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I am what I am

At 40 years old I've come to realize how much my 5 year old self still holds influence. While I try most days to pretend to be a grown up and to be beyond all the hangups of my childhood, nothing could be further from the truth. I drone on and on about people using their parents as an excuse for bad behavior and yet I am mired in my own parental muck. Through our experiences we learn patterns of behavior, repeat the experiences enough times and the patterns become locked. It's like muscle memory. Imagine if you played dodge ball with someone for years on end. You begin to learn their throwing patterns, you begin to anticipate where the ball will go, you know their feints, and you learn how to dodge or block the throws that deliver the most pain.

Then you grow up and you change dodge ball partners and you still have all those defense mechanisms built up, you're watching your new partners throwing arm, you're anticipating the direction of the ball, you're looking to avoid the pain, you do everything just like you've practiced. Then BLAMMO you walk face first right into a real zinger. Then no matter how many of your tried and true moves you use you still just run right into another ball. The pain just keeps coming. You're relying on patterns of behavior that don't apply to your new partner and instead of seeing them as a different person you start to associate all that new pain with all that old pain. Instead of recognizing how fundamentally different they are and developing new insights, you hunker down into the old patterns, sure that they will pay off.

So maybe wife becomes associated with mom, or wife 2 becomes associated with wife 1, and you just reflexively act a certain way in certain situations. It's what you are used to. That's who I am at 40; I'm a bundle of reflexes, of avoidance patterns, of automated responses, all defined around pain avoidance. When my wife yells at me there's that 5 year old self cringing in the background being reminded of spilling his mother's lunch and being admonished. So when I anticipate disapproval, when I project forward and see any possibility of conflict, I fall back to my patterns. I hide away, I avoid, I adjust message, I cover, and I manipulate. All to avoid my mother's wrath.

It's these patterns that get me into the most trouble. It's rightly seen as dishonest and cowardly. It's my nature. I find ways to be as honest as I can be. Ultimately I want to be honest. However, my fear of pain, real or imagined, gets in the way of any real honesty. There's always some minor subterfuge going on. Real honesty would require trust and real trust can't happen until one leaves oneself vulnerable and being vulnerable means the potential for pain and pain must be avoided. And so the cycle continues.

At the same time that I have these autonomic responses constantly watching for zingers, I also have this conscious part of myself trying to move beyond the baggage. It's that part of myself that looks at other people's excuses and says "they just need to suck it up and choose differently." To some extent my adult self has done just that. I'm not my mother, my only example of a parent. Well not entirely. Certain aspects of my life reflect what I learned from her and certain other aspects are directly and purposefully counter to her examples. So periodically this conscious part of me makes grand actions just to counter the more reactive part of me. One minute I'm caving in to a wife's request to make a purchase we can't afford and the next minute I'm barking orders at children about chores or schoolwork.

It's this vacillation between the two sides, the submissive reactive side and the dominant over reaching side, that signals to others that I'm unreliable or that I can't be trusted. One person might see me as this sweet helpful guy when they catch me at the right moments. Others see a wimp, beaten down by his wife and kids. But the ones who see me every day, my family and my coworkers just see a mess. They see a guy who can't stick to a track, who provides no consistency or continuity for their lives. One day he's here and the next he's gone. One day he says he'll never do X and the next day he does X. There's the part of me that consciously wants to be a better man, wants to be consistent, and then there's the part of me that just follows the safe old patterns. It's hard to square.

Again one could say "oh suck it up, choose better." That's certainly true I could choose to get counseling or medication or read yet another self help book, but it's not about any of those things really. I can talk to people when I need to, I can realize when I'm just hormonal in a dip, most of the self-help books seem common sense. My real problem is putting into practice patterns that counter the old ones. I need to exercise muscles that are used to moving a very specific way, and suddenly start moving them in the opposite way. How do I do that? It's like I need a partner who can just role play scenarios with me, yell at me, ask me questions that I'd cave too, put me in situations that I'd normally behave a certain way in, and then coach me through different ways of tackling the same problems. Show me ways that aren't either passive/reactive or over the top dominating.

That's really the core of my inaction. I think about going to a counselor and I wonder what they are actually going to do for me, I don't have any secrets to dig up, I understand WHY I do things, I just don't know how to stop doing them. Is that something a counselor will fix? Is that something medication will fix? Again fear and pain avoidance kick in and make me wonder if I wouldn't just end up worse off. So I avoid and dodge and do the dance. And the people around me suffer.

That's the biggest heartache in all of this. My behavior makes everyone around me suffer. My wife, my kids, my friends, my coworkers. Sometimes it's just the little things, missing a deadline, over-promising, white lies, pushing things off til later. But those little things add up. Plus there are the big things that periodically just crush people; I lie big or I go MIA on a friend, or a abuse someone's trust. I don't want to do those things, but in the moment I justify doing them. I look to get the most enjoyment and the least pain and I err on the side that, in hindsight, produces the greatest risk. Emotionally I'm trying to avoid pain and get reward, but logically I'm just producing a greater risk of pain without much real payoff.

So I'm committing to doing better this year. I won't call it a new years resolution. It's more like a die trying resolution. I've managed to alienate most of my friends and family and I want to recover from that. If I can't then I'll just be this lonely useless person with no real redeemable qualities. So I'll work out how to exercise my muscles in a different direction, stop trying to avoid obstacles that aren't really there, and really work harder to be a more measured person. I am what I am today, but I can be better, and people certainly deserve better of me. So I will attempt to live up to what people need of me, not just want I can give them out of fear.