While I would like to believe that there are people who grow up totally free of emotional scarring, it is very hard for me to accept that individuals like this exist. Everyone I have met seems to carry some baggage from their experiences of life. Some wear it like a war wound for all to see, and others go to great lengths to hide the pain; revealing themselves only in their weariness in trying to keep it all inside (e.g., the life of the party who has a drinking problem). I am not qualified to advise anyone on overcoming their inner demons. If anything, life has taught me that negative impulses never go away. The best most of us can hope for is to be aware of them and consciously decide to ignore their advice when it is not in our best interest.
There are two key points to be made about negative impulses and how they affect us. First, “negative impulses” are not all bad. For example, emotional scarring from a perceived failure often creates a competitive drive that can lead to athletic and business success. It can also lead to recklessness, aggressiveness, and an us versus them mentality. Second, we all talk to ourselves all the time. Anyone who has meditated has experienced the brain’s ability to have a conversation with itself. Our thoughts spill out of us in an endless stream of questions and answers. Have you ever had the uncomfortable experience of meeting a mentally ill person on the street who is talking to himself or herself? What make us uneasy is that the person is vocalizing their inner dialogue and that at some level we know that if we vocalized our inner dialogue we might not sound so sane. Think of comedians like Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, and Sam Kinison whose stream of consciousness ramblings made you laugh and feel uncomfortable at the same time.
So, as we sit in meetings, have conversations with our advisors, or talk to friends and loved ones, our minds are jumping around through our personal data banks triggering ideas, thoughts, and memories. Some of these are “good” and some are “bad;” some represent current information and others are memories of experiences earlier in life. This leads us to the fundamental question that we must answer when dealing with difficult situations, questions, and conversation: whose voice is talking in your brain at that moment? Is it a mature, successful business person or your 6-year old self who was told repeatedly that you “are just not that smart?” A friend of mine has a wonderful expression for this: “life can be pretty scary when your inner child is driving the car and the adult you is sitting in the back seat.” If you want to see a daily example of what it looks like when an inner child is in charge, watch President Trump respond to any criticism.
When we are stressed for whatever reason the dialogue speeds up. This is true whether we are dealing with a difficult business negotiation, a new job, a life transition, an argument, or being stuck in traffic. We are told to take a deep breath and try to calm our mind. I am increasingly convinced the first step is to find out who you are talking to internally. Calming a mature adult involves one set of tactics, but if the emotional wound that was triggered is from 20 or 40 years ago, we are dealing with a different situation. A client of mine was involved in a potential sale of his business and the negotiations with the buyers were protracted and difficult. The potential buyers were polite and wanted an ongoing relationship with the client, but were also constantly telling him that he did not understand his business. The client called me up and told me he had reached a point of inner peace in that it no longer mattered to him whether the deal happened or not. On its face, this sounded nice but with a little probing it became clear that every time the buyers challenged his understanding of his own business it was triggering a childhood “fight or flight” response. This seemingly mature response was really his inner child pleading that this be over one way or another. Once he realized that his reaction was being informed by a wound from his youth, he shifted his focus to what he needed from the transaction as an experienced businessman. This allowed him to access his fundamental belief in his business model and to turn down the deal.
Being human is essentially the ability to exercise free will. We cannot control what befalls us in the physical world or in our relationships with other people. In fact, we may not be able to completely control what we think in our minds or say to ourselves in our inner dialogue. We can, however, decide what we are going to emphasize and to what and whom we are going to listen. So, when your mind starts racing and the inner voices are bouncing around, stop and ask, “who is speaking to me?” If the answer is your mother or father, the bully from the 3rd grade playground, the person who thought you were ugly in 7th grade, any gym teacher, the hot shot venture capitalist who is on his fourth marriage, or, worst of all, some infantile, childlike, or adolescent version of yourself, calmly thank them for their advice, and inform them that you have chosen to listen to the you that exists in this moment. If you cannot stop the voices, you can always decide that the time is not right to address an important related issue. For example, if the voice of your long-dead, Depression-era great aunt is echoing in your head saying, “horde the money, we are all going to starve!”, it may not be the best time to discuss charitable giving with your advisors.
From my perspective, the most important aspect of this is to realize that we are not alone in dealing with our inner demons. It is the nature of the human condition. All we can do is try and be a little more conscious of who we are and what we do tomorrow than we were today.