Photos by Sharon McCutcheon.
maybe i’ve done enough,
your golden child grew up.
maybe this trophy isn’t real love-
and with or without it, i’m good enough.
-“Three” by Sleeping at Last
Do you find yourself repeating the same life patterns? It could be that you’re still playing your childhood role and don’t even know it.
In dysfunctional families, its common for parents to groom their children to play “roles” instead of letting their children grow into their unique selves. Some examples of the roles a parent requires from their children are the enabler, the scapegoat, the lost child, the mascot, and the golden child (this website does a fantastic job describing each).
So…don’t hate me…I was the golden child in my family. At least with my dad.
But before you threaten to burn me at the stake, let me tell you what the golden child must give up to continue receiving their parent’s positive affirmation:
Well, it’s pretty much everything.
That’s right; just like all the other dysfunctional family roles, the golden child must give up their right to be anything other than their prescribed role. That includes having their own opinions, following their own dreams, and being their true self.
Because of this, it isn’t uncommon for golden children to crash in adulthood. They eventually realize that even though they’ve achieved it all and played the role perfectly, they still aren’t happy.
They start asking questions like, “Am I pursuing my dream or am I pursuing what is supposed to be my dream?”
“Why am I so numb inside?”
“Who am I behind this personality mask I wear?”
“What if this trophy isn’t real love?”
Well, fellow golden child, it isn’t real love.
That I know for sure.
I can’t tell you who you are behind your mask, but I can walk alongside you as you discover the answer. Because truth is, I’m still figuring it out myself.
Let’s walk together out of this numbness and into “real” love. I’ll show you how.
The secret life of my “golden” childhood
One time when I was 10, my dad and I were the only ones left in the gym after a long day of basketball camp. I needed to make 10 left handed layups in a row before I could leave for the day.
On my first try, I got all the way to seven in a row before I missed. Then six. Then eight. Then four.
I was frustrated. My dad was frustrated.
When I failed to make it to ten again, I started doubting if I ever would. I imagined my dad’s intense disappointment which brought the sting of budding tears.
The next two rounds I didn’t even make it past 3 in a row.
The weight of my failure in the presence of my dad finally overtook me. I knew he hated crying, but I couldn’t help it. The tears just kept coming.
“What? Are you crying?” my dad said, “There’s no crying in the gym! If you want to cry, go cry in the corner.”
His words made me feel like even more of a failure, but out of my stubbornness, I did go cry in that corner. I sobbed and sobbed until my shame solidified into an empty resolve: I’m going to do whatever it takes to prove I am not a failure.
I came back and made all 10 in a row on my first try.
And then my father loved me again.
Conditional love makes the world go ‘round
I used to tell that story like it was a good thing. Like a little tough love was all it took to be successful. But really, this wasn’t “tough love.” It was conditional love. If I wasn’t making my lay-ups and especially if I was crying, I wasn’t loved. At least I didn’t feel loved.
And there’s nothing that can tie your insides up in knots quite like conditional love.
As a golden child, the brilliant gleam in my dad’s eye every time I made him proud was like a drug. I couldn’t get enough. It was affirmation that I fulfilled the shameful resolve I made in the corner of the gym that day; I proved I wasn’t a failure. That I was worthy of love.
If only for a moment.
That’s the thing about conditional love, though. It only lasts for a moment. It always left me hungry for more affirmation that I am worth something. That something wasn’t intrinsically wrong with me.
My self-esteem was entirely dependent on my father’s behavior. If he was in a bad mood, he called me selfish and attention seeking (the “dark side” of a golden child) but when he was in a good mood, he deemed me perfect in every way. This is the roller coaster of the “golden” childhood. Either way, whether the roller coaster was at a high or low point, underneath it all was the belief I formed in the corner of the gym that day: I was worthless until I prove otherwise.
So I worked harder, performed better, became the person he wanted me to be.
Most of the time, my hard work brought me enough affirmation to stave off my core belief of being a failure. But what did I lose in the process? Who was I becoming? My life became one big role I was playing, but who was I backstage?
When my hard work failed to bring me sufficient affirmation, I would spiral into a shameful depression. Because without the affirmation, all that was left was my core belief of being worthless.
Underneath the mask
As golden children, we work hard to get praise and attention because praise and attention are the only things keeping our shame at bay.
But in the process, we lose our sense of self. Over time, the voice of conditional love becomes our own, enslaving us to the attention, achievements, and trophies.
We berate ourselves for failing to perform correctly. We exhaust ourselves chasing after unattainable standards, hoping that once we achieve them we’ll finally be good enough. We sell our soul to play the roles other people would like us to play, all the while forgetting who we are underneath. And when the show is over and everyone goes home, we are left alone on that empty stage, wondering why we aren’t happy.
Like a lighthouse in the night’s fog, our shame beckons us on as we continue our search for something that will shut it up for good.
But we don’t find it, because only real love can heal our shame. And trophies aren’t real love. They are just our grasps at it. And until we wake up from our pursuit of achievements and affirmation, we’ll never know who we are behind the mask, we’ll always be numb inside.
We’ll always be asking, “Why aren’t you proud of me, Daddy?”
So if trophies aren’t real love, what is?
What is “real” love?
Real love is you are already good enough.
Real love is I am proud of you for who you are not for what you do.
Real love is you don’t have to do a thing to earn it, you’re already 100% worth it.
It’s turning off the bulldozer on life, and appreciating this moment for the miracle it is.
It’s putting down the masks you wear and showing up as your full self, even though its painfully vulnerable.
Real love is seeing yourself through your own eyes, not through everybody else’s.
It’s your inherent worth, just the way you are. From the very beginning until this very moment.
Real love is waiting for you backstage, ready to embrace you just behind the curtain. And in this moment you know that it has always been there for you, waiting for you to accept it.
When you stop all your performing and embrace the quiet of the empty stage, you’ll be able to hear it singing, “You are worth loving. You have always been worth loving. It’s okay to take a break. Indeed, please do. It has been too long, golden child, since you’ve let yourself feel the full embrace of unconditional love.”
Let it embrace you now.
Resources for Healing
→The song “Three” by Sleeping at Last is what inspired this note to you, golden child. If it resonated, I encourage you to check the song out here. Also…bring tissues. I started crying within the first verse.
→Learning about my enneagram type is constantly helping me wake up and stop the performance. It’s less of a personality test as it is a map to spiritual awakening. To figuring out who I really am backstage. There’s a great free test here, and this website is the best I know to learn more about your type. I LOVE talking enneagram, so if you have any questions, shoot me an email at email@example.com!
→Lastly, I wrote a free ebook for you that will help you further solidify your waking up and healing process. It’s called How to Identify and Heal your First Great Sadness, and it goes back to the very beginning when things first started to get twisted and starts your healing journey there. Punch in your email below and I’ll send it over to your inbox.
How to Identify and Heal Your First Great Sadness
For a free guide on identifying and healing your first great sadness, enter your email and hit send.