I've been wanting to write this letter for a long time but this type of thing doesn't come easy to me. There's been a lot on my mind, and this summer I've finally had a chance to figure out what I want to say. Now I just have to get the courage to say it. I've been nervous about this letter, because I don't want to freak you out, and I don't want to hurt your feelings. You don't deserve that, but I don't think I deserve to feel like I've been feeling either.
If you're confused by this well so am I, sorry. Though it always seems like you know just the right thing to do or what to say. I NEVER feel like that. I try not to show it because I want you to think I'm doing okay. I do want to be like you. I think about that a lot, but I'm not sure it will happen.
What I mean is you're good at things that definitely don't come easy for me. I've known you my whole life and I still don't know how you can be good at so many things. I know you say it's just confidence, but you have to get confidence from somewhere. I mean I do okay with my own stuff, probably as well as most of my friends. But I never handle things like you would. Just thinking about how you'd handle things makes it hard for me to come up with my own solutions. Sometimes it would be great just to find my own answers without having to imagine what you would want or expect from me. It's like you're looking over my shoulder even when you're not there. I know you're not trying to make me feel this way, but it still messes me up. Sometimes I don't know if I decided to do something myself, or if it was because it was what I thought you would do. And then sometimes I try things that I know won't work but I think it's what you'd do. It's hard to explain, but it's like I'm trying to be you and me at the same time but I keep losing.
Wherever you go or whatever you do you get a lot of respect, but I don't. I see how other people look at you Dad. Sometimes I'm actually proud about it, and sometimes it's freaky. For you, it's like a formula. It's like you push a button and wham! Instant success. Remember last year when I fell behind in school and you wrote out a plan for me to catch up? I appreciated it and all, but even when we were sitting at the table I knew the plan wasn't going to work for me the way it probably would for you. I'm not sure you can even understand that. Maybe you were always the way you are now. But believe me, there are lots of people like me who don't solve problems so easily!
I know you say I have to try harder, but I am trying harder. I hate disappointing you, it gets me all twisted. Not only do I get bummed out but it also really pisses me off. I get so sick of thinking about this situation that sometimes I just put on my iPod and ignore everything. But underneath I'm definitely agitated even though I know there's nothing you did.
When you sit down and talk to me about motivation and trying harder (like you have over a hundred times) I know that you mean well but you don't understand what it's like to be me. You keep saying that you would have killed to have the things that I have and go to the school that I go to and have the advantages I have. But it's like I'm supposed to feel guilty for everything in my life that you didn't have. And the thing is my life looks great to you but for ME it's not "perfect." It would be perfect for YOU.
I don't mean I'm not grateful and completely understand what you went through to get where you are and how much you do for our family. I am proud of all you did and appreciate that you're not the kind of Dad who takes off or doesn't care at all. I'm sorry I'm such an idiot sometimes. I'm not saying that you wouldn't do better if you had the same situation as me. You definitely would. But maybe because you didn't get compared with your own dad all the time people just took you as you are. Even when I do something extra good it's like it's just expected because I'm your son. When I practically kill myself to do something really well, people just look at me like "So, what's the big deal?"
I mean how do I deal with feeling like the best I can hope for is second place? If I was in my own world without being compared to you maybe I'd have a shot at Number 1. By the way, why is it that our whole family is happiest when they tell me I take after you??? It's because they're hoping I will end up being like you. And then you tell me it's all in my head. But I don't think you realize how huge the pressure is. It's like when I was 13 and you sent me to Lacrosse camp, which was awesome and I had a great time and everything. And then when I came home Uncle Dan starts talking about how at my age you were already working for him and learning the business and it's like all the fun just dried up because I was some lightweight kid who chases a ball with a stick. It's stupid, but sometimes I dream of being in a situation where I have to work to save the family so I can prove myself. At the same time sometimes I wish you were just an average guy so compared to you I could just be an average kid and everybody would be happy.
Does any of this make sense to you Dad? I don't exactly know what I mean, and if I've seemed distant lately (like the last few years!), I guess it's because I needed to figure out a way to be above average, if it's even possible. It's weird but I need to keep away because my friends can see what I'm good at and how I'm unique. But when I'm around you, it's like that stuff is invisible. I'm not saying this to make you feel guilty. You don't deserve that. It has more to do with me than you.
Another thing that's important. Please, whatever you do, don't even think of giving me bogus compliments. Don't feel like you have to point out all my faults, either, because I am well aware of them. But fake praise is 1000 times worse than being criticized. Hopefully someday you'll respect me for who I am, however I end up.
One last thing: please destroy this letter after you read it. You definitely should know this stuff but nobody else should. This is just between you and me Dad. Maybe it always will be.
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The Long Shadow Cast by Self-Made Men
Yes, the letter is fictional, but it contains the essence of countless conversations I've had with young men - and not-so-young-men - struggling to define their identity in the shadow of a successful father. And let me tell you, this is almost as sensitive a topic for me to talk about with fathers as it is for boys themselves. Even when boys have a vague awareness of the shadow, few can find the words or courage to make their feelings known. Most don't mope around like hurt puppies. Instead, they find other ways of asserting themselves, all kinds of behavior that really boils down to fighting their way out of the shadow.
The iconic notion of a "self-made man" is one that has been celebrated, even idolized, for at least as long as there has been written history. We may think we have evolved to more sophisticated perspectives of achievement, but who among us isn't at least a little awed by the person who has achieved success through his own initiative, hard work, and grit? It makes little sense to argue against the value of this sort of achievement, because these individuals supply some of the energy that makes life interesting. Optimally, they make all kinds of goals feel like real possibilities.
Some suggest that self-made men are driven by a zeal to conquer. As if striving to be one's best was a civil, culturally sanctioned way to snuff out one's opponent - who may happen to be a neighbor or the guy who sits at the next desk. But I don't find that explanation plausible. Many, if not most, of the self- made men I've met were driven by the pure bliss of achieving, more than they were by an unconscious need to outdo others.
Of course many achievements are not nearly so self-made as they might appear. More often than not, such men have been supported by the intelligence, work, and faith of a much larger ensemble. Interdependence is a concept that was relevant long before it became a popular term in self-help books.
So if you were expecting me to weigh in with a critical perspective of self-made men, I'm sorry to disappoint you. My work with males of all ages leads me to believe that the self-made disposition is essentially a kind of personality - and like all colors of personality, it permeates every facet of a person's life.
The Problem Is:
If you're the son of a high achieving father you can skip this section - you already know what the "problem" is. (Either go to the next section or simply continue with your therapy.) For everybody else, here's the gist of the issue in a numerated nutshell.
1. Everyone around you compares you to your dad. They assess your potential based on how well your life meshes with the trajectory of your father's. It's annoying at best, and anxiety-provoking at worst. You're torn between despair about not measuring up and rage that others - even those who truly love you - sometimes see you more as a reflection than a unique being.
2. When your dad tries to help, offering counsel or advice, the things he says strike you as being a bad fit for who you are - your unique personality and ideals. (I call this the "Be Like Me" phenomenon. Have you ever noticed how media personalities often give advice that works perfectly for themselves, but less so for others? To an extent, it's inevitable because everyone uses their own life experiences when they try to guide others. After all, what other reference points can we rely upon?)
3. You invest so much energy in competing with your father that you may forget what was really important to you in the first place. Imagine being so intent on "winning" that you go to elaborate lengths to try and beat your father at something - anything.
4. You decide the emotional costs of failure override the potential of succeeding. What happens next? Simple: You stop trying. Everyone wonders why nothing motivates you, as you avert your eyes and silently wonder "what's the point?"
A Generous Liability
One of the great joys of parenthood is being able to give children the things or experiences that we might not have had as children. In most cases, these gifts are given with pleasure and pride. Many of us live to create those moments in the future, and celebrate those moments from our past. The giving of a valuable gift - like a top flight education - allows the deep satisfaction of personal accomplishment to materialize in full view. From the perspective of a loving parent, this depth of giving is so much more than an item on a weekly to-do list. It's an opportunity for personal fulfillment. A way to ground and humanize what may have amounted to years of extraordinary effort.
Do we as parents expect to be paid back for this beneficence? Yes, we do. Let's not kid ourselves. In most cases the payback we're looking for is some form of acknowledgement or respect. Few parents explicitly state these expectations, but they rise to the surface of family relationships anyway. And this is exactly where the trouble begins. Our intentions as parents, noble though they may be, often lose something in translation. What I mean is that our kids experience the effects of good intentions with a markedly different spirit than how they were offered. Why?
Here's the primary conflict: the role of parents is to protect and provide for children. Parents draw on a broad variety of human experience to know how to do this. From trying to steer our kids away from unhealthy habits, and unfortunate peer groups, to making decisions about school, hobbies, and the constructive use of leisure time.
In contrast, the job of kids is to break free of parental dependence and guidance. This not a generational issue, some sort of 21st century fad. It's no less than the biopsychosocial imperative of every young person on the planet. Achieving autonomy is not only a need - it's a benchmark for personal success that peaks in a person's late teens and early twenties.
Can you see where conflict might brew here? I've met few parents who want to drown their children in the legacy of their own personal accomplishments. I believe most parents want to share the spoils of their achievements as an expression of love and caretaking. Yet the very things we adults want to give are potentially received as encumbrances, especially by kids who feel chronically anxious about not being able to measure up.
Surpassing a Parent is a Basic Emotional Need
At the center of my discussion in this newsletter is an emotional reality that is as old as humankind: children need to feel as though they have surpassed their parents' knowledge, good looks, or achievements in some meaningful way.
This is not a trivial need. I don't mean that kids "need" this like they need adequate exposure to the arts, plenty of fresh air, and good role models. Of course these types of needs are valuable in their own right. But needing to surpass a parent has deeper roots. It's a type of personal growth so essential to a person's psyche that without it, a young life will more than likely quiver with apprehension at critical moments of self-determination.
Just as we understand that an infant needs to be held and cuddled to physically grow, an adolescent needs to feel an ascendance of competence to cross the chasm that separates youth from adulthood. In earlier newsletters I've discussed my belief that purposeful work is one of the best ways to help young people across this divide. But what can a parent do to ease the stress of intrafamily competition?
Here are a few ideas:
1. Support, don't steer. (I know this is easier said than done, especially, for example, when it comes time to choose colleges and complete applications. The intensity of family psychology around this issue is deserving of its own newsletter!)
2. Accept that your personal history is only a footnote to your child's unfolding story. "When I was your age" or "What I would have done" are statements to be used like exotic spices - sparingly.
3. Have your child develop his own interests or talents - preferably something that you're not good at. Let your child teach you - it helps to sow the seeds of mastery.
4. Be gracious when your child fails. Self- disclosure, while well-meaning, might not always work. "When I wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame I was devastated" is not a parallel to your son's struggle to make the varsity team. At the same time, being able to admit a genuine point of vulnerability can be of great help.
5. Allow your child's safety net to shrink with age. Protect young children by keeping a close eye on how you cast your achievement shadow. Make older kids work for their success, privileges, and opportunities. Trying to motivate a mopey kid who's into music by buying him a sound studio is actually not encouraging his interest. It may be construed as a hostile takeover, or feel suffocating.
6. Accept that you don't have to apologize for being successful or having some measure of fame. Don't allow your kids to manipulate you with guilt for your gifts if theirs happen to have a different face. In all likelihood you did not choose your personal blessings, you simply took advantage of them. Over time, help your kids to understand this, and teach them how to apply this idea in their own lives.
7. Let others take the reins. Your child may need to evolve in counterpoint to the achievements of others. Where advice from you might be grating, a teacher, coach, or other mentor may be able to provide guidance. Every boy may want to surpass his dad in some way, but it feels okay to always look up to a coach or other "hero." Eventually, it will be your turn to guide - once your child's confidence ratchets up.
I hope you've received this article with the spirit in which it was offered. There is no better or more valuable "drug" than success, however it is defined. It's one addiction we should enable in any way we can. Yet just as we rejoice in the various forms our own success, we should be prepared for achievement to take an entirely different shape in the lives of our children. Otherwise, we might miss one of the greatest gifts of all.