“As a child, which parent did you crave love from the most, your mother or your father?” Easy. My Father, 100%. “What did you have to be to get that love?” I had to be exceptional. Anyone who has seen Tony Robbins documentary “I am Not Your Guru” will recognise these questions.
I am painfully aware of how much I craved my daddy’s love as a child, and indeed as an adult. However, it has taken a lot of soul searching and a good smattering of therapy to get to the truth of how deeply this has affected me. Before I continue, I want to clear something up. I know my father loves me on an intellectual level. However, this is not the same thing as feeling it. Neither is it a substitute for feeling seen or heard. Recognised or acknowledged. I ask for your love and patience gentle reader as I attempt to shine a light on my truth as I have come to know it.
In The Beginning:
My parents met as teenagers, and they loved each other in the way you only can when you are that age. Passionately and irrationally, in very much an “us against the world,” kind of way. They were still impossibly young when they had me and three years later, my sister.
By the time my mother was 21 she found herself married and raising two children in a country which was in the grips of a recession. To this day I am in awe of how good a job she did keeping us alive. We were fed and clothed. Our mother kept us insulated as best she could. She was determined to prove that despite her tender years, she could be a great mother, and she was. She still is.
There wasn’t a huge amount of time for cuddles and kisses in her life. Having not grown up with them herself, they seemed unimportant. Dad was different. He was definitely a hugger, and so, although he probably spent one tenth of the time with us that mom did, it was his lap I coveted.
Achievement, especially academic, was highly praised. I remember to this day how my father would boast about how his daughter (me) could read the Irish Times by age three. You would swear I was publishing the thing myself the way he went on about it. I learned from an early age that excellence would be rewarded. If I could bring home first the gold stars and later the As, I would (maybe) receive the cherished hugs and praise I so desperately needed.
I learned at age 37, how much this desire for recognition, this need to be seen, has shaped my life.
In Tony’s documentary he says that we can’t blame the past for the bad things, without also thanking it for the good. So here goes.
For most of my school life I was an over achiever. I loved to be praised and commended. If there was an award to be had or a prize up for grabs I wanted it. In fact, during the time of greatest disruption in my life, the year we spent living in California, I was awarded with the President’s Award for Academic Excellence. Fancy huh?
This continued on into my working life. From my first job in a newsagents to this very day. I always wanted to excel. It didn’t matter how high or low the stakes were, I was compelled to win. I remember my McDonald’s days. On busy Saturdays the managers, who were just a few years older than I was, would run competitions. They would challenge us to see who could serve the most customers in an hour. The prize was usually a chocolate bar.
Of course, I knew this was an irrelevant honour. I was pretty sure we were being manipulated into trying to clear the queues faster, but I didn’t care. I had to win. Every week there would be a similar competition. Each time I would do my damnedest to take home the chocolate.
As the years passed, chocolate bars were replaced with employee of the month plaques and promotions. My competitive edge continued to be sharpened. Recognition was a drug to me. Without this addiction, I doubt I would have continued to claw my way up the career ladder. The dopamine hits fueled my ambition.
The downside of wanting to be brilliant at everything you do, is that you get disappointed a lot. There are many things I have attempted and promptly found out I suck at. This is, of course, normal. Very few people are naturally gifted at even one thing, let alone everything they try!
The problem with me is, I don’t have the patience for learning. I want to go directly to Mayfair. If I can collect £200 on my way, even better. Seriously? What do you mean I have to practice for hours and hours just so I can play Twinkle Twinkle. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Nobody will celebrate that achievement, not even me. I will still be in withdrawals.
This has lead to me developing a very bad habit. I drop things which I don’t immediately perfect. Which, let’s face it, is most things. As a child I begged my mother to enroll me in activities. She would sign me up, pay the fees and buy the accouterments. Only for me to quit as soon as I realised I wasn’t going to be the best.
As I have gotten older, I have become a little better at sticking with things. After all, I can’t exactly up and quit every job just because I haven’t mastered it on day one. It is still struggle though. I still want to be perfect every time. I hate failing, finishing last and God forbid having to ask for help. That dopamine rush still hits me anytime my coach high fives me, or my boss says good job.
Here we are at the part of the story I really didn’t want to write. This is the part which makes me experience hot shame when I think of it. That only means it is the part that most needs to be told.
I cannot deal with being ignored or given the silent treatment. For most of my life I have only felt I existed when I was being seen by other people. This has caused me to act in ways that I am not proud of. It has caused me to allow people to treat me badly.
When I was a teenager, I had a group of girlfriends. All the other girls seemed to constantly be in relationships. Although I dated a lot, I always ended up single. I was desperate to have a boyfriend. I wanted someone special in my life. Someone to truly see me. I suffered many humiliations during those years. I attempted to make myself as appealing as possible. Tried to be “low maintenance.” Not asking for too much. I am sure that I am not unique in this. Many young women (and men) have probably had similar experiences.
One of the most crushing examples of this came in my first year of college. I was attending a City Centre college and there were always social events being organised. One such event was a traffic light ball. The idea behind it is that each attendee wears a coloured badge. Green if you are single any ready to mingle. Orange if you’re open to meeting someone. Red if you’re not looking. Needless to say I was GREEN!!
The night was drawing to a close and I was yet to hook up with anyone. Disconsolate, I sidled up to the bar to order myself another Smirnoff Ice. To my complete shock, the barman started chatting to me. His name was Tony. He was absolutely gorgeous. Totally out of my league. At the end of the night he asked for my number and of course I gave it to him. He called soon after and we began dating.
Tony seemed so cosmopolitan. Not only was he working in a nightclub, but he was living in an apartment in town. I was quickly besotted. We had been out a few times when we met one day for lunch. After the meal we went back to the apartment he shared with a few people. (If memory serves, there were about 6 of them living in a one bedroom flat, maybe not so glamourous after all.) We spent the afternoon kissing on his bed. I was in heaven. I felt like one of the Sex in The City girls.
His roommates began to trickle home and he introduced me to them. Then said he needed to go get his hair cut and that I should wait in the apartment. “Okay,” I said. Time went by and I began to get uncomfortable with his unfriendly roommates. About 2 hours later, his female roommate took a phone call and excused herself. When she came back in she looked at me and said “that was Tony, he’s not coming back. He said you should leave.”
I will never forget the way she looked at me. “Poor cow,” was written all over her face. I managed to get out of the flat without bursting into tears, barely. Throughout the hour long bus journey home, I cried. Trying to ignore the inquiring glances from strangers.
I wish I could tell you that was the end of the story. That I managed to retain the last shreds of my dignity, but alas that was not the case. I called him and text him incessantly. I needed to hear him tell me why. How could he just abandon me like that? How could everything be great one minute and over the next? I couldn’t wrap my head around it. In my quest for “closure.,” I am surprised the poor guy didn’t file for a restraining order. It was totally over the top.
Many years have passed since Tony’s haircut, but I am not much better at handling these types of situations. Silence and withdrawal are the most painful things for me to deal with. They feel like the ultimate betrayal.
My husband is definitely not the shouting type. When we first started dating, we had disagreements like every couple getting to know each other. His response was to walk away from the row, clear this head, be rational. Mine was the total opposite. The more silent he became, the more I raged. I would shout, scream, throw things and ultimately do whatever it took to get a reaction. Whatever it took to be seen.
Here and now:
If I am to be completely honest about it, this need to be seen, to be acknowledged, has been at the root of almost every action I have taken in my life. It is what drives me to try to be successful in my career. It is the motivation behind this blog and my podcast. The need is also what causes me to flirt, dance on bars (literally,) chase after people who have zero interest and a whole host of other unhealthy and destructive behaviours.
For most of my life, I have been like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Existing only through the eyes of others. If you see me, and respond to me, no matter how negatively, I am real. When you ignore me and overlook me, I am not.
There are many reasons I have cited as to explain why I decided to start therapy. I wanted help with my anxiety. I wanted to gain clarity on my purpose in life. A little more confidence would be good. All of these reasons are valid ones, but they are not the whole truth.
What really drove me to reach out for help, was being exhausted. Tying so much of my self worth into other people’s opinions of me and actions towards me, was wearing me out. I was sick of letting other people control whether I had the best day ever, or plunged into despair. I wanted to feel like I exist, independently.
There have been so many tears. Sometimes I feel in danger of dissolving as I try to work my way through all of this. But slowly, I am beginning to feel like it might just be working. Little by little I am focusing less on others. I am less reliant on them for validation and acceptance. As the weeks unfold, I am beginning to see myself.
It is absolutely terrifying. At times I feel so vulnerable I could throw up. Like a butterfly emerging from her chrysalis with still wet wings, I am desperately unsure of myself. One thing I am sure of however, is that what I had been doing before now was not working for me. I was harming myself in a million tiny ways. It is time to stop that now. Time to try something new.
One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given is “if you keep doing what you’re doing, you keep getting what you’re getting.” There is great power in those words. If we don’t like the path we are on, we have the power to change course. A deviation of a single degree, can have a massive impact on your destination over time.
Be well. I see you xxx