Which Prodigal Child Are You?

What prison keeps you from experiencing love and compassion? ” Cheri Maples

I recently listened to a dharma talk by Cheri Maples, a dharma teacher from Madison.  It was so powerful for me that I decided to take license with the details of the story of the Prodigal Son for this post. So, while the details may be mine, the lesson comes from Cheri.

The Story

Once upon a time there was a family with two children. The daughter, Gloria, the oldest was your typical good girl. She did what was expected of her and followed her parent’s rules. And the younger son, Patrick was the bad boy, doing as little work as possible.  He took sloth and torpor to the max.

One day Patrick went to his father and asked for his inheritance so he could go make his way in the world.  The father obliged, and Patrick went off to carouse and party.  With his inheritance to spend, Patrick saw no need to work.  He just enjoyed life, partying until all hours and being with a different woman every night. As the novelty wore off, he needed more drinks, more drugs and more women to be happy.  Eventually he blew through all his money and had to get a job.  He ended up working  for very little pay so he could not afford food to eat.  Eventually he realized that even the lowest paid worker on his father’s firm lived better than he did.  So, he decided to return home to beg his father for a job.

As he walked up the road to the house, his father saw him. He ran out to meet him with tears of joy in his eyes.  He instructed his staff to prepare a big meal, and provide the son with new warm clothes.  The son was filled with remorse and did not feel like he deserved the kind treatment.

Later that evening, the daughter left the celebration.  The father saw her outside by herself.  He asked why she was not in enjoying the celebration.  She told him how upset she was that he never had a celebration for her. And he responded by saying that everything he had was hers.

The Moral Is Not What You Think

In religion class the moral of the story was to rejoice when a sinner repents.  But we are not going there.  We are going to look at the two children and see why they were unable to receive the unconditional love of the father.

Let’s start with the son who had a feeling of inferiority, a sense of shame and unworthiness.  He felt he could never live up to the standards his big sister set, so he didn’t even try. He wanted to go out into the world with money so he could feel important. Because he did not know how to handle his suffering, he tried to cover it up with consumption.  He fed various addictions to cover up the feeling that there is something wrong with him.

How many of us live with the internal chatter of self judgement and self-criticism, falling into the trap of believing we are not enough? We don’t believe we are worthy of love. So we blow off compliments with, “It was nothing.” We can’t take in the good feelings The self-compassion that would enable us to access all the love available to us is missing.

The older daughter has struck a different bargain with life and developed a different strategy to cover up her suffering. Her strategies were perfectionism and achievement. She chose to not only follow the rules and expectations of others, but to exceed them.  She feels resentful for not receiving her just reward for doing so.  What she feels she deserves for being a good girl.  She has excelled in ways her younger brother hasn’t. While she has lived a just and righteous life, she is extremely resentful to others for not rewarding her for her sacrifice. 

These are much for acceptable strategies for covering up shame than her younger brothers. She is often frustrated at work because others don’t live up to her expectations. And she can’t understand why they can’t get it right.  If they would just do it her way everything would fall into place so much better. No matter how much she personally achieves, no matter how good a girl she has been and continues to be as a grown woman, no matter how many external goals she meets, she is still not peaceful, content or happy. Through a different door and in a different form, she too has become attached to a wounded self that keeps her disconnected from others. Part of her doesn’t want to give it up, and part of her doesn’t know how to give it up. Those of you who know me may see why I called the sister Gloria.

Chasing Self-Esteem

Unlike her brother she has high self-esteem.  Self-esteem is about evaluating yourself as better in some way.  Low self-esteem is comparing unfavorably to others.  While successful in the outer world, most with high self-esteem are competitive and defensive, which also blocks true connection.

If we behave in a certain way, we will get love and approval from our caretakers.  It is not all bad, some of the transactions serve us really well.  It is just that it reaches a point of diminishing returns.  If I do this, you will do that.  I did this so you should love me. You didn’t do this so you must not love me. As adults we consciously or unconsciously approach our intimate relationships as a transaction.  For me this resulted in expending a lot of effort on things that to me were showing my love, that sometimes got in the way of showing love in the way my loved ones appreciated.

With self-esteem we feel either inferior or superior. A healthy way to deal with feeling inferior is to focus on bettering yourself.  But many of us take the unhealthy way, focusing on becoming better than other people. We don’t allow ourselves to be comforted by positive feedback.  We have anxiety that people will find out we are inadequate, often know as imposter syndrome.  We feel hopeless and helpless believing that whatever we do, we will never be as good as we are supposed to be. This brings feelings of anger, defensiveness, resentment and envy. Feeling inferior thrives on wanting to be someone you are not. Often a role assigned to you that you don’t really want. Forcing you to be someone you don’t really want to be and are not good at being.

Feeling superior, people have an exaggerated opinion of themselves.  They believe their abilities and achievements surpass those of others.  Sometimes acting superior actually hides a sense of inferiority. We feel the need to devalue others to feel better about ourselves. Our sense of self-worth comes from outside sources, so we only feel good enough if others see us that way. We hide behind a perfect version of our self that we think others will like.  This means we can never own up to our mistakes or admit that we are not perfect. Just as those feeling inferior, we also have imposter syndrome, the anxiety that people will find out we are inadequate.

Those of us who feel superior come off as self-centered. We challenge the beliefs and ideas of others in a way that tells them I’m right and you’re wrong. We tend to think that others are beneath us. We like to be in control because we believe that our way is the only correct way to do things. Being right and achieving things are more important to us than developing relationships with people. We wrongly believe that our accomplishments will make us loveable.

In our story, the brother feels inferior and the sister feels superior and as a condition of that neither can avail themselves of the unconditional love being freely offered to them. They don’t realize that they don’t need to do anything to obtain love. All they have to do is remove the roadblocks they have put in place.  Love is a birthright, we all deserve love. 

When we are chasing self-esteem, we are so busy doing things so we can evaluate ourselves positively, so we can stand out from the crowd.  We want to be like the citizens of Lake Wobegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average. But it is impossible for us to be above average on everything all the time. So, the judgement of self-esteem often makes us talk and act unskillfully. It keeps us from being able to see and accept the unconditional love people have for us. We always have to do something more.

Allowing Self-Compassion

We often confuse self-esteem, evaluating oneself positively, with self-compassion, relating to oneself with a kind and forgiving attitude.  When we are focused on self-esteem, we look at love as a transaction. 

Instead of focusing on our self-esteem, we may choose to cultivate self-compassion.  According to Kristin Neff and Chris Germer, “Self-compassion is a way of relating to the every-changing landscape of who we are with kindness and acceptance – especially when we fail or feel inadequate.”  They say “self-esteem is a fair-weather friend, there for us in the good times, deserting us when our luck turns.  But self-compassion is always there for us, a reliable source of support even when our worldly stock has crashed.”

This means we don’t have to be better than others to feel good about ourselves. It is acknowledging that we have an inner core of goodness underneath our human condition of imperfection. We actually dare ourselves to believe that we are enough, just as we are.

There are three components to the self-compassion:

  1. Mindfulness – the ability to see, turn toward and acknowledge our suffering without over-identifying with it
  2. Recognition of common humanity— the understanding that all people are imperfect, and all people have imperfect lives.
  3. Self-kindness – a sense of caring, an understanding response like we would give to a good friend.

Developing unconditional friendship means taking the very scary step of getting to know yourself. It means being willing to look at yourself clearly and to stay with yourself when you want to shut down. It means keeping your heart open when you feel that what you see in yourself is just too embarrassing, too painful, too unpleasant, too hateful.

If you do stay present with what you see when you look at yourself again and again, you begin to develop a deeper friendship with yourself. It’s a complete friendship, because you are not leaving out the parts that are painful to be with. It’s the same way you would develop a complete friendship with another person. You include all that they are.”  Pema Chodron

If the younger brother, Patrick, was able to see and stay with his suffering, realize that his imperfections were part of being human, and treat himself with kindness, he would not have had the need to go off and lose himself in partying, drinking, drugs and womanizing.  And Gloria could have relaxed a little more instead of always “shoulding” on herself, taking on more than she needed to, and feeling resentful for not being recognized for all the good things she did.