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.