When Will I Be Seen?

For many years I’ve been interested in “conditioning,” the process by which a person adopts beliefs, values, and patterns of thought. Conditioning represents automatic and unconscious learning that enables a child to fit with his or her family and community.

Conditioning has its downsides. We pick up views of others and especially of ourselves that we may have to unlearn as life goes on because the patterns are incongruent with deeper instincts about who we are. I may have grown up with biases about work or politics or religion, for example, but at some point I may begin to reject those biases as inconsistent with other values I have adopted based on my own experiences. Or I may have a view of myself, given to me by my conditioning, that I want to overcome.

DSC_0205

Many years ago, I found myself confronting persistent, intrusive negative thoughts about myself, thoughts I had been constantly in the process of hiding from others (and myself to a degree). I was embarrassed by these thoughts and also privately believed I could not be successful because of them. When offered a plum assignment that tested my knowledge, for instance, I might have fantasies about how I would at first take on the challenge but then inevitably fail miserably, eventually ending up unemployed and a “pathetic, rejected person.” Managing the project in the face of these ongoing negative thoughts could leave me feeling exhausted before I even began. The smallest events could set off compelling negative images and assessments. For instance, I remember going to a private invitation conference and I was the only one who didn’t have a name tag waiting for me. Of course, I knew somebody just forgot or there had been a glitch of some kind, but for a moment I mentally heard myself saying, ‘They didn’t want me here. I don’t belong, so they didn’t make a nametag for me.’ It’s laughable in retrospect but at the time it was making me crazy — and sad. For years I had been suppressing these painful thoughts, trying to control them out of existence. I understood their irrationality, but couldn’t seem to stop them from showing up.

As I learned more about conditioning I began to ask the question, “How did I learn to think this way, anyway?”

And I could see right away that my mother and father both possessed depressive thinking styles that I unconsciously adopted. My mother often “catastrophized” about what negative thing was going to happen. If she couldn’t get the household accounts to balance by a few pennies, it meant that she was probably off by thousands and we’d soon be on the streets. Sometimes her catastrophes seemed to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Her excessive worry about car accidents, for instance, seemed to generate accidents, like the day she forgot to set the emergency brake and the car rolled backwards down a hill and across a busy street. My father, by comparison, focused on convention, duty and hard work — “keeping your nose out of trouble by not making mistakes.” In his world, not making mistakes was an expected state that seemed to take much of the joy out of life and work, and I had picked up this same expectation. Now as a grown-up, all I could see when I was triggered by stress were mistakes and catastrophic outcomes. There were days I dreaded going to work although I seemed to be successful and doing a very good job.

Over time I began to look into the exact mechanism of my conditioning. I saw that I had received recognition and approval, like most kids, from mimicking my parents. I saw that with my mother, for example, my expressions of anxiety and fearfulness could get her attention, affection and reassurance. I saw that with my father any imperfection performing household chores or some other blunder (like an A minus on a report card) could guarantee my father’s attention, although the style of that attention was painful.

What seemed to help at a certain point was writing down every one of the negative thoughts that intruded so that I could look at them. It struck me as a very consistent pattern, or rather a cluster of thinking patterns that were like a row of dominoes. When the first one went down, the rest were sure to follow. Starting from a single incident, such as the lack of a name tag, there was a process of negative personalizing (what awful thing does this mean about me?) that in turn propelled a series of other negative assessments and possibilities, leading in the end to a sense of difference, rejection, isolation, and failure. The thought, “They don’t want me at this training session,” for example, followed a familiar path of depressive self-isolation. But what, in fact, was this self-rejection buying me?

DSC_0179

A significant breakthrough came one day when I began seriously challenging the whole premise of the conditioning. I saw that I was not just mimicking my parents to get their love or approval. I was doing it to get any form of recognition from them for the real me — which seemed to have been missed in a big way. If they had seen the real me, they would have seen how much I actually enjoy life, living expressively, and just being. I saw that I was not naturally fearful. I discovered I did not naturally make mistakes or fail at things I tried to do. But I had adopted those thinking patterns so that they could give me recognition they understood. I wanted them to see the real me, but the way they thought controlled what they did and that was the closest they could get. The closest I could get, too, at the time. I kept trying to get that recognition, and there was only one way to obtain it. If I was fearful, afraid, a screw-up, they could rescue me from that or shame me for it, and I took that as the only recognition available. As a consequence, I became dependent on it and ultimately learned to identify with it. But the truth is their rescue and their shaming were for them, not me. They were trying to get what they’d been taught to get for themselves. The whole thing seemed to be the product of generations, and it was not about who I was at all.

And, of course, it wasn’t about who they were, either, creating a path toward forgiveness I soon learned to follow.

Somehow at some point in this incremental process I seemed to have broken a big link in the chain. Certainly not the last, but a big one, for sure.

Looking back now at those moments of insightful rebellion, they seem to circulate around the familiar Zen riddle, “Show me your original face, the face you had before your parents were born.”

DSC_0167

Link to blog posting.
Link to Oestreich Associates website.
Sign up for monthly email newsletter on reflective leadership.
Twitter @DanOestreich

[wdgpo_plusone]

10 Comments

  • Marcy Collyer wrote:

    Inspirational, warm and authentic!! Your post is so timely for me. I am currently taking a class where each presentation is videotaped and evaluated. Today my evaluator gave me great feedback. She said I have a natural, commanding presence and strong speaking/leadership skills, but at some point someone put me in a box… and I bought into it. She told me I need to trust myself more and get out of my own way. I could not have agreed with her more. Although, I have conciously and actively worked on these skills over the years, some of those old tapes still play. I have practiced making new tapes, but I think I need to go back and burn the old ones…LOL!! They have a tendency to auto-start and I don’t even realize it. I love your writing recommendation. I will try that.

    Thanks Dan!

  • Marcy — Thank you so much for commenting. And yes, the written down internal messages exercise may be of help. Looking at them is quite an experience, testing your fortitude, and also making you laugh or cry, or both — because the inaccuracy becomes so plain, especially if you show the statements to your friends. As you say, “they have a tendency to autostart” and the best thing to do is “burn” them. They may have had some kind of protective or self-defining role in the past — so say thanks for that — but you’ve outgrown them.

    We must learn to trust our own natures in a radical and beautiful way.

  • I absolutely love this post, Dan – it completely resonates with me, and is extremely thought-provoking.

    In addition to looking inwardly at myself, you also have me thinking about how I may be affecting my own children.

  • Thanks so much, Ryan. I appreciate your kind words and especially your comment about how our behaviors affect our kids. Several times as I was writing this post I thought about my own (now grown up) son and daughter. How difficult was it for them to feel “seen” as children? Do they feel seen today?

    Guess I’ll have to go ask!

    Many best wishes, Ryan and thanks also for your RT of this post.

  • Dear Dan,
    This post is universally calling everyone to achieve their greatness by admitting they are not their past.

    Very interesting. Since so many people define themselves by what they were taught to believe, it is ironic that we must in some way abandon some parts of that to become who we truly are.

    Some hold onto what they were taught because to decry it requires they admit their parents weren’t perfect. For others it means embracing the pain their parents inflicted, then overcoming it while still loving their parents.

    Your post is like an archaeological dig that excavates the past while honoring and preserving it in order to better live the future.

    Tremendous job.
    Kate

  • Hi Kate

    You add depth to the post by framing it in terms of the different paths people take to become themselves.

    I remember working with a group of young managers, exploring what “conditioning” is and how it was working in their lives. One woman, African-American, told me she thought that her parents never created any limits for her at all, so the concept didn’t really apply. However, after some time in the class talking privately with a friend, she got back to me.

    “It sounded like they didn’t create any limits for me — they said ‘you can be anything you want to be.’ But I am noticing now that such a message also had a strong cultural and racial context. It was code for their expectations of me: Achieve. Show the world all that a person of color can do. ‘Anything’ really meant I was expected to be accomplished at ‘everything.’ And now when I look at my work as a manager, that’s just exactly the way I play it — by being anything and everything to everybody. I’m the achiever. I’m the one they send it when there’s a crisis, when no one else knows what needs to be done or wants to take it on, and can lead. It’s not that I don’t accept this role — I do, but there are times I’m just exhausted, when I’d frankly like to do a lot less, let others achieve for awhile. Some days I just want to play a background role. I was set up to succeed. At just about any cost, I had to ‘make good.'”

    The point is she could see the threads of the messages and how they had shaped her, as part of a family and part of a community. When we have such a consciousness, I believe, seeing into the sources of identity, our choices become clearer and deeper.

    All this is to say, Kate, that I agree with you totally. I believe that the more each of us knows — and accepts — the full range of our conditioning, the more we take a step closer to happiness and being in charge of our own destinies.

    Thank you so much for your kind words.

  • Dear Dan,
    Your deeply personal post is very moving. I admire your willingness to share your inner world. I’m sure it’s a world that few people are willing to admit, let alone share. In the big noisy competitive world (esp in this culture)we live in, the truth of the scars we bear is usually well-hidden.

    I, too, have struggled with what is clearly negative conditioning that has held me back in many ways. Conscious awareness has been my salvation, albeit, often painful.

    As my mother did, I carry generations of pain on my back. I am grateful that I have been able to use my gift of self-knowledge to heal many of these wounds, but “eradicating” them isn’t likely. I know this journey has led me to psychology, Buddhism and the work of emotional intelligence.

    Learning to embrace all of the feelings has been central to the healing. Self-compassion is the one “antidote” I have found.

    If you haven’t yet discovered, Healing through the Dark Emotions, By Miriam Greenspan, I suggest you pick up a copy.

    This is a powerful topic – one that needs to be on the front burner of all we do. It drives us personally, it defines our cultures.

    Thank you for sharing Dan.

    Best, Louise

  • Thank you so much, Louise, for your thoughts and your willingness to share some of your own history. I love your reference to self-compassion, as I agree that is key. I have just ordered Miriam Greenspan’s book and very much look forward to reading it. A journey through darker emotions that has always inspired me personally is Parker Palmer’s, some of which is described in his book, Let Your Life Speak.

    And, of course, given the levels of suppression and inauthenticity we see operating today, I couldn’t agree more that the dynamic is one that “defines our cultures.”

    Many best wishes and thanks again for your heart-felt comment, Louise. As they sometimes say, “the gifts are closest to the wounds.”

  • Dan, I’m stunned by your openness and vulnerability. Your clients are truly blessed to have you at their disposal. How refreshing to read something so real and so relevant to the world of work.
    Warmly,
    John

  • Thanks, John. I especially appreciate the part about “real and relevant to the world of work.” Too often we get sucked into believing that conditioning is irrelevant, when in fact it is often deeply influences the way we relate, handle our assignments and lead others.

    Many best wishes

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.