The Rewritten Narrative: Retrofitting Your Identity to Be Seaworthy

Cargo ship sails across darkening sea with lightning against the skyLike a seaworthy ship, an adventurous self must take on water when necessary, remain buoyant, and stay afloat and on course if and when it encounters turbulent storms and stress fatigue. It must be able to withstand wear and tear. It must also be able to repair ruptures to its integrity with an eye to upgrading its load-carrying capacities and navigational systems. It is hard to accurately predict and adapt to the timing, nature, and magnitude of internal and external imperatives to change. We all, as captains of these vessels of ours, must humbly surrender without submitting to the tyranny of periodic chaos and keep in perspective environmental shifts that defy the accuracy of our predictions and our efforts to prepare for them.

Sometimes, the best we can do when the gale-force winds of change blow is to hold onto anything that is anchored to the ground and wait patiently for the winds to stop kicking up the surf. These are universal challenges to our self-esteem and self-confidence. It is an art and science to mold and be molded by defining experiences while preserving a coherent identity. There is little in life more unnerving than to look in the mirror in the midst of a period of dynamic growth, scratch one’s head, and wonder: who is this stranger? Those who continue to process and integrate the unending lessons of living moment-to-moment are best equipped to adapt most effectively.

Like so many folks who were late to assuming the mantle of leadership of their own lives, or perhaps never advanced beyond first-mate status, my early travels hugged the perimeters of my home marina, so to speak. This state of affairs was symptomatic of parents who mirrored me with great inconsistency that left this callow youth confused and self-doubting. As my parents did not dignify that their perspectives about me oscillated without any apparent rhyme or reason, I learned to distrust my own meaning-making capacities and swung right in tune to their pendulum-like responses to me. If my own well-meaning, loving parents couldn’t make up their minds about whether I was, alternately, someone who had to be told how to run to his life, or who was sufficiently able to be left alone to his own devices to find his own way, I certainly was not about to trust myself to make major life decisions.

Little did I realize until I entered psychotherapy at age 27 why my meaning-making capacities and those of my parents were at such odds with each other. Their interpretive lenses, like mine, were relinquished in deference to parental authorities who, by confusing sides of their children with complete balls of wax, left their children with poorly integrated and chaotic identities they dared not trust. They, like me, were seen and reacted to more often based on their parents’ security needs rather than in attunement to their own needs, to be groomed for launching as autonomous beings. My parents’ major complaint to each other was that their primary allegiance was not to themselves and each other but to their parents’ mind-sets, values, and expectations of them.

To mindlessly submit and/or rebel against my parents were two sides of the same coin, symptomatic of my resistance to test the reality of a set of narratives that pretty much became a prison without bars. What condemned me for decades to rot in this prison was the infectious and discombobulating impact of intergenerational traumas. My parents were raised with first the specter of starvation hanging over their heads during the Great Depression, and shortly thereafter, the lengthening shadow of Hitler’s Final Solution. What the mind will not tolerate, the body registers. The intolerable nature of such unprocessed realities turned my nervous system to the equivalent of a lemon of a home security system that woke up every morning with false alarms ringing in my head to duck and take cover. Cost-benefit analyses of risks and rewards were foreign to my family culture. Risks of any nature were associated with fears of annihilation.

My best friend’s parents joked I was like an aged grandfather possessed of a litany of complaints about dying. I understood little about the intergenerational transmission of traumatic memories that put a stranglehold on my abilities to breathe, smell the flowers, and look with hopeful curiosity toward the future. The rising tide of feelings hijacked my thought processes and rendered my ability to put these memories into perspective as artifacts of a horrific past, null and void.

Living on my own helped a bit. As a young man, the irrefutable daily evidence that I could survive the good, the bad, and the ugly calmed my fears somewhat. Still, my chosen field of mastery as a young adult was nearly as narrow as the space my parents trusted me to operate within on my own. If anything might have killed me in my 20s, it was loneliness and boredom. I rigidly deified and sacrificed my best years at the altar of the god of rigid survival strategies. I never ventured far outside my comfort zone.

I won’t ruin the story for you, should you purchase my memoir. Suffice it to say I “hit bottom” in 1980 and by ’81 made the momentous life-changing decision to enter psychotherapy. You might call my psychotherapist many names: doctor of in vitro fertilization of my autonomous self, midwife, “the good parent,” the re-engineer of my trusted self, or the construction foreman in charge of the renovation of my personality. Over the next 11 years Dr. G and I, largely with him holding me together during this process, reexamined with me my early narrative.

You might call my psychotherapist many names: doctor of in vitro fertilization of my autonomous self, midwife, “the good parent,” the re-engineer of my trusted self, or the construction foreman in charge of the renovation of my personality. Over the next 11 years Dr. G and I, largely with him holding me together during this process, reexamined with me my early narrative.

He rehabilitated my trust in the exercise of mindful authority to make meaningful sense of life experiences. It took me years to surrender to the many truths that accurately cast my parents as well-meaning, yet largely unconscious people who walked in their sleep with their eyes open from early childhood until their deaths. When I got done leaving their largely worthless belief systems at the curb, I had to refurnish every compartment with operational manuals. Their perspectives on me were largely confused with their needs to live vicariously through me, confusion between myself and them as kids, knee-jerk rigid identifications with their parents in how they treated me, or counter-identifications with how their parents behaved. Seldom, if ever, did they see me as a whole person and thoughtfully evaluate their responses to me based on my needs separately from theirs and based on a cost-benefit analysis on the consequences for me of their parenting style.

Every step forward in therapy ushered in fears I was about to step off a cliff that I carelessly and absentmindedly had not paid attention to. Dr. G repaired my trust in the goodwill of people in positions of authority. Consequently, on the strength of my renovated trust in others (even if I didn’t yet trust myself), I began to reintegrate myself into society and take on some new challenges on the work and dating fronts. This was all well and good; however, an old, wishful narrative continued to hamstring me. It was too late for anyone to take me under their wings and repair the early damage to my autonomous strivings. I had betrayed myself to wait for Dr. G to lead me by the hand to fame and fortune, and I was equally deluded to hope that any boss or girlfriend for that matter was willing or able to take on the responsibility for my fortunes in life.

At age 50, I was still a rather “institutionalized” personality waiting for someone to direct the fulfillment of my life calling. With my father’s passing, my biological clock was ticking so loudly in my head I could not ignore it. It was time to seize the day, but my fears of finding myself out on a limb only to suffer the fate of Humpty Dumpty held me back from being a center of creative initiative. Shame and guilt were more than feelings for me. They were realities I was still so identified with as to feel unwilling or unable to achieve anything that took time and ingenuity. There were way too many times I felt as if I were demented and had lost parts of my mind indispensable to my creative freedom to fully invest myself in a goal. Although I had for some time gotten beyond quitting on myself, I had not yet committed myself to projects that would require the best of me on a regular basis. I was still convinced the false alarms in my head were an Achilles’ heel that would hold me back from exploring my performance potential.

A memoir is a glorified diary. To write one requires that you learn to check your ego at the door, be your own best friend, and replicate conditions for creative mastery. One must tolerate being alone with oneself and make such a relationship a labor of love. Oh, yes, I had to learn in a self-disciplined manner to work through objections to working on days I was tired, uninspired, or feeling dubious about my abilities to complete such a daunting project. No matter what I did or did not get accomplished over the course of my two- to three-hour writing sessions, three to four days a week for years on end, I had to keep the faith that these muscle-building exercises would help me normalize the disintegrative impact of revisiting my emotional traumas while such exercises rewired my brain to act as bulwark against such flashbacks.

Humpty Dumpty had to develop a more crash-resistant shell while also learning how to put himself back together. I had to access and make peace with my inner “demons” on my own if I were to spend my time outside of my scheduled sessions sailing into uncharted waters. I had no idea, beginning this process in late 2005, how identified I remained with guilt and shame over what were understandable acts of self-preservation in distancing myself from my family in my early 20s. As I went through this process, I recognized myself for my astute capacities to rewrite my way to freedom to give voice to my artistic aims. The biggest obstacle I had to overcome was my fear that those in my family who failed to give voice to their artistic aims would put a bull’s eye of envy on my back. There is a price to pay for everything in this world. There are no exceptions to the rule. Otherwise, I have been blessed to get my captain’s license and reinvent myself to be a seaworthy vessel. See you at the next boat show (ha, ha)!

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Pamela

    July 27th, 2017 at 7:35 AM

    Ha I tend to sink over swim. I need to do a little better in making myself a little better able to withstand the storms!

  • Mitchell Milch

    August 4th, 2017 at 9:54 AM

    Hi Pamela,
    Thanks for reading my article. I appreciate your sense of humor about the challenges we all face to stay afloat amidst turbulent seas of emotion. Mindfulness is not only key to finding our authentic narrative voices. It is also key to relaxing rigid defenses; dams that eventually crumble under pressure. Feelings that are processed regularly and discharged in healthy ways are the best bulwark against flash floods of emotion.

  • Caroline

    July 27th, 2017 at 10:23 AM

    Old habits die hard but I promise that those changes are do able!

  • Mitchell Milch

    August 4th, 2017 at 10:00 AM

    Hi Caroline,
    Thanks so much for taking time out of your day to read my article. I like your winning attitude. It’s impossible to develop our mental muscles without taxing them in moderation. Optimal stress leads to adaptations that enhance our work efficiency.

  • kathy

    July 28th, 2017 at 7:10 AM

    Life can be hard as an adult if you have never been given the skills by others in your life in terms of how to trust your own decisions and how to be self confident in the decisions and moves that you must make. If you have not had that kind of support in your life all along then it can difficult for you to know what to do once you come to the point where you have to start making those tough decisions for yourself.

  • Mitchell Milch

    August 4th, 2017 at 10:12 AM

    Yes Kathy I agree with you wholeheartedly. I would not have learned to parent myself or help re-parent my patients had I not gone through a rigorous and intensive regimen of psychotherapy. It takes tremendous courage to chase one’s dreams because to be the captain of one’s ship is at times to be alone on the high seas of adventure temporarily lost, confused, and self-doubting. The best athletes in the world are wonderful role models for their resilience in the face of failing with the whole world watching.

  • matt

    July 30th, 2017 at 3:34 PM

    How do we get to that point to get far beyond feeling that our feelings are actually who and what we are?

  • Mitchell Milch

    August 4th, 2017 at 10:26 AM

    Hi Matt,
    Thank you for reading my article and taking the time to respond. I learned to observe, reflect on and trust myself to make useful sense of my feelings by identifying with therapists and supervisors who modeled and encouraged me to develop these critical faculties. To develop such an observing ego is to possess the ability to be open to the moment and live with hopeful optimism that today or tomorrow will provide answers to our problems. Without such capacities, we tend to over reference narratives drawn from earlier stages in our lives often molded by idealized others who in truth are not as wise as we needed to believe was the case early on.

  • Bri

    April 17th, 2021 at 8:58 AM

    This article is quite old & for all I know its author is no longer around, &/or has much interest in responding, but I’ve always been an optimist so here goes nothin’!
    MY Achilles Heel in adulthood(born in 1980)has become a perpetual sense of dread & learned helplessness/uselessness-I’ve come to dread most things that need doing because I’m confident I won’t find the perfect answer, antidote or solution on my first, second or maybe even my third attempt, so why even try when in the face of such uselessness….who knows when or even IF I’ll ever get it right? I started off by saying I’m an optimist because that’s the way I’ve always viewed the world & others, and aside from my own stunted/stilted, personal view of the present here & now, I continue seeing the world and everyone else in it with optimism-in other words, I view my everyone else & my future self optimistically, whereas any present moment optimism has alluded me as an adult. I say all this because I’ve wanted to find a psychotherapist for YEARS now, but the two times I actually went out on a limb and booked an appt with one, they weren’t the right fit for me at all & my full throttle efforts left me feeling drained & exposed emotionally…..not to mention disheartened after conquering my fears, only to have them confirmed & as I witnessed things playing out EXACTLY as I feared they would. I found a psychologist in Chicago when we moved there and tried again in Atlanta when 4 years later we moved there, & BOTH times I spent hours filling out those intake forms & walked in there with my heart on my sleeve(which isn’t something I struggle with, so maybe it wasn’t THAT noteworthy😏) & a sense of excitement about truly clicking/connecting with someone. That never happened of course, so after two more moves across state lines-spanning 10 years-I’ve never tried to find a third therapist & I’m DESPERATE to do so…..but scared of failing again. Any suggestions? I live in Jax Florida now but so much can be done online these days that location/distance shouldn’t be a huge factor. I just feel stuck(yet equally unmoored)in life and my kids are 19 & 16 now, so some major shifts are heading my way & I’d really like to NOT become a statistic like my own mother in midlife-I was 24 when out of the blue she up & left my dad after 25yrs of what he believed to be a strong & mostly happy marriage, & she moved to Arizona with her FEMALE best friend turned lover🤨My 20yr marriage is solid & healthy so I’m not worried about the divorce or the midlife sexuality switcharoo thing, but I am worried about the ways any unresolved issues might play out or upend my OWN life🙏🏻

  • Mitchell Milch, LCSW

    April 18th, 2021 at 2:18 AM

    Hi Bri, Thanks for reading my article and for your emotionally open response. You are not alone in your pursuit of perfection and your fear of failing to achieve it. Learning how to live life well is all about mourning our wishes for perfection and our fears of not attaining it. Our failures and successes ground us in the growth promoting soil of mindfully processing and learning from all our experiences. If I were you I’d read the profiles of the therapists featured on Someone’s philosophy and nature will speak to you. i’m retiring at the end of this year. Good luck.

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