I just read David Brooks’ poignant Op-Ed in the New York Times on the epidemic of “conditional love” between parents and children in our culture.
The entire piece is a must-read for every person who has ever been a parent or a child (so, yes, everyone). I won’t even attempt to summarize his thesis here. To do so would be a disservice to him and to you.
Go read it. Then come back here.
My awareness of how this perception of merit-based love shaped my identity began when I reached my mid-thirties. It took me a while to realize that what I thought was my own set of self-expectations was not entirely self-generated. Along the way to adulthood, I had internalized the expectations set for me by my parents, teachers, employers, clients and the culture around me. As a result, I was defining success in a way that took it out of my control.
Recently, several of my friends have approached me for guidance in working through their variations of this issue. Regardless of specifics, there is a common underlying theme:
I don’t feel like I’ve reached the level of success where I should be at this point in my life.
The people who are sharing this with me have at least one graduate degree on top of an undergraduate degree, from top-tier schools. They are established in their careers. They contribute to their communities. Most are married with children, and are attentive and devoted parents. They show up for soccer games and for their clients. By any metric, they are successful.
And yet none of this diminishes the very real feeling that they we are not measuring up. It is the curse of great expectations. We hang our heads in shame, always striving to do more, because we constantly feel like we are not doing enough.
We feel that we are not enough.
Brooks sums this up so perfectly:
They feel driven by internalized pressures more than by real freedom of choice. They feel less worthy as adults.
Yes. A million times over. This is the dynamic I see in myself and in so many of my friends and peers.
How does this happen?
We were taught from an early age that success has certain benchmarks. That it can be measured by concrete criteria: The schools we attended. Our job titles. Our bank balance.
We were led to believe that there is some objective set of criteria by which we will be deemed a success or failure at each stage of life. As a result, wherever we are on our timeline, no matter what we have accomplished, we have the (false) sense that we are not where we “should” be.
We were taught to seek approval and to deliver what was expected of us: first from parents, then from teachers and professors, then from employers and clients, and from the larger community. Over time, this dynamic conditioned us to become what others expected us to be.
We internalized this, until we believed that their expectations were our desires.
As adults, we are still seeking approvals. Many of my peers who have approached me to discuss these issues are now parents. They are trapped in the belief that their children’s actions are a reflection on their worthiness as parents, just like we were taught that our actions reflected on our parents. They unconsciously repeat the words that they heard as children, unaware that they are perpetuating a cycle that produces people pleasers.
Let me be clear: This isn’t about placing blame. Nobody is “at fault” here. Our parents were not aware that they were creating this structure of merit-based love. In many cases, this expectation is often passed down from previous generations and absorbed from the community as well. It’s not just the parents. It’s teachers. Friends. Mentors. Community. Society.
The entire dynamic is happening on an unconscious level. We are caught up in a self-perpetuating cycle of limiting beliefs that has turned us into adults who have no sense of self, and thus no real sense of self-worth. Our identity is tied to our understanding of who we need to be for other people.
We can break free from this cycle.
The first step is simply to be aware of this.
Take time to consider: Who is defining your “shoulds”?
It may emanate from within now, but it likely began someplace external. It’s time to take control.
Become aware of the ways in which you influence and are influenced by others through language and actions, and consider how you may be perpetuating a dynamic based in conditional love.
Even as adults, we can learn to love ourselves for who we are, rather than based on whether we meet the expectations set for us by others. We can extend that same unconditional love to others, and help the next generation develop their own sense of self and a strong sense of self-worth.