The Boxes We Grow Up In: identity, development and the prefrontal cortex

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Ask anyone–I was a hot mess in my teens and early twenties. Disorganized, unfocused, and completely unable to finish anything I started. I dropped out of high school because I found the graduation requirements overwhelming, and by the time I finally graduated college at age 30 (remember the age, it’s important) I had credits from five different institutions on my transcript. And a story about myself that I was flaky, undisciplined, and unreliable.

None of that is actually true about me. It’s just that my brain hadn’t grown up yet.

But I carried that identity with me for years, even as much of I was doing was actually the opposite. I finished college with straight As, was a successful sales manager for a large region, managed the publishing division of a national non-profit, co-founded a non-profit, and more.

And yet I carried a story about myself based on who I was as a teen and young adult, which I was blind to (as we often are to the stories we have about ourselves). It was my dear friend and business partner who finally called me on it a couple of years ago when I said something along the lines of “Well, you know me, I have no discipline,” and after she got finished snorting coffee out her nose and laughing hysterically, she said, “Oh stop it! That is ridiculous. You are the most  disciplined person I know.”

I was completely taken aback, but when I looked more objectively at my life, I saw she had a point. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I went from a haphazard fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants adolescent to a focused, capable, organized adult.

Now you could chalk this up to the general process of learning, and you could assume it was just me developing skills and getting feedback and becoming more effective. And part of that is true. But there is something deeper here: the truth is, I have focus, discipline and organization in my nature. It is actually core to who I am, not just a learned adaptation. So why was I such a mess as a young adult? What happened?

I grew up.

These days we’ve all heard that the brain doesn’t fully develop until approximately the mid-twenties. What we’re referring to is the prefrontal cortex, the last part of  the brain to come fully “on line.” Known as the seat of executive function, this part of the brain is in charge of calibrating risk and reward, problem-solving, prioritizing, thinking ahead, long-term planning, emotional regulation, and the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes. (It’s not that these things aren’t possible before maturity, it’s just that it takes a lot more effort and isn’t very reliable.)

And so, for over 25 years I was telling a very old story, based on an immature version of myself, which I had taken on as true, despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary. Evidence I couldn’t see because the story was blinding me to the truth.

So now, I have a new story, that I am disciplined and focused. And the power of being conscious to this is huge. Probably the main thing is that I am able to trust myself more. When I am about to take something on, instead of hearing an internal voice say “Well I don’t know, you know you don’t tend to follow through very well,” I hear “Good for you, you’ll get that done easily.” The old story was like fighting an uphill battle. The new one is more like riding a wave. And I much prefer riding a wave!

I wonder how many of us have taken on a very old and inaccurate story about ourselves, based on who we were as an adolescent or young adult work-in-progress? And how often do we label kids and teens as “this way” or “that way,” when honestly, we don’t know who they will actually turn out to be once their brains are fully developed?

Take a look and see if what you have been saying about yourself is true, or if it simply was true, before your brain grew up and you became who you actually are.