How Old are You? Or Becoming Your own White Knight, Part One

How old are you?  I must have asked that question to hundreds of clients and workshop participants.  When I ask that question, I’m usually trying to decide if the person I’m working with is staying their right age—or if they have drifted and become a much younger version of the self.

Here is the premise.  The brain keeps painful moments from earlier ages very present.  It is a simple warning mechanismNeural networks are beautiful--unless they keep you stuck. that tells us to pay attention—a threat is nearby.  It usually shows up in the heartbeat, the breath, a clutching in the stomach muscles, a flushed face.  The physical signal is telling us to beware.  It is designed to keep us safe.  Unfortunately, it usually works ass backwards.  Instead of preventing a replay of the old event, we tend to re-associate into the old painful memory and lose our real age.  Like Alice, we tumble down the rabbit hole.  In a flash, all of the great stuff we did to finally gain some strength and become an adult is gone.  We become a helpless child once again.

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I struggled with shyness.  I was learning to play the flute and was diligent about practicing despite the howling accompaniment of our little dog, Chipper.  I was getting pretty good and liking it—until my music teacher said I had been given the honor of doing a flute solo in the school concert.  I was terrified but too shy to tell the teacher that I didn’t think I could do it.

As you know, flute performance is entirely dependent on the breath.  No breath—no sound.  And if you are a scared shitless fifth grader the first thing to go is . . . yes, the breath.  The solo was not great.  I wavered through (it was probably Twinkle, Twinkle) and survived my first solo performance, barely.  However, my brain formed an intense fear of performance, and instead of curing my shyness, it got worse.

Later when I wanted to start speaking to groups, this little fifth-grade girl would leap forward into my now twenty-something brain, and like a bit of terrible magic, I’d become her again.  I felt like a fifth grader about to get up in front of a room full of adults. We all have similar experiences in our personal history, but we don’t all know what to do to stay our age.

Fortunately for me, at the time I was studying NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming), and they had this effective technique for doing a “change history.”  I used that technique to do a little repair work on my personal history, so I could stay my age and not be ruled by my fear.  The steps are basically to become anchored into the current age and then go back through the old memories and remake them—kind of like editing a film. Usually the adult self goes in and intervenes or comforts the younger self in some way.  I once had a client ride in on a white horse and “rescue” that little one.

For people who have experienced extreme trauma, this technique usually requires somebody like me to help you stay adult during the remake.  But in this case I was able to go back to that time and help that little girl.  There were other memories connected to my shyness, so I reworked each one to bypass the old brain wiring and replace it with a more resourceful response.

It pains me to see resourceful, educated, talented people collapse in a millisecond into some small, scared, or pissed off part of the self.  It is such a waste—and so easy to correct.  We don’t have to go through life like small children when we should be going to the next level and getting stronger.  We should be modeling a new future self who is outrageously willing to step out there.  In 1987 I wrote a book called Feeling Good About Feeling Bad that has a lot of detail about how to change these non-working patterns.  It is no longer in print, but I’ll put it on my books page as a pdf download for a good price.  It’s a bit outdated, but has lots of great information.

Staying your right age is a message that I have written about and worked with again and again, but since my goal for 2011 is to add new learning to old, I can’t wait to tell you about something related to this change history pattern that I figured out just last night.  Since this post is getting so long, I’ll write it as Part Two.  Come back and I will share this new discovery with you.

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