www.self-construct.com



Pricked: The Sleeping Beauty Effect of a Poor Childhood




Life itself means being in danger.


- Friedrich Nietzsche



Ours is a zeitgeist of sky-high expectations. We are all supposed to move surely and swiftly toward personal, professional, and financial successes, navigating capably through one life challenge after another. It is socially mandated that we be fit, attractive, and politically savvy as well as patient, witty and well read. So what does it mean if we’re not all these things? What if we’re not at peace with how we’re living our lives? What if we don’t even like ourselves? If we can’t seem to get to college or through college, if we can’t find a career that thrills us, if we don’t find a life partner or raise bright children, if our lives tend to be dominated by symptoms of depression or anxiety, what does that say about us?

Is it possible to not be good at life?

Of course not.

If we falter or struggle in directing our individual life, it is not because we are incapable of adulthood. It is because we have a birth curse.

The long con

Harsh as it may sound, childhood can be conceptualized as a long con. Here’s the scam: children need to be taught how to approach a very difficult task – to design and implement a life for themselves set in a future that is unforeseeable. What they get instead is either training in how to behave themselves according to rules that were set years – even decades – in the patriarchal past or the promise that they will always get the support they need to enable them to become anything they want to become. When these youngsters reach adulthood and start to flounder, the older generation sets the con by implying that character flaws rather than upbringings are causing the struggles. This sanctimonious what’s-wrong-with-kids-today mindset of so many adults is both infuriating and heartbreaking to witness.

The misdirection is easy to sell because our upbringing seemed long and challenging, so it’s logical for us to assume that it contained all the training we needed. After all, we spent years and years in educational, extracurricular, physical, spiritual, social and domestic activities planned out for us by society and by our parents. For the most part, we obediently learned what we were asked to learn. We went to school, made friends, did our chores, developed hobbies, played sports, got a job, paid our bills, perhaps got married and became parents ourselves.

The fallacious thinking, of course, is that the years of educational, extracurricular, social and domestic activities, in themselves, are what prepare us for adulthood.

It is not childhood that prepares us for adulthood. It is a good childhood that prepares us for adulthood, a good childhood being one that is rich in existential, feminist training.

Successful existential training entails being surrounded by mature adults who are willing to face difficult life questions and who are willing to talk with us truthfully about what that process is like for them. When we can learn from this kind of adult world, we will come naturally to develop the skills necessary to direct our own lives. Productive feminist training requires an environment that strives to value equally the ways that males and females generally approach what it means to be human. If raised in such an environment, children grow into adults who are vigilant in minimizing the coercion of the male bias as it currently exists within the patriarchy.

Hopefully, you can see how disingenuous it is on the part of our elders to train us in either obedience or fantasies of ease and then scold us when we can’t access the initiative we need to be psychologically self-reliant. What an ambush. Not only are we not given an existentially rich childhood with corrective feminist training, not only has no one warned us about what we’ve missed, but we are blamed when we remain somewhat inept in the self-direction department.

Given the extraordinarily challenging nature of being in charge of our own lives, you would think we would get extraordinarily well-designed metaphysical training as we grow up. We do not. We tend to be trained by our families and by society at large to be followers rather than explorers. In fact, in terms of learning how to approach basic existential tasks, most of us have been cursed by an upbringing that has been, to paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel, so full of crap, it’s a wonder we can think at all.

Once upon a time

The fairytale about Sleeping Beauty is a lovely allegory for the unlovely truth about the crappy training of our childhoods. Although this tale exists in various forms, the facts boil down to this: The parents, in this case a king and queen, made an error in their guest list for the christening of their daughter, and a fractious aunt didn’t get invited. The aunt showed up anyway and threw the following curse on the innocent baby, Sleeping Beauty. (I assume the poor girl was actually named something else originally.) “Upon her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on the needle in a spinning wheel and fall down dead.” Good aunties (who had been invited) were able to alter the curse somewhat so that Sleeping Beauty would not die when pricked, but would fall into a deep sleep instead.

Now, this next part gets psychologically interesting.

Rather than inform this poor youngster of what was fated to happen to her and train her over the course of her childhood to avoid the danger, the parents hid the truth from her. They tried, instead, to circumvent her fate by destroying all the spinning wheels in the castle. As could be expected, one was left intact, and our poor heroine found it on her sixteenth birthday. She got pricked.

The rest of the tale is a fairly sexist description of female passivity. I’d rather not tell it. Let’s look, instead, at the metaphor of the first part of the fairytale. Clearly, despite being born into royalty, Sleeping Beauty was set up for a life that was fraught. But did the challenge represented by the spinning wheel need to leave her doomed? Not necessarily. What created the tragedy was the way her parents handled the curse placed on Sleeping Beauty by her disgruntled aunt. What the poor girl needed to enable her to prevail on her sixteenth birthday were two things: information about what to expect and training in strategies to overcome the impending predicament. She got neither. Lack of preparation was her actual birth curse. Sleeping Beauty had no idea a needle in a spinning wheel represented a dire threat and she had no way to protect herself. As the story goes, she didn’t even know what a spinning wheel was. When she encountered one on her birthday, her natural curiosity led her to reach out and touch.

To my way of thinking, that is awful – to be sent into life unprepared. Being unprepared means that we don’t know what we don’t know psychologically, so we don’t know what sharp, little misunderstandings planted in our upbringing will represent a great danger later in life. We don’t know how to avoid getting pricked.

If you were Sleeping Beauty, wouldn’t you want to know that your sixteenth birthday was going to be a bit of a struggle and why? Isn’t knowing that things may be difficult and why things may be difficult preferable to the helplessness of not knowing what you don’t know? But this is, psychologically and existentially, the situation most of us find ourselves in as we try to lead ourselves into true adulthood. We have too little information about the challenges of existence and too little training in how to direct our specific life.

The plot thickens

Unfortunately, what we uncover next is even bleaker. And this is the part of the fairy tale never told. What happens after Sleeping Beauty has been awakened, swept off her feet and sent off to her happily-ever-after life? How does she feel when she stops to wonder why no one ever told her the truth about her curse? I would imagine that some serious doubt would begin to creep into her sense of self. “Why did no one trust that I could handle the truth?” she probably asks herself.

There is no reason to think that the fairy tale princess was incapable of learning how to handle herself on her sixteenth birthday. Nor is there reason to believe that you are incapable of learning how to lead yourself away from a symptom-saturated life and toward self-actualization. For, remember, what is missing in both these cases is information, not strength of character.

It’s time to start your self-construction project to fill in the blanks left by your particular childhood training.

A good mindset for change

There are a couple of things that can make it easier to step into self-construction.

First, as mentioned in the first article of this section, you need to commit to holding all the adults of your childhood accountable. This list includes parents, extended family, teachers, coaches, community leaders, and so on. You need to be able to put your childhood on trial, so to speak – to examine it for connections to your current struggles by seeking out the lies. It helps to imagine that the adults on duty in your childhood may have been just as charming and well meaning as the king and queen in the tale of Sleeping Beauty. You don’t need to vilify people to identify places where they let you down. Nor do you need to confront them or change them. But, at least temporarily, you will need to be very judgmental about your past as you read this material and consider your specific childhood.

Second, please have compassion for your naïveté about your existential, feminist training. Rather than continuing to lecture yourself from a place of habitual disdain, start to genuinely imagine that you are being tripped up in life by gaps in your training and not in your character. We are none of us a flawed person, simply a poorly trained one. You, too, were ready and able to learn existential skills as you were growing up had anyone been ready and able to teach you. But you can learn them now. It’s never too late to get unstuck and to start moving toward a fine life. (If you would like a little more encouragement to believe that change is always possible and always wonderful, I would recommend Tolstoy’s intense little novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.)

Pricked

Once upon a time, you arrived here for your stint on earth. You landed in the family, the community and the zeitgeist that fate chose for you. You were a brand new person, ready to tackle those challenges of existence. But somewhere along the way, things went awry. The training you received growing up was just not sufficient to prepare you to design a potent life for yourself. But here the story of your life can have an interesting plot twist. It is always possible to learn the truths that can free you to resume forward progress in your life.

You can live self-reliantly ever after.