I remember my early experiences in therapy—I sat in the client chair while I uncovered a core belief that helped me untangle a confusing aspect of my self-identity. This was in the days before I questioned the whole concept of self-identity. This was a time when I believed in a solid me, a thinking me. I thought there was something wrong and was trying to find out what that was, so I could change.

It’s hard to say succinctly what I thought was wrong, but I was sure something was. At the same time, this also didn’t make sense to me. I came from a good, hard-working family and thought I had a faultless childhood that I was grateful for, but I was wrong.

As a young adult, I found I struggled to stay in intimate relationships. You could say I had commitment issues, which were confusing for me. When I wasn’t in a relationship, all I thought about was how to find someone, and I often did, but as soon as a new relationship began, I desperately wanted “my freedom” and then quickly found a way out. When I was in I wanted to be out, and when I was out I wanted to be in, always wanting what I didn’t have.

The best mother in the world?

Baby holding onto parent's finger - The perfect motherA core belief of mine was that I was lucky enough to have had the perfect mother. I believed this because repeatedly, throughout my life, both my father and mother told their children (including me) that she was “the best mother in the world.” So, to me, it was true. My father highly praised my mother until the day he died, even during the eight years after she’d passed before he did.

Of course, there’s truth in what we were told. Actually, both my parents worked extremely hard, both holding down two jobs as well as raising five children. We were a working-class family and money was always limited, but my parents made sure that we were clothed, well-fed and warm with a roof over our head—and all without them ever getting into debt. They saved money throughout the year so that we had plenty of gifts at Christmas and we sometimes went away during the summer.

My parents believed in “putting the children first,” and in their way, they did, but they were also often unavailable, perhaps because they were too tired or too busy. I remember how my tired Dad ignored us while he watched TV, and how my Mum was so busy with the countless chores involved in looking after five children and holding down two jobs. She must have been exhausted.

I can’t say we were a happy family, because my mother was unhappy, and my parents often argued with one another. Nevertheless, my parents always wanted to do the right thing for their children and for us to be happy. They were typical of how many factory-working people were back then: self-supporting, decent, respectable, hard-working and proud of their strong work ethic.

Undoubtedly, to my mother, her children—for in her mind, we were her children (not our father’s)—were everything to her, as we gave her life purpose and meaning. I learned not to tell my mother if I had trouble with an adult neighbour or teacher at school, for she could be ferocious and unforgiving in defending her children, whose fault it never was!

My mother was self-sacrificing, and in her way, she unselfishly devoted her life to caring for her children. I thank her for that. My father showed little interest in us, and as much as he could, left the parenting to my mother. I think this was what they both wanted, for as I said, we were our mother’s children.

But my mother wasn’t, as I was led to believe, perfect. I think she was worn down and depressed. She showed a disinterest in what we were up to and a disregard for our achievements and accomplishments, and usually negatively dismissed our aspirations and future plans: “What’s the point of that, why would you want to go there and do that? It won’t be any different from here.”

At times, my mother was very negative about us, our goals and our future prospects. Not much was expected of us, and occasionally she would openly make disparagingly unkind comments about her children. She wore negative, critical glasses, as depressed people tend to do. I don’t remember hearing praise, and never an “I love you,” nor was there physical affection involved in our relationship.

My mother was a one-town woman, living a repetitive, hard life, with the television always on. She was a good but rather pessimistic person who certainly wasn’t, according to the family saying, “the best mother in the world.” But on the other hand, you could argue she was that, for she gave all she had for us, her children, which also unwittingly included her suffering and unhappiness.

Emotional neglect

To me, at the time, my childhood was my “normal,” but I felt unloved, forgotten, an irreverence. Looking back, I felt I was never noticed, so I suppressed and adapted without causing anyone any trouble. To me, it was all OK and normal, but I do remember feeling lonely, wanting attention and longing to be noticed. I longed to be seen, for I felt alone and invisible. I think from both my Mum and my Dad I received indifference and disinterest, which could be named as emotional neglect, but I didn’t know that my feelings of hurt weren’t right, as they were completely normal to me.

My rational self understands and doesn’t blame them at all, but at an emotional level, my inner child (if there is such a thing) silently screams, “What about me? Look over here, I do exist.”

It seems harsh to use such words as emotional neglect in relation to my parents, because in some ways, they don’t deserve that. I really don’t think they had any idea of how it was for me or how I felt, and I suppose their unwillingness or inability to look my way did prove their neglect. I think they were too busy, too distracted and too unaware, which wasn’t their fault.

My rational self understands and doesn’t blame them at all, but at an emotional level, my inner child (if there is such a thing) silently screams, “What about me? Look over here, I do exist.” I was child number four of five, the unnoticed one, or at least that’s how it felt.

I remember enrolling at my local college in my late 20s and then going on to university, and my mother couldn’t see a good reason for doing that at all. But after I got my degree, she went to the local paper, and they wrote a little article and published it with a picture of me in my ceremonial hat and gown. So my mother, who never encouraged, was proud. I think she genuinely just couldn’t see a way out for herself or her children—but she did care about us and protect us.

Dismantling a core belief

So at 30 years old, in therapy, I began with the belief that my mother was perfect, the best mother in the world. I argued with myself until I faced the devastating truth that she wasn’t. I wanted to keep that belief so strongly that I defended it until I couldn’t anymore and it collapsed. Then, I was ready for the truth. My breakthrough realization was staring me in the face: My mother was an unhappy, depressed woman and I’d never before realized that.

My mother was an ordinary woman, with a belief system and values acquired through her own personality traits, relationships and experiences. She carried her damage as I carry mine, but there was no therapy for her, no time and space to sit, reflect and unravel. It just wasn’t an option or possibility back then, and in any case, I don’t think she would’ve wanted to do that, nor would she have seen the point of it.

My mother was one of eight children, and I wonder who was there to shape and guide her, to support and nurture her through her childhood. My mother was a depressed, unhappy woman who did the best she could. I didn’t receive the love, appreciation and approval that a child deserves, but I did love my mother and I believe she loved me.

The funny thing is that when I believed my Mum was “the best mother in the world,” I loved her with all my heart, but I didn’t love myself in the same way. Over the years, this love changed to a love that was more stable—more caring, understanding, kind and accepting of her, but also of myself. Both my love for her and for myself became more balanced and calm, as well as becoming similar.

I can now love others as I love myself, which is, of course, a healthy replacement for my old pattern of loving them but not myself. I found that when I loved my mother or loved a relationship partner more than I loved myself, or at the expense and neglect of myself, this gave me a great deal of trouble.

Question your programming

Three men and a baby representing four generations of a family - The perfect motherWe’re programmed by the conscious and unconscious beliefs and values of people who were themselves programmed, and then we do the same to our children. The birth of our identity, how we see ourselves, is formed not just by how we define ourselves or by how others define us, but also by how others define themselves to us. We’re taught how to see the other in relation to ourselves. Beliefs arise, form and establish themselves, creating our own self-identity, but this isn’t who we are.

Historically, we’ve been asleep to it, as we’ve passed down our assumed unconscious, unquestioned, uninquired family “beliefs, facts and truths” through the generations. Our children believe them, as we did, and our children’s children will go on to believe them, too.

This will continue until, as a society, we wake up to it and decide to change this generational pattern. We can do this by teaching our children to question their beliefs to the extent at which they come to understand that a belief is only a thought, and not necessarily something to be taken seriously or automatically believed.

An open, curious, conscious mind questions thoughts and beliefs because it knows that a belief attaches itself to the idea of self, but unless we unconsciously allow it to, a belief can’t define who we are. Indeed, we’re more than a collection of beliefs providing us with a sense of self-identity. Our actual self-identity doesn’t include what we think. It is, in reality, a belief-free sense of self, a sense of present moment no-self, and that’s who we really are.

So my belief about my perfect mother turned out not to be true, but then again, no belief is. As I grew up, I took it as an unquestionable factual truth that could’ve stayed with me until the day I die. Undoing that belief helped me enormously, but the traces and the consequences of believing in it still remain.

When in a relationship, I can still find the whole loving thing difficult, intense and confusing. I can love too much, try too hard to please and then withdraw and reject as I need my space. I can feel unloved and unwanted, no matter how the other person is with me. For the most part—or perhaps entirely—these things have nothing to do with each other, as really, we’re always in a relationship with only ourselves, projecting our “stuff” onto the other.

It may look as though it was the parent/child relationship that did the damage, or the person we fell in love with. But really, it’s our set of beliefs about ourselves, the other and the world projected outwards, creating a reality that mistakenly makes sense to us. A self-identity and reality that we believe in are created, but none of it’s true, we just think it is. We believe our programming, that’s all. Thinking is so overrated and is not to be trusted.

There’s nothing wrong with you

Perhaps thoughts such as “There’s something wrong with me” and relationship insecurities are universal, but really, there’s nothing wrong with any of us, beyond whatever it is we think is wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with any of us, beyond whatever it is we think is wrong. Whatever you believe is wrong with you is something that has been made up and accepted by you as fact.

Whatever you believe is wrong with you is something that has been made up and accepted by you as fact. We can work on undoing our beliefs, or we can go straight to undoing the ultimate belief, our belief in beliefs, and see that a belief is only an opinion and not a fact. So a belief is an irrelevance, and therefore it really doesn’t matter whether I think my mother was the perfect mother or not.

What we think doesn’t matter, but what we are does. You aren’t whatever it is you think you are, but you’re something other than thought, something beyond that, and you can’t know what that is because it’s beyond thought.

I believed my mother was perfect, then I believed she was neglectful and now I believe neither of those beliefs. Now I believe she was a woman doing what she did, and I was a boy and then a man believing whatever I believed. It’s all a matter of perception and mind-made perspective in a world where nothing and everything is true.

A present-moment nowness

Young men suspended in air above wavy water - The perfect motherNow I try to live through my present-moment experiences instead of living in accordance with what I think and believe. Waking up to this is like bursting out free from a thought-based mind into an alternative reality. It’s like only knowing water, then bursting out of the ocean of thought into the air of present-moment freedom, and seeing that, “Oh, this is here too, I never knew.”

So without a belief in a self, who would we be? When I ask myself that question and sit with it, I find an empty space, a presence, a nowness, a something-nothingness. It’s an inner/outer sense of calm and peace that seems to have always been here. It’s my mother and my father, the womb, my safe place. It holds and accepts a “me” that’s here but not here. It’s consistently there, unconditional and unchanging. It’s me.

When we find and connect with the depth of the present moment, when we meet it and can be with it, that’s our real birth. That’s the birth of our true identity: an identity without belief, a sense of a self-no-self-self. It’s the knowing of not-knowing. It’s my loving home and we all have one. No matter what, it will faithfully never leave us. It’s a right here, right now unconditional love, always ready and waiting. The present moment: an unconditional love for life.

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