The life canvas - understanding behaviours, thoughts and beliefs
Is your life now as you thought it would be when you were a child? Can you remember your answer when aged four or five to “What are you going to be when you are older?”
From the moment that we are born we start interpreting the world. Some research suggests that we do this from within the womb. We are born innocently into this world, and instantly we absorb what is going on around us. The spontaneity and wonder of small children bring a level of true connection to an experience that we cannot possibly replicate as adults – because sadly, we know too much!
As babies, we are born with emotional brains and we develop our logic, intelligence and wisdom as time goes on.
The life canvas exercise
Here's a thought-provoking challenge and some very important rules:
- You have a canvas to represent your life. We shall call this your “life canvas” and you can use whatever materials that you can possibly find around you to bring your masterpiece to life.
- One canvas only per life.
- You can take up to 7-10 years to complete it, but once it's done that’s it!
- Nothing can be removed once added. When you have put something on that canvas, it is going to be extremely difficult to go over it again. You can cover over it with other stuff, but it will always be there.
- It must represent your reality - illustrate what life means to you as you are making it and based on this - how it will be for you in the future.
- Within your masterpiece, you must include features that represent:
- Who you are as a person including your worth.
- Other people in the world and their worth.
- Whether the world is a good or bad place.
- The future and what it will look like.
- Your plan on how you will survive and your coping strategies.
- Anything that doesn’t fit on the canvas isn’t real and wasn’t meant to be.
- Any content placed upon that canvas will be followed by you for the rest of your life.
With all these conditions in mind, what is the earliest age you would like to take on this challenge? As a guide, neuroscientific research suggests that the brain isn’t fully cognitively developed until around the age of 25.
The life canvas exercise explained
Wow, what an intense and overly sincere art-based therapeutic session that is! The only thing you've got to do is follow the rules, stay on the canvas and everything will turn out as expected, right?
But there's a twist - unfortunately, you don’t get to decide whether you take part in the challenge above or not.
Nor do you get to decide when to start stencilling out. The reality is that if you are reading this, then chances are that you have already completed your canvas and are diligently following it as per rule 8 – go you, being all good and sticking to the rules!
So ask yourself, at what age did you start your masterpiece? Where you made all these big decisions about yourself, the world and how life is going to be for you? Worryingly, the answer to this is that it was as soon as you possibly could. Maybe even from day one on this earth (kudos to you for not hanging around and procrastinating on this one).
If you are anything like me, I am sure you can think of bits around the home that need starting but manage to put them off regularly. In the same way, from the moment we start noticing things going on around us, we start interpreting and decorating our life canvas. As babies through to junior school age, we are absorbing our version of the world as our emotionally led brains try to make sense of ourselves, what life is about now and what it's going to be about. (Remember we are born emotionally and we develop intelligence with age.)
I hope you found the above as interesting and insightful as it was to me - children really aren’t given enough credit for the control they have over their future selves.
The life canvas and core self-beliefs
With every experience and message a child receives, they pick up a colour to represent how they feel about that and apply it to their life canvas to map out their future. I am not a parent, but I know it’s a fatal mistake to leave a toddler alone on a floor with a paint set in a room with white walls. Theoretically, this is what a child faces through neglect and absence when they are left to interpret what the things relating to them and their life actually mean. So they apply it to their canvas as they see fit - these become their core self-beliefs. They can grow up thinking that they are worthless with messages that they tell themselves such as "don’t be close", "don’t belong", "don’t be important" and the worst of all – "don’t exist".
Similarly, an over-controlling parent may make sure the child creates what they deem to be a perfect canvas for themselves. They will smother and impress their strong morals on the child. In doing so they effectively guide the child’s hand as they paint onto the only canvas that they are allowed, ensuring that the child doesn’t make a mistake otherwise there will be consequences. The child could then grow up through their teens and adulthood referring to a canvas that was barely created with their own influence. This person may grow up with certain drivers that they live to be perfect, please others, try-hard.
“The greatest burden a child must bear is the un-lived life of its parents” – Carl Jung.
Where does this leave us? As grown-ups, our path has already been set out for us and we have been following it religiously and unconsciously for some time already – the paint on the canvas has well and truly dried.
The masterpiece that you finished aged 7-10 years old is up on the wall facing you to look at whenever you wake up. It’s the first thing your brain engages with every day to make sure you stay nicely on track.
We follow behaviour, thought and life patterns that our younger selves decided would be right for us (based on emotional interpretations of the world way back when). If things fall outside of what we planned or expected, it brings an air of panic, frustration and potential failure. We may think such things as - “This wasn’t meant to happen!”, “How could this be?”, “This can't be real!” These challenges against our reality can become difficult as they don’t appear on the canvas and how dare our seven-year-old selves not paint this bit on!
What can we do about it?
The reason that it's important to address this canvas or life script now is that it is made up of decisions we made about the world as children. As functioning adults, we are better placed to make better more informed decisions about ourselves and the world.
The good news is that through reading up to this point you are now aware of this being a part of your life.
Awareness brings opportunity to learn more and to change.
Rule 2 from the exercise tells us that we get one canvas per life, so you can't make another canvas. Rule 4 emphasises that once something is on there it's not coming off. Rule 8 - any content will be followed for the rest of your life – this rule was optional and by default you opted-in. You are now older, your brain has developed with more logic, sense, balance, intelligence and wisdom since you produced your canvas so here is your time to review.
With the canvas in front of you, you know that you cant make a new one and what is on there has happened - it will always be there and a part of you. For as long as you keep staring at this audacious masterpiece, it will consume and guide you through life. You are aware of its impact so far although perhaps you never knew it even existed.
You have a choice:
To continue to look at the canvas and let it steer you. – maybe your life path has served you well up to this point.
Now you know of its existence, stop staring at it, cover it over and focus on something else.
Even if you are angry and bitter about your past or present, if you went as far as burning or tearing up the canvas it doesn’t mean it never existed. Be grateful to yourself for your own courage of surviving whatever you have been through and appreciate what you have learned from it.
If you want to learn more (and I would encourage you to do so) then there are lots of resources online for free. Just Google things such as “Life scripts” and “Transactional Analysis”. This is a popular method used with clients by many therapists. To explore your own life script in greater detail then you can do so with a Transactional Analysis (TA) trained counsellor.