Since I began my new chapter, after my marriage ended last April, I’ve grown emotionally in ways I never imagined. My progress is the result of introspection, along with thoughtful, caring feedback from my therapist and dear friends. Hard work. Perhaps the hardest work I’ve ever undertaken. This week one change, actually a revelation, occurred. I realized my struggle with validation originates in my relationship with my father, while I was growing up.
Not too long ago, I admitted out loud, for the first time, I don’t think my father relished actually being a father. His lack of satisfaction did not manifest itself overtly. He didn’t beat me, physically, or emotionally. I just don’t think he was interested in having authentic relationships with me or my sister.
My father was an excellent provider, a sensitive man, just unengaged. He worked, he drank, he slept. I don’t know what shame or anger he was trying to drown because we weren’t close. I do know he was extraordinarily gifted at maintaining an air of sobriety, never “appearing” drunk. On that note, I have abandoned the phrase, “functioning alcoholic.” It is a lie and trivializes the unavoidable damage that comes with alcohol, despite appearances, but that’s another conversation.
This week, I understood, cognitively, for the first time, that my hunger for approval is directly related to my childhood, a time when I blamed myself for my inability to earn my father’s approval. I rationalized the fault. My father was liked, even revered for his work to protect the environment, being a high-up at the brand new Environmental Protection Agency. He was affable, enjoyed playing the piano and good-looking. My mother worshipped him. She defended any aberrant behavior as the result of the stress he endured. Popular, successful, and passionate, if he wasn’t giving me approval, I was the problem.
I’m not angry with my late father. If anything, it makes me feel even more sad, Emotionally, my father was a mess. An elegant, successful, good provider, well-liked and respected mess. But a mess nonetheless.
I don’t anticipate overnight transformations as a result of my epiphany. What I do think is possibly, for the first time, is my opportunity to redefine my relationship with my hunger for approval. I’ve written how Buddhism has helped me accept my anxiety as part of who I am, rather than something that needs “fixing.” I will strive to treat my validation hunger similarly, not something broken, just part of who I am. Like anxiety, I foresee acknowledging its presence, recognizing when it wants attention, and then, choosing how I respond. Do I indulge it? Do I say, “not this time?” What’s truly liberating is the knowledge I am making a conscious choice in how I respond, acknowledging my feelings, rather than allowing shame deep within call the shots.
Thanks for listening. Stay in touch. Connect.
P.S. A touching father son moment from The Wonder Years. Enjoy.