Once it happened that a pop star, whose popularity was on a decline, was sitting at the bar. The star was feeling miserable. He ordered one glass of cheap whisky after another.
“What’s the matter with you?” asked the bartender.
The pop star glanced at the bartender and answered, “I am addicted to attention. And now it has happened that they are forgetting about me.”
“Who are forgetting about you?” asked the bartender.
“The tabloids, the people, everyone. No one is giving me attention anymore. Without attention, who am I? Without attention, how can I go on living?”
The bartender looked at the drunken man and said, “I can’t see the problem with that, really. No one to disturb you. No one to ask for an autograph. No one to write about you on the paper.”
The pop singer fell even deeper into his despair. “Exactly! No one to tell me that I have succeeded. No one to tell me I’m more important than other people. I might as well jump off the bridge. If people are no longer interested in me, what reason do I have to live?”
The bartender looked at the man and asked, “What do you mean by success?”
The star raised his head and looked fiercely at the bartender. “What do you mean what do I mean? Success is success. You know, being better than the rest. Being wanted, admired, and talked about. That’s how you know you have succeeded in life.”
“When you were at the peak of your success, could you walk outside freely without having someone guard your back?”
“Of course not! That’s when you know you’ve made it… when you need a bodyguard to hold the fans off you,” said the singer and sipped his whisky.
The bartender burst into laughter. “If you ask me, that sounds more like an imprisonment than a success.”
The pop star was starting to feel irritated. “You’re just envious! If you had ever experienced it for yourself, you wouldn’t say that. But you are just a puny bartender. How can you know anything?”
“Yes, I’m just a puny bartender. But at least I don’t need a million people to verify to me that there is reason to get out from the bed in the morning.”
The pop star remained silent for a little while. He emptied his glass and said, “You’re right. I think I’m going crazy. But I just don’t know if I can live without someone affirming to me that I matter. I don’t know if I can cope with the emptiness of not being told that I am good enough.”
The bartender was starting to feel sorry for the man. “You know, I remember when I was a schoolboy, and my mother would tell me ‘Good boy!’ each time I brought home a straight A. Any other grade and my mother would say ‘You’ve gotta do better than that, boy!’. Sometimes she would even tell me that I was not going to amount to anything with those grades. I developed, over time, a terrible hang-up about school. I learned that only perfection was good enough for my mother. I craved for that ‘Good boy!’ from my mother. I craved for that attention. Only when I heard her say it did I know that I was good enough.”
The pop star was twiddling his empty glass. The bartender saw that he was listening.
“Over my school years I developed a severe anxiety, because there was only one way to succeed — to get perfect grades. I had panic attacks almost every day and I started to seclude myself from other people because I was so obsessed to perform well. And not just well, no, well wasn’t good enough. I had to be the best. And I was… for some time. Eventually I went to college, and by the second year I felt I was losing my mind. Constantly I heard my mother in my head saying ‘You’re not good enough, you must do better than that!’ I felt that without her approval, I wasn’t worth anything. It was all I lived for.”
The pop singer raised his head and asked, “What happened then?”
“Then my mother died. All of a sudden. She just wasn’t there anymore. It was absolutely devastating. All my life I had been working hard to please her and to get her approval, and now she was gone. It took some time. It took a few years or so. I gradually started to realise that I was still alive, even though she wasn’t there to give me attention or approval. It was actually quite liberating. I dropped out of college because I realised that it wasn’t me who wanted to be there, but it was my mother who wanted me to be there. I still hear her voice in my head every now and then, but I just ignore her. I don’t need her to make decisions for me, nor do I need her to approve of me anymore. In fact, after her death, almost everything in my life changed. I wasn’t anxious anymore, because there was no longer anyone to satisfy or to make happy, no one whose wishes I had to fulfil. I went in for all kinds of crazy artistic and experimental hobbies and activities. I found so much joy in not pleasing other people. With the death of my mother I felt that also the door of my prison was unlocked. It was the prison of living up to a social role to the extreme. It was the prison of playing the social game without knowing that, actually, it’s just a big hoax.”
“What do you mean by a hoax?” asked the singer.
“Well look at yourself. You are all miserable because you base your sense of worth on the praise of people you don’t know, of people you have never ever even met. One day they may be cheering for you, and the next day, all of a sudden, they forget about you or write nasty things about you. It’s a very, very unstable foundation for a life, don’t you think? We have been taught that the social game is very important and serious, and that we must play by the rules. By praise and blame we have been conditioned like dogs to pursue things we don’t really want or need. They hoax you into believing that you must earn your right to exist, and then you start going mad. That is when you lose your freedom and become a slave.”