Before we lived at the foot of Mt. Taranaki, we lived in Te Kuiti. I have patchy memories of the small town. Walking barefoot from the pool in summer getting melted asphalt on my feet from the hot road. The corner dairy where I used to take my 50c pocket money to get pick and mix bags of lollies on Saturday. Driving out of town along State Highway 3 between the tall trees.
One memory that sticks out is when I made a magic potion. I must have been around five years old. I had a plastic bucket and a hose, and I crouched mysteriously around the side of the house adding various leaves, dirt, rocks, and other bits and pieces into the brew. Particularly unusual things were especially powerful – a red and green leaf, a dead bug, a buried broken bit of plastic. When it was ready I poured it over the plants in the garden – I just knew the next day something amazing was going to happen. Maybe a huge beanstalk with gold at the top – something like that. Obviously.
Do you remember doing things like that? Perhaps sitting at a table with a pencil knowing you can move it with your mind if you just get your focus right. Standing in the yard jumping and knowing you can fly if you can work our how to launch off the ground in the right way. For many of us, that confidence changes somewhere along the journey out of childhood. I certainly don’t aspire to be out in the back yard by myself at age 35 making magic potions. Okay, so I do a little bit. But more than that, I want to believe that I know what I’m doing in my work and my life.
One thing I have noticed in my work as a therapist is that many of us don’t feel successful when we are. I can reflect on my work and feel amazed at what I have done and am doing. Rationally, I get it, but emotionally I am not there. I often feel like I’m just winging it, I don’t feel confident, I suspect one day people will realize I have no idea what I am doing and the game will be up. I’ve just been faking it all along.
When I meet people seeking counseling for the first time I can often hear this within the first few minutes. People talk about where they are at in life, and their achievements in the face of significant difficulties are quickly apparent. Raising a family while holding down several jobs, working to rebuild after losing everything in a natural disaster, working from the bottom up in a company, fighting for a relationship after a trauma. But it is also quickly apparent they do not feel successful. They express self-doubt, concerns about how others see them, and refer to their successes as either having been lucky, or largely thanks to the efforts of other people.
Almost without exception, something happened very early on. Sometime between when we believed in magic, and when we became a young adult. Something that had nothing to do with our own competence, but everything to do with how we saw ourselves reflected in the eyes of others. Children have no way to measure their success objectively – we don’t read the newspaper for stories of other children to see how we compare. We learn whether or not we are any good through observing how others see us.
Being raised by a depressed parent, somebody who did they best they could, but who was not just not able to be emotionally present a lot of the time, I did not see a lot of joy reflected at my achievements. With no other way to measure how successful I was, I began to suspect I was not really achieving. Many of us also take on the role of carrying the depressed parent. We are never told that this is not our responsibility, and are not aware it is an impossible task. Doomed to fail at this first major life challenge, we carry this sense of failure forward into our adult lives. Challenges often seem too big to manage, we go into them anticipating we will be unsuccessful, and if we come out successful then we can only think that success must be luck or thanks to the efforts of somebody else.
Making the connection back to what happened in therapy can be a healing experience. We slowly realize we were not responsible, that the reflection we saw was clouded or distorted by something inside the viewer rather than ourselves. Those realizations often aren’t enough to make the feeling go away. In the midst of an achievement it still creeps back up on me. What changes is knowing in the moment that the feeling is untrue. It was never supposed to belong to me in the first place. It’s just a ghost.
Even writing this blog, anticipating posting it, I can sense the feeling lurking: maybe I don’t know what I am talking about, somebody smarter will point out the flaws in my thinking. I should just delete the whole blog and then I won’t have to deal with the feeling at all. But I now face the feeling, grasp tightly my magic potion, and tell it “I hear you, and you are not a part of me.”