Reflecting on the life of Michael Jackson, one of the world's greatest superstars, on the anniversary of his death.
Amid the layers of controversy surrounding Michael Jackson's life and his sudden death one year ago today, there is at least one thing on which we can all agree: the man was a brilliant performer. It was his amazing talent, along with dedication and perseverance, that took him to the pinnacle of success. Pound for pound, Michael had to be the hardest working person in show business.
When he was only five years old, Michael joined his brothers in the group they were already forming, and quickly became their lead singer. His ambitious father, Joe Jackson, worked his sons hard. Their whole lives revolved around rehearsals and local and regional talent shows. By the time Michael was ten, they had reached the national stage. As Michael recounts in Moonwalk, his 1988 autobiography, he stood in the wings of so many stages and watched every move of veteran performers like Jackie Wilson and James Brown, learning from masters of the art how to become one himself. He worked at his craft tirelessly, sometimes even falling asleep standing at the mike.
His success came at a high price. Not only did he lose his childhood, he lost the sense of self that comes from the love of a parent who tells you that you are okay, just as you are. A sense of self that comes from knowing that you are worthy of love just by being you. That you don't need to do anything to receive that parent's love. Instead, Michael learned that he was of value only when he performed well; without that, he was nothing.
Joe Jackson ran the show with strictness and cruelty. Michael was driven to success as a professional performer by a metaphorical whip, with a literal belt buckle attached. He didn't succeed in achieving his real goal of getting his father's approval.
I see this all the time in the clients I work with as a healer and teacher in the wellness field. As children, overachievers are often underloved. The trauma generally happens early in life, before the age of ten or twelve, when a parent's own belief system puts a limit on childhood, or family finances change or a parent leaves or dies. The child's role is changed, and all of a sudden they are expected to grow up. Childish needs and desires must be put away, and the child is asked to perform as an adult. In Michael's case, of course, this was quite literal. He was forced to perform and perform well, or he would receive the wrath of his demanding father.
When children are not permitted to have their feelings, they learn that feelings are not okay. Because children can't separate themselves from their feelings, they get the clear message that they themselves are not okay. To cope, they shut their feelings off to keep from getting more disapproval, to keep from looking foolish. Instead, they focus on achievement, hoping that will help them gain the love and approval they desire. It rarely works. The parent is often incapable of giving the love the child needs, and the child gets his heart broken again and again. No matter how well Michael did, how many competitions he and his brothers won, how rich and famous they became, he did not receive the love and approval he craved from his father, whose heart was all but walled off. Michael's heart became walled off, too.
As a boy, he wished incessantly to have the greatest selling album of all time. Then he would be okay and worthy of love. But when children believe they are unlovable, no amount of adulation can penetrate their heart. I believe this was true in Michael's case. He was unable to let down his guard and let people all the way in, so he couldn't be properly nourished. The love of the whole world was not enough to give him a sense of self and worthiness.
As far back as Moonwalk, Michael complained of a biting and penetrating loneliness; despite all his success and fame, he never truly felt loved. He used his money and success to ensure that he didn't have to feel that pain. High achievers are often the least likely to go to therapy or to seek help. They have a terrible time seeing or admitting their faults, and they often have the means to avoid their issues instead of tackling them. But pain can't be kept down. It ultimately surfaces and causes problems in every area of their lives: health, relationships, finances, addictions. We see all the signs in Michael's life of the pain he was trying to suppress, truth that was trying to be spoken.
If you've read my first book, Truth Heals, you know I'm a big advocate of acknowledging your truth--what happened to you and how you feel about it--and bringing it to the surface so that it can set you free. This means listening to yourself and the pain that's within and working to get it out through journaling, talking, or other positive and honest self-expression.
Think of all Michael could have done had he not spent so much energy masking and avoiding his pain.
Neverland -- with its rides, cartoons, laughter, and non-stop play -- was designed to be a place of no pain. All the painkillers and medication were taken to numb the pain. The pain needed a voice. With his children's charities, Michael was the self-proclaimed "voice of the voiceless," but what he needed to give voice to was his pain, and shame, and loss, and any other feelings he was suppressing inside. Instead of rescuing other children, he needed to rescue the child inside himself. It would have made all the difference.