak with a friend, join a self-esteem group or, if necessary, talk to a therapist or counsellor.

“There is no magic cure [and] no way to make it all go away forever,” writes American young adult novelist Laurie Halse Anderson on early childhood experiences. “There are only small steps upward. An easier day, an unexpected laugh, a mirror that doesn’t matter anymore.”

Yes, there will be those experiences from childhood that are impossible to resolve but what matters is that you continue to look for ways to learn, grow, understand and forgive. With time and perseverance, you’ll become more skilled at repairing the early damage.

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