Our culture entrains us not to know who we are. From the time we’re born and continuing into our early years, we’re conditioned to externalize our sense of self through being told when and how to eat, sleep, play, socialize, learn. Although this may be changing, the dominant child-raising culture teaches parents and educators literally to train babies and children to eat and sleep on a schedule. They’re told things like, “Children need structure and consistency,” which may be true for some children, but when a child fails to follow the prescribed schedule, both parents and child are left wondering what’s wrong. There’s nothing wrong other than being handed a rulebook that only applies to a small percentage of human beings. We are not clones or cookie-cutter versions of each other. We’re unique human beings who function according to our own needs and rhythms.
Recently, I’ve been delving more deeply into the world of insomnia. Not surprisingly, the culture offers very little in terms of understanding the root causes of insomnia and instead focuses on solutions for getting people to sleep. I don’t blame this intention one bit; when I can’t sleep I want something to help take the edge off, too. But because I’m not one to reach first for a pharmaceutical, my mind gravitates toward investigating root cause: Why is it that half of our population here in the United States struggles with some degree of insomnia? That’s an extraordinary number of people who struggle with sleep. Why? I imagine there are multiple root causes, but the two that have emerged in my research and resonate most strongly for the sake of this article are*:
1. Sleep is nurturing and sleep is mother, which means that if we were left to cry alone – as most babies were until very recently – we may have developed trauma around sleep. When a baby is left crying and alone for long periods of time, they develop the unconscious belief that their needs don’t matter and won’t be met. A baby’s cry is the way they indicate a need, and if nobody responds to the call, the natural assumption is that needs don’t matter. Cut to adult life and it’s time to go to sleep or stay sleep and a deep need more nurturing and comfort emerges. Insomnia, on one level, is the need to be held and comforted. There are many other messages embedded in the symptom of insomnia as well.
2. The second underlying cause points to a failure to attune to a child’s natural sleep rhythm. What if there’s a sector of our population that is meant to sleep from 3-10am or sleep in a polyphasic cycle in two to three-hour increments? Before the Industrial Revolution when adults were required to show up at the factory at certain hours and their children, consequently, were shuffled off to school for those same hours, I imagine there was more fluidity and flexibility around sleep. And certainly there are cultures around the world that still sleep in a polyphasic cycle or at the very least shut down business from 12pm-3pm every day to honor the need to take a midday nap.
All this to say that when our natural rhythm isn’t honored, the consequences can be disastrous. Sleep is just one example where your natural rhythm may have been overrode, but there were likely several other areas where you were coerced to become someone other than you are. It’s nobody’s fault – well-meaning parents and educators were only doing the best they could and parenting in the way they were parented – but the result is that you subtly absorbed the message that there was something wrong with you and if only you could _______________________ [play more, be more social, sleep better, eat different foods, study more, be more easy-going/less sensitive], you would be happier and more loved.
I often hear this from clients and course members:
“I feel like I’m supposed to know who I am. I’m in my 20s or 30s and everyone around me seems to know who they are, but I still have no idea.”
I tell them, “Most people don’t know who they are. That may not be the message that you’re reading in the pop internet self-help culture where you come across articles like, ‘I found myself! Here’s how!,’ but the truth is that very few people deeply know who they are. And the more sensitive you are, the more you learn to contort and pretzel yourself to try to fit into the mainstream model. How can you know yourself when your temperament, rhythm, and basic needs weren’t honored? How can you know who you are when everything in the culture encourages you to externalize your sense of self, to look outside of you for your sense of worthiness and well-being? We’re a gold star culture from the start; the gold star of kindergarten simply shape-shifts through the years into grades then degrees then paycheck.”
Thankfully, human beings are resilient and these patterns can be reversed. Since the problem is externalization of self, the solution is to learn how to turn inward and grow the loving inner parent that can learn to attune to your needs and repair the ruptures. When we learn to fill up from the inside out – to fill the well of self with warm and clear waters – everything changes. Obviously, this isn’t a quick or easy solution; no such thing exists when it comes to inner healing. But I have seen miracles happen when people start to name the root of the problem then pour their energy into the reversal of their direction of focus.
If you would like to begin or continue the healing and repair process, please join me for 12th round of Trust Yourself: A 30-day program to help you overcome your fear of failure, caring what others think, perfectionism, difficulty making decisions, and self-doubt.The course will begin on April 13th, 2019, and I look forward to seeing you there.
*There are, of course, many other factors that contribute to insomnia, including physiological imbalances including hormones and sleep apnea, and other psychological issues, like PTSD.
As always, I welcome your comments below.