Much of who we are is formed by age 6. If your needs weren’t met or you weren’t in a loving environment, those experiences can impact you in profound and long lasting ways. Imagine you, at 6 years old. When things happen, you make decisions and you begin to tell stories to explain why those things happen.
As humans, we are filtering information on a daily basis. But in those early years? Those decisions? They shape much of how we see ourselves in relation to the world. Big decisions made by your 6 year old brain. Making decisions about you, telling you how it is. Those decisions made by your very young brain may stick for life. So the question is, how many decisions made by a 6 year old’s brain are we still living by? How much of what we told ourselves about a situation remains a constant about “the way things are?”
Around the age of 6, I have a vivid memory of what I call “The Escalator Incident.” I was at the department store with my mom, and probably a few siblings, and I stepped on the Up escalator. When I stepped, my foot landed on the crack, the seam that separates to become a step. As the escalator moved, I fell backwards. I remember seeing my mom’s face, holding a sibling’s hand, rising above on the steps as I fell backward. I remember a man bending to catch me. I remember that terrible feeling seeing my mom moving away from me, and I was falling for what seemed like an eternity down the Up escalator.
The other day, I was shopping in a department store with my daughter, and as I stepped on that escalator, the memory rushed in. It happens every time, on any escalator. I made a decision decades ago that escalators were scary and dangerous. As an adult, I know what to do. My logical adult brain makes the argument: That was an accident. It happened once. Nevertheless, I still flash back to that moment. This decades old memory still takes hold of me. It no longer stops me, but it does flicker in my brain each and every time I step on an escalator.
My young brain made a lot of big decisions. I couldn’t swim as fast as the other kids on the swim team. I couldn’t climb the rope in gym class. Decision: My body isn’t as strong as other kids’. While I wasn’t an obese kid, I definitely had my chubby moments, and the mean kids made sure to call that out. Decision: I am fat. I am ugly. I’m not likable.
Over the years, I have made an effort to do the work to reframe these memories and the decisions I made as a result of the experiences. I’ve dieted, done personal growth workshops, journaled, did a brief stint in therapy, and dieted some more. But the permanent solution illuded me. In recent years, I ‘achieved’ actual obesity. I proved what that young brain had decided long ago. I am fat. I feel ugly. My lizard brain won each and every time. That lizard brain who thinks it’s protecting me from the harsh realities, with knowledge about ‘the way it is,’ was absolutely right.
There are some who might say that first I have to make peace with the body I have. On the surface, that’s probably true. But how I looked on the outside was so out of alignment with the ‘me’ I felt on the inside, I struggled to embrace and accept it. The issues that being 100 pounds overweight brings, like joint pain, hormonal imbalances, and depression, made it impossible for me to embrace or accept my state of affairs.
Now that I am over 60% of the way to my goal, I have gained a lot of insight. My problems haven’t vanished, nor is every day a breeze when it comes to food and my weight. But there has been a significant shift in my perspective. In order to reset what my 6 year old brain decided long ago, I must present evidence to the contrary. I AM capable of having a strong body. I CAN master healthy eating that will lead to me getting to the goal I have set. I HAVE made significant progress. Previously, no matter how long I stared into the mirror, the fat body staring back at me, was not OK with me. And yet, I felt like no matter what I did, I couldn’t make a real permanent change.
What began to shift the inside was taking steps to reach the goal in a new way. The shift came in letting go of the past, and finally finding the answer to why I had failed in the past. I began to understand more about brain chemistry and tried a new road.
Now, I have evidence each morning as I go to my closet and look at the mounting pile of clothes that no longer fit, because they are 3 or more sizes too big. It’s all evidence I present with the hope of shifting what the inside has been saying. Sure, my lizard brain is right in there, reminding me I’ve done this before and failed. I’ve lost these pounds many times before. If I let it, old lizard can toss me off my game. But there is a difference this time. I hold onto that.
My 6 year old brain was doing its job back then. It was helping me make sense of the world. My little lizard brain was protecting me from the hurt I felt and telling me stories about the way it was going to be for me. Those echoes from the past aren’t completely gone. Just like the escalator, when I step on the scale in the morning, there is still that nagging fear that it’s going to stop working. I’ll stop making progress, ditch the whole thing and jump right back into obesity. So I must be vigilant, and practice staying in the present. I must remember that while my 6 year old brain served me well, I’m no longer that child. And the more I stay in the present, the more I see the real healing begins. But it wasn’t until I took action that the lizard brain began the retreat. I needed physical proof that I was making a difference. I am feeding my lizard brain new information. I am fully able to protect myself from the mean girls now. I’m fully able to step on that escalator, and glide up. I know how to take a step and not fall. And if I take a misstep, it doesn’t stop me like it used to. No one dies, my fall doesn’t have to be shameful, dark & twisty. I make a minute to minute choice whether to live in shame or step out into the light. Day by day. Step by moving step.