I’m going to expose today a bit of my life and childhood in the hopes that some dear reader may have been suffered under similar conditions and may, even today, be struggling against their influence. For reasons based in their own lives and childhoods, too long and complex to be discussed here, both of my parents became uncomfortable with the thought of my being successful at anything, no matter how small or inconsequential. In trying to prevent such success, perhaps completely unconsciously, they set about to sabotage my self esteem and, sadly, were fairly successful.
Without my going into a bunch of Freudian or Adlerian convolutions, suffice it to say that they simply refused to ever give me credit for having done anything in a competent manner. This ranged from washing dishes and kitchen floors, to handing the correct tools or size bolts, to school work, to meeting or talking to people, to eating, to dressing, to playing a musical instrument, not sitting right, not standing right and on and on and on. This continued throughout their lives to the very end.
The problem with dealing with this kind of conditioning, and that of course is exactly what it is, is that the person being conditioned would need to understand what was going on to have a chance of escaping its effect. Since it started, as least as far as I can remember, at the age of six, there was no chance that I could believe that they were wrong and I was right. By the time this began to occur to me my life had been pretty much pulverized.
Without going into what comprised that ‘pulverized’ life, let it suffice to say that I made many decisions based on, shall we say, contaminated input? These decisions included entering into a toxic relationship because I was certain that no one else would have me, as well as believing that there was no way that I could ever succeed in college. In boot camp in the Navy, I qualified, due to my initial test scores, for admittance into the Naval Academy, Officer Candidate School, the Naval Aviation Cadet Program and a free college education through NROTC. I was certain, of course, that if I attempted to take advantage of any of these offers I would fail disastrously and shame myself forever. And so I refused them all.
I had passed, with flying colors, a seven-month course in aviation electronics but when an opportunity arose to attend guided-missile technician school, which I felt could possibly open the possibility of a dream career with NASA, I was dissuaded from that by my better half just as she did when an offer arose for me to join the Naval Research Laboratory after my enlistment expired.
Now I have managed to do reasonably well over the years, even with this conditioning in operation. The reason I bring this up here is not so people will say “Oh poor him. What a shame”. My only reason is the very slight possibility that someone who reads this may have been dealt a similar hand of cards to play and is even now struggling to somehow get a better deal. I just want to say to you that if you have been living with this type of conditioning, and I believe many of us have, there is something I feel you must try to do.
Even though the fear of failure is frightening, and even though you may be afraid that you’ll be unfaithful your parents, you must take your courage in hand and move on into areas that are filled with fear for you. I’ve thought about what could have been for me. Even if I had failed as a pilot I would have still been a naval aviation officer and probably a navigator or a Radar Intercept Officer in a multimillion dollar navy jet like the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. I love flying. My entire navy career was involved with aviation. After my enlistment I joined the Naval Reserves and became a very competent equipment operator in a Grumman S2F Submarine Hunter/Killer aircraft. How much better would it be to have been the pilot of that aircraft? In the reserves I was offered a commission to be the training officer for our squadron. I refused again because I felt unqualified to be a naval officer.
There’s no way you or I or anyone else can change that hand you were dealt. What you can do, however, is simply refuse to play it. When one of these decisions arises you must ignore those voices whispering in the back of your head that say “Who the hell do you think you are?” Or “You never do anything right. You’ll just screw it up again.” Or “You were clumsy and incompetent as a kid and you haven’t changed.”
I know it’s not easy but I’d like to think that if someone in years past had told me about this I might have been able to make the kind of changes and decisions I needed for the benefit of myself and others who have depended upon me. You can start out small. If there’s just a hobby you’ve wanted to try but are convinced you don’t have the skill or the patience to do it you should just go ahead and try. So what if you fail? Most of the things we try in our lives will fail, but that doesn’t mean that’s because we’re incompetent. Give yourself the opportunity to succeed by not being afraid to fail. Mentioning hobbies reminded me that several years ago I found and bought model kits for the S2F Tracker from my reserve years and for the Grumman F6F Hellcat, an aircraft that figured largely in my regular navy career. These kits are still sitting here because, in the back of my mind, I have felt that if I build them I will mess them up. I need to take my own advice and build them I guess.
As a young teenager I read the play and saw the 1938 version of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I was struck by one phrase and it has been the touchstone of my existence ever since. It was a famous speech by Polonious, Laertes’ father cautioning him as he and Hamlet were leaving for school in England. Somewhat truncated and probably incorrectly remembered it was: “And this above all. To thine own self be true and it follows then as the night follows the day that thou canst not be false to any man.”
This quote has been the most powerful single influence in my entire life including that of parents, teachers and even religion. It has helped me make good decisions by considering just what the results of those choices will be for me. Unfortunately, I never quite made the connection between that sentiment and the conditioning I was dealing with but it did, at least, help keep me from jumping off a cliff.
I suppose that many readers will not understand my message. That’s OK. But if just one reader identifies with this and tries to make changes in his or her life I will be one happy camper.
Live long and prosper.