I remember a project one of my sons had in high school in which he had to draw out a long timeline and place dots at intervals representing significant events in his life. His birth, of course, and the milestones of first words and first steps were followed by other events he deemed life-shaping. It was an interesting assignment to watch a 17-year-old complete. What dots did he find significant in shaping his life? Along with other memorable and impactful events, hiking the boy scout Philmont expedition with his dad, being deathly sick for 4 weeks with mono and watching his grandmother battle cancer all received a dot on his timeline.
As I watched him connect those dots, I thought of how our life events subtly and sometimes violently shape us.
At each dot, this son of mine learned a lesson, faced a challenge, developed a fear or found a strength. It was not a tidy line of pleasant memories, but rather a candid and vulnerable glimpse into how a human psyche is made. Quite a deep activity for a young person, but such a valuable one, because knowing your own history is important.
Have you connected your dots?
We all have a history full of points on our timelines. They may be celebratory events such as awards and achievements or painful ones such as loss or rejection. These points or experiences mean something to us, but all too often they remain unconnected and out of context. As we mature, part of our job is to create a context for our life, to be aware of the many experiences and their impact on us.
Did you have a goal you achieved and were really proud of?
Did you get bullied or treated unkindly?
Was your family secure financially or did you feel the fear of not having enough?
Did you like your body?
Were you sickly or healthy growing up?
How did your parents treat you when you were little?
Your answers to these kinds of questions matter. Though they may not be in your conscious awareness, they are actually influencing your life right now.
Anna, a woman who came to see me for marriage counseling discovered this as we worked to improve the communication in her marriage. Her complaint was that her husband seemed to shut down emotionally when she attempted to talk to him. As I watched them interact in my office, I began to see why they might be having a problem.
Anna spoke very harshly to her husband, who almost immediately became silent. The more fear she felt, the harsher she spoke. In fact, though her voice grew loud and her tone became sharp, I could see the tears welling up in her eyes.
“Tell me about your history,” I asked her.
She gave me a few points from her timeline, and as she talked, context began to become apparent. Her father was a good man, but very stern and often blatantly honest with what he thought, which included some hefty criticism. Her older brother was physically abusive to her at times. She also experienced some loss, especially around two of her best friends in high school who, for no apparent reason, dropped her from their circle of friends.
I asked her husband, “What do you notice about your wife’s history?”
He was quiet for a moment and then said very softly. “She had a lot of fear and loneliness. And she didn’t include a lot of happy experiences.”
I looked at Anna and could see the wheels turning in her head.
“I sometimes feel frustrated at you the way I felt when I tried to talk with my dad. It’s not the same, of course. But it’s similar.” Anna’s voice softened as well. “I think I’m afraid that you won’t listen to me.”
Anna began to see her current behavior in context with her history. She began to connect the dots. As she did this, she learned to separate her feelings as a child with her father from her feelings as a grown woman with her husband. Anna’s husband had his own experiences as well, and as we talked, he began to see why he withdrew from Anna when she got upset. He had a timeline too and understanding how his own history impacted his communication began to open up a new way of looking at his behavior in their relationship.
Was there still work to do in their marriage? Of course. But understanding where some of their fears and intense emotions originated helped them to communicate in a new way.
When you connect your dots, you begin to increase in self–awareness.
We are learning more and more about the value of being self-aware, in our personal lives, our relationships and even in the business world.
Self-awareness allows you a window into the internal world of your thoughts and feelings so you can drive them rather than them driving you. This is a powerful tool in helping you show up the way you want to, in any capacity.
What are your dots?
So, what are the life-shaping experiences that can be plotted on your timeline?
When you plot those dots, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. The exercise is about seeing your own big picture so you can appreciate the journey you’ve already traveled and begin to see where you might be headed.
As we talked through Anna’s timeline, we noticed that she was missing the positive experiences in her life that had shown her strengths. In subsequent sessions, we explored those experiences that had taught her that she was worthwhile and competent. We searched those out and gave them a place of importance in the context of her life. She needed to see those as much as she needed to make sense of the hard things she’d endured.
Even though they can be hard to acknowledge, everyone has positive points on their timeline.
What challenges have you learned to overcome? What talents or skills have you developed? Look for examples of perseverance and grit. Look for times in which you learned compassion or received gifts of kindness and acceptance.
As you learn more about the influences that have shaped your life, you may find that you’ve endured some hard things or had some negative lessons that came from people you love. It’s important to remember that no one is perfect. Most of us know as parents, we do the best we can. Our parents probably did the best they could, too. While this is not an excuse for hurtful behavior, it can help us begin to see that others often make mistakes or bad decisions and that we may have been given a mistaken message. In other words, we don’t have to own the hurtful behavior. We can be released from it to think about ourselves differently.
Our journey in life is all about becoming loving and accepting of ourselves and learning to sort out the messages we received with grace and understanding for both ourselves and our parents. You are now the adult in your life who gets to choose what you think of yourself and which way your life will go. Anna had some of this work to do as she made sense of the experiences she’d had while growing up with her dad. With a little time and freedom to choose her own thoughts and actions, she was able to see her father’s influence in her life through enlightened eyes and make her own decisions about her life and relationships.
Being aware of your history and linking it to your life right now can be tremendously helpful. Take a little time to open up your self-awareness and notice the things that have shaped and influenced you.
And remember to be compassionate with yourself. You are not your history. It’s only a backdrop to your life, one which you will learn to make sense of as you begin to connect your dots.