Unlearning Environmental Truths — The Invisible Backpack

As we continue on our journey throughout life, we learn to live, work and lead through our experiences. If you’ve heard the saying, “”I am a product of my environment,”” that is precisely what I am referring to.

Generally, when we were young, our environments allowed us to go from making mud pies and fearing nothing (if you grew up in a stable household) to fearing or reacting to specific things and events. As we develop into adults, we either learn healthy coping mechanisms and how to process those moments when we are up against a fear, or we learn how to survive and thrive in the chaos for which we didn’t have the language or understanding.

Studies show that kids are susceptible to their parents’ behaviors and stress levels from birth. So a baby that grows up constantly hearing their parents yell is more prone to search for that familiar chaos and stress throughout life, collecting evidence for why they should embrace stress because it’s rooted in feelings of comfort. They become used to their parasympathetic nervous system being activated and find themselves chasing that heightened experience and feeling safe, in a sense, once in it.

Some time ago, you too started collecting evidence for why you should be and exist in the world the way you currently do. Maybe you learned how to process things healthily, but for many, we’ve never made sense of all the experiences we’ve collected. Most of us collected evidence from these experiences, dropped it into our unconscious minds, and kept moving. We watched things happen in our family, at school, in all the settings that make up our lives, took a little pebble of evidence from each one, dropped it into your invisible backpack, and continued on throughout life.

I want to take this moment to let you know that there is nothing wrong with this. Reread that line if you need to so my words actually land. There is nothing wrong with going through life this way.

The only thing to know about that backpack — the only thing that is true — is that yes, it does exist, and with it, you carry experiences. That’s it. Those experiences, and the little pebbles we’ve collected from those experiences, unconsciously and consciously inform us as to how we show up in the present day. How hopeful we can be. How much risk we can handle. Again, not a bad thing. In fact, what’s in that backpack keeps us safe for the most part! Safe from the unknown and safe from what we’ve labeled — with help from that evidence — as unsafe.

But what happens when all the evidence we’ve been carrying starts working against us? What happens when all the protective mechanisms we’ve developed as a result start to hinder our growth?

Let’s take a look at some of those protective mechanisms and see what they might be telling us. (I’ve given them names to help distinguish them.)

  • “The Undeserving” — Disempowering stories stop you from pursuing the position you deserve, the relationship you deserve, the ______ (you fill in the blank).

And there are many more! This just scratches the surface.

What could you accomplish if you were aware of the unconscious pebbles you carry? How would you show up differently in your life today if you had this awareness? Is there anything that would shift for you?

If yes, I suggest you begin being really curious and explore those possibilities you just mentioned. I offer you two specific ways to do so.

Therapy: Let it be known — I suggest treatment for ALL. Therapy isn’t just for those with significant traumas or mental illness. It can be a space to remove your pebbles and find healthy things to do with them.

Coaching: Coaching is a space where people get to reflect and move intentionally with a quick pace towards their goal. Coaches hold mirrors so you can see the backpack you are carrying. They angle the mirror at times so you can look at what’s hiding in your bag. Coaches don’t heal as a goal. Instead, coaches ask what you see and what you want to do with your findings, so you can move forward, aware of what you are carrying and no longer dragged down by the weight of something you can no longer see. Coaches believe that each human has the skills and know how to move on and create their own path once they can see what’s holding them back.

What difference would it make to see your blindspots as a leader? or as a parent? In this journey called life?

Tip** If you have the means, I recommend working with a coach and a therapist simultaneously. The services are incredibly complementary to each other. As you progress in coaching, you’ll notice some barriers. Sometimes those pebbles won’t be as easy to remove. For that, you go to therapy and heal. After that, it’s a bit of a rinse and repeat, until you arrive at your chosen goal.

Yes, we are the product of our environments…but that doesn’t mean we have to stay that way forever. Lucky for us, we get to create new environments any time we choose. It might not be easy or comfortable work — in fact, I can almost guarantee it won’t be. That’s why getting supported is so important.

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