Looking back, I think that for many years my main aim in life was to be appreciated and respected by other people, as a kind of reassurance that I did really deserve to be in this world. I often felt like I was banging on the door of the human club to ask for a guest pass – at the same time wishing I knew how to get my hands on a full membership that the others I saw in there seemed to have! My sense of identity was a jigsaw puzzle constructed from an evolving collection of images about myself – made up from ideas about the kind of the person I hoped and imagined I was – that I tried to put in other people’s minds by playing the role of the ‘ideal me’. And there were few experiences more painful than when I sensed that someone saw through my subterfuge and caught a glimpse of the frightened man I really was behind those projections of the cool capability I aspired to.
With hindsight, those attempts to get validation from others were like trying to lift myself off the ground by pulling on my feet and doomed to recurring failure. Because if I did ever succeed in getting the admiration I craved – hearing applause after playing at a gig or being told by someone that my book was ‘great’ etc. – the warm rush of feeling accepted would quickly wear off and soon I’d be looking for another fix. In fact, being hooked on the drug of approval has a lot in common with other addictions; it only ever provides a temporary relief from the emptiness it’s trying to fill; the dose has to be constantly increased to achieve the same effect; and it feeds the problem it’s intended to ease – so that ‘using’ becomes a self-reinforcing downward spiral!
I suspect that most of us have buried some distorted ideas about who we are – often self-defeating and negative ideas which were planted in our mind after some sort of childhood trauma, or because of a lack of love from a parent. We can carry these unconscious beliefs that we’re somehow bad, or not enough, for our whole lives, like an emotional shackle around our hearts, without realising the extent to which they’re sabotaging our potential for fulfilment and happiness. A few years ago, after a series of failed relationships, I began to see that I was repeating some self-defeating patterns, and because I was pretty desperate to change them, I decided to try therapy. I’d always been resistant to the idea of getting professional support, because of the ridiculous idea that as a man, I shouldn’t need help from anyone. Counselling helped me see the negative view I had of myself much more clearly, and that it had started because of the disinterest shown in me by my father.
Because I’d been carrying the idea that I was essentially unlovable, I’d always mistrusted anyone’s reasons for being involved with me and avoided being fully engaged in relationships to protect myself from the painful rejection that I felt would inevitably come – often ending up as a tragically self-fulfilling prophecy, because the effect was to block development of the intimacy and trust which is essential in a living, and loving, relationship.
Getting these realisations took time, but they were very liberating – like having leg irons finally cut off – and I’ve been slowly but surely growing a relationship of acceptance and respect with myself, which in turn is enabling me to better accept and love others. I still have to regularly practice breaking down the walls of defence I’ve been hiding behind for much of my life – including the (very modest) list of ‘achievements’ that I’ve felt compelled to add to in attempting to prove that I’m a ‘good man’.
But letting myself experience these feelings of vulnerability is also a relief, because I have nothing to hide any more, and am more able to accept the reality that, I even though I’m no better than anyone else, I’m also no worse. And that by the very fact of my existence, I’m a full member of the human race, with as much right to be here as anyone else, and now I feel able to say that believe in my-self!
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