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.
This is unrelated to this week’s post, but I just want to share some thoughts on intuition vs fear. I’m part of an online OCD group (not this one), and I recently shared my current spike and was wondering if anyone else had struggled with it. Someone commented that maybe my gut feelings were actually just my intuition alerting me and I should listen to it. It really triggered me, and since I’ve been asking myself, “intuition or fear?” which is an obsessive thought in itself.
How I’m beginning to understand it is, intuition is quiet and fear is loud. Intuition is the voice you hear when you’re quiet enough to listen, and even though you may not like its message, there’s an underlying sense of okayness. In the past, when I “just knew” I had to move on from a person or situation, it was a quiet nudging that I could more easily push away. It would pop up, but I could more easily ignore it. And even though I didn’t like what it had to say, I still felt peaceful about what it told me. Sad, perhaps, but still peaceful.
Fear, on the other hand, feels like a fist constantly banging around in my mind. As much as I want it to go away, it won’t; and the more I don’t give in to it (at least at first) the harder it pounds. It produces a feeling of alarm and gut-wrenching panic. Fear is unsettling to the core; intuition is not. Even with my current intrusive thoughts, I feel as if I’ve experienced both: the fear and the intuition. The fear says “here is all the evidence that your obsessive thoughts are true,” but the intuition is the quiet voice beneath it (much softer) that says, “All is okay. All will be okay. You’re with a loving person who you can go through life with. Stay.”
I’m committed to healing now, and practicing responding to the fear in a different way–allowing the uncomfortable feelings to exist without analyzing them, reasoning with them, pushing them away, Googling, or reassurance seeking in another way. But still, in these beginning stages, it feels like the fear screams even louder. I understand that healing isn’t linear, though, and eventually it will get easier…
Beautiful, A. Thank you for sharing.
This is such a well articulated response A. Thankyou! I’m currently grappling with the intution vs. fear challenge having recently moved up to Scotland 6 hours travel away from my boyfriend and family. I’m an actor, and my boyfriend’s a Stage Manager so we’re used to long distance, but this time is particularly potent as firstly this is a long contract in quite an unconnected place, compared to the last time we were away from each other the honeymoon phase has passed and I suppose I’m still grieving to a degree, and, lo and behold in one of the plays I’m acting in, I have to kiss another man on stage – the first time I’ve had to do it since I’ve been in a relationship! Suffice it to say, my anxious thoughts have had a field day, creating scenarios in my head whereby I’ll let my boyfriend down and ruminating over the whole situation, and coupled with the inevitable effects that distance creates, it’s made for a tough first week of work. But as you so beautifully stated A, what’s kept me anchored is that oatmeal feeling in the depths of my stomach – the fears all collect in my chest and press down hard and scream for their lives, whereas when I think of Alec, I feel warm, fuzzy, content right down in the depths of my belly. The next few months are going to be challenging, and these anxious thoughts are going to be tricky to shift, but your words will bring comfort in the dark hours. I’ve also come to realize properly for the first time in my life that I’m much too hard on myself and hope to see this work engagement as an opportunity to work on that – not just for myself but also for Alec, who’s had to sit quietly with me while I weep on so many occasions it hurts to dwell on them.
Thank you for your nice comments, LH. I’m so glad what I said resonated with you. Your situation definitely sounds challenging, and I’d be nervous about it, too! New situations/transitions bring a whole new set of challenges. I moved to a new city, moved in with my boyfriend, and got engaged in a 6 month period. My anxiety hasn’t been this bad in years. Especially after the engagement, my anxiety is screaming at me almost daily and making me doubt my fiance. It’s that intuitive feeling, though, that also anchors me in these rough times.
I’m right there with you…hard on myself and others, especially my fiance. I pick him to shreds. I think we owe it to ourselves and our partners to heal this perfectionism and need for certainty. My fiance has been very patient and loving, but it’s wearing on him. When I realized the impact my actions had on my fiance, I made the full commitment to heal…not just half heartedly. It sounds like you’re in a good place, despite the anxiety, and will make good progress. Peace to you 🙂 <3
Hi. I, too, have OCD and am looking for a support group. I know this is not related to your post, but I was wondering if you would be willing to share more about your group/where you found it? Thank you!
Kate, it’s a Facebook OCD group (OCD Only Support Group), so I’m not sure how great it is. It’s helped me somewhat and the people there understand the illness (have to have OCD to join). I’m still on the lookout for an ROCD group specifically…preferably away from social media.
A, I believe you have one of my courses, which makes you eligible for the forum connected to the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course. This is an exceptionally supportive, wise, compassionate community, and has helped thousands of people break free from the stronghold of their intrusive and obsessive thoughts.
You’re right, Sheryl. I should involve myself on the forum. I never did get involved on the forum (or any for that matter) and am just not starting to voice my ideas more. Probably just learning to push through the shame/resistance.
This is really timely for me. I realize a lot of my anxiety stems from questioning my identity (the gay spike, wondering if I am in a monogamous relationship because I have been conditioned to be, questioning my career path, etc.), but I have trouble parsing out if I actually don’t feel aligned or if I am just also conditioned to always question myself. For example, I may have been conditioned for a monogamous relationship, and maybe that IS what I really want, but recently I’ve been questioning everything. I am in my mid 20’s, which isn’t surprising. When I am not in my head, I don’t really question anything, but it is SO hard for me to get out of that space. Any tips?
You’ve answered your own question, Tara: to shift out of head and into your body. That’s where your wisdom and direction live. What actions do you take that help you shift from head to body?
i try to focus on my breathing and feel a quietness in my head. I still feel the need to prove my thoughts aren’t true in order to achieve peace. And, I am so easily influenced. For example, I just read an article about a woman who got married and then realized she wants to be single and is attracted to woman, and I started worrying it’s me because I am so nervous to get married (even though my boyfriend and I are both not ready for that), and I have anxiety around that and my relationship in general. But, if I get out of my head, I feel like the thoughts are still there- I am just silencing them.
This course would be ideal for you, Tara.
I wish I could. I just can’t afford it right now, as a full time student. I have a therapist, though, so we are working through a lot of it.
Hi Tara. I am also in my twenties, going through this exactly as you are. Maybe we could chat and share experiences?
Just a great post, Sheryl. I’m now in my 30s, started reading your work and taking your online courses in my mid-20s initially to help with my anxiety about getting married. While I don’t think I’m any closer to knowing who I really am, (sigh) I think I’ve accomplished a heck of a lot of clearing the blockages and debris from within, in the form of intrusive thoughts, anxious thoughts or worrying, strong insecurities, pressure to conform, perfectionist behavior, and the list goes. Cleaning the well I guess. Only now I feel I’m ready and committed to honoring what I need to do to learn who I am and what matters to me most in life.
Lately, my anxiety has been work/professional-life focused. I realized I don’t agree with the mainstream metropolitan work, social, and political cultures. I’ll probably never be a super career climber with a high salary and impressive job title or post-graduate degree. I’m learning to accept that I can live a very fulfilling life without those and I’m not a “failure to society” by choosing a slower paced nurturing environment, and leaving the traditional work place. It’s harder and will take more work to find income another way, but I prefer finding my own way than following the toxic and soul-crushing traditional 9-5 work environments now.
As for insomnia, I struggle with that often. I began leaving my cell phone in the living room at night so I stop checking email, texts, or social media before bed. Made a huge difference in my sleep quality, but I still get restless. My go-to that consistently works is exercising hard, spending a ton of time in nature (like in the middle-of-no-where wilderness nature), or hanging out/talking on the phone with good friends/family. These activities are time-consuming, but it’s become more important in my life to prioritize them. I’ve gotten more ok with saying a lot of noes so that I have time to do these things. Again, required a lot of inner work and building the well to become comfortable prioritizing myself first!!
I would challenge your statement that you don’t know who you are, katers, as it certainty sounds like you do! You’re honoring your rhythm around work and bucking the mainstream system, honoring your need for quality time in nature and with friends, and recognizing that your body needs to exercise hard in order to feel wellness. This is what it means to know yourself!
Beautiful thought about the connection between sleep and mothering. Sleep has always been very important to me, and for some reason as I got into my 20s and 30s has become something I feel shamed for. My in-laws don’t understand this and make fun of me for sleeping late, as if it makes me lazy or self-indulgent. The times when I’ve been able to sleep late in my life and attune to my own natural rhythm stand out as the most centered and healthy.
When my daughter was a newborn, we really tried to follow her cues and rhythms for sleeping and eating. Now that she’s getting closer to being a toddler (18 months), she needs more activity there is pressure to have structure on her day. I believe it is causing me to experience stress and insomnia. This post is causing me to consider how I can better attune to my own rhythms as well as my daughters. How can I take steps to pull back from getting sucked into the culture of constant scheduling? It is hard as a first time parent to pace a path that differs from the norm.
Our culture is insane when it comes to scheduling and I STRONGLY encourage you to listen to your rhythm and your daughter’s and not the one prescribed by the culture. We need time to be, to rest, to play, to create, and the only way that happens is with downtime:
Sheryl, Please don’t ever stop writing your blog. it is so helpful to so many people, on a deep level. Thank you for this post also, as it reminds me to limit my time on social media as well. I enjoy Instagram, but quit Facebook a few years ago, although I was just recently looking on there through a friend’s page and was reminded how triggering it is. Thank goodness for the continuing inner work I’ve been doing with the help of your blog (among other methods). I don’t let it sting me as deeply as it has done in the past. And I don’t fall into that social media “black hole” as easily as I used to. I still wish I was one of those people who doesn’t get triggered by social media to compare myself or my life to others, but I know I’m definitely not alone in these feelings.
No plans to stop writing any time soon but I am seeing that engagement is down since the rise of Instagram. It makes me very sad, as connecting through the meaningful forum of a blog allows for a much different level of connection than the quick replies on social media, but this is what it seems to be. However, I still have a lot to say that extends far beyond the snapshot format of Instagram so I’ll still be here for a while! I’m so glad my work has been helpful :).
Hello Ari! Oh, I much prefer this platform as well :). Thank you for chiming in.
Yes! I purposefully left teaching public school to become a private tutor exactly for this reason. I spend as much time helping my tutoring students feel comfortable in their own skin as I do studying the academics. It’s crazy to think that a one hour dose of honoring the student as they are (as opposed to how they “should” be) makes a world of difference in a child’s life and academic experience. Thank you for articulating the way I feel about this topic so well – on point as usual!! 🙂
What a gift you’re offering, Michelle. Thank you so much for sharing.
Hi Sheryl! This is unrelated to this weeks topic, but I’m just wondering. Is worrying about if your relationship is healthy normal? I feel like I constantly worry if I’m “abusive” or “toxic” or if my boyfriend is. And in my heart I know we are in a kind, healthy, harmonious relationship, but the worries are still very much still there. I was in an abusive relationship many years ago, maybe there is left over trauma?
It’s a classic symptom of relationship anxiety. Please read through this Collection: