As soon as I walked into his office today, I could tell that this normally happy person was in a foul mood. He was snappy and there was something in the air that felt dangerous to me.
I could feel my heart start racing slightly. I felt mild panic. This guy wasn’t angry with me. His dark mood had nothing to do with me. But I immediately shifted gears inside. Instead of a confident adult dealing with another adult, I felt like a child who needed to placate an angry person — so I wouldn’t “get in trouble.”
I was walking on eggshells once again.
I was there less than half an hour, but I spent the entire time trying to break through his bad mood and cheer him up. It wasn’t just that I was trying to help him. I was playing the role I learned with my father. I was desperately trying to stem the anger of a volatile man — before he exploded on me.
When you grow up with an angry parent, you develop a sixth sense about how to act to protect yourself. That was my experience anyway. I didn’t consciously decide to do this. It was just a survival skill for me, so it took me years to realize other people didn’t develop that sense in the same was I did.
It’s been three months since my father died. I sometimes forget that he’s dead and I briefly worry that he’s going to come to my house again or show up at work to confront me. I still dream about confrontations with him and wake up relieved to realize he’s dead.
But even though he’s gone, the patterns he taught me are still there. Some will probably always be with me. For instance, I’ll probably always get nervous around confrontation — constantly afraid that an authority figure is going to scream at me or hurt me.
But in one small way, I realized this week that his death has brought a small sense of relief about a long-running sense of guilt I’ve had — about doing anything well or about being recognized for some success.
All my life, I’ve wanted attention. Needed attention. I was starved for attention.
That might sound awful, but I think the truth is that I desperately needed someone to give me praise and validation. Mother wasn’t around and my father’s validation always came with “terms and conditions.” His approval was always conditional.
Whenever I did something that got attention for myself — at school, at church, at work, whatever — I felt guilty. I felt guilty for being successful and having people give me praise. I never understood until recently why I felt that way.
I felt guilty because my father was jealous of the attention I got. When it happened, he tried hard to inject himself into the conversation. “I taught him everything he knows,” was one of his common phrases. He would have said it was a joke — and there was certainly no truth to his joke — but he was jealous of the praise I got. I still don’t understand that.
He didn’t like attention, at least that’s what he said. He didn’t act as though he was seeking attention. But he wanted praise. He wanted adoration. He wanted to be told he was great.
He was jealous of the attention his only son got.
I wanted to enjoy the praise and accolades I received, but I was always on edge — always watching for his reaction, always hoping he would be genuinely proud of me instead of taking the attention for himself.
I just realized this week that I don’t feel guilty anymore. He’s not here to be jealous. He can no longer cause those horrible mixed feelings anymore. And that’s a relief.
The little boy in me needed attention, but that little boy also wanted to please his father. I wanted to make him proud of me — but I knew his words didn’t match the feelings he projected toward me.
Maybe now I can finally accept attention and praise without feeling that I’m doing something wrong — and maybe that will finally help to satisfy the long unmet needs.
When I did things in life that I was proud of, I wanted his praise. I knew I wouldn’t get it the way I wanted. I knew anything positive he said in front of others would be offset by private criticism — about how I could have done better if I’d done things his way.
I still need someone to be proud of me. Is that terrible? I don’t think so. I think we all need someone to recognize our work and our achievements — and give us praise.
When I love a woman, I’m incredibly proud of her and want to give her praise and let other people know how wonderful I think she is. That’s part of loving someone, at least to me. I’d like the same from a woman. I’d like someone to be proud of me and tell me I’ve done well.
I’ll never be able to change the fact I could never be good enough for him. I might never be able to change the fact that I walk on eggshells around certain angry and dysfunctional people.
But I think I can finally accept genuine praise and find happiness in the success I want — without feeling guilty for taking the spotlight from him.