Today, we watched a documentary made by a well known YouTuber. This documentary didn’t deliver what it promised. The title was enticing, but in the end it displayed a lack of something I’ve felt very clearly my entire life and only recently found the words for: you need to thoroughly and exhaustively research and understand your own story, before you can extract meaning and purpose and, more importantly for many of us, before you stand any chance at changing your story (if you don’t like it, that is).
I would love to say I’ve reached the point of fully understanding my own story, but I don’t even know if that’s possible. We are a story, we embody it and much of it is invisible to us because firstly “the eye cannot see itself” (turns out this is a butchered Shakespeare quote) and secondly what shaped us today may have its origins before we could talk or even before we were born. Like that butterfly causing hurricanes, a grandparent going through an experience may influence a child and then a grandchild. Some of this information cannot be recovered, and if you come from a family where nothing is ever discussed, where you are not told where you come from, then how can you understand what may have been passed down to you through the generations?
Today, I saw it again. If you don’t understand which of the archetypal life stories you keep living, you cannot hope to break free. Because the kinds of stories I am talking about have a way of sucking us back in because the way we struggle against them actually confirms them. Like not expecting to be heard and then either shutting up entirely, or talking louder, or even self sabotaging by upfront devaluing yourself and giving people reasons not to listen to you.
Today, the host shared that he needed admiration. He needed affirmation. The host had struggled with addiction and now his work has become his addiction. He shared how he had planned a 2 week holiday and couldn’t even stay 4 days. His wife shared how he missed his son’s first birthday. And he related all that to his parents’ divorce when he was a kid. Something happened there that was traumatic for him. He was advised by two people on his show to talk to his parents, so he asked his parents if he could interview them.
First up, his mother. She had photo albums of him as a kid. He shared with her his difficulties letting down his guard. He teared up as he told her he had built walls around himself. She shared how she had to get out of the marriage or die spiritually and left for Europe for a while to find herself again. She lit up as she talked about her rediscovered freedom. She shared how, after the divorce, she wanted her son to taste that freedom and so she took him abroad many times. As an adult, he now also lived elsewhere, a different country from his birth country. She hugged her son and he hugged back.
Next up, the interview with his father. Both men sit on high stools. Distance between them. No table, no drinks, no photo albums. The host tells his father about his difficulties today with working too much. His father replies along the lines of “that’s just how it was”. He tries to prompt his father into a conversation. The father remains mostly unresponsive and eventually rejects his son’s attempts to talk about the past by making a throwing gesture over his shoulder. “Leave it in the past” he says. The host makes one last attempt. He thanks his father for being his father and says “I love you”. The fathers response? Nothing. Nothing. He says something in return of the form “I meant well”. No reciprocity at all.
Then the host interviews his mentor, his idol. A cranky old man who belittles people in quite a few scenes in the documentary. Why would you choose him as your mentor, I’m thinking. But by then I already think I know the answer. The mentor is angry and resentful and tells people to fuck off and shut up. That’s not enlightenment, that’s armour.
Here’s where it becomes clear that the host has not consciously identified his paternal neglect as the source of his issues. The montage shows it though: after the interview with his father, we immediately cut to his mentor. Something old is hurting and the host has sought out a surrogate father and after the failed connection attempt, he tries elsewhere. His mentor tells him he hasn’t amounted to anything yet. And tells the host that him thinking of the host as “not good enough yet” is just what the host needs. The host nods, eagerly. Because, his mentor reasons, this will make you strive, and that will make you better! All those people who are supportive of you, they make you weak, he nearly shouts. I know you’re nobody, and that will make you strive, he spits.
The host tells his idol, his mentor, that he loves him. The mentor very nearly tears up. And then spouts more crap to hide that he teared up. He cannot ever show tears or compassion or warmth, because these are all weaknesses. He dodges the gratitude, avoids the quest for connection from our host and spouts some nonsense to distract everyone from his momentary lapse of infallible strength. But building a bunker of anger around you isn’t strength. It’s fear.
Rejected by a father figure again. Our host does not realize that he has found a mentor who will repeat the pattern with him. The pattern that started with his father. Maybe if I achieve something, I will be loved. The mentor explicitly states it: I will withhold love until you achieve. And also I will never think you’re good enough, because you can always be better and so you will never have achieved. And I will call this love, so that you think the deprivation of love is actually love. This is a story that bites its own tail. In the hosts story, the lack of love from his father as a young child brought forth the belief that you have to be worthy of love. Because for a child, a flaw in the parent cannot be true, the child needs hope of love being at least possible or it will spiritually die. And so the child searches for a way to believe that love is possible. A condition must not be met yet. The story starts. And twists itself in any shape to survive, to keep going. Eventually even by equating a withholding of love as “for the best” and then as an adult you walk around telling yourself that a deprivation of love is actual love. Acknowledging that your father could not love you in the way you needed, and still cannot, and probably never will, was too painful for the child. Unless you, as an adult now, can face that fact and bear it, you’ll keep acting in ways that deprive yourself. You need to figure out what true love means for you. Not admiration or any other word you can confuse with it. And then you need to dare to be loved. And even more difficult.. You need to figure out how to feel it.
And so, unless we identify exactly what our story is (not “my parents divorced” but “my father never showed affection”) we cannot know what to do to be genuinely happier and we will keep stepping into the same story over and over and over. We must identify the holes in our soul, accurately, to be able to identify our real need.
People tend to skip this step. They go straight to the positive thinking exercises. It won’t work. Forget the whole “here’s 9 things to do to be happier”, forget the “practice gratitude!!!!”. If thinking positive thoughts was really the way out, mental health issues would be solved. No, the way out is by finding the story that is eating you up. You’ll recognize it as the self fulfilling prophecies of your life. The “every time I”—’s and “why can’t I ever”—’s. The behaviors that confirm what you wish was different. You search for where the snake bites its tail.
And then… And then… Fuck, I don’t know, I just started this bit. I think the next step is doing something you haven’t done before. Doing the things that your story prohibited. In the hosts case: going on holiday with your family and trying your goddamn hardest not to run back to your job. You won’t enjoy that holiday, I’m sure. But it is where you need to be if you want to break free of this story. No promises on what the next story is…