Your Origin Story: How Past Experiences Shape Who You Are & How You Connect

Even if you’re not a comic book buff, you are likely familiar with the idea of origin stories - the backstories that inform the motivations and actions of both heroes and villains.  While you aren’t likely an alien on this planet, a “chosen one,” or the victim of a lucky accident that left you with superhero powers, the life that you have lived has informed who you are now, and how you connect with the world around you. Understanding a bit more about your own origin story - and how your brain has made sense of it - will serve you as you move forward.

Our brains do a lot of work behind the scenes, and they’re often collecting and sorting data that we soak in as we move through the world - even when we’re not cognitively aware of it.  Our brains look for patterns and assemble this information in a way that is useful for our daily functioning.  For example, if you walk into a room and see a chair that you’ve never seen before, chances are still pretty good that your brain will recognize it as a chair, and consequently, you’ll know how to interact with it. 

While this seems simple, this function of “schematic sorting” serves us greatly.  Mostly, it saves us from having to re-explore everything in our surroundings every time that we encounter it - which is a huge time saver.  Outside of concrete objects, our brains perform this same schematic sorting process as we make sense of our relationships and place in the world.  

This is how our schemas - or core beliefs - are created.  

Imagine for a moment that there is a child named Bailey who is told repeatedly by an abusive parent that they aren’t worth much. Over time, Bailey will come to believe that to be true, and this belief will influence the way that Bailey moves through the world.  

Once we have a belief like this, another function of our brain kicks in and enacts confirmation bias.  This is the part of our brain that seeks to find corollary evidence that reinforces the facts that we already know.  This means that Bailey is going to pay more attention to situations that reinforce the idea that he isn’t worth much, rather than situations that challenge that belief.

It isn’t hard to see how a child who is told they’re worthless would likely come to believe it.  But, it isn’t just the explicit messages that become internal beliefs, and it isn’t just kids who have abusive parents who are impacted by the past they’ve lived.

Imagine a student named Aiden who is on the honor roll and well-liked by their peers and teachers.  Their parents praise them when they do well, and they take them to celebratory dinners after they bring home each A+ report card.  They star on their soccer team, and are often praised for their good behavior and attentiveness to others. 

So, what did Aiden learn about themselves and the world?  Maybe that hard work pays off? That they need to perform well in order to be liked and receive attention?  That paying attention to other people’s feelings is useful or important?  It is hard to definitively say - and only Aiden would be able to tell us. There is not one set of blueprints that spells out the learned belief for each situation that someone might encounter.

But, regardless of what Aiden learned, we can guarantee that it impacts the way that they move through the world now and connect with others.  

Your mind may be reeling at this point trying to assess your own internal beliefs (or what beliefs you may be passing on to your children).  Working with a therapist can be a great way to help you sort through these beliefs and to make sense of your experiences.

In the meantime, a few things to consider:

  • Do you believe that others see and value you?

  • Do you have a natural “default” way that you interact with others? (i.e. being a people pleaser, a bully, or a pushover etc.)

  • Do you have beliefs about what you deserve

  • What do you believe you need to do to keep other people connected to you?

  • Do you feel like you’re too much? Not enough?

However you answer these questions, you can be sure that the answers impact the way you connect with others.  While you’re not likely heading out to save the world, your own origin story holds a wealth of information about who you are today.  Bringing awareness to your history and your  core beliefs is a great first step to better understanding yourself and your relationships - and I’d argue that self-work and intentional relationships are pretty heroic in their own right.

Questions? Thoughts? Reach out!

Lacy Alana, LCSW

One Bump Away: The Legacy of Trauma

As a child, I spent many afternoons replaying the same two vinyl records on the dusty gramophone that sat shoved into the corner of my first home's den. There weren’t many options, so I switched back and forth between One Eyed One Horned Flying Purple People Eater and Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, the songs with the catchiest tunes on their respective records.  Recently, when preparing a training about what happens in the brain when we experience trauma, I reflected on how apt of a metaphor records are for the way that we develop patterns and recall experiences in our brains and bodies.

Like a 45 played over and over again, repeated experiences wear a metaphoric groove into the brain.  This groove signifies the same thing that it does on the record —that this song (pattern) has been visited and re-visited frequently. If a record player is bumped or jostled, the needle is likely to skip from wherever it currently is into the deeper groove, jumping to play that most-played song.  Even if you pick a different song - when it ends - the needle is likely to hop back over to the deepest groove to again replay that most-played song.

For people who’ve had a lot of good experiences, this is great news!  The deepest grooves reflect “songs” of safety, support, and security.  If the needle jumps over to play the song with the deepest groove, it will likely be a pleasant one.  And, though bumps may come along, the positive songs are likely to prevail and dominate the soundtrack.

On the other hand, if you’ve experienced sustained trauma, your most familiar song may be one of deep pain.  It may be linked to the mobilization pattern of “fight, flight, or freeze,” and it may be connected to sadness, anger, shame, hurt, or abuse.  Being unexpectedly and repeatedly “bumped” into these familiar songs is far from ideal. 

If you've ever been with someone who has a complex trauma history (or perhaps you yourself do), you may be familiar with the seemingly sudden shifts in mood and affect that can pop up unannounced.  This may be reflective of the person having slid into an old “trauma song.”  This may elicit a variety of responses, including  flashbacks or dissociation, moods shifts, or changes in thinking patterns that influence the way that someone perceives and understands themselves and the world around them.

As we experience the world, especially as children, we develop schemas -  internalized beliefs about ourselves, the world, and our place in it.  Our brains are excellent at making meaning and creating frameworks to help us understand what we experience.  When those experiences are good - we learn that the world is a good and safe place.  We learn that we have inherent value, and are loved, and deserve love.  

When those experiences are full of abuse or neglect, we learn that the world is unpredictable,  that people don't mean what they say, that something bad could happen any moment, or that we don't have any inherent value.  Sometimes, it may be obvious when these schemas have been activated (such as when having a flashback).    Other times, your schemas may have been activated, but it may be more subtle. 

So, what do we do with this information?  Great question!  Here are four things to keep in mind:

  1. Stabilize and shore up: If you put a record player in the back of a truck and drive down a bumpy dirt road, it is highly likely that your needle won’t stay put. Similarly, if you know you’re going to be in a highly stressful environment, or dealing with something that is tough - be prepared that your needle may skip to your trauma song. Be gentle with yourself, take care of yourself, and be compassionate. Consider the things that you might be able to do in order to stabilize your system in advance. For people with complex trauma histories, it can sometimes feel like they’re driving down a bumpy dirt road all the time. The more that we’re emotionally regulated and taking care of ourselves, the more likely we’re able to recover, prepare, and make choices that support consistency and stability. Sometimes, we need to use a bumpy road to get where we’re going, but consider whether there may be ways to drive more slowly, blaze a new path, or to take care of yourself along the way.

  2. Identify triggers: Work to identify and recognize situations that will be hard for you. This may sometimes be easy and obvious, and other times, you may have to do some sleuthing to get to the bottom of how you ended up with your trauma song stuck on repeat. Just because you associate something with a negative experience now doesn't mean it has to stay that way forever, especially once you understand what is cuing up the trauma song and are able to tackle it head on. A good therapist can help you sort through these patterns so that you can build new ones.

  3. Recognize when your needle has skipped: Sometimes, this will be obvious (hello, flashback), and other times it won’t be as clear. Learn to identify the signs that you’ve entered a replaying of your trauma song. This will help you identify causes and risk-factors, and will help you develop a game plan for getting back to the other music.

  4. Celebrate new patterns: As you experience new patterns and different outcomes, it means that you’re playing new songs on your personal record. As you continue to have non-traumatic experiences, healthy connections, and successful moments of coping - those grooves get deeper and deeper, and will eventually overtake the trauma song as the deepest groove. Celebrate the wins and victories, and don’t forget that change doesn’t happen overnight. The trauma song got there through hundreds of repetitions, and sometimes years of experience. Even when you understand this cycle, it takes time for the positive experiences to catch up. Whenever you can, take time to enjoy the other music.

Want to learn more about developing new patterns? Or supporting folks who are working on that?  Reach out!