|Feeling Like a Failure, the Oldest Con There Is
Recently a friend said to me, "I feel like my family sees me as a failure. Do you have any suggestions?"
It may have sounded a bit blunt, but my answer was, "If they are not being respectful and encouraging to you, then why even care what they think!"
Many adults struggle with this problem. Simply because we're walking around in a grownup body, we mistakenly think we are dealing with an adult problem with an adult mind. But actually, whether it takes the form of a mild concern or harsh self-criticism, worrying about others' disapproval is not an adult concern. It originates with our childhood conditioning.
When we are little children, especially before the age of 7, it is natural for us to want to constantly feel love, approval, and encouragement from our parents.
During this developmental period it's important for children to receive unconditional warmth and loving support, even when we do things "wrong." Receiving such encouragement helps us build a strong sense of inner strength and self esteem. We internalize the warmth we receive from our parents or other caregivers. We also internalize an attitude of confidence that we can handle life. The child reasons, "If they have confidence in me, I'm going to have confidence in myself." This is the great gift parents give when they are able to offer encouragement to their children in all situations. Especially when they make a big mistake.
Say a child breaks their mother's favorite vase. Can she honestly express her sadness to the child and at the same time direct kindness toward them? If she knows how to do this, the child learns an invaluable lesson about how to keep a heart connection to another person, even when you are upset by that person's actions:
"Oh, sweetheart, that must have really scared you when the vase smashed to the floor. Mommy loved that vase and is sad that it's broken. But Mommy loves you so much more and is happy that you didn't get hurt."
Self Attack or Encouragement: Our Internalized Messages
Around the age of 7, we discover our emerging cognitive faculties. We begin to explore the world with this new found "mind" that has the ability to reason and evaluate. This new "mind" is filled with evaluations of ourselves and our abilities. Where did these come from? We have internalized them from our first 7 years of life, merely by paying attention to the way our parents regarded us and communicated with us.
When a child's mind is filled with internalized impressions of loving encouragement from those times when we "failed" to do things "right," they immunize the child against self-attacking thoughts and worries that we are somehow "not good enough." Such children find it easy to be kind and encouraging to others, especially if they see other children struggling. It literally pains them to see someone feeling bad about themselves.
But even the most well-meaning parents can make the error of regarding our "mistakes" with irritation instead of understanding. In those cases, they ignored, punished, and/or ridiculed us for things we did that they believed were "wrong." And they may have intimidated us into doing what they considered "right." When this happened, we internalized the message that we ourselves were somehow flawed or not good enough. The effect is worse if the message is delivered consistently. Then the child reasons, "I can't do things well enough to deserve love, warmth, and encouragement."
The sad result is a sense of hopelessness. Once we have internalized this message, we repeat it to ourselves. It is as though we have been conned. We have fallen for the idea that love is to be earned. We believe that we will only be loved if we do things "right" –– if we "succeed."
If a child is given messages of disapproval, of love withheld when they "failed" to please, then the child's newly emerging mind is infected with fear, doubt and self attacking thoughts. Consequently, such children are quick to attack others even as they grow to adulthood, believing that attacks and intimidation are "normal" behavior. If our mind has developed this way, we actually feel better about ourselves if we see someone else as "less than."
The point here, of course, is not that we should blame or attack our parents if they weren't able to give us unconditional loving encouragement when we made mistakes. Like all parents, ours did the best they could based on their own less-than-perfect upbringing. The point is that we have the power to free ourselves from any unnecessary fearful concerns that were passed on to us by others.
Taking a look at the signs below can help us see when we are operating in "fearful child" consciousness, versus when we are operating in true adult consciousness. And remember, nothing is permanent. As we begin to pay attention to what's going through our mind, as we recognize any "fearful child" attitude, we reclaim the power to direct our mind to true adult consciousness. We can pause and give ourselves a message of loving encouragement.
Signs We Are Operating in "Fearful Child" Consciousness
- We are worried about what others think of us.
- We believe our performance in the world determines our worth as a being.
- We have an emotionally volatile inner life.
- We believe in and fear "rejection." We believe if someone "rejects" us, it proves we are not good enough.
- We are so absorbed in the melodrama of these concerns that we lose touch with a sense of gratitude for the gift of life and its mysterious beauty.
- We have an unrecognized attitude of immortality. We don't notice we are assuming we have all the time in the world to waste on petty resentments, regrets, jealousies, and fearful, dog-eat-dog ambitions.
Signs We Are Operating in True Adult Consciousness
- We cultivate and preserve our self respect and integrity by relating to ourselves and others with kindness and respect for our shared humanity.
- We are clear that our value as a mysterious living being cannot be diminished by our "failures" or improved by our "successes." We don't elevate or diminish others based on their "successes" and "failures." We just don't think in those terms. We want everyone to flourish and feel their worth.
- Our inner life is serene because we are not afraid of judgment in the realm of success or failure. We regard life as a learning curve. Ideas of "success" and "failure" are unhelpful, shaming labels that harm us in our journey and our learning process of living.
- We are clear that when people reject us, they do so based on their own inner turmoil. We understand that they are rejecting their idea of us which is always based on their fearful rejection of themselves formed in childhood.
- We realize, moment by moment, that life is a gift and enjoy the felt sense of being alive. This felt sense includes the poignant, sweet heartbreak of knowing the fragile and temporary nature of everyone and everything. Our natural response is to extend kindness and encouragement.
- We are keenly aware of our mortality, while feeling ever-new gratitude and astonishment that anything at all exists. Our sense of gratitude at the wonder of life protects us from the influence of fearful, morbid notions of life being pointless because it will one day end.
From these descriptions, you can see that being afraid of being judged a failure, by our family or anyone else, is actually a helpful sign! It shows us that we are missing appreciation and respect for the miracle of our life. What does this mean for the future?
It is an invitation to enjoy traveling the learning curve. There's no need to be down on yourself at all. Very few of us had perfect parents. Most of us have to do this work on ourselves at some point or another. You can have a great time watching your mind and developing the insights and qualities of True Adult Consciousness. Good luck! You are worth it!