Are we defined by our experiences?
In many ways, we can both give and hear a resounding yes to this. Experiences make up our lives.
From the moment we are born, experience is the one thing that is constantly happening to us, and it never stops. Even beyond lifespan, our personal experiences can still be recalled by others through what we call a legacy.
It’s an understatement to say that our personal experiences are very important, but it is the one thing we have in common with all human beings.
Every person that you meet has a story to tell about their experiences in life.
Because of this, it’s easy to see how personal experiences shape the person that we become.
How Experiences Shape the Person That You Are
Understanding How Early Childhood Experiences Influence Us
We may not be fully aware of exactly how much our early years in life affect us in adulthood, although we can all at different times feel gratitude or disappointment for our upbringing.
Up to this day, it remains a matter of conjecture as to just how much an impact our formative years have in later years. Many researchers are still trying to quantify just how much.
Interestingly, one particular study has found strong evidence to support the idea that “the quality of emotional support that an infant receives from their caregivers during the first three years of their life contributes significantly to three aspects of their life in adulthood – education, social life, and relationships, even up to more than 30 years later.”
Arriving at this particular conclusion, the study leveraged data from long-standing research known as the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation, taking a sample of 243 individuals who participated in the extended study.
The researchers followed all the participants from birth up until their 32nd year in life. Observations were made, recorded, and accounted for in the study, particularly the participants’ socio-economic status and the environment that they grew up in.
Early childhood experiences might be consciously gone from our minds when we reach adulthood. However, the feelings and emotions imparted by these experiences aggregate and form the basis of our mindset. This has impacts on our ambitions, expectations, morals, worldview, and much more.
This particular study showed us that our feelings acquired from memories of the earliest years of life could remain stored in a more powerful portion in our minds, the unconscious, where it can significantly influence a very important aspect in our adult lives – our academic proficiency and success.
How Our Experiences Shape Who We Become
The omnipresence of experiences in our lives makes them highly valuable for us to examine and understand, especially on the aspect of how they shape us as a person. Definitive experiences can greatly influence the person that we ultimately become.
Almost everyone can recall an experience that has made them fearful or hesitant beyond what is appropriate to the occasion. Some personal reflection will give insight into just how much this experience and related ones may have thwarted your personal progress, either personally or professionally, and possibly both.
Hopefully, you may also recall experiences that have given you courage, trust, and hope. It is these experiences that help us dream bigger and better goals, and to believe that they are attainable.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the different ways that life experiences shape our identity.
Experience of Adversity and Challenges Build Our Resilience
One thing that we all experience as human beings is challenges. No matter where in life we are, we all go through adversity and encounter problems along the way.
Resilience is not the solution to all our problems, but it is what psychologists define as our capacity to adapt well in difficult situations and be able to face adversity, tragedy, trauma, or a significant amount of stress.
We can think of resilience as our ability to bounce back, but the good news is it’s not necessarily innate in a person. It’s like a muscle that you can build.
True resilience involves a significant amount of personal growth, resulting from overcoming and not avoiding life’s challenges.
Experiencing Something First Hand and Taking Action Strengthens Confidence and Trust in Ourselves
Most of us think that to succeed in life, we need a tremendous amount of self-confidence and belief in our self and our abilities. There is some truth to that, however, what truly builds self-confidence in a person is taking action.
The action builds competency, competency strengthens trust within ourselves, and more belief in our abilities ultimately leads to increased self-confidence.
The study on early childhood experiences mentioned previously did show that a person’s likelihood of academic success did come from their quality of home life and whether or not they received sufficient emotional support from their caregivers within the first three years of their life.
However, in that same long-term study, it showed that this single factor was not the be-all and end-all of success. If we can build self-confidence, which develops as a result of our successes, we can attract greater success.
Working backward from there, we cannot have any success at all if we refrain from taking action. We must have skin in the game to have a chance at anything.
Attributed to hockey player Wayne Gretzky, there are no truer words than “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”.
The Quality of Emotional Support that We Receive as a Child Affects the Way We Relate in Our Romantic Relationships
Awareness of attachment styles becomes important when we enter into romantic relationships in adulthood. From intimate relationships to marriage, a person’s attachment style is revealed in the way that they naturally respond emotionally to others and how they connect with their partners.
According to the attachment theory developed by John Bowlby, a psychiatrist, and Mary Ainsworth, a psychologist, in the 1950s, a person’s attachment style is developed in early childhood.
A person’s attachment style in adulthood reflects the dynamic of the relationship with our earliest caregivers. This theory tells us that our ability to feel secure in our adult relationships goes back to whether or not we felt secure in early childhood.
Failure to form a secure attachment as young children can potentially impact our views, expectations, and behaviors at a subconscious level. This will greatly determine our overall disposition towards relationships.
Experience of Trauma Can Become a Disability, Not In a Physical Sense, But Psychologically
Throughout our life, we might encounter challenges that test our ability to respond to difficult life situations. On the other side of being resilient in the face of problems and difficulties, a person could also end up traumatized from their personal experiences.
Traumatic experiences do not always lead to long-term impairment, but our personal encounters with challenges can certainly cause emotional and mental trauma. A major focus of mental health counseling lies in helping bring us back to healing and recovery when we’ve experienced significant trauma in our lives.
The Meanings We Create from Our Unique Experiences Influence the Way We View Life and Interact with the World
Impactful moments in life can alter our whole perspective. When personal experiences are so significant, we create certain meanings from them that affect our perspective and mindset. A change in mindset often leads to a change in behavior. Have you ever met a person who changed your life?
Or was there ever a moment in your life when you realized something new about yourself that completely changed your worldview? Have you ever traveled to some place that opened your eyes to a whole new perspective?
These moments have urged us to create new meanings that will influence our life in a small or big way.
From these experiences and the value and meaning we ascribe to them, we can take courage in knowing that regardless of any limitations to our early years we have continual opportunities to create better experiences and better memories.
Experience Influences Our Thoughts, Actions, and Judgments
Our personal experiences do more than just influence our broad perspective in life. It can completely influence our thought patterns, our actions, as well as our judgments towards life and other people.
When we’re in a privileged state, or have never been exposed to the kind of challenges that people facing more adversities in life are going through, empathizing can become a challenge and be perceived as a hindrance.
There’s a quote by Thomas Jefferson that perfectly sums up our ability to relate and help others through our encounter of a similar situation: “Who then can so softly bind up the wound of another as he who has felt the same wound himself?”
A Person’s Access to Opportunity Creates Experiences that Can Be Exclusive and Not Widely Available to Others
Opportunities can be scarce for some people. Not everyone and not all places in the world offer the same amount of opportunities and abundance equally.
Our personal experience of how we easily we have access to a good education or secure home life and neighborhood all form a pattern of just how much privilege is offered to us in life.
These opportunities are not widely available to all, but we might not always be made aware of this fact when all that we see and experience in life has been nothing less than this reality.
We Have the Power to Create Meaning from Our Experiences
While it is a fact that we are a product of our personal experiences and environment, it is important to be aware that we are the ones who create meaning from our personal experiences.
We don’t have a choice on many things such as who our parents are, the culture and country we are born into, or the environment and neighborhood we find ourselves in early in life.
However, with an awareness of how much power we do have to choose our perspective in life, we can still make unfortunate experiences work for us by recreating their meaning in our life.
To arrive at that point, we also need to understand how our past experiences have shaped the person that we are today.
Where we have been and what we have been dealt with in life offers a wealth of information for us to find clarity about who we are as individuals.
However, we must not allow our experiences solely to dictate our direction in life. If we continue to define our life by our formative years, we can limit our opportunities to an extent that we only live half the life we otherwise could.
Our experiences to date are not the end-all and be-all of life, but are only guides to what we can still do and who we can still become.
If we choose to do so, we can make a conscious choice to determine and create our own future, by creating better experiences, and by assigning more impact to the better parts of all our experiences.