Graham's Story

I suffered from a chronic lack of self-confidence right from early childhood through most of my adult life. I am a sensitive person and was deeply traumatized by the never-ending conflict and hostility in my parent's relationship. My mother was, and still is, the dominant force in my family of origin. Highly intelligent but emotionally withheld, she was always quick to criticise and would never back down in any of the petty arguments with my father that characterized their relationship. He, on the other hand, was relatively passive yet and was often driven to explode with frustration due to his inability to express his emotions or to handle my mother's frequent put-downs. She would berate him saying “You stupid creature; why can't you just tell me what you're thinking!”, not realizing the irony behind her nagging criticism. Our home didn't feel like a safe or fun place to be much of the time. My two elder sisters both dealt with this in their own way, leaving me feeling excluded and abandoned a lot of the time. My sensitivity in this situation was always invalidated, caused me a great deal of grief and felt like a genuine weakness.

My family were regular church-goers, and every Sunday I'd be dragged along to Sunday school to learn about bizarre stories from the Old Testament. Sometimes it was fun, but mostly it was plain boring. I was a boisterous kid, and enjoyed running around the church a lot more than I did hearing stories that didn't quite make sense to me. God always seemed to be forcing people to do what they didn't want to do; no wonder they were so disobedient. I was taught that I was sinful and needed to confess the bad things that I did in order to be saved from going to hell. Each week I had to come up with new things to confess. I never kept my room as tidy as my mother wanted, but I couldn't imagine that I was supposed to just confess this same thing every week, and keeping my room as tidy as she wanted seemed just plain impossible. Over time I was gradually beaten down and learned to submit to the authority of this God that never seemed to make an actual appearance. I prayed to him many times and never got an answer, praying many times for guidance or that he would stop my parents from fighting. Something didn't quite make sense, but I suppressed my doubt and became a Christian in my own right during adolescence. My discernment and ability to analyze complex ideas to extract the truth was invalidated in this situation as I was taught not to think critically about what I was being taught.

I was fascinated with girls at primary school, especially the pretty ones. I always wanted to hang around with them, be their friend and get to know them. Later I learned about sex, and that there was even more fun things we could potentially do together than I ever imagined. The problem was that the pretty girls didn't want to hang around with me. I was desperately insecure, anxious and needy; constantly on edge due to the conflict at home and the judgment of a God who was always watching my every move. Sex was laden with guilt and shame even though I wasn't having it. My basic drives and interests as a male were invalidated here.

At my all-boys high school sport reined supreme. The first grade rugby team had the highest social status, leaving more academically inclined students like me as second rate citizens. I was the youngest in my year, awkward and terribly thin, leaving me humiliated to be the last person picked on sporting teams every time. I was the natural target for bullies, who had a field day with me. My religion taught me to turn the other cheek rather than standing up for myself, which just reinforced my victim mentality. My intelligence and sensitivity were again invalidated.

I was very smart but was bored a lot of the time in class and didn't really thrive until I discovered electronics and computers, which weren't yet part of the normal school curriculum. Computers became my escape from the potentially hurtful world of people. My anti-technology mother never seemed to approve, saying I was “playing on the computer” even when I was learning to program and write my own games, simulation programs and even a telecommunications package. When I was working with computers, I didn't have to feel bad about myself. I could understand and master them, and they always responded in a predictable manner. People weren't so easy to get along with.

Computer Engineering became a natural career for me. I excelled at university because I just loved learning about computers. I studied part time and had a number of different jobs, rapidly becoming a rising star in the industry. Each employer was devastated when I moved on to another, better job, and my ability as a computer engineer was my major source of validation and self-esteem. I didn't have to worry about how bad I really felt about myself when I was being successful in my career and began earning a high income that made me feel good on the surface. But deep down I still felt bad about myself.

I had a few girl friends during this time, including a couple of long term relationships which devastated me when they failed because I didn't want to marry the girls in question. I dated women who were prepared to go out with me, because I didn't think I could find anyone who I really liked on all levels: socially, mentally, physically and sexually. Relationships with women were by far the most painful area of my life and my continued failure to find a life partner made me feel both terrible and terrified.

After a particularly painful break-up with a long-term Christian girlfriend, I decided to examine my faith more closely and started reading more widely, talking to people more earnestly and scrutinizing what I believed more closely. I came to the conclusion that the testimony about Jesus in the Bible consisted of unreliable reports by superstitious, poorly educated first century people who wanted to justify their faith in him. I saw their God as the personification of human traits based on the relatively harsh experience of ancient living, and the whole Christian faith as an exercise in wishful thinking and mutual self-delusion. Albeit a popular one. I decided to stop kidding myself, left the church and became an atheist.

Around the same time I started to lose interest in my work and moved to another company developing what I thought would be a more compelling application. In doing so I landed on the project from hell, and after three years of teamwork conflict just didn't care any more about the career I used to love so much. I was burnt out and depressed, but kept slogging away looking desperately for some way to make it work for me again. Eighteen months later I resigned, desperate to escape, and fell into starting my own consulting business based on my reputation; but I still wasn't really enjoying engineering any more.

Now I had to face the deeper question: If I was no longer Graham the Christian or Graham the Computer Engineering genius, who was I? I took up writing and spent several years exploring this question while looking for ways to make life fun again.

And then I came down with Chronic Fatigue, from which I am still recovering almost 3 years later.

Throughout all of this the one underlying constant was my terrible grating lack of genuine self-confidence. I just didn't trust myself and felt anxious most of the time. I always have, and was so used to it that I thought it was normal and hid the fact by over-compensating: working really hard, taking on up-front roles, performing, public speaking, whatever. But I had an critical voice in my head that berated me every time I made any kind of mistake, especially in social situations around women.

I was fortunate to have had a high paying career that gave me material success, but I lacked emotional satisfaction and was terribly lonely despite being highly regarded and having plenty of friends. I knew that if I was to become truly happy I needed to address the underlying problem of my lack of self-confidence. So I decided to make this my primary goal, and tackled the problem head-on, leaving no stone unturned.

In this process I discovered that the key thing that I was missing was the ability to recognise, respond to and master my emotions. This was something I never learned at school, church or in my family of origin. It's just not taught in our culture, yet it's the key to growing from a boy into a man. To be a self-actualised human being requires more than just analytical intelligence, it requires emotional intelligence too.

I put together The Confident Man Program to help offer hope and advice to other guys with similar backgrounds who also struggle with anxiety, anger, sadness, gaining self-confidence, relationships with women, and all else that being a man entails.

24 Responses to Graham's Story

  1. June says:

    Hi Graham, I came across your blog today and it was really inspiring to read about your growth stories. You might have known this, but just wanted to say that I think you are incredibly courageous. Not many people would face their problems head on.

    It's a lonely journey where we have to face all the scare and pains from the past by ourselves. By comparison, numbing or distracting ourselves is just so tempting. So I'm just curious, did you get support from other people? At what point do you feel 100% safe with yourself?

    Thanks! I wish you all the best.
    Jun

    • Hi June,
      I'm touched by your encouraging feedback, so thanks for stopping by. I do forget that I have courage sometimes. One thing about human nature is that we tend to be insatiable; so once one problem is faced, I often move straight onto the next one. I'm still learning about taking time to celebrate achievements and progress; otherwise life just becomes an endless series of problem-solving, which loses it's appeal after a while.
      I agree it is a lonely journey sometimes. I think pretty much everyone struggles with self-confidence from time to time but not many people talk about it; probably because to do so requires a lot of confidence! A friend once mentioned how confidently I talked about feeling so anxious a lot of the time. There's material for my future career in comedy there somewhere.
      Yes, I had support from a myriad of teachers, mentors, coaches, therapists and more personal development courses than I can poke a stick at. Eventually I got bored and decided to quit doing courses and just live in the "real world"; but maybe I'm just more focused now. That said, I was pondering a similar question on the bus on the way home from college today: At what point do you feel 100% safe with yourself? I had been reading Joseph LeDoux's book Anxious: The Modern Mind In The Age of Anxiety, and it pointed out that extinction (the process by which anxious memories lose their sting by systematic exposure to an environment or trigger that is no longer threatening) is sensitive to context. I'm now studying music performance at college, so I'm a full time student again for the first time since high school; so some of my old high school anxieties are back, albeit a little less intense: Will I fit in? Will people like me? Will the girls still be mean to me? Plus the thought of performing music in front of an audience of strangers is both exhilarating and terrifying. By studying music performance experientially, I'm basically doing more systematic desensitisation in a more fun way than you can do in therapy or a personal development workshop; but I still have a psychologist I'm doing EMDR with on hand to deal with what it brings up!
      One of my coaches used to talk about the "layers of the onion" that we work through on the journey. I used to hate that, but it's true. I think eventually we feel safe enough in most contexts to just get on with living. A woman with generalized anxiety disorder who led a Trauma Informed Care workshop that I attended last year described "recovery" for her as meaning "being sufficiently able to manage symptoms like anxiety to still get on and live the life that you want"; rather than being completely anxiety free. The perfectionist in my would like to be totally free of all fear, but her approach to recovery does seem a lot more practical. Otherwise life just becomes a battle against fear; which is neither much fun nor very self-accepting.
      Thanks again, and likewise, I wish you all the best too.
      Graham

  2. Matthew says:

    Just curious Graham if you have any fear from the denial of your faith. I think we have a lot in common but I can't seem to deny my faith even though it really has not served me in any way. Heck I feel guilty just for saying that.

    • Hi Matthew,
      I do remember going through a lot of anxiety about letting go of my faith; as to how much that contributed to my general sense of anxiety or my panic attacks is a little hard to say, but my gut feel is that it probably contributed a lot. It has taken me a while to get to the point where I can hear my family espouse their religious views (which I have to say, they don't do often) and just be able to think "that's they're problem, not mine". But then the whole family conditioning about not expressing emotions, handling conflict badly and not being open to other people's points of view also plays into that, so it's hard to isolate the faith element.
      I can well understand you feeling guilty if you've had a lot of religious programming telling you that your life belongs to God rather than you. I'd be curious to know more about what the issues are for you. One thing I found tremendously valuable was being able to talk to other non-believers about my new lack-of-faith, because they totally got where I was coming from. They were a really helpful sanity check for me. I'd be happy to have a half-hour chat with you on Skype at no charge if you'd like to explore the source of your guilt or any other feelings around this further.
      Cheers,
      Graham

  3. Susan says:

    Thanks for sharing your story with me Graham. I learned a lot about myself from what you have written on your blog.

    Thanks again,

    Susan

  4. David says:

    Hi Graham.

    I can empathize 100% with your story. I also have been writing a blog encouraging confidence in those men who lack it. Maybe we can share a few tips.

  5. Ian says:

    Hello Graham,
    You write really well, with a prose that easily forms connection and a sense of commonality. From the descriptions you provide of your challenges and your struggles I feel that your well crafted writing belies the effort you must put into your blog and your articles. I believe that you likely work very hard on dredging up emotions and turning them into intelligible form for people to read. From personal experience I know this can be a grueling process, and while often cathartic, extremely draining simultaneously. Sometimes, for those who can write in a way that is so easy to understand, and that resonates so well, the effort required to do just that can go completely unrecognized. I am only writing to commend you on what I know means having mined and reached a deep inner place, and that to collate it and turn it into a sensible paragraph takes serious effort. Well done! (and thanks)
    Ian

  6. Raz says:

    Hi Graham,

    Thank you for sharing your story. It's always interesting when you read someone else's story to find out that there are many others out there that have a similar or worse story than you.

    My mother and father were very controlling and fostered a negative environment in our household. This greatly affected the quality of my life as a young child and up to middle age. I always felt like I had to do more to be validated by them. I finally realized I was fighting a losing battle. I decided to no longer let these negative childhood experiences stop me from living a happy life anymore.

    Instead I look at my story as a learning experience which lead to why I do what I do as a entrepreneur in the health and wellness field.

  7. Jenny says:

    Hi Graham, You articulate your story so well which is such a pleasure. I can see from this and thinking about my own childhood how personal insecurities develop and how self esteem can take a dive and become a life time battle to improve. I relate well to this, however from a woman's point of view, it was my father who filled my heart with fear and strong feelings of worthlessness. His self centered violent behaviour to me was the cause of the cracks that we all fell into. My mother's attempts to create a balance and her version of a safe environment for us, were inadequate to say the least, as she flounded dealing with her own feelings of anger and inadequacy. I found myself disliking her intensely as time passed as a result, which left me abandoning the only parent I had who did actually care. Sad for me, sad for all. Violent, abusive, selfish men make me sick to the core. Thank you for putting your experience out there to teach men about the benefits for developing a healthy emotional intelligence.

    • Thanks for the feedback Jenny. I really hear how a man's feelings of worthlessness get passed onto his children, male and female. And as happened in your case, men like this tend to attract women who feel worthless inside too. Everyone loses in this scenario. I really appreciate the encouragement and hope I can make a difference so girls like you needn't suffer in future. Cheers, Graham

  8. Gina Caputo says:

    Graham, I just came across your web site to help my brother and related so much as a women. We come from a similar background and after I married and moved out, I had horrible anxiety going to see my family. I was a complete doormat to my husband because I hated conflict and was so affraid to speak my feelings, the marrige ended after 7 years, I tried to be the opposite of my mother and would not stand up or speak up and became depressed and he became abusive to himself and me. I went through a time of nuturing insecure men trying to make them feel good... to earn their love....this was depleting me and I was always sick but still trying to be their cheerleader and not caring for myself. I am final in a place that I know how to express myself truthfully, without verbal violence when something hurts me. Im happy I can express myself without guilt or fear. I am willing to share myself with a self loving man who knows how to care, express, and control his own emotions and reactions to them. And who has his own self interests. I look forward to the strong caring men you will be producing into this world! Confident, stong ,potective, good men without violence is what we need to nuture this world! If you show us your a capable, respectable, understanding leaders we will follow!!!

    • Thanks Gina; I appreciate you taking the time to drop by and offer encouragement. I really hear how women suffer when men cannot step up and face their demons. Gratefully, Graham

  9. Andy says:

    As with other commentators I can see parallels in my own life, particularly the controlling mother. I've recently been laid off and I am fretting over telling my mother as my mind just comes up with a number of nightmare reactions to the news. Inevitably my failure will reflect her failure as a mother (in her mind) and I could fall into a spiral of low self worth. Despite being in an amazing relationship with a shared plan for the future I still have this cross to bear. Why do people do this to the people they're supposed to prepare for individuality?

    • Hey Andy, thanks for the comment. Unfortunately controlling mothers have their own anxieties that get in the way of our individualization. It probably makes little real difference to you now what she thinks, but the fear you're still carrying is from childhood. Remind yourself that this fear isn't real, and that even if your mother abandons you, you won't die anymore. You may even find that your attempts to read her mind are based on childhood fears, and she doesn't actually think what you think she thinks any more. Cheers, Graham

  10. Peter says:

    Hi Graham; funnily I ended up on this site from a link on a WP/SEO forums where you asked some support questions relevant to me; Interesting story, I particularly appreciate your views on religion LOL!
    P. (a foreign guy for whom you had consulted a couple of years back re.62304; actually convinced atheist as well)

  11. Jonathon says:

    Almost sounds like we had the same mother and enforced church going to go with it but of course I'm a few generations older. I split home and church and a few other things at 16 and never looked back. That church I grew up in was full of Sunday christians (mostly business owners) who spent the rest of the week robbing everyone blind. Pack of hypocrites.

    As for confidence I guess I got mine in my 30s when I simply lost interest in fretting about what anyone else might think of me. The reality, of course, is that most people are more interested in themselves and what you might think of them to even notice whether you lack confidence or not.

    "Ours is a society of denial that conditions us to protect ourselves from any direct difficulty and discomfort. We spend enormous energy denying our insecurity, fighting pain, death and loss, and hiding from the basic truths of the natural world and of our own nature." - Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart

  12. Matt says:

    Thank you for taking the time to share all of that, mate.

    Not only have you developed and thrived as a human being you're doing what so, so many people fail to do when the reach a higher level of existance; help others!

    Your selflessness, I hope, will be rewarded to no end for the remainder of your time on this earth and beyond! 🙂

    All the best, friend!

    Matt.

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