I didn’t understand that at the time. I didn’t even understand shame or the terrible feelings of powerlessness which were so much a part of my life. I just knew that I wanted power and respect.
I promised myself that I would never again be controlled by others. I promised myself that I would have power and that I would no longer have to obey. I promised myself that I would give orders, not take them.
Leadership guru Michael Hyatt told a story on the Typology podcast earlier this year about a promise he made to himself when he was young. Hyatt’s father had a serious alcohol problem as Michael grew up. When he was 18, some of his friends were dropping him off at home — and his father was passed out on the sidewalk in front of the house.
As he tried to get his father up and into the house, his friends were laughing and watching. As he got his passed-out father into the house, he felt humiliated and he made himself a promise.
“I will never be like that,” he said to himself. That fear of becoming like his father drove Hyatt to become successful — and the same promise almost destroyed him.
Hyatt said it took him some business failures and some therapy to understand that his entire behavior — for good and bad — was driven by that one promise. He was very successful by some measures, but he almost destroyed his health.
He had to go through those failures — which he also recounted — in order to learn that he was being driven by a childhood promise which no longer suited his needs.
I’ve been thinking about that this week because I was listening to another episode of the Typology podcast on which a very successful sports agent was being interviewed. This woman was a very competitive college athlete and then became someone who’s referred to as “the female Jerry Maguire.”
It just so happens that she is an Enneagram Type 3 and Hyatt is a Type 3 as well. She’s a very driven and successful woman, but she’s not nearly as self-aware as Hyatt is, so I assume she hasn’t done nearly as much internal work as he has.
The host of the show, Ian Morgan Cron, was trying to gently lead her to seeing some things about her childhood family which were obvious to me but which she was oblivious to. He recounted this story which Hyatt told on the show earlier in the year. He told the sports agent that we consciously or unconsciously made promises to ourselves as children — in order to help us get whatever was missing for us at the time.
“What promise did you make as a child to yourself which is no longer serving you as an adult?” Cron asked.
Because I made the connections that this woman didn’t really want to make about her own life, I was then able to transfer the same question to myself — and then I realized, for the first time, that I had been driven to seek power and position because I had felt so weak and powerless and humiliated as a child.
(As a side point, the agent seemed to me to be a great example of an Enneagram Type 3 who wasn’t very self-aware, but I happened to hear another Enneagram Type 3 on a different podcast this week who the host referred to as one of the healthiest Type 3s she has known. Possibly the difference is that that guy is a pastor who has done a lot of therapy and is married to a therapist who is a Type 1, which is my type. It’s fascinating to listen to the two interviews and compare the people — both driven to succeed, but with a very different level of emotional maturity, in my view.)
As soon as I heard Cron ask the question about what we promised ourselves as children — and made the connection to how that promise unconsciously drives us to be certain things — I immediately understood some things about myself.
As I was growing up, I was making serious plans to become a politician and get myself elected as president of the United States. Where did that come from? I concluded a long time ago that it was a reaction to feeling powerless and humiliated as a child.
My father had such complete control over me that I promised myself that I would go as far in the opposite direction as possible. I couldn’t conceive of any way to do that other than becoming president. In my young mind, that was the ultimate way to have power. If you were president, nobody could tell you what to do. Without understanding the connection I was making at the time, my little mind was setting myself a goal that would get me as far away from my youthful feelings of powerlessness and shame.
The desire to become a politician and gain power followed me for much of my life. It was only about 10 or 15 years ago that I finally started discarding the desire. The dream didn’t die because I no longer wanted power, though. It ended because my views of political philosophy changed and I no longer believed any human should have that power. Not even me.
At first glance, it seems as though this childhood promise to myself didn’t do any harm, but there’s a darker side.
I have never been able to work in an organization successfully and take orders well. I have problems with all sorts of authority figures. If you don’t take orders well in a company, you stunt your growth in the company and you also make yourself miserable.
When I worked in companies, I generally rose through the ranks and became a leader quickly, but it wasn’t because I worked well with my management. In fact, I repeatedly clashed with every manager I’ve ever had. I pushed back against them. I thought I knew more than they did. (In most cases, I was right, but that doesn’t help.) I fought them to get my way and I tricked my way into getting what I wanted.
The only reason I succeeded as much as I did was that I happened to be really, really good at what I did. That forced people to put up with my push for control. But I never stayed anywhere long, because I was miserable inside — because I was constantly raging at them and feeling miserable for not having complete control myself.
When I was a 21-year-old managing editor of a daily newspaper, I thought I was smart enough and talented enough to have complete control of my newsroom. I didn’t want the publisher meddling. I didn’t want him giving us any orders.
I understand now that it was never about those specific people. The problem is that I had promised myself that I wouldn’t take orders — and every day I allowed a publisher to tell me what to do (even if I had 99 percent control) meant that I felt oppressed. It meant that I felt I wasn’t living up to the unconscious promise I had made to myself years before.
The only times I have ever been happy with work have been when I worked for myself. I understand now how much this has limited me. I was never able to work in other organizations — taking orders from people I could have learned from — long enough to put myself into better positions.
The question that I heard Cron ask — about what promises we make to ourselves as children — forced me to see that the child David had promised never to take orders and never to be without power myself. And I see the ways in which that drove me to do things which weren’t always healthy.
What did you promise yourself as a child? Did you see that others loved you only when you were a success? If so, you might have unconsciously promised yourself to always be the greatest success possible. Someone like that — such as Hyatt — would unconsciously equate being successful with getting love from other people. And so that person would be driven to be successful — all in the service of that immature childhood promise to be successful in order to earn “love” from those around him or her.
I’m still driven to have power. I still have an unhealthy fear — even a righteous anger — about the idea of anyone having the power to control me. That makes me unhappy much of the time. And I’m slowly realizing this is all because a young and immature version of myself saw this as the only way to escape the complete control which I suffered under my father’s heel.
We come to see these things as just a part of who we are, but what if they’re simply decisions we made long ago — and decisions that we can change if we understand what they’re doing to us and how they’ve kept us from being happy?
I wish I could go back to the distant past and change the promises I made to myself as a child to things which would have been more emotionally healthy for me, but I obviously can’t do that.
The best time to change my internal thinking on such issues would have been way back then, but the next best time is right now. And the mature and self-aware version of myself today is in a much better position to do that than I ever have been in the past.