What was your growing-up story like? If we are fortunate, we are in a nurturing environment as we scramble to make some sense of the world around us, with little sense of who or what we are. We are all the sensations we react to, hunger, cold, heat, pain, pleasure, more instinctive than rational. When do we develop a sense of self, an idea of what it is we might want rather than what those around us might wish for us?
For me, the smoke began to clear by the time I was in Grade 5, about the age of 11 or 12. Suddenly, it seemed to me, I had a sense of self, and opinions about what was going on around me in the world. Not only that. The opinions of others were less important. I had begun reading voraciously, learning of a world that had a past that had shaped my present. My immigrant parents’ views had begun to disappear as reference points; my feeling was that I knew more about the real world we lived in than they could possibly understand.
By the time I was in my mid-teens, I felt I was fully in charge of my life. I was under the family roof, but the things going on in my head, the plans and actions I contemplated, were formulated and carried out with almost no reference to parental guidance. I generated the funds to permit me independent action from an early age. Was it just me? Was I the only one who was obnoxiously opinionated by the time he was a teenager? I was fortunate that my parents did not stand in my way. It doesn’t happen to everybody like that.
Gaining a consciousness of oneself as separate from those around us, with an independent will, especially, independent from those in positions of authority, is a big thing. The sense of being an independent identity may come long before we achieve independence, but it surely must come first. We may begin by feeling a rising sense of rebellion, exasperation with the lack of understanding by those around us. We may begin to object to decisions made for us, about us, without consultation. We may begin to object to rules of the game, which we find erroneous, obtuse, nonsensical or unjust. We may say nothing, but a knot of resistance, even anger, may begin to form. Our I begins to take shape. We may even be wrong, lacking all the information needed to make a correct decision. We learn to negotiate those things.
An independent will can form at any age. Sensitivity on the part of those in authority, inviting expressions of opinion, can stimulate development. An authoritarian environment can delay it. Doesn’t it take some people a long time to achieve a sense of I? One wonders at the history behind that. How much goes on in the mind as part of this process? How much conflict does it generate? How many experience damaging environments that prevent a proper development, haunting their adult lives. Don’t some people spend a lifetime in counseling working through their feelings? Don’t some people take pills to quiet the questions? We really have to work through this stuff to become happy campers, to make a success of what we hope to do in life. How many people do I know who, even in their 50s and 60s, are agonizing about relationships with parents that still leave them anxious, angry and confused about their self-worth? How can we successfully interact with a life partner with this monkey on our back?
Yet some of us who have lived through the worst seem to get through it relatively unscathed. Perhaps a parent or family member saved the day. Or they met the right person early on who got them on the right track. Or they just had the right stuff to see beyond the sickest parts of the people they were in forced contact with and sloughed it all off. What we do know is that a healthy sense of I, a healthy sense of self-worth, a positive self-image, is crucial to making it through to adulthood with some chance of happiness. With it, we can handle being knocked down a peg or two by the inevitable reverses we will face over the years. We can pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and step back into the fray.
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero In My Own Eyes has just been published.