I have spent a lot of time over the past four months learning about old programming. Old programming is the way our brains were hardwired in infancy and very early childhood based on a mixture of biological inheritance and early life experiences. The brain becomes wired in more positive or negative ways depending on genetic load and experiences and this wiring is set for life in the first year to two years of life. You will go on to filter all new information and experiences through this programming. If you are one of the lucky ones and became hardwired in more positive ways based on a caring, nurturing environment you will likely have a more positive outlook, more confidence, and the 50% of your happiness capacity that is inherited and based on these early life experiences (Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness) will be “more happy”. If you are programmed with higher levels of conscientiousness and extroversion and lower levels of neuroticism at birth, you will also more likely have a positive outlook on life and feel greater satisfaction with your life (Hayes and Joseph, 2003).
If your early life experiences involved chronic stress, neglect or trauma , your brain will become hardwired for stress. You will be more hypervigilant, geared toward fight or flight responses, and your perception will be more negative which in turn contributes to your emotional fitness in a negative way. You are focused on survival rather than nurture. You will likely continue to have stress responses when there is no real threat. You are may develop anxiety disorder and depression. The impact of this early environment can affect you for the rest of your life in less adaptive ways. Recent studies have even shown that you can pass effects of this hardwiring to your children genetically as well as behaviorally.
I belong to the second group. I grew up with an abusive mother for whom substance use was always a problem. She probably had anxiety disorder and battled depression and she was an alcoholic by the time I was in high school. Not entirely her fault. She learned the abusive behavior from her father. And she was good at it. The issues she faced were likely the result of the stressful environment in which she was raised paired with her genetic inheritance of personality traits. When I was born the cycle continued. I have battled with anxiety for as long as I can remember and overcome much mental and emotional trauma to become a positive, mostly happy adult. I may have passed on a predisposition for anxiety based on my early life experiences but the cycle of abuse stopped with me.
The good news is, that even though you can’t change the hardwiring in the brain, you can change your thoughts, feelings and emotions. You can change your actions and reactions. If you weren’t in the caring environment group, it will take work but it is possible to choose to be positive, optimistic, and happy. Although, 50% of your happiness homeostasis is inherited, 40% is within your control while 10% is based on environment. If you are in the group with personality traits that include higher levels of neuroticism and pessimism, again, it will take work but you, too, can change your thoughts, feelings and emotions. Understanding that early life experiences are still having an effect on you is powerful, but knowing that you can change what isn’t working for you is empowering. Our history is not our story. Write the story of you as you see fit. Become the you that you want to be. Become the you your role models will want to hang out with. Do the work to be happy, sparkly, radiant. Whatever your beginnings, you write the now and the future.
(Written in December 2014, while still in graduate school for psychology).