The Myth of a Clean Slate (and Why You Don’t Want One, Anyway)
People talk a lot this time of year about beginning with a clean slate. It’s a lovely idea to start over without all the baggage that weighs you down, isn’t it?
There are lots of ways to try and wipe the slate clean. Many people try to end certain habits or cultivate new ones. Some people end a relationship or start a new one. Some move to a new house or a new geographical location, altogether. Others start a new job or career.
Have you ever done any of these things, only to find your same, old patterns creeping (or crashing) back in? Maybe you have even thought, “This time, it’s really going to work! I’ve worked so hard, and I’ve done everything right this time.” How frustrating!
Why the Slate Is So Hard to Wipe Clean
So, why is it that we keep getting dragged back into our old patterns, no matter what we do? Not surprisingly, it all goes back to childhood. By the time we’re 2 1/2 years old, our major life patterns are set. From conception until age 2 1/2, we absorb how it feels to be human from how people around us feel about being human. From that absorbed feeling, our brains develop a sense of self that automatically generates every moment of our lives and a survival mechanism that allows us to fit well within the world around us.
Our thinking brains don’t begin to operate until the age of 2 1/2. Since we aren’t able to think during the early absorbing time, none of what we absorb or develop is rational. Some of the feeling that we soak up from others is called Learned Distress, the feeling that there is something wrong with us being just the way that we are. If we could have made some rational decisions, we would have thrown that feeling right back out, but unfortunately, it just becomes part of how we feel that it is to be human. And then, we develop survival mechanisms to cope with or control the Learned Distress, and they can seem downright crazy to our adult, thinking brains.
For instance, one major survival mechanism is dependence on others, and one way the brain puts that into practice is for someone to be unhealthy or even very sick. We all know rationally that being dependent and sick isn’t good for us. But, this person’s 2-year-old brain isn’t concerned with what makes sense. It just knows that survival depends on being reliant on others, and a good way to do that is to be sick. Hence, they might work very hard to get healthy, only to find themselves dragged back into unhealthy habits or conditions, or even developing new ones, inexplicably. It doesn’t make rational sense, and this person isn’t intentionally practicing self-sabotage. This is just the powerful 2-year-old trying to survive. This part of us has been there the longest, and no matter what control mechanism we try and impose on it, the 2-year-old eventually wins.
These negative patterns can happen anywhere in life—in health, relationships, career, and how we express ourselves in the world. Every aspect of life ultimately comes back to our absorbed sense of self and our survival mechanisms developed early in life.
Why You Don’t Want a Clean Slate, Anyway
A clean slate might sound pretty good right now, but here’s why you don’t want one. There is something even deeper within you than your Learned Distress and survival mechanisms, and it is pure good. This natural well-being is the kernel of energy that you began life with, and it is the feeling that it is completely good to be you, exactly as you are.
Your well-being was meant to be the totality of who you are, and your early life was just meant to be a time when it expanded in ways that allowed you to express your uniqueness. But, since people around you didn’t feel good every moment, you absorbed Learned Distress from them, also, and here you are, wishing for a clean slate.
But, what would be better is to wipe away the Learned Distress, so that your well-being can finally expand and take its natural place as the automatic, generating force in your life. Your well-being contains the unique goodness that is yours to express in the world, so allowing it to flow freely from within you gives the world a vital piece of the whole that you are meant to contribute.
What Well-Being Looks Like
One of the first things people say to me after they’ve peeled away a layer or two of Learned Distress is that good things happen so much more easily. When Learned Distress is in charge, we have to control it or leap over it in some way and make good things happen. We’re used to working hard for the good things. But, have you ever gotten out of bed and vowed to work really, really hard to make something bad happen that day? Of course, not. Learned Distress generates that for you.
Taking the Learned Distress out of the way allows well-being to generate your good moments in exactly the same way. So, clients call me and say, “I can’t believe it. For the first time ever, eating right was so easy this week.” Or, “I’ve always known that I should just tell people what’s on my mind, instead of worrying about what they think. But, this week, I just kept surprising myself by being really honest, and it worked so much better than I ever thought it would.”
My favorite part of helping people uncover their well-being is discovering with them what their uniqueness is. Sometimes, people worry that if we peel away their Learned Distress, there won’t be anything of them left. But, they soon find out that they have hidden desires and gifts that lead them along the unique path they are here to travel. As they unlearn layers of Learned Distress, pieces of their uniqueness are revealed to them, sometimes as complete surprises. And, because well-being is the driving force now, this good feeling propels in ways that make new twists and turns easier to navigate than they have been before. A client of mine just moved to a new country for a job that came about as the result of unlearning big layers of her Learned Distress. Major factors fell into place easily for her in the move, such as finding a buyer for her house instantly and effortlessly.
So, next time you’re wishing for a clean slate, you might wonder instead what it would be like to open up your well-being like a great big present. What unique surprises might be hidden within you, just waiting to delight not only you, but the whole world?
Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.