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The First Time

7 Things to Consider to Make Your "First" Experiences the Best They Can Be

From the moment of your birth there are numerous “firsts” that you will experience throughout your lifetime. Just think of a baby’s first year. From birth to the first birthday there are countless events that change a helpless infant into a little person. These events are largely developmental. The child does not stop to think about making these changes and what they mean for their over all well-being.

However, as you get older, that changes. Not only do we progress developmentally, but now there is an increasing amount of thought and emotion surrounding the events that are personal to each of us. And this especially applies to first time events---simply because we’ve never done them before. Although thinking about what may happen and how to prepare for it is extremely useful, it’s the actual experience in “real” time that will inform you as to the meaning of the event, what happened to you as a result of going through it and the consequences of it moving into the future.

Many “firsts” are emotionally charged, stressful, anxiety-provoking, worrisome, and provocative, even though they may be positive and healthy, insofar as they challenge us to stretch ourselves, to develop a better sense of self and to grow from the experience.

We inevitably want to have a “good” experience, one where we are satisfied, even happy with the outcome. That kind of experience raises our self-esteem and affirms to us that we are capable of functioning appropriately within our peer community and in a way that is expected and deemed successful by our culture.

Beyond our biology it’s the culture and significant interpersonal relationships, especially family, that have the greatest influences on the developing individual. Personality theory affirms that what is necessary and contributes greatly to an individual’s healthy development are a sense of warmth, caring, a feeling of safety and protection, and a real appreciation for the uniqueness of that individual and for their growth and developing potential.

Having said that, it follows that an individual’s personality style and the way they view the world, and their place in it, will largely be determined by their perception of self as they have learned it. Chances are that the influence of an environment where there is openness, warmth, and acceptance will encourage the individual to view their life experiences in just such a way.

When the individual feels heard, is encouraged to have their own opinion and to hold their own point of view, chances are they will extend that same courtesy to others. Where honesty to the self and integrity of the self are nurtured and responsibility for the self is fostered early in life the individual learns to take whatever choices they make very seriously. In this atmosphere “firsts” have the potential to be memorable, exciting, satisfying and enlightening.

Where there is lack of communication, a fear of being ridiculed or reprimanded for an opinion or point of view; where there is an inability to share experiences, to ask questions to gain valuable information; where there is the absence of significant others for guidance; where there is shame, guilt, and embarrassment, “firsts” may be undertaken haphazardly and irresponsibly. Choices may be encumbered, unclear, and “in the moment” without thought to risk or consequence.

Erickson’s theory of the stages of the life cycle and their accompanying psychosocial crises and tasks mirrors this point of view. The first of these crises is trust vs. mistrust; the accompanying task is HOPE. How does the young individual learn trust (of significant others and ultimately, of themselves) as a result of their earliest life experiences? As before, consistency, stability, nurturance, communication, acceptance, support, and encouragement foster trust and increase self-esteem.

Even when a task is not accomplished in its expected stage/time frame the possibility always exists to accomplish that task at a later time. For humans, hope is essential for life and always available. There is always time and room to revisit old experiences and reframe them in a healthier, more satisfactory way.

These are generalizations. Obviously, everyone’s experience is uniquely their own. Many think back fondly to their “firsts” as sweet moments, even though perhaps awkward and embarrassing at the time. Exceptions to this include the “extreme” first experiences---either very positive or negative. Things may have turned out blissfully, way beyond expectations, or extremely disappointing with far reaching consequences on many different levels.

Here are some things to consider about your experiences, especially if they are “firsts”:

 Community. Connection to others is an essential resource. Are you a part of a community where you can connect with others---family, friends, or supportive peer group?

 Communication. Talking to others about your thoughts, feelings, and what actions you wish to take is very important in order to gain insight and wisdom from others’ experiences. Do you have an open forum to discuss issues, get information, ask for help, and/or gain insights?

 Flexibility. Change is essential to life. Are you capable of changing perspective, of embracing different points of view, of willingly moving through change?

 Humor. Being too hard on yourself and/or holding unrealistic expectations for yourself doesn’t allow for a balanced view of who you are. Do you have a healthy sense of humor about yourself, and others, especially relating to your mistakes and “failures”?

 Acceptance. Learn to accept yourself as perfect with your imperfections. Mistakes are a part of life and are often our best teachers. Are you able to move on from difficult situations or do you stay mired in the bad memory of them?

Resilience. Put the past behind you and move forward. Do you have the capacity to recover, to bounce back, and to regroup from disappointment and perceived failure?

 Hope/Optimism. Consider that every experience has the potential to be “good” if you learned anything from it. Things that you thought were devastating at the time they happened may turn out to have been a great blessing as you look back.

First experiences extend to the end of our life, including death, which is definitely a first. Remember, it’s never too late to accomplish something you had always dreamed of doing but had not had the opportunity or where afraid to do. Just consider all the ninety year olds who think life is incomplete without skydiving just once.

More from Abigail Brenner M.D.
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