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Self-Knowledge • Know Yourself

The One Question You Need to Understand Who You Are

There is one question that, perhaps more than any other, gets to the root of who we are and what motivates us:

What did I need to do in childhood to win the support and approval of my parents?

To sharpen the questions, we might need to lean on a few subsidiary enquiries:

To please my father, I needed to…

To please my mother, I needed to…

Not to upset my mother, I needed to…

Not to upset my father, I needed to…

Whatever might be claimed, no family ever gives its offspring unconditional love; there is always, more or less subtly, something that one has to do and to be – and other things that must at all costs be skirted. 

Photo by jaikishan patel on Unsplash

When we look back, the commands may be obvious: we needed to do very well at school, or be highly musical or never usurp our father or little sister. In other cases, the commands will have been more disguised; we would have imbibed a general sense – emitted we know not how – that making a lot of money was vital or that sex was disgusting or that one’s value lay almost entirely in one’s looks or sporting ability. And sometimes, the commands would have been paradoxical to a degree we are still trying to untangle: ‘you must be a winner, but if you are, we’ll be threatened’. Or: ‘try never to grow up because adult women or men frighten me’. Or: ‘become extremely attached to me, so I can break your heart.’

However much our attitudes and outlooks might be shaped by our countries of birth – by being Cambodian, French or Ghanian – we are always first and foremost citizens of those micro republics we call families, by being a Seang, a Béranger or a Boakye, each one of these lands equipped with a hugely idiosyncratic set of laws, expectations, patriotisms and tyrannies. Our nations may lend us a certain accent and civil code, our birth families tell us what constitutes a real man or woman, how much we can esteem ourselves, what we have to do to be admired and how much calm and fulfilment we deserve. 

If auditing these conditions of acceptance matters, it is because – to a far greater extent than we realise – they may still be in operation and make no sense at all. Decades after we left the republic of Niang, Smith, Kekoa or Banerji, we may still be taking immense care not to succeed too much – lest we anger a disappointed mother. Or we’re still permanently trying to appease the bad moods of men in authority – in case they lose their temper violently, as a father did four decades before. Or we continue to expect an attack, as we did when we were in the hands of a highly damaged caregiver before our sixth birthday.

If we are still in the mood for questions, we may need to wonder two things:

1. How much am I still doing of what I had to do back then?

2. And how much do I like – or dislike – the laws of yesteryear?

We may find – to our disquiet – that we are continuing to apply to the present a set of edicts that long ago ceased to align with any of our sincere aspirations. We continue to act the clown, or the meek little girl, the terrified victim or daddy’s favourite even when the republic of home has long been disbanded, its elite resigned and its borders obliterated. We may need to take stock of the highly distinctive mini country we’ve come from – and, in certain cases, before we waste  yet more time, emigrate.

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