Tuesday Tales: Do we really know ourselves? – Donna Thistlethwaite

“Put your hand up if you believe that you know yourself”. These words tumbled out of the mouth of a renowned careers expert during a three-day workshop I was attending in the early days of my transition from human resources to career coaching.

How do you think you’d respond?

It felt like an odd sort of a question to me at the time. I contemplated for a moment before raising my hand in unison with a smattering of other people in the room. I had been in my skin on the planet for around 45 years at the time and it felt like ample time to get a sense of who I was. I knew I was a mum, a partner, a tenacious human, and an emerging career practitioner. I also knew I loved helping people, was social and I had some awareness of my values.

The facilitator surprised me by suggesting that we didn’t actually know ourselves. That there is no way that any of us could actually know how we would respond in the full range of experiences that can arise on the journey of life. That we are continuously evolving and uncovering more of who we are and what makes us tick.

While I somewhat accepted his position after the explanation, it’s only in more recent years that it truly landed. I would contemplate – “Why do I keep finding myself in this situation” (read any type of challenge)? Often I’ve been as much a mystery to myself as other people are.

Lately, I’ve been focusing on looking deeper at my history, patterns and triggers to get more of a handle on why I act the way that I do. The analogy of the iceberg fits well here … I’m shifting my attention to what sits under the waterline rather than what the world can see.

My journey so far has led me to believe that there is a reason for everything we do … that our true intention is generally to protect ourselves in what can sometimes feel like a scary world.

An example that comes to mind is my tendency to want to look after (aka control) everything around me – my son, my partner, our household, our finances, etc. Sometimes I can become very obsessed with their lives and it can cause me a lot of discomforts (as it did recently). Letting go for me can be very challenging.

When working through this issue with some facilitator friends someone asked me about the origins of my desire to look after everyone. The question took me right back to when I was five years old. My mum had acquired a brain injury that paralysed the left side of her body a couple of years earlier and, with a newborn on the scene, she needed my help a lot. At that young age, I was changing my baby sister’s nappies with some press studs we’d had sewn on. I would also telephone an ambulance when our mum had a seizure, always needing to remember to tell them that mum was allergic to penicillin.

The penny dropped … in my past if I didn’t help, someone could die. No wonder I’ve grown into this hyper responsible adult who feels compelled to help everyone! It’s suddenly not surprising that I find it so difficult to relax and loosen the reigns on myself and others.

This was obviously an extreme example of how our past can influence our present and future. Often the past events, or our interpretations of them, are far more subtle. A passing comment that we internalise, the assumption we make about why a parent did or didn’t do something, a bully in the schoolyard, can have similar effects.

The concept of peeling back the layers of an onion resonates when it comes to our personal growth. There’s always more to uncover if we have the courage to take a deeper look and to deal with what we find.

What are you still keen to know about yourself? Who could help you to go deeper than you’ve been before?

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Donna Thistlethwaite is a Brisbane-based speaker and trainer specialising in mental health and resilience. She is an accredited Mental Health First Aid Instructor and Resilience at Work Facilitator with a passion for suicide prevention and for helping individuals, teams and organisations to THRIVE. You can find out about her next Mental Health First Aid courses here.

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