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Who Influences You?
      by Gail Carr Feldman, PhD
Developmental psychologists would say that our earliest and most lasting influences come from our families and caretakers. If we are fortunate to be raised by loving and attentive people, we internalize values and develop the capacity for connection and intimate attachments, and we construct psychological defenses to provide just the right amount of protection against negative outside influences.
Unfortunately, the thoughtless comments parents make to us along the way are like long-acting post-hypnotic suggestions. So, the statement, “Your hair is impossible!” said by my mother when I was eight years old as she was getting me ready for school, became burned into my brain where it regularly resurfaces causing me to believe that indeed, my hair is impossible. My sister was told jokingly once that she was going to be “Two-ton Lizzie,” because she was big-boned and had a big appetite.
Guess what? Even though she’s never been seriously overweight, she thinks of herself as large and fat.
The insinuations my sister and I remember most are the questions, “What’s wrong with you?” and “Who do you think you are?” You might imagine how much time we spent pondering the first one. We never did figure out exactly what is wrong with us. The second question, more a declaration, was simply a response to whatever grandiose and very creative plan we excitedly and mistakenly shared with the grownups. So, in some ways, we spend the rest of our lives teasing- out the truth about what we were told by our parents and how we were influenced to think about ourselves as we grew up.

" 'Inspiration and life are equivalent,' Agnes Martin says, and for her that is true. Her life, her creative expression, is completely aligned with her meditative practice of keeping the mind open, 'free to be inspired.' "

Teachers and neighbors also influenced our self-concepts. Mrs. Waller, the only elegant woman in our neighborhood of drunks, domestic violence perpetrators, and unemployed meat-packers, consistently told me that I acted just like, “a little lady,” and every time she said that I went into my princess trance. If that’s how she saw me, I thought, I really had the potential to be a lady (translated, “be able to get the hell out of this dead-end neighborhood”). Her gentle affirmations, as much as anything else, motivated me to study my head off and get on to college.
In adolescence we are very much influenced by our peers. Everyone wants to be a part of the “in-group,” accepted and admired. Looking back, which group did you aspire to - the jocks, the greasers, the stompers, prom queens, homemakers, nerds, motorcycle molls, prepies? And how long did it take to get over their influence? Or have you?
Let’s not forget the influence of the communities and the societies in which we grew up- and the sub-societies of religion, class, and ethnicity. Think of which category influenced you the most. For me it was class. If your skin was brown or black you lived near the same area of town that the white working class lived in and that meant we were all poor. Then there were the middle class and the rich. We didn’t differentiate. Those kids lived in Kensington Park, the Grossmont hills, and the beach areas, like LaJolla. (This was San Diego in the 40’s and 50’s.) It was only when I got to college and graduate school that I realized that people of color are more likely to be discriminated against and therefore more oppressed by poverty. That knowledge influenced my motivation to participate in the civil rights movement in Los Angeles. Growing up “economically challenged” also influenced the creation of values that led to a six year career in social work counseling male prison parolees, teenage gangs, drug addicts, and disadvantaged minority families before going back to school for my Ph.D.
My Irish-Catholic grandfather, a career navy NCO (non-commissioned officer), joined the navy at the age of sixteen and was completely self-educated. I never saw the man without a book (except during the Friday night poker games). On Sunday afternoons, friends used to drop by to hear Grandpa Tommy talk with enthusiasm and excitement and emphatic gestures about the ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire, or some other historical period he’d been reading about. Education was the way to a better life, he said. And contrary to the upper-class girls who went to college to find a husband, my grandparents pointed out that you can’t rely on a man- “Look what happened to your mother,” they’d say. “Your father left her and now she has to work long hours in a factory.” Grandpa Tommy gave me 100 pennies for every A and I would “tube” my pennies and take them to the bank. School was obviously the golden door to freedom and to riches.
On one of the intelligence assessments for children there’s a question about staying away from “bad” people. The correct answers suggest that even at an early age we can know that some people might have a hurtful influence on us and others a positive influence. As we mature, our self-esteem dictates that we choose friends and mentors who influence us to be our most expressive, creative and loving. And of course, conscious choice becomes more possible in adulthood. Choice then is the key word.
Eighty-eight year old Agnes Martin is one of the foremost abstract artists in the world today. She still works in her studio in Taos, New Mexico, and when I interviewed her for my book, the question I was most eager to ask was, “Who had the greatest influence on your painting?” Her answer was a flat, “I don’t believe in influence.” Agnes Martin told me she believes in Inspiration. “Inspiration and life are equivalent,” she says, and for her that is true. Her life, her creative expression, is completely aligned with her meditative practice of keeping the mind open, “free to be inspired.”
Those of us who have a more interactive life out in the world can still benefit from Agnes Martin’s example of choice. We must simply be discerning about those we allow to influence us. We must choose as confidantes and consultants only those who are skilled to advise us and clearly devoted to our well-being.
Like Agnes Martin, we can also recognize the power of our own inner Wisdom. Every one of us has deep unconscious resources we can access through our dreams and daydreams. Allow yourself to be influenced by your own Inner Guidance. Start a dream journal and after you’ve recorded a dream in the morning, meditate and see what insight and direction the dream is bringing to you.
You might also like to embrace your Inner Wisdom through the practice of your spiritual beliefs by recognizing the gifts of Divine Intelligence. Like Agnes Martin, I believe that all intuition, inspiration, and insight is a part of a transcendent energy Source we call by different names. At the end of my morning meditation I always go into prayer for myself and others, and whether I pray to Mother- Father- God, Jesus, Mary, the Great Cosmic Mother, or my favorite Goddesses, Tara or Kuan Yin, I always receive responses of support, compassion, clarity, and love.
I would say that this spiritual connection is now the most prominent influence in my life.