About a year ago I drove through the Netherlands with my father in the passenger seat. He had been quiet for quite a while. I glanced over to him and asked him what he was pondering. “It’s something your mother said to me, recently…” It fell quiet again. He looked to his right, his gaze averting mine. “What’s happening, Dad…? What did Mum say?”
He gathered courage and shared that Mum had, in an argument between them, reminded him of how he had failed the family when we were all much younger, and we were still a household of seven: two parents, five sons. My father worked long hours; in those days he was “a man with a mission”. He worked those long hours and often travelled to rid the world as best he could from abject poverty, especially in rural Africa.
“Just ask Aernout,” she had said.
A Marker Never To Be Reached
My mother had a point.
As the fourth of five sons there was, or so I recall, a constant competition in my family for time, energy, attention, affirmation. A compliment. A conversation. A piece of meat during dinner. I saw my father go early in the mornings and come back after dinner. He’d have a long conversation with my mother about his work, he would watch the evening news and he would then retreat to his office desk, located in the living room, and he would continue to work his way through files, reports, documents.
I recall his focus of attention at home to remain more or less static over the years on “the big boys”: my three older brothers. In my mind there was a line drawn somewhere of age, and once I had passed that, I too would be “a big boy”, and worthy of his attention.
Weirdly enough, though, that marker seemed to shift each year. As much out of reach as it had been each previous year. Sometime in my early twenties I had reached the conclusion that this imaginary line would forever be out of my reach; this marker at which my father’s attention might one day shine on me. I had started to attend university, studying all these things my dad seemed to find so interesting in his conversation with “the big boys”, and especially my oldest brother.
And yet, while he would spend hours discussing knowledge and wisdoms with the first born, there seemed nothing interesting in what I could possibly share.
An Echo In Spacetime
During much of my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, I experienced membership of my family as being invisible. Credits, compliments or simply an acknowledgement of my existence were hard to come by. I was a boy and young man who looked up to his father and I was starving for his attention. I interpreted and internalised the lack of his attention as a sign of something being fundamentally wrong with me. Shame, perfectionism, loneliness, missing a sense of direction and recurrent depressions and anxiety were how they showed up in my life for years and years.
It’s no wonder then that my original profession was one that gave me a megaphone and a soapbox. I became a journalist with a daily potential audience of over half a million readers. Maybe it was through writing about news that I could cause a few ripples in spacetime, and get some echo back of my existence?
I didn’t write for the newspaper my parents read, so my father bought himself a subscription. He’d cut out every article I wrote, put them in a binder and would send his comments on typos or grammatical errors in an email. Never a compliment. Never an acknowledgement that he liked something I had written.
Yet, for me my father was my most important reader. His ongoing criticism was, despite the sour aftertaste, an echo that had been absent for too long. I’d eat them like the faul-tasting cookies they were, dipped in bitterness; nourishing and satisfying my inner critic with every bite.
So, yes – my mother had a point.
Reflections of a Retiree
Yet, sitting next to him in the car I felt uncomfortable. I felt used as a pawn in a contest between my parents. I had and still have no idea what their argument was about, how it started or how it ended. And none of that actually mattered there, in the car, at that moment with my father. “I felt that your mother did a sterling job in raising you, and that there was nothing I could possible add to that”, he said with fragility and his usual self-corroding sense of humility.
“In my youth I was told it was my duty as a man to just be the breadwinner.” I heard the pain in his voice about how he himself missed out – by his own choice – on some of the blessings of fatherhood. He not only withheld connection from me, he withheld it from himself, too. And I am aware, from other conversations we’ve had in our family over the years, how he regrets some of the choices he made.
And now I understand, too, how his perfectionism wreaked havoc on his sense of self for most of his life. How shame and the imposter syndrome informed many of his perceptions of his life and his own achievements. “Better keep those compliments you got under lock and key, Aernout. They don’t make you look any better…”
“The highlights of my life,” he once shared while years into retirement, “were not the peaks in my career or the successes and victories I booked. The highlights of my life are the days and weeks I spent with you, my family.”
Liberating the Grudges
I reached out to grab his hand.
“Regardless of what Mum said, I hope that you do know that as far as I am concerned you and I have done what we needed to do… As far as I am concerned you and I have said what needed to be said to each other. That conversation you and I had, in Bordeaux, over ten years ago: that one sorted everything out, for me. That one liberated me from my grudges against you. You do know that, don’t you?”
I looked at him and saw his face softening, glancing down the floor of the car, in between his feet, to nothing in particular. He squeezed my hand.
“I know, my son. I know…”
Embracing The Whole Story
An essential part of embracing adulthood is to take full responsibility of one’s experiences and lessons from previous stages of life. “It’s normal for all parents to mess up their kids in one way or another,” writes Katya Weiss Andersson. Parents are humans, and humans are “perfectly imperfect”. Parents are bound to make mistakes. Furthermore: parents are formed and bound by their own pasts, their own wounding, their own sometimes wobbly sense of self, and their preoccupations of the day.
However, the possibility of their fallibility doesn’t easily come as an acceptable option to a child. The child relies in having every tiny need met by the parents, who are experienced as all powerful, all knowing, ever present. Combine that with the normal, age-appropriate narcissism of a young child to interpret the world with itself at the center of the universe and the lessons a child will drawn from most interactions is that “it” has somehow caused all the nice events as much as all the bad stuff it has so far lived. Itself is to be blamed for all that has happened.
Acceptance Versus Authenticity
Gabor Maté puts it beautifully in a video clip of less than four minutes. Children, he explains, have two basic psychological and emotional needs: the need to be accepted and the need for authenticity. Often, these two needs are experienced by the child to be in conflict with each other. If the authentic need of the child is to paint the bedroom wall with paint, or worse even: poo, there most likely will be some punishment, some message that a behaviour is unacceptable.
Differentiating between behaviour and person might be a bridge too far for a young child. A child can also easily perceive limits on its behaviours as a limit on who it is allowed to be. Separating “I did a bad thing” (guilt, which inherently offers a path to repair) from “I am a bad person” (shame, which leaves no path to redemption) is something a child is simply not capable of doing.
I know I wasn’t…
Yet, it is hard to avoid this process of internalising; to avoid interpreting early experiences as a reflection of one’s worth as a human.
Facing The Invisible: Shame & The Inner Critic
In my practice I see sometimes how other adults struggle with that same inner conflict between loyalty to the parents and betrayal of one’s own deepest experiences. A cloak of invisibility and unspeakability sometimes descend in the counselling room over even the highly-skilled thinkers and seers and speakers.
A seemingly simple and straightforward sentence like “I felt hurt”, or “I felt ignored”, “I felt unfairly punished” sometimes becomes impossible to speak for in it might, for those who so wish to hear it, lay the seed of betrayal. It might imply the message to a parent that they failed the test of parenting. Even while that parent is nowhere near the counselling room, and in some cases is even no longer alive.
The ever-present fear to be seen to be disloyal lest the child – now a fully grown adult – gets expelled.
Contemporary guidelines about healthy parenting emphasise the need to steer clear from any type of “blame, shame or pain“. Importance is placed to explain to a child the difference between behaviour and person: “I love you, I don’t like you scratching the car with my keys”.
Instead of adding to the marshes of shame laying inherently dormant in the child, the advise nowadays is to try one’s best to help the child drain that swamp.
Reconnecting to Authenticity
Life sometimes handles us excessive amounts of shame, infuses us sometimes with a deep fear of abandonment or rejection. It offers us easy access to the inclination to guilt ourselves, or to hear and see blame where none was intended. Most often these are, in one way or another, echoes of what we heard early on in life. Or how we interpreted what was said.
If we want to get a handle on our own shame or fears or internalised messaging, it is helpful to trace back the origins of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and our parents. We need to establish boundaries between where they end and we begin, and where we end and they begin.
To become one’s self we need to separate from the parents. As children our survival relied on their loyalty. In exchange we gave our loyalty. The price most often was our own authenticity.
Getting back on a path to authenticity requires us to curiously question where our loyalties lie nowadays and to map the terrain of our wounding, our wobbly or hyper-rigid sense of self. It requires a compassionate “J’accuse“. This is what happened, this is who did it.
That part is challenging.
It requires us to speak truths that might have been too scary to ever think before, let alone share.
Without that inventory it is neigh impossible to move forward and ask oneself the one empowering question: what am I going to do with this wounding?
As the clinical psychologist and practicing buddhist Bruce Tift writes: “How am I going to metabolise this? Make it my own and integrate it healthily into my life?”
I myself needed to learn to own my shame, to take full responsibility of it so I could free myself from its suffocating hold on my life. But that meant I needed to trace it back to its origins, fearlessly and truthfully. Only then could I muster the courage to stop needing my father’s acknowledgement of my existence. My demand for his compliments had come to feel like I was armwrestling validation through shear force out of his heart. Seeking to guilt him into submission seemed a good idea, originally.
Until I got paralysed by the story of my own victimhood.
As my then counsellor offered almost twenty years ago: “It is time to step out of his shadow, Aernout.”
I was not my father’s victim. He was not my perpetrator.
An Unfortunate Mismatch
My father did not fail me. He loved me and he cared about me. He did what he felt he had to do. The stories he told himself about fatherhood, about masculinity, about career and purpose and mission in life all together set the limits within which he allowed himself to operate.
And he could not meet my needs.
What he could give me and what I wanted from him were a mismatch.
For years and years I felt anger, bitterness and resentment, hurt and shame, and deep sadness about how I felt he failed to meet my needs. I blamed him, attacked him, distanced myself from him. Complained and whined. Alienated him from me, and myself from him.
Until that day in Bordeaux, France.
The Eagle’s Nest
In the Summer of 2008 I was heading to Bordeaux from Cape Town. With my two oldest brothers we were going to attend a retreat at Plum Village, a buddhist community in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. My oldest brother had, at the last minute and without any consultation, invited our father to come along.
Some time during the weeklong retreat, a metaphor had been brought up. Of how certain eagles learn to fly by being literally thrown out of the nest by their fathers who would then nosedive behind their chicks to catch them just before they crashed. The fathers would fly them back up to the nest where the flying lessons would continue in the same fashion. Until the chicks knew how to fly.
My father took the metaphor to heart.
“I know, Aernout, that you feel I failed you. And you are right. I wasn’t there, I was nowhere near the nest when you needed me. I did not teach you how to fly, and I definitely did not catch you before you crashed. And I am aware you have crashed several times. I am sorry I wasn’t there in the way you needed me to be there for you.”
Terry Real is one of my most appreciated experts in the field of childhood wounding, and healing in mature relationships. This is a nearly 1.5 hour conversation about the theme.
Healing Your Lost Inner Child: a powerful and very practical approach to integrating the wounds of the past, and moving towards more authentic adulting.