Were We Raised to Be Good—for Bad Reasons?
If we were shamed, hounded, and scared into excelling, are we still excellent?
Posted March 6, 2020
Maybe they did not plan to make us mean.
Maybe they planned to make us perfect.
For our ostensible own good, and/or theirs refracted through ours, did they aim to produce the prettiest, nicest, smartest, strongest, fastest, fittest, purest and/or otherwise best children in the world?
Was that because they believed our supremacy would guarantee our lifelong popularity? Or did they aim to make us into what they weren't but — yearningly, clock-tickingly — wanted to be?
Did they think our perfection would prove theirs? Look what I made! Maybe they were afraid. For us, for them. In this crowded, cruel world maybe they aimed to render us invincible.
Unbeatable. Immune. Safeguarded by superiority: untouchable.
So yes, perhaps untouched. But maybe they loved us that much.
Maybe they strove to sculpt us into superheroes and/or darling dolls, unaware in their ardor how easily wishes skid off cliffs to crash and burn with innocents screaming inside.
Maybe our parents diligently hardwired rules and cues and commands into our bodies and brains because we were their Next Big Things, their Only Hopes, their Last Chances, their New! Improved! Facsimiles. Maybe ours were their vicarious victories: Check out my high-performance DNA.
How did they prep us for planned excellence? With warnings: No win, no sweets for a week! With perma-scolding: Stop snacking instead of practicing!
With forced performance. Come on! Show the postman how high you can kick!
With praise: You are the best! Or threats: Now keep making us proud, or else.
And if we failed exams or fumbled or fell down, if we forgot our lines or struck sour notes, if we earned only honorable mention after who-the-hell won first-through-third, their voices grated like ground glass in our ears as they groaned: You disappoiiiiinted us.
We understood: Just being was never enough. We were dependent variables in equations that required our performance and success. Failure meant feeling — being made to feel, as we thought feelings were supposed to come from outside-in — deplorable. Disqualified. Gutted and galled — but also guilty, for whatever evil in us, whatever sloth or incompetence, deprived our parents of their pride.
It made such sense. The world needs excellence. Surely one must be good. This means one must outrun, outscore, outstrip everyone and our past performances. One must best, thus detest, the yester-self.
Goodness is good. But some of us learned to view goodness as a currency exchangeable for love. Goodness neither for its own sake nor ours, but as an either-or. Goodness that transmutes existence into an endless test.
Perfection as permission-slip.
Such beliefs do not break bones as might sticks and stones. But they are trauma, too.
They are collective, cumulative, complex trauma as it was first named in 1992: prolonged emotional assault inflicted for years by alleged loved ones and tailored to terrify — through threat, humiliation, rage, rejection, punishment, invalidation, shame. One need not raise a hand to harm.
It can happen by accident. Maybe they thought cruelty was kind.
I can hear you say: Bratty baby! Making even success into a sob-fest.
And yes, when we excel at the things we love because we love that stuff enough to suffer, strive and sacrifice until it saturates our souls, we feel good. When we excel at stuff not because we love it, nor as a private pursuit, but as a public people-pleasing enterprise, resentment haunts us. Also obligation, expectation, pressure, and display. So sometimes being good feels bad.
Maybe they never forced us into anything — but, recognizing as some of us did that we were unloved, reviled as intruders, we mined our own talents, desperately hoping to sing, write or play our way into their hearts.
Sometimes those big plans for our success ended otherwise, by choice or not. Gauging our stakes, maybe we tried and failed — or never tried, thus failed. Maybe we stopped sprinting and stood there staring at the sea.
Or maybe we kept running, singing, pitching and earning A-pluses but it turned us hypervigilant, belligerent and casually cutthroat because knowing that we mattered less to those we loved than these things made us so.
Given those soaring stakes, what choice had we but to see humankind as our competitors, combatants, adversaries, rivals, foes? What choice had we but to gauge every face, body, and brain against ours like transparencies shining on electronic screens?
So much for spontaneity. So much for equity. So much for friends.
Society speaks of success as violence: Crush your competition. Beat and smash and slaughter and conquer and kill them, so to speak.
If we were raised this way, if today our accomplishments feel unowned, owed, what choice have we but, poised atop our academic or athletic-or-whatever promontories, to feel separate, alone amongst our species, strange?
Straight through our exoskeletons of excellence, our sterling supremacy-shields, burn acid-trails of searing fear. Of failure: also jealous hordes. Of stalling, slipping, vanishing from sight. Of our cruelest competitors: ourselves.