Sunday, 5 January 2014

Can Success replace Parental Validation?


I was six when I won my first competitive swimming medals. Two golds and one silver. Although very young, this event had a profound impact on my life. What it did for me was let me know that here was a world in which I could be noticed - not only that but it dawned on me that I might be considered valuable, certainly by the coaches and club which 'head-hunted' me, along with my brother, after this auspicious start in schools swimming. So began a determination to work hard at being the best - always in the hopes of my parents noticing - however, unusually for parents of competitive swimmers, they rarely attended our appearances at galas and Championships. We were always the kids who were picked up from training etc by the waiting car.

By the time I had left home aged 18, leaving behind my parents and their casual indifference to any part of me as a person, the only validation I registered was from over-achieving. Ironically, I was so numb to encouragement and praise that I have always considered myself to be a failure - despite being a county level swimmer, despite completing three successful degree courses in my life, despite holding down very responsible jobs for over 25 years.

I didn't notice that my periods of 'instability' had a regular pattern to them, or that there was a link between the emptiness I felt inside and the childhood traumas I had survived. (It has taken three years of hard work and therapy to accept that much of my childhood was indeed traumatic). It was only at the age of 42, when an amazingly compassionate GP (now, alas retired) persevered with a sustained period of emotional instability and considerable time off work, that I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. For the first time people started to make sense of what I thought of as my worst faults: 'och, she's highly strung', or 'she's just oversensitive'. Not to mention my white hot temper and inability to live with myself, let alone, anyone else!

I found giving up work almost impossible because that was where I was most comfortable, where I felt confident, where I had a professional persona which had defined boundaries and rules for dealing with people. I didn't have to divine people's motives about me personally. Although emotionally demanding, my caseload allowed me to ignore my own problems and focus on helping others manage theirs. Problem was that I had shut myself off from all relationships outside work - not that I had no friends, it was just that I had learned it was easier to skate along on the surface of relationships.

In the end, though, I had to acknowledge that I had run out of 'emotional steam' and stopped 'functioning' as my GP so nicely put it. Now, just over a year since I gave up paid employment to focus on attending DBT therapy and recovering, I've realised that feeling successful was the only means of validation I had built into my life. And that obviously didn't work.

Now I'm facing a major shift in my attitude regarding what it means to lead a successful life. Do I return to similar demanding roles as the past? Or do I acknowledge that even Christmas was too much for me to handle, let alone contemplate returning full time? For me it has been a struggle to accept that even without a defined, paid, role I am worth something. If the message from your parents was that you didn't matter, then no amount of achievement (as defined by external values) can help fill the emptiness inside.

What has helped me is to accept that there is a purpose to my life, as it is, regardless of certificates, salary scales or other measures. My belief in God is a starting point - I am taught that He loves me as I am. As with my basic practise of Mindfulness, focusing on truths about myself takes so much time and practice. I am only at the beginning, but I know that reversing the lack of validation in my childhood requires that I dedicate myself to focusing on and accepting myself. Not that I'm advocating self obsessed introspection - no I mean focus on what is enjoyable right now, including what I am able to contribute towards helping others. When I can feel that I have a purpose and root in this world, then I can accept my experience of each moment.
Success for me now is not about replacing something that can never be replaced or changed, because that is in the past, but it has become the ability to knit my experiences from the past into my life as it is now, accepting the strengths and gifts it has given me that have brought me to this moment. In this moment I can accept that success is still being here after everything I have been through, beginning to be able to love and be loved by others. In this context, I don't need to seek a successful career - I just need to be content with my life as it is - right now! That I think is the essence of Radical Acceptance.