We’re all subject to conditioning that affects our ability to be happy and sometimes makes us miserable. This conditioning actually starts before birth. Research has shown that your grandparents being exposed to stressful circumstances can change the way that your genes are expressed, so that genes that leave you feeling more anxious might be more active, while those that can made you more mellow remain switched off. We don’t choose to have such things happen to us. It’s not our fault.
We also don’t choose our early childhood conditioning. How much our parents hold us, how they communicate with us, whether they are loving or not, whether they are cruel, whether they are consistent in their affections — all these things change the very structure of our brains in a way that can leave lifelong scars.
Growing up in a household where affection was not expressed freely and where criticism was common, I have been left with certain insecurities. These include anxieties about whether I’m valued, loved, or liked. I can be hyper-sensitive at times to signs that I’m not appreciated, and this can cause me to react in ways that make me less likable — a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. This make me suffer, and it makes others suffer as well. Your early experiences may well have been different from mine, but we all have conditioning that makes us suffer, and we didn’t choose it. These things are not our fault. And so we don’t have to feel bad about being flawed. Our conditioning is not us, but is something that has been done to us. To recognize this liberates this from self-blame.
None of this means that we have permission to act badly. As adults we have to take responsibility for how we act. No one else can do that for us. If we want to be happy in the long-term, we need to become more aware of our early conditioning and understand how it affects our behavior, especially where it impacts others.
Recently I saw a social media post where a young woman wrote,
Me, dating at 21: ‘So, what do you like to do for fun?’
Me, dating at 27: ‘How aware are you of your past traumas and how actively are you working to heal them so that you don’t project that shit onto me?’
When I read that I wished that at the age of 27 I could have been so aware of the importance of past conditioning. But, I reflected, my conditioning was such that in my twenties I was in denial about such things. There’s no point blaming myself even for that.
There’s also no point me blaming my parents for not being more affectionate and for being overly critical. They too were simply living out their conditioning, in a time and culture in which most people didn’t even think about how the way they acted affected their own and others’ wellbeing.
You do not need to be ashamed of being imperfect. We were all made that way. You do not have to be ashamed that it’s so hard to work with your imperfections: the very tools you have for doing this are imperfect. We are all truly doing a difficult thing in being human.
Recognizing the many ways that we’ve been set up to suffer — by our brain structure, by our genetic and epigenetic inheritance, and by our childhood conditioning — is an important aspect of self-empathy, and thus of self-compassion. We’re all flawed. We’re all suffering. We’re all doing this difficult thing of being human. Understanding these things allows us to give ourselves a break. You’d do this for a person you loved. Why not do it for yourself?
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That’s one of the most practical, pragmatic approaches to human imperfection I’ve ever read. Your own admission of insecurity and suffering makes it all the more real. Thank you.
Why thank you, Danielle.
This is something it’s taken me years to process, but even having come to realise that my habitual thoughts are conditioned in a way that’s produced very similar results to yours, that awareness doesn’t stop the pattern from being repeated. I shall save this article so that in my more insecure moments I can read it again, and reactivate my hard-won awareness. Thank you.
It’s lovely to hear from you, Alison!
Thank you for this thoughtful article.
Wow, talk about timing. I’ve been thinking of and trying to explore the relationship between conditioning and personal responsability in the last few days. Your writing is what I needed to center myself. Thank you for it!
You and I come a very similar upbringing and environment. What you wrote applies to me to a very strong degree. Being raised a devout Catholic, I learned to be very hard and unforgiving on myself.
Though I’ve been a praticising Buddhist for 10+ years, my habits and ways from my upbringing still loudly echo. Buddhism has help me be kinder to myself. But the heavy tone of responsability that I have carried most of my life (I’m 60) is still an important anchor for me.
It is difficult to navigate that sense of responsability and also realise I have very little control in what happens around me. The intentionality of the outcome is the key. And the clarity of intention comes from my practice. I’ve come to the conclusion (more or less) that if I chose compassion as my goal in how I react, I am likely using a wise form of responsability. Sounds so clear to write, but very difficult to deploy.
So well put! This resonates deeply with me. Thank you for your wonderful work Bodhipaksa!
This is brilliant and so well timed for me. Many and deep thanks ??
This article complements Bodhipaksa’s meditation series about dealing with self-criticism and self-hatred, which I’m doing at the moment. It is taking a lot of patience for me to not give up on myself during this process but it feels right to continue, as I get tiny glimpses of peace in amongst the thoughts. The death of my partner 15 months ago shook my fragile sense of well-being, so this is my opportunity to learn that thoughts are not me and I don’t need to be ashamed of who I am. Thank you.
I’m so sorry to hear about the death of your partner, Helen. That’s a lot to work with. The fact that you are experiencing some glimpses of peace is quite remarkable.
Thank you Bodhipaksa. My partner’s death, as well as leading to deep grief, opened up scary old wounds and conditioning, particularly feelings of worthlessness, shame and self-criticism – that’s why your meditation course is very relevant for me. Learning to get some distance from the thoughts (which I can only occasionally do so far!!) is helping and gives me hope.
You have me thinking back on a very old Billy Connolly routine about Scottish fathering. Every request is met with indignation and the threat of violence. “Bike! Bike is it! I’ll give you bloody bike so I will. Ya cheeky wee tyke ya! Away to yer bed before I give you the hiding you deserve.”
With my old man it was tongue in cheek and I do the same routine with my nephew but it’s a facsimile of the brutal reality of a certain kind of upbringing that many suffered.
Great piece of writing BTW. You’re churning out some good stuff ( and this is a curmudgeonly Scot saying so ).
Thank you Ed McGuigan for your kind words and for the hilarious description of Scottish fathering from Billy Connolly. So funny and poignant because so familiar – not the words themselves but the way they are an uncomfortable reminder of how hard it is to respond with love when we are so limited by our conditioning. It’s a wonder any of us survived childhood!? Hurray for Billy Connolly and for meditation!
To add just a little more to this, as it happens a friend of mine taught Billy Connolly to meditate.
As others have said, the timing is uncanny. At the tender age of 64 I have very recently come to terms with my upbringing which sounds very similar to yours Bodhipaksa. Lack of love and trust,fear etc. I have been mediating for a while now and I am begining to find it much easier to accept that I am what I am. I have a loving family and Im thankful that this gave me the opportunity and the awareness to bring up my children in a way that meant I could avoid doing/saying those things that I always promised myself I would never do/say to my own chidren.
Your piece also reminded me of the Philip Larkin poem ‘This Be The Verse’.
Anyone reading this that isnt aware of it please read it. Always helped me…Thanks again B.x
I discovered to my surprise that my 85-year-old father carries a copy of that poem in his wallet.
Haha excellent! That made me smile.
Thank you, very helpful with the clarity you put into the subject.
You’re welcome, Silke.
Yeah, this post made my day! Thanks for sharing.