A reader asks: I really don't know how to start, but I will try to make it as clear as possible. I am the first born in my family. However, I've always felt that I've got something to prove to my parents.
Especially my dad. Whatever I do, I feel as if I don't get enough attention from him. He always seems to be joking around and having fun with my other siblings, but never with me.
He's always so hard on me. I don't mind that, but over the years I feared him, and still do. I can't talk to him about anything. And during my childhood, I was always bullied, and I was always looked down upon. I always feel as if I have to do something extraordinary to fit into society. Because of this, I find myself distancing away from people.
My thoughts are locked up inside me. I'm always afraid of whatever I'm going to say, it won't be good enough, or people would look at me like I'm some weird guy. I've always found it hard to make new friends, almost impossible. I cling on to the things that I have. I'm in university, and all my high school friends have made new friends. But me, I haven't. It's been eight months and I still haven't made any connections. I feel the need to go back to my old friends. How are they able to move on? More importantly, why can't I? And how do I get rid of this feeling that I need to always prove myself in the eyes of everyone. How do I stop this fear of making a mistake? How do I fit into society?
Dr Melanie C. Schlatter (PhD, Consultant Health Psychologist, Well Woman Clinic, Dubai) replies: Thank you for your letter – I am sure it took a lot of courage to reach out and talk about your situation. Indeed, from what you have said, you must be a conscientious, sensitive, and thoughtful individual, and I congratulate you for wanting to explore ways of feeling more in control of your fears, uncertainties and social environment.
One point that strikes me is obviously your relationship with your father and your role as a first born, and I hope that my reply will go some way in explaining why things might be the way they are, then I will offer a few guidelines for you.
Firstly, there can be many expectations on a first born by the parents, and more rules, and pressure to lead, succeed and be responsible. Add in culture, familial history, personal belief systems, personality, number of children, socio-economic status and so forth, and you will find many levels of added influence. As such, and for whatever reason, if you have also experienced a lot of fear or uncertainty with your father as a primary caregiver, then this could well have influenced the way that you are perceiving and experiencing life now.
You already have evidence that he is hard on you perhaps unfairly in comparison to your other siblings; that you are not given enough attention; and that in essence, you can’t even talk with him freely. This could feel very isolating, and with fear and even repressed anger, we can quickly learn that we are not good enough or unneeded; that we are unable to get through life adequately prepared (even in our role as a firstborn), or that we are not worthy of expressing an opinion, and so forth. We learn that someone else has always got the upper hand (and we assume that they always know better), and we become so cautious around those people, that it extends into other basic relationships also.
This type of situation can also lead to bullying, which you have sadly experienced. We are just not sure how to speak up and defend ourselves, the unacceptable becomes acceptable, and we don’t know how to draw the line. Indeed, you stated that you don’t mind your father being hard on you, even though it appears you don’t even know why he is doing this! As such, you can see how one’s basic psychological and emotional needs could go unmet over the passing years, and why we do not learn how to regulate our thoughts and emotions either. For self-preservation, many people adopt a range of coping strategies—shying away from various people and situations (because to make a mistake or a fool of oneself would feel like a monumental catastrophe or ‘validation’ of our greatest inner fears); sticking to what is familiar and fearing change; trying extra hard to be pleasing and accommodating (which ironically can also irritate or push people away); or even rebelling. Like yourself, there is also simply a feeling that one has to strive to do something of major significance before they will feel good enough or acceptable to the world at large—because everyday successes rarely count. I don’t know what your major successes have been thus far, but I could almost bet that you never quite felt happy with those results either—therefore, one ends up feeling continually unfulfilled and unable to be truly happy.
I believe you are showing signs of someone who has tried relentlessly to prove yourself and who is potentially getting worn out due to the chronic lack of appropriate feedback and support—now preferring to retreat from people, keep your thoughts to yourself, and perhaps just burying yourself in your work. And yet you are at a critical time, academically and socially. Given the above, I believe that:
- It would be too difficult to offer specific information as to how to interact and cope with your father given that not all reasons for his behavior are known, but you would definitely benefit from professional help to explore your feelings surrounding your parents, and any other people in your life (positive or negative) who may have played a significant role in your upbringing. That professional might be able to help you interpret your own reactions and gradual adaptation also, as well as shed light on why things could have been the way they were in your household (without blaming). This understanding and outlet will pave the way for lasting change and breaking of old patterns. They could also encourage you to build new communication lines and improve your relationship with your father—he may need help too!
- You also need help to raise your confidence, self-esteem, and social skills. Everybody fears making mistakes, but they just show it differently. And everyone is moving ahead slowly all the time – so it’s not necessary to go back. But do learn to celebrate your successes. Indeed, you may have found it almost impossible to make friends in the past, but you did it – don’t forget that. Can you join any university or social/sporting groups that are non-threatening and where you can slowly develop more social skills? Are you actually putting yourself in a position for people to meet you and talk to you? Can you offer your skills or expertise to anyone? Why don’t you get in touch with a trusted high school friend and express your difficulty if it is safe to do so? The most important thing for you is not to stay in solitude with your thoughts and end up berating yourself.
- Be mindful of using your energy carefully, and realize that while it is admirable to aim high, you must do this for yourself—not for anyone else. You need to learn that you are good enough now, and you must be very cautious of approval seeking.
There are many reputable online and written resources for people who want to start the basics of the above, but overall I would recommend the guidance of a qualified practitioner to start you on the path.
Disclaimer: This blog is a conversation and is not an alternative for treatment. The recommendations and suggestions offered by our panel of psychiatrists are their own and Gulf News will not take any responsibility for the advice they provide.