My Scared Father: Lessons on Estrangement

My father was a scared man; you never saw his fear because he masked it so well. He covered his fear with conditions, judgments, expectations, and a host of rules about how to function in the world. He had rules about what it meant to be a man, how to walk proudly, work hard, treat a woman, raise a family, and contribute to society. He had rules about politics, religion, and sex, and he often reminded me that these topics were never good conversations with strangers. He taught me all the rules about what was acceptable or not, and gave me a very clear understanding of how to "tow the line."

The first poster I remember hanging in my room was a WWII propaganda poster of a sinking ship with a caption that said, "loose lips, sink ships." I also remember my father telling me that I could paint my room any color I wanted as long as it was white: he always laughed after proclaiming his creativity-limiting perspective. I recall desperately wanting to stand at his workbench and explore the tools without his rigid guidance about how each tool had its proper place on the pegboard. He tried to teach me how to live in the world, but he never gave me the space to discover who I am.

I remember hoping I might get to do something on my own without his opinion: he had a view about my friends, romantic interests, school work, college decisions, sports, debate topics, and anything I shared with him. It was as if he was so fearful about the world; he had to ensure that I made no mistakes, so he offered his opinions. Eventually, I stopped sharing my life with him because he smothered me with a blanket of judgment that he was completely unaware of.

I can chalk his opinions up to being his attempt to love me the best way he knew how, but his views also caused some collateral damage. Hindsight tells me that his opinions were simply his way of 'raising me" to be a good son, and they were also his way to protect his very fragile ego. Hindsight also reveals that he spent his entire life trying to be something for someone else rather than living his authentic life. My father was a performer striving to meet the approval of a father that never loved him. The collateral damage I experienced from a father that was incredibly fearful and insecure, was learning how to live in a home that imprisoned me from our own authentic life. I also learned how to perform and drive my life toward ultimate power and success; if I arrived, I would finally be worthy in my father's eyes. I also developed a robust sense of shame, guilt, and anxiety because I was never "good enough." I had to always be performing to be better, then I got exhausted and angry, and wanted to draw a line in the sand. He was still in control, though, because a son should always honor his father, or so I was taught.

So I am clear when I say my father was insecure and fearful; I know this because of how he lived in the world. I mentioned the constant barrage of opinions, but he also had a condition, judgment, and expectation about everyone and everything, which revealed his insecurity. You see, the conditions, judgments, and expectations we hold for others are a reflection of our self-imposed conditions, judgments, and expectations. We proclaim them from the rooftops because they reinforce our rules about how to live in the world: we hold others accountable to our standards to protect us from our fears. My father was the gregarious and funny "life of the party," but when the party was over, the ugly came out.

When no one was watching, he shared his opinions about people of other races, sexual orientation, political affiliation, religious activities, and categorically ranked people as "good" or "evil." I now know this was how he kept himself safe. He also shared his beliefs about money, relationships, and how to climb the ladder of success at any cost. He believed there was a RIGHT and PRECISE way to do everything. This belief was incredibly limiting as I sought to become my own person.

When no one was watching, he climbed into a bottle for a welcomed reprieve, and then he became an asshole. He also believed in the idea that children should be punished, and he was quite skilled at delivering the strike of the belt that "hurt him more than it hurt me." Instead of seeking to understand and know me, he imposed his life onto mine and measured my every move.

When no one was watching, he proclaimed that he would put chicken shit on my fingers if I didn't stop biting my fingernails. I wish he would have talked to me about my fears and anxiety.

When no one was watching, rather than trying to understand why I struggled with self-esteem in middle school, he pushed me into Boy Scouts, and then when he realized that I had no "acceptable" friends, he hired the most popular kid in school to hang out with me for a day. I still remember the night in my 30's when he revealed this truth, and I don't think he ever understood what this truth really meant. This truth was a glaring example of his unworthiness and how I was an insult to his carefully crafted identity. My father needed to live his life through me because he hated himself. I don't fault him; I hold him in pity.

When no one was watching, he taught me how to identify the "haves" and the "have-nots" and everything I needed to know to not fall in the latter category. He lived in a constant state of compare and despair, and I never learned how to be grateful for the gifts in the world. The continuous comparison seemed to motivate him toward a path of personal acceptance. When he purchased his first sportscar, joined the country club, and rolled with the "in-crowd," he felt better for a moment, then felt empty.

My father inadvertently taught me how to perform rather than live my authentic truth, I suppose, because he had not been modeled authenticity, or, more importantly, unconditional love.

Fifteen years ago, my father decided to estrange himself from me; on this day, he allowed his pervasive fear to justify a lifetime of conditions, judgments, and expectations. We are two entirely different people, and he couldn't accept that he had no voice in my life.

He had no voice in my life because I chose to eliminate his insecurity, fear, judgment, and rules: I had to claim my power as an authentic soul living my purpose and joy.

Over the fifteen years, I wondered if he would ever attempt to reconcile with me, but I knew that his original statement of estrangement would probably be the lifetime reality. He proclaimed to me, "your mother died last year, and you died today." Not to mention, he sent this message through my sister because I was too despicable for a direct conversation.

In the beginning, I was shocked by his actions, but eventually reached a point of acceptance. If he could not accept me for who I am, he chose not to be in my life. I didn't hate him or even feel anger; I felt pity because he was unable to abandon his "rules" and face his fears. Early on, I struggled with whether I should be the "bigger man" and run groveling back to him, but he was unwilling to allow me to live my authentic life, so I left it alone. Eventually, I thought he would figure out how to love me without all his expectations, but he couldn't because he had never lived outside of his judgment and self-hatred. So, I left him alone. I didn't forget him; I just hoped that he would become more self-aware. The way I see it, as we become more self-aware, we step out of our rigid beliefs and begin to embrace the differences among us with curiosity and respect. Sadly, he couldn't because he didn't respect himself.

The years passed, and I heard rumblings that he would "forgive me," but I had done nothing wrong by deciding to live my life on my terms, so I never sought his forgiveness. He didn't need to forgive me for not living up to his "rules," he needed to forgive himself for imposing his rules on me and then abandoning me for non-compliance. He needed to forgive himself for not expressing love unconditionally. I looked up to him and needed his guidance; I didn't need his fear and judgment.

In May of 2019, my sister called alerting me to my father's impending death. He had less than a week to live, and if I wanted to say anything or see him, I better do so quickly. Later that evening, I phoned my sister with one special request. When he was alone and resting, whisper in his ear, "Trey loves you and forgives you for not understanding him. He wishes you well on your journey." That night I cried a lot because I knew we would never talk again. Fifteen minutes after my sister whispered in his ear, he relaxed, took a deep breath, and released.

I contend that estrangement is nothing more than identities at war; our egos waging a fierce battle against our God, others, and ourselves. Alienation is the conflict between how you should be, and who you authentically are. I also believe that the path to healing an estranged relationship begins with a journey inward to discover all stories of expectation, all judgment and shame, and the narratives of unworthiness that permeate our lives. Healing requires liberation from fear and inauthenticity.

Frankly, the only path to healing from estrangement begins with a spiritual journey of discovering your authentic ( and Divine) soulful self and learning to live in a state of unconditional love. This love can only be experienced in the mindful moment.

As for my father, I hope he has found the peace for which he was desperately searching. I think he might have found that peace had he forgiven his own father.

If I can be helpful, please holler. I am currently taking coaching clients.

Trey Malicoat, M.S.

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