Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Volume XVI, Number 3 Fall 2019
Recently, from a client: “This morning I read this quote from, of all people, Bruce Springsteen, and it made me think of some of the things you've told me.”
“All I do know is as we age, the weight of our unsorted baggage becomes heavier ... much heavier. With each passing year, the price of our refusal to do that sorting rises higher and higher,” the “Born to Run” rocker said. “Long ago, the defenses I built to withstand the stress of my childhood, to save what I had of myself, outlived their usefulness, and I’ve become an abuser of their once lifesaving powers. I relied on them wrongly to isolate myself, seal my alienation, cut me off from life, control others, and contain my emotions to a damaging degree. Now the bill collector is knocking, and his payment’ll be in tears.”
Do you realize that for some, this is life in a wealthy family? At first, we develop coping behaviors to survive the stress, and as we do, we never question these behaviors as needed and justified. The stress might be the pressure to excel in ways you can’t or don’t want to; it could be constant, relentless invalidation of who you really are; it could be family relationships that fall far short of meeting your needs; it could be many kinds of abuse, or a combination of any of these stressors or still others. Years can go by as we practice defensive behaviors that become habitual. We become more and more entrenched in believing that life is the way it has to be: the behaviors, the roles, the limited choices. However, no one has to stay locked into defenses, attitudes and behaviors established years before.
While it’s true that the older we get the less likely we are to take on the hard work of improving our own identity or family relationships and dynamics, and the less likely we are to drop defenses we don’t need anymore and heal relationships, it is also true that we can. Along the way, over the years, many people lose the choices of perspective that could set them free.
Freedom is the result of healing and improving ourselves and our relationships. The heart of this, taking charge of your life and doing what you can, is true freedom. It also has a ripple effect and can enhance the freedom of those who are close to you.
How much, in emotional cost, will you pay for your freedom? And how will you pay it? Gathering the courage to leave your comfort zone is only the beginning of the cost. The tougher part is the humility, the awkward communication and the necessary acknowledgement that you made a poor decision in the past. The definition of freedom, like the definition of wealth or success, is highly personal, and it is yours to declare.
Develop your definition carefully. Your perspective absolutely determines your freedom. For instance, you can claim the freedom to fail: to shake off the failure of the past and be better today. “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.” - Jordan Peterson
Sometimes I reflect on the amazing blessing it is to have parents who climbed the socio-economic ladder by building business success. If everyone grew up in this kind of family, we would have a completely different environment in our country. I grew up watching hard work, innovation, integrity, ethics and yes, opportunity – in action. When I was young, I had no perspective on what a blessing this is, but now I do. I have been fortunate to have the joys and challenges of building my own business, hardly as big as Georgia-Pacific, but successful nevertheless. I wouldn’t trade this for anything. Look for the ways you can take courage from those who came before you.
Sometimes that unsorted baggage Springsteen was referring to gets passed down from generation to generation. This can make it feel like a permanent and static fixture in your life. In our family there was a cut-off relationship that I hadn’t questioned in decades, until one day I began to wonder why I was cut off, too. I had heard the story of what had happened in an earlier generation, but it had nothing to do with me. Wondering about this, I reached out. This part of the family, new to me, became a blessing. So, keep the family stories alive by asking different family members what they remember. Take opportunities to appreciate the strengths in your history, and question what we carry from one generation to another.
It’s okay to feel scared and awkward when you think about saying what you have to say. Gather your courage. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Your payment will be in tears either way, but the tears of healing when you take the high road are relief and joy. Those tears are for strengthened relationships, which add to everyone’s sense of belonging in the family. On the other hand, if you wait until it’s too late, you will only have tears of regret. Some of you may remember how this was exemplified in a program I used to give that included photos and the song In the Living Years by Mike and The Mechanics. See insert.
At the risk of sounding like I just want to sell you my book, Beyond Gold: True Wealth for Inheritors, I will point out it is full of exercises to help you focus on the healing you want for yourself and your family members and articulate what you have to say.
How about you? A challenge from someone who loves us is one of the very best things that can happen. Where are you vulnerable and what are you going to do about it? Do it now. Even if you struggle to get the words out well, it is still infinitely the better choice to initiate healing in your family. Make that apology to a family member, make the call to one you haven’t spoken to in a year…or ten years, extend an invitation for lunch to an elderly relative, ask a close family member what is most important to them and actually listen to their answer, whatever it is. You know the work you need to do to sort your complicated baggage. Let your defenses begin to come down. You can do it. I would love to hear from you about how it goes.