At the beginning of this year, I began reading a book that changed my life.  My 2-year-old daughter is enrolled in a Mother’s Day Out program at an excellent school in Houston and the owner of the school recommend a book called “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough.  I highly recommend this book to everyone, especially to parents.  You can learn more about this book here: http://www.paultough.com/the-books/how-children-succeed/.

Without summarizing the entire book, I would like to highlight the theme of the book here in just a few sentences.  This is a research based book in which the author explores in detail (through many studies and specific examples) of how a person’s childhood can impact not only how successful they are in life but also their character.  In fact, your character is everything in life.  Specifically, the author discusses the severe impact of stress on the executive functions of children and how that can impact your entire life.  So, what are executive functions?

“Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals. Executive functions include basic cognitive processes such as attentional control, cognitive inhibition, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Higher order executive functions require the simultaneous use of multiple basic executive functions and include planning and fluid intelligence.”

After reading just a few pages of this book, I began to realize there was something very familiar about the children being discussed in this book.  My childhood was very stressful.  I grew up in poverty in a big family with a lot of verbal, mental, and emotional abuse, neglect, and extreme control.  Someone was always angry, fighting, or just unhappy.   As an adult, I started blaming myself for not having more control over my emotions, my words, and my actions.  I blamed myself for being too impulsive and for not accomplishing the things I set out to accomplish.  I thought I lacked discipline.  I’ve recently come to realize that discipline is just a “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.” 

So – what steps did I take to change not only the character traits that I wanted to change but improve my life on so many levels?

1.      I sought therapy to resolve the issues and finally release the trauma of my childhood.   I did some basic research using my insurance provider’s website on therapists in my area.  I called five therapists and one person immediately returned my call.  I felt an instant connection with her and after about a month of avoiding it, I finally decided to go for it.  I saw her once a week for 3 months then reduced my visits to twice a month and now I go once a month.  After months of working with her, I realized she actually specializes in PTSD.  Throughout my therapy, she used a technique called EMDR to help me release the negative thoughts about myself from my childhood.  She taught me that as children, when something negative happens, we tend to blame ourselves and feel responsible for everything bad that is happening around us.  After months of therapy, I finally began to heal.  I recommend therapy to anyone that is struggling with relationships, anger, anxiety, or just managing life itself because life gets tough but we can find ways to cope with it and hit “reset” on our emotional state of mind. 

2.      I started to re-train my brain and exercise discipline in every aspect of my life.  I reduced my sugar intakes, my carbohydrate intakes, and began to exercise.  There are not many things in life that we can fully control so I decided to start with what I can control: my body.  My appearance has not changed in a life altering way but I feel proud, accomplished, and in control.  The icing on the cake is that my clothes feel a bit better and I’m starting to feel confident again. 

3.      I think before I speak.  Like everything else, this is a work in progress and probably my biggest challenge.  When I exercise control in this area, it helps me prevent the guilt and regret that comes after saying something I didn’t mean or that I shouldn’t have said.  My reactions are a bit more delayed and controlled now. 

4.      I don’t let others control my emotions.  This is a big one.  If I am hurt by someone, in an argument, or in a frustrating situation, I make a conscious effort to check my mood either in that moment or immediately afterwards.  

5.      I don’t feel sorry for myself.  I am not a victim.  I take responsibility for everything in my life.  This is everything but I don’t think I would have been able to accomplish this without my therapy. 

Here is what you can do:

1.      Never stop learning.  Read books, listen to podcasts, google articles, and keep digging.  There is always more knowledge to gain about yourself, about others, and about life.

2.      Spend time alone.  I cannot stress this enough.  Even if you take 15 minutes out of the day to decompress and reflect, do it.  It does your body good.

3.      Reach out to your friends.  Grab a cup of coffee, dinner, or go for a walk.  Friend time does wonders and helps us refresh from our day to day life.  It takes us out of the rut that we may be in and allows us to feel that connection with other human beings. 

4.      Evaluate what you would like to change and come up with a plan.  If you are struggling with your finances, face the problems.  Lay them out in an Excel spreadsheet and come up with a plan to tackle the issues.  If you dislike your job, plan to change it.  Maybe right now is not the right time but you can start networking, talking to people, reaching out to recruiters, signing up on job boards to receive emails when new jobs are posted.  If you are in an unhappy relationship, decide how much longer you can deal with it and give it your all and set an end date.  Having a plan makes you feel in control and gives you hope.  It prevents you from victimizing yourself and from living in a miserable situation.  Change is good but only you can make that change.

5.      Forgive.  Forgive yourself and forgive those that have hurt you.  Holding on to pain is what paralyzes us from moving forward and being the best version of ourselves.  Forgive and choose to live each day as a new day that you are in control of.

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