I think we learn, at a very young age, to seek approval from our parents. It seems to me that it is instinctive to infants; we learn that when we do something that makes mom or dad happy, we get positive attention.
Somewhere in our third year of life we begin to discover our own wants and desires. We want to explore the world around us for our own edification. These days are referred to as the Terrible Two’s. We are starting to do what we want to do, yet without our parent’s protection, we would jam our tiny fingers into a wall socket or something equally as deadly. (As a side note, this may be one reason for the extra curly hair I had as a child.)
At some point we begin to develop a balance between striving for parental approval and wanting to forge our own path. As I was growing up, the first of six siblings, Mom stayed home and Dad went to work. Therefore, time spent with Dad was more precious to us and receiving Dad’s approval seemed a loftier goal; the prize was sweeter. Of course, I’m not a psychologist. These are just my observations. That being said, I think there is also something about a father/son dynamic involved here. Yes, Dad wasn’t home as much as Mom (who had the never-ending task of our day-to-day lives), but there seems to me there was something that had to do with the male ego and its desire for approval from the Alpha Male in the family.
And perhaps the approval from Dad was sweeter because it was a rare commodity. When I was a teen, it seemed I could never do anything right by my father. Everything I did was met with his disapproval. I’m not saying I was a perfect child (shocker!) but I felt a continuous sense of displeasure from him.
Unless I was playing golf. Golf was what he wanted me to do as a profession.
While his teenage friend became a touring PGA professional, he’d decided to marry and have a family. So, his unfulfilled childhood dream became his desire for me. But his approval of me playing golf was protracted only to the extent that I was playing. While I liked playing (and learned to love and respect the game), my heart was not in becoming a professional golfer. Still he tried to cajole, persuade and coerce me into a more dedicated approach to the game. My lack of focus led to even more disapproval of me.
His dissatisfaction with every mistake I made on the golf course illuminated his displeasure with me as if I were under a carnival searchlight. When I hit a bad shot, he reacted with disgust, as if I’d done it intentionally. When I hit a good shot, he’d then explain how I could have hit it better. I tried to do exactly what he wanted, but I was never successful; there was always something else I wasn’t doing correctly. I recall wanting to scream, “Just tell me what you want from me!”
One year I played in the County Amateur Tournament which was sponsored by the local newspaper. I played so badly in the first two rounds that I didn’t make the cut and was consigned to the Consolation Flight. The good news for me was that it was played at my home golf course. I knew it inside out; every break and every contour. I played horribly on the front nine. I think I was ten over par. On the 11th hole, I made an adjustment to my swing and started killing the ball. I hit it far and with control. For the first time in my young life, I hit the par-5 12th hole in two. (Too bad for me the pin was on the front and I’d clobbered a 4-wood all the way to the back of the green and then three-putted.) Then I hit the par-5 15th in two with a six-iron. My home course advantage was that I knew the ground in front of the green was rock hard and I played the ball to take a hard and high bounce over the trap. Which it did! I lipped out the ten-footer and made a birdie there.
Standing on the 18th tee I was two over par for the back and I knew I was going to make a birdie. I hit a perfect drive, hooking the ball with the contour of the fairway and splitting the middle the entire way. My ball was in the center of the fairway and right down where the good players hit their shots. I was usually in the trees to the left. It was probably an eight-iron for me, but I was so amped up I chose a nine and drew the ball to about eight feet from the cup. The ball checked and backed up about two feet, leaving me a ten-footer from below the hole.
My mom and dad had been walking around to watch me that round. Dad’s head hung in dejection with the miserable way I’d hacked up the front nine but, when I took the chance to look at him during the back nine, he appeared to be almost giddy with excitement. After our tee shots on 18, my parents had walked ahead and they were standing behind the green for our approach shots. After I hit that shot into the green, I saw him raise his arms over his head in triumph. Recalling that moment, even to this day, fills me with a tingling of satisfaction, of accomplishment, of approval from my father.
As I walked towards the green, I knew I was going to make the putt. I knew the green. I knew the break. It was slightly uphill and broke to the left. It’s the easiest putt for a right-handed golfer. When it was my turn to putt, I rolled it right into the center of the cup and again saw my dad raise his arms above his head. I won the first place trophy that day. I had the worst score on the front nine of anyone in the flight and, when it was over, I had the best 18-hole score.
But more than the prize, my dad was proud of me. With his constant nagging and disapproval, this was the first (and most vivid) time he approved of me on a golf course. And, as I said earlier, when I recall that moment, of reaching into the cup on 18 to retrieve my ball and seeing him with his hands above his head, I still get chills, or a shiver of approval.
I apologize to you (and to him) for painting a picture of him as some sort of cruel taskmaster. Throughout my life, until his passing, my father made daily sacrifices for our family. He did the best he could to keep us fed and warm in very difficult economic times. And, when he passed, he left my mother with a nice nest egg to keep her going. The older I get, the more I appreciate his sacrifices.
In his later years, we shared some wonderful memories on the course. Golf became the medium through which we bonded, through which we could share ourselves.
But, sometimes when I think back, I remember those early years like it was a boot camp where nothing you ever do is right. From my youth, his voice of disapproval is the one constant I remember and, therefore, his voice became the voice of disapproval inside my head. Whether he was actually saying the words or not, when I disapproved of a mistake I made, it was my father’s voice that I heard.
Since those days I’ve had disapproval from friends and lovers, but I’ve learned to deal with it or walk away. I’ve been with women who were impossible to please. I recall several relationships where I wanted to yell, “Just tell me what you want me to do!” And on those times when I received specific instructions, I did my best to do exactly as instructed. And then there’d be the next thing I didn’t do right.
I’ve heard it said that we keep finding the same relationships; the same interactions with the same triggers to get us to learn to overcome our weakness or provide us with opportunities to learn and evolve. I wonder, do I keep choosing, on some subconscious level, relationships where there is no way to ever do anything correctly? Or is my inability to accept my own shortcomings such a problem that, even if she mentions something she’d like me to do differently, I immediately turn it into an issue about my inability to ever be right? Making the proverbial mountain of a mole hill?
I heard a psychologist give an example once of a woman who always found alcoholic husbands. He said that the husband would have one drink and the woman would immediately start screaming that the husband was an alcoholic. Or, he’d never drink at all but she’d be constantly accusing him of it to the point where she’d drive him to start drinking. Either way, she’d have her self-fulfilled prophesy continued. All of her husbands were alcoholics.
I wonder if I do the same thing. Is the slightest suggestion to change a behavior or do something differently immediately turned into the voice of disapproval inside my head; turned into me never being able to do anything right? Additionally, the slightest encouragement to do something I’d rather not be doing, especially when it comes to career or job opportunities, is met with, not just a stiff resistance, but quite often, anger and resentment at being pushed to do something I don’t want to do.
At some point in my 20’s, I’d realized that I was playing golf solely for my father’s approval. Immediately upon that realization, I quite playing. I didn’t play for a few years and then took up the game again because I wanted to play. It became a great way to spend time with my friends and business associates.
Now I question my intimate relationships. I always (seem to) end up with someone from whom I cannot find acceptance. Is it another way of trying to find approval? Is it because I cannot find it within myself?
Because, as much as I talk about my father’s disapproval, the voice of disapproval that is always the loudest inside my head is my own. In the past it was his voice, but now I can clearly hear my own and it’s the voice I can’t seem to silence. That’s the one from whom I can never get acceptance. I can accept the human mistakes of others. It’s not a problem for me. Hey! You’re human! Cut yourself some slack! But I can never give myself a break. Mistakes are wrong and I shouldn’t make them. And I tell myself over and over that I am wrong because I am a bad person.
In my life today, I make every effort to do what I want to do, to accept that I’ll make mistakes, and to not live a certain way or do anything at all for the approval of another. Still, I wish, just once, I could raise my arms over my head in triumph over something I’ve accomplished. Just once I wish I could take criticism or suggestions as something other than a validation of my own failure(s). Just once I’d like to be at peace with myself, have acceptance of myself and not turn everything into a glaring example that I’m, once again, wrong.
However, I am getting closer…