Growing up, did you feel unconditionally loved and accepted by your parents? Experience their caring and concern for you as a constant, even when your impulses got the better of you and you acted outrageously? If that wasn’t the case, what might you have done to secure your somewhat tenuous attachment to them?
How you answer these questions is crucial. For to best understand yourself as an adult, you need to consider how, during your upbringing, you adapted to your caretakers’ only conditional approval of you. Nothing else can better explain what you may now be doing in your relationships to avert the anxiety of possible disapproval. That is, if you want to grasp how your childhood programming may, however unconsciously, be negatively affecting your interactions with others, it’s essential to recognize what you did originally to minimize your core family relationship fears.
Doubtless, what you want to consider here is whether, unawares, your self-defensive behaviors may be hindering your relationships—and, just as important, whether they're likely to resolve the fundamental self-doubts engendered by your not feeling secure in your parental bond.
As a qualification, it should be added that our childhood defenses against not feeling sufficiently loved or valued by our primary caretakers probably served us reasonably well at the time. At least, back then, they protected our fragile ego the best way we knew how. But at present, these defenses mostly handicap us from achieving the relational trust and intimacy we so badly missed earlier.
Ironically, these same defenses may also be keeping us from coming into our own authority—meaning that, as grown-ups, our self-approval should no longer be contingent on how others see us. And that just wasn’t true of us as children when, as dependent as we were on our parents, we lacked the capacity to approve of ourselves when they were clearly demonstrating their disapproval.
As part of our personal growth, we need to reach the point of giving ourselves final say on the rightness, or appropriateness, of our behavior. Not that it isn’t prudent to take others’ viewpoints into consideration. But to avoid displeasing them, we’re hardly obliged to compromise our wants and needs—and certainly not, as self-determining individuals, our integrity.
As long as we do so conscientiously, we’re certainly justified in giving our personal welfare top priority. If we don’t do this, if we feel compelled to subordinate our wants and needs to others for fear of disappointing them, we’ll end up seriously compromising our opportunities to live a life of contentment and personal fulfillment. For the prerequisite for achieving such an existence is not to worry, or obsess about, what others may think of us. As the title of Terry Cole Whittaker’s self-help book emphatically declares, What You Think of Me Is None of My Business (1979).
Here are four ways you may be sabotaging—or sacrificing—your happiness by making what others think of you too much your business. Just as, to secure your bond with your parents, you may have felt an urgent need to impress them favorably, these are some of the (counter-productive) things you may still be doing to shield yourself from others’ disapproval.
So consider whether any of the descriptions below characterize you. More importantly, reflect on whether, despite their personal costs, you’re obliged to continue these largely dysfunctional behaviors:
1. You’re a perfectionist, or always put yourself under pressure to do better. That is, you feel compelled to try to do almost everything superlatively. And this way of seeking to eliminate others’ disapproval is to be distinguished from a far healthier, and much more selective, striving for excellence, or endeavoring to be your personal best. If you’re endlessly driven to excel at whatever you’re engaged in (including recreational activities), what’s suggested is that you’re still governed by the notion that simply being “good enough” isn’t good enough, And this is a conclusion you came to because you could only earn your parents’ approval by outshining others.
Ask yourself: How contented or happy can you be if you never permit yourself to relax or slack off? Ultimately, all that your laborious exertions accomplish is replacing the fear of parental disapproval with an enduring, undiscriminating anxiety of incurring others’ disapproval. You’ve subjugated yourself to their (mostly imagined) unrealistic expectations of you.
Additionally, if you’re that hard on yourself, you’re likely to be hard on others, too. So, even though well-intended, such a childhood “adaptation program” is more likely to alienate yourself from others than endear them to you. Nor can such a habit ever grant you inner peace, since you’re doomed to see yourself as only as good as your latest performance. Unwittingly, you’re validating your parents’ conditional regard for you by applying it to yourself.
2. You avoid undertaking anything you might fail at. If, deep inside you, failure is equated to parental disapproval or rejection, you might also hesitate, or downright refuse, to attempt anything where success is not guaranteed. And, as in the expression, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” if you’re unwilling to take risks, you may discover that you’re regularly letting yourself, and others, down. Much of your fear of failure may have to do with how your parents reacted when you strove to achieve something but fell short of their expectations.
So indirectly, you may actually have been taught not to take chances. But successful people typically are so because they’re not especially risk-adverse. They’re quite willing to “go for it,” because they see failure as mostly a step toward eventual success.
3. You Preempt Another’s Disapproval by Keeping a “Safe” Distance From Them. If, as a child (and this is generally more true of boys than girls), you finally gave up trying to win your parents’ approval—for nothing you ever did helped you feel more comfortably connected to them—you may have come to deny altogether your need for such an attachment. It’s a kind of psychological sour grapes. Once you determined you could never get what you craved, you decided you didn’t really want it anyway.
And after you repudiated this, well, universal need, you could “adaptively” repress the emotional pain of not feeling sufficiently cared about. Many people actively cultivate independence and take great pride in it when secretly (even to themselves) they’ve been deeply wounded by their parents’ emotional detachment or deficient positive regard for them.
Obviously, if you’ve been conditioned to doubt or distrust the very possibility of an intimate relationship, you’ll be wary about even putting yourself in a position to receive it. For your ego-protecting autonomy will compel you to keep others at a distance. As a consequence, you can never achieve your heart’s deepest desire, which is to feel intimately attached to another. Paradoxically, should such a relationship offer itself to you, you’re likely to feel threatened—or even antagonized!—and turn your back on it.
It should be mentioned that anger is perhaps the most common defense used to keep people at what’s perceived to be a safe distance. Unconsciously, you might be looking for any pretext to get mad at them, so as to almost guarantee that they’ll draw further away from you. (And here you might look at my post “What Your Anger May Be Hiding”).
4. You’re a people-pleaser—self-sacrificially codependent in relationships. If you could only feel loved and accepted by your parents if you made your needs and desires secondary to theirs (and perhaps to your siblings as well), such a once adaptive program could later compel you to routinely put your preferences and priorities behind those of others.
Here you set yourself up to be exploited and taken advantage of. In effect, you’re telling others that they can use you as their doormat, that it’s okay for them to wipe their feet on you. Additionally, you take more responsibility for their thoughts and feelings than you do your own. After all, declaring the primacy of your needs as a child only incurred parental disapproval. So being assertive about what you liked became linked with heightened anxiety—and got conditioned out of you.
Tragically, it’s easy to lose touch with what you really want and need if, as a child, you simply didn’t have the “luxury” to focus on yourself. If the only way you could feel valued by your parents was to regularly disregard your needs, it’s almost inevitable that as an adult you’ll have great difficulty even recognizing them.
To conclude, it might be worthwhile to explore what you may now be doing that prevents you from feeling more satisfied with your life. And hopefully, you'll realize that, unlike the past, you fully deserve, and have every right to pursue, the soothing, fulfilling intimacy you were deprived of earlier.
Consider, finally, that your brain is a bio-computer. And that, like all other computers, it can be reprogrammed. So, whether on your own or through professional assistance, think about whether you might wish to re-write old programs that no longer work—or can work—for you.
© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.