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.
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.