Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Who Did You Have to Be For Your Father? (by Paul Graves)

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Who Did You Have to Be For Your Father?

It’s a simple question I heard on the Timothy Ferriss podcast. It was a recent episode featuring Tony Robbins. At first, I thought “Huh?” Turns out Tony uses this question to uncover internal conflicts. To find the things we beat ourselves up for without knowing why. The high standards we yearn to achieve, but seldom do. Why are the standards there in the first place? Why do we expect so much from ourselves?

We all want financial security, joy, loving friends and a healthy attractive body. (and much more) But what is this natural current flowing through me? Why would I never be happy living certain ways, even though others do and seem content?

At 32 years old, I see both of my parents within myself. My mother’s slight neurosis and yearning for connection and experience. My father’s stubbornness and desire for order and control. But whether I like it or not, my dad affected my life the most. After each of my many failures, he’s the first person I think about. I can even see him now, shaking his head in disappointment over my latest stupid mistake or Amazon purchase.

Who was your dominant parental figure?

It doesn’t have to be your father, but for myself and most men – father is the dominant figure. Though he was often gone, his was the love I wanted most. I yearned for his respect and to impress him. Whose love did you want most? Whether you received it or not, whether you spent much time with them – it doesn’t matter. Sadly, it’s usually the parent whose love we didn’t get that we want the most. It’s just how we’re built. We want that which we cannot have.

My dad was an admired man. Admired but also feared by those who worked for him. Born during the depression-era in a rural, shithole Iowa town. He grew up penniless. His family used an outhouse until he was 16 years old. And his dad was an alcoholic manual laborer who was rarely home. One day he never came back, and that was that. He never found out why. His mother was a stern, hardworking woman of few words.

As a child, he also lost his oldest brother. He came home after WWII and drank himself halfway to death. One terrible night, his car took care of the rest. He revered his brother.

My dad lost both of his male role models to reckless behavior, alcohol abuse, and mental weakness. (I don’t agree with this assessment, mind you) He harnessed this pain and built a castle from it. He developed a stone-faced personality and a tireless work ethic. He avoided alcohol and anything else that took away from work. Where his father and brother failed, he succeeded: money and self-control. He became damn good at it.

My dad started two successful businesses which still operate. He made gobs of money. Growing up, we enjoyed far-flung vacations and impressive homes. I went to many private schools. Christmas was awesome, dozens of gifts every year. He put his head down every day, worked hard, and didn’t let emotions or self-doubt shake him.

Now, we all suffer from “lookback bias.” We remember things to be much better than they were. I am sure my dad messed up a lot. But growing up, he was a superhero. He still is, to be honest with you.

Now, let’s talk about me.

So my dad was this “strong man” who led businesses, stayed on course and didn’t lose control. Even if something was wrong, he plowed through. He’s a machine. And I mean that as a compliment.

Now take me. In my About Me article, I discuss my struggles growing up. Struggles with feeling “different” and weird. Damaged and flawed in the core of my being. From as young as seven, I remember these feelings. I was visiting many doctors, getting medicated for ADD and behavior issues. I was thought to be autistic for a brief spell. They made me look at funny pictures and treated me like a strange little boy.

The point of this is: I felt so different from my dad. How could he understand me? From my foundational years onward, we were different people in my mind. Not being able to sit still – he must think I’m weak and pathetic. Of course, he probably never felt this way even for a second. But we have a great talent for putting ourselves down, even at seven years old. In fact, this feeling affects me still, and it sucks. I never felt that “unconditional love” thing from my dad. I always felt I had to impress him or earn his attention. I felt like a scoreboard. And all I can remember is losing points.

ADD and bad behavior – minus 10. Stressing mom out with my behavior in class, thereby stressing him – minus 10. Playing little league outfield – minus 10. Soccer, nah. Basketball, nope. I wasn’t great at anything, besides schoolwork. I got fantastic grades. 99th percentile on standardized tests. Top of my class on every exam. Gifted IQ. The problem is, my dad didn’t care about grades. He didn’t go to college, and book smarts aren’t of value. The one thing I had – this badass brain – didn’t mean shit. I couldn’t win his love with that, so what the fuck could I do?

On top of that, I ended up having awful acne. “Pizza face,” I kid you not. I even skipped school some days to avoid the teasing and embarrassment. Mom was kind enough to let me, but dad never knew.  I eventually took oral medicine, but it dried out my bones. Sports went out the window for a few years. Good luck ever impressing him now.

Fast-forwarding years to high school, I let my grades slip. Feeling a lack of love at home, all I wanted was the love of my peers. But I felt damaged and different than others – and it was hard to achieve. Sure, I had friends – but I never felt an authentic connection. I felt this barrier between myself and others. This impenetrable, invisible forcefield.

I felt “not good enough” for him, and unworthy of anything admirable. At 15-16 years of age, I felt earmarked for a shit life.

It’s obvious my dad and I never communicated about emotions or self-worth. I’m thinking now and cannot remember one moment of real connection with my father. When I was seven years old, we built a model something or another together, and it was nice.

My poor mother was always working or upset, and frantic about my father. His work work work lifestyle and frequent trips were tough on her. I would hear her cry. The last thing I wanted was to tell her the dark thoughts swirling in my brain. Nor the sad feelings in my heart. She had enough struggle already. I felt very alone.

This is not about placing blame.

The point of this question isn’t to blame or demonize. This exercise is a tool for awareness, self-observation, and analysis. My father loves me and would do anything in the world for me. He had no idea how his actions made me feel. And I didn’t understand these feelings until in recent years.

Fathers are imperfect, and mothers are imperfect. Just like us. Here’s something maturity has taught me: Nobody knows what the fuck they’re doing. That’s one of the great equalizers in life. What the fuck is going on? There is no right answer.

We’re all doing our best. And that’s all we can do. My dad’s upbringing made him the man he is today. And his only further education has been business and work. It’s easy to understand now, but for many years I fought these simple facts. He loves me in his way, and I cannot control that. The way he loves me doesn’t change who I am.

I love my dad, and he did his duty as best he could. He made plenty of mistakes, but I respect him. He’s an impressive man. I only hope someday my daughter is as impressed with me.

Who I had to be for my father.

Let’s simplify. Here’s who I felt I had to be, and who I am.

Who I Felt I Had To Be: Disciplined, focused on tasks, best in class athleticism, recognized and awarded. Unemotional and straightforward. Powerful and independent. Achiever. Winner. State champion wrestler.

Who I Am: Emotional, focused on love and spirit and drawn in by knowledge and connection. Many times confused or uncertain, and willing to admit faults. Complex with an intrinsic, wondering excitability. Independent, but yearning for community and affection. Nothing extraordinary – a regular, somewhat spacey guy trying to keep it all together.

So, now what?

Where does this realization leave me? Well..

All we can do is live right here, right now. Correct? This exercise can either entrap us or free us. I vote freedom.

Awareness is the first step to living with more intelligence and peace. The next is simple – keep doing it. When you’re aware, you can step back and have a look. “Wow, that’s interesting. I see.” Self-awareness establishes ground zero. You can stand on both legs, look around, and begin to change. Awareness leads you the power of acceptance.

Self-acceptance means opening my heart, laying my shit out on the table, and moving on. Accepting yourself is the end of resistance. I was fucking exhausted from years of running, fighting, pushing, and desiring.

For years I fought my natural self while trying to be someone my dad would be proud of. Living a life filled with anxiety, pushing for more from myself. Forever coming up short. Running from the pain and loneliness that would creep in. Fleeing from the natural signs that I was living life the wrong way.

Learning to accept myself has been a transforming concept this year. It’s been a year of embracing my feelings, working through them and living in the now. I’ve imagined that life is a river. I’m done wasting energy by clinging to weeds at the bottom. And I’m done killing myself by swimming upstream, paddling so hard against the natural flow. Now, I just let go and allow the sweet loving goodness of life to carry me where it may. I stop resisting and enjoy the ride.

Developing my new self-acceptance.

Self-acceptance is a cool concept. It means treating ourselves with kindness, care, and understanding. Being compassionate and lighthearted. A simpler way to put it – being a good friend to yourself. Self-acceptance realizes that we are all imperfect as human beings. To me, self-acceptance has meant finding solid ground to stand on. It helped me find my foundation, and finally start fixing it.

Self-acceptance destroys the scoreboard mentality in an instant. It is being mindful and embracing ourselves and our emotions. When you succeed, self-acceptance says “Great job! You earned this moment of joy.” When you fail, self-acceptance suggests “We are all humans, and life is imperfect. This pain and sadness will pass in the natural flow. Take care of yourself and be healthy so that you may heal.”

Self-acceptance doesn’t mean laziness and lack of growth. It means less scrutiny and clearer observation of just who you are. It means rolling with the punches and being less afraid of failure and embarrassments. It’s dedication to rolling with the punches and doing so with power and grace.

A chance to raise my daughter differently.

This knowledge not only helps me live with more joy, but it also makes me a better dad.

My daughter isn’t on the scoreboard system. Lily doesn’t need to impress me or make me proud to earn my love. She’s #1 priority in my life. And she knows I love her and that I’m ecstatic she’s my kid. I tell per probably 19x an hour, and I mean it every time. Overkill? Hell no.

It’s important that she feels comfortable in her innate goodness. She was born to be herself, and she is here to give her gift to the world. Whatever that gift may be – I’m so damn impressed.

Of course, she’s going to learn that times can be tough. Life can be tragic as hell. And that we’re all imperfect human beings, especially her dad. She has to know that it’s okay to have a bad day and that there’s no such thing as points in life. There’s only living in love and harmony. And taking what life throws at you with acceptance and grace.

Dear daughter, life is happening for you, not to you. Remember this mantra forever. “For me, not to me.” You can choose love and acceptance, always. The most important thing is treating you and others around you with compassion and understanding. Learn to become a light to yourself and to those who suffer. Everything else is a walk in the park.

Your turn.

My goal is to help you discover greater freedom in your life. To take the lemons life hands you and learn from them. They’re a gift.

This exercise is a valuable self-observation tool. Ask yourself this question: “Who Did I Have to Be For _______?” Listen to the first idea that arises in your mind. Write it down. Write more.

Don’t judge, and don’t run yourself down. Just write it all down. And let me know what you come up with.

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8 Comments

Sydney

It’s not what I have to be for my father it’s what I was for my father.

I had an uneventful upbringing with a caring, chauvinistic father. I pause and laugh at some of his comments over the years. My father was a frustratingly uncommunicative person but so were my three brothers and my mother as well. Except for the noise I could make it was a quiet home.

In the last years of my father’s life I was his loudest and most tenacious health care advocate, I took care of his finances, I protected him from stress and worry, I was his voice and I was entrusted with his final wishes. It’s one year ago next week since he died and as his daughter I was everything I wanted to be.

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Stan Glendenning

Hi Sydney,

What a wonderful tribute to your father – that last sentence would make me proud if my own daughter said it of me. And your father trusted you to carry out his last wishes, knowing you’d be able to handle it well.

All we can hope, as parents, is that we can help our kids to grow into well-balanced and capable people who are able to live their lives as they wish. You strike me as one of these people and I hope you are proud of yourself, as I’m sure your father must have been.

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Stan Glendenning

Wow Paul! What a great article and a great way of saying what just about every kid probably feels.

I had/have an emotionally distant father since my mother died when my sisters and I were very young and I relate to everything you’ve said. Obviously, my story is slightly different to yours, but I can see so much from what you say here.

I tell my kids the same thing about life being FOR them (even though sometimes it’s a battle and a half!) and that they can do and be anything they want. So I hope you won’t mind me paraphrasing your words to your daughter to my own kids. That’s a brilliant way to put it.

Thanks so much for this article – it teaches that we can all change the cycle of our parents’ ‘mistakes’.

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Annette Robinson

This is one of the best write ups I have read, about self acceptance and honestly gives me some answers about why I am who I am. Thankyou!

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Clare

Helpful and authentic article. I could almost have written the ‘who I felt I had to be’ and ‘who I am’ bits myself but you have articulated some feelings that I have not been able to put so eloquently into words, thank you

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Richard

Brilliant article Paul. When it comes to parents the two positions the vast majority of people take are 1) Victim – he/she/they were terrible to me … (blame, I’m therefore ruined, etc) or 2) Denial (I love them, they did the best they could, I therefore can’t say a bad word about them.)
However you have taken the position which allows us to move forward – wisdom. Looking at the situation with honesty, for what it was/is, with love and forgiveness (as well as knowing they probably did their best) and using awareness to break the cycle. It’s the tough road, much more difficult than victim or denial. If everyone took the wisdom path the world would be a vastly different place.

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Ellie

This is a great article Richard. I am 59 y.o. and never in all my searching did I find anything so succinct.

I dont know where to turn. I just burst into tears over it. I gave up trying to talk to my father about anything, and I dont mean deep stuff all the time but even just chitchat. Not out of mean but I am so very, very tired. I will call him on his birthday, Dec. 24th though. Plus he is going to be 94. He has all his marbles, still drives, read his scientific journals but a few years ago I felt it was unfair to try and talk to him about family and emotional issues because of his age.

Who did I have to be to my father and mother?-From an early age 7, I had to be a person that was supposed to be completely a self starter and completely motivate herself. I was treated like a 45 year person who should know better. I had a lovely sister who was very quiet and brought home straight A’s in second grade and they were over the moon. I was supposed to be offspring that validated their superior intelligence. Daddy has a Phd in organic chemistry and mother was a librarian. If I was not brainy I could be very beautiful and again show what good genes they had. I was suppose to be brilliant or have some extraoridinary skill or talent they would like to devote their time to nurture. Like an athelete destined for Olympics, parents will often devote their lives and start early. Instead our house was like a no kill dog pound. No one wanted me but I was fed and watered. My dad was born in 1922. His mother was a sweet lovely lady who had frequent breaks with reality, mental breakdowns, was hospitalized and eventually stabilized with lithium in the 50’s. By the the time I was born (3rd child) I only remembered her as a gentle loving old lady that told me Jesus loved me. My dad was a very bright child who skipped two grades and so impressed college recruiters, he received full scholarship. At the outbreak of WWII he enlisted, fought, came home, married my mother and continuted his education and finished up. When I was born he got his Phd. My mother was an only child who never was deprived for material things, grew up in a beautiful sunny California town, had a cold distant mother and a dad that loved her but kept his distance from her mother with work. She married my dad and moved clear across the country. I could go on about their background but it would get too lengthy. My parents divorced when I was 12, I spent two years with my mother who then sent us to live with my dad who had married his girlfriend who was 25 and he 50. I have seen him 5 times in 30 years. He did come to my first wedding and gave me away because I begged him. I thought it would turn into a father daughter relationship…it just didnt.

Who was I? I was a daydreamer in school, constantly drifting off and getting reprimanded and screamed at. On teacher actually struck me. I did not go to my parents for help. I learned nothing was there for help. By third grade I was considered an outcast. I drew and scribbled constantly, I adored art, and my greatest love was to draw, draw, draw, make, make, make!! Cats were and still my greatest love. As a teen I developed severe acne, crooked teeth and wore glasses and was crippling self conscious and shy. Just as well, I had a raging sexual desire. I stayed depressed but vowed someday I would leave the town of 500 people and do something… maybe be an artist…find a wonderful man that was crazy about me…get away from this place where I was nothing and nobody and just a piece of crap…I was so self conscious I was shake and tremble if I had to eat in front of anyone except my family. But I had dreams, I read Madamoiselle and read about young women in their twenties. They fixed their skin!! There was cosmetic surgery and contact lenses!! I was not considered college material. My grades were poor. I took SAT’s and scored second highest in my class. Nothing and nobody talked to me about college. It would of been useless. I had no interest, in fact I did not even understand what it was really for or how long it lasted. I thought it was for big people. the smart ones or the ones that were okay. I thought I was too stupid for college so I thought “maybe I meant to be a wife” so I hoped for that. My older sister was living 1000 miles away with her first husband and invited me to live with her after graduation. I leaped at the chance. It was a bad mistake. Her husband seduced me and then kicked me out. At 18 I was on the streets, no drivers license, never had a car, nothing. Dad not interested in helping. I worked, many, many odd jobs. Mother slightly concerned, sent some money 3 times but not enough for rent or food. I would stay with men I met in bars. I had absolutely no skills except I was a very fast typist. But the area I was had a 15% employment rate. it was a very depressed area and the few interviews I got, I shook so badly, I looked crazy. I could not even look in an interviewers face. One day at age 19 I met a guy on the beach that asked if I wanted to go to Westport CT. He said there were lots of jobs there. I went there and in a few weeks he kicked me out. But he was right, there were lots of jobs!! So many I would get one, get fired but I could get another and gained experience. Southwest Connecticut was booming, one of the wealthiest states in the nation in 1979. It was the beginning of the 1980’s and I was in a perfect spot. I gained sophistication, got my teeth fixed, cleared up my skin a little better, got contact lenses, lightened my hair to a beautiful blond color, learned job skills, paid for driving lessions, bought an old car. But I was fired constantly. I would do well for a week or two and then I would, one boss put it who fired me “fall off a cliff”. I still do not understand the crashing. I slept with over a hundred men. I just wanted to be loved. I had hundreds of jobs and finally just worked for temp agencies because that way I did not have to get close to anyone. Fast forward. I got married at 31. He was going to be perfect, he was, he asked to marry me after three weeks, I was thrilled, no insecurity of a long term relationship, this was it, he even bought me a diamond and he had a well paying job. Fast forward again, We fought bitterly and viciously for 18 years, he said he would ruin me if I left him. During this time, I got two nose jobs, a face lift, dermabrasion, teeth laser whitened, breast implants and lost 60lbs. I was going to divorce him and then be really loved!!!! I also went to college, majored fine art and illustration and ended up with a 3.78 gpa!! I divorced him, fell insanely in love with an emotionally unavailable man and for five years slowly died a quiet death of any confidence, gained all the weight back and more, babbled on constantly about how I would work on my artwork, but never did, worked lots of different jobs, lost my savings in the 2008 crash, lost my jobs…man would not marry me and finally left. And I was legally blind. I quit driving. Put my bicycle in the trunk, drove my car (which was spewing radiator fluid) to a junk yard and sold it for $300 and rode my bicycle home. Used income tax check to buy some health insurance and have cataract surgery. It was successful. Bought another clunker. Worked at subway, walmart, dunkin donuts, got food stamps. Water shut off, electric shut off. Termites. Sister stepped in to the pay electric. Was working at a grocery store and met a very good guy, we got involved, for four years we have been trying to put our lives back together. He is an attorney who license had lapsed, he had colon cancer, was unemployed and was trying to get it back and then get a license in this state. It was a long and laborious process but we did it!! He is now reinstated and working in a law firm. But the law firm is tiny and producing very little. It is steady but very little. He is very, very kind to me. We cannot afford health insurance, so we are not married and have obama care. I can now stay home and work on things including artwork. But I am floundering. I have horrible anxiety and irritibilty at times. Antidepressants have very unpleasant side effects on me. I now look very pretty and have a nice man that loves me but am still intensely introspective, dreamy, adore my cats (have 11), a weight problem and a messy house. He is too gentle with me, I pressured and guided him back to his career why can’t he do that for me. He smiles and says “I love you, you can do it, it will make me so happy if you paint or draw” but I don’t. This sounds insane but sometimes I wish I did not feel anything, feel things so intensely, wish I could roll out of bed and start creating something beautiful immediately, never worry about cleaning or feeding cats, or fixing my gorgeous mane of hair he adores. Looking, acting pretty, so fake on the outside, on the inside, so different, I am utterly exhausted. Even the bit of artwork I have done and showed to my father….he would be like keep up the good work…but I never did….for several years he and lots of other people kept hearing me talk about this artwork I would do and I started this and was wanted to do this, I lived to do artwork blah blah blah. They see me do nothing. I am nothing in their eyes. Dull, unacomplished. I live 1,200 miles away from them and it is a buffer that soffens the pain and shame. That is why I no longer call. Nothing new to report. No accomplishment to report. I remember once my dad saying to me exasperatedly “what do you want, money?” He never sent me money ever, except once as a generous wedding check which I very much appreciated. I said “NO, NO, please just call me sometimes and check up on me and please just a little encouragment, that all, no I am not looking for money.” NOthing happened. Well thats most of my story and WAY MORE than you probably needed or wanted to hear but your article got me to thinking and I wont forget it.

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Anita

I am a single mum and was drawn to your article because of the strong role your father had in your life. I am looking for ways to proactively help for my little boy, who has no father ( adopted). Any ideas?

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