(3 minute read)
For all the talk of over-involved, doting parents, many of us grow up feeling not well loved. Some of my clients feel that their parents’ love was conditional: they had to get good grades, or take care of younger siblings, or help with the family business, or be very well behaved, and only then would their parents approve of them. Some feel the physical or emotional loss of a parent: a father’s descent into alcoholism or depression; a mother’s terrifying rages or mental illness; a death or divorce. And in the unformed mind of a child, that kind of loss can feel very personal, as if the parent has chosen to die and leave them, or chosen to become an alcoholic, or failed to love the child enough to keep the family together.
Many of us grow up hurt or wounded, believing at some level that our parents didn’t love us enough, that in some way we are deficient — if we had been better and more lovable, our parents would have loved us more completely. That belief is generally unconscious, and in general, so frightening that it is never brought to awareness. But unconscious doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have an impact on us: in truth, the very fact that this belief is below awareness gives it great power to drive our behavior. The belief frames our views of ourselves, and of the world around us.
Here are three people who unconsciously believed their parents didn’t love them enough. (Details have been modified to ensure confidentiality.)
Carl: At the age of 40, following the death of his father, Carl became extremely depressed. Carl’s mother had abandoned the family when he was three, and he was raised by his father with the help of a few members of the extended family. He clung very tightly to his father his entire life, talking to him almost daily. However, his mother’s departure many years ago left him with the unconscious feeling that people could not be trusted, and that sooner or later they would abandon him. This feeling contaminated all his relationships. He formed few friendships and fewer romantic relationships. Worse, the relationships he did form became subject to his tests: convinced that eventually he would be abandoned again, he demanded more and more of others, until eventually, frustrated at his unreasonable behavior, they did just what he feared — walked away from him. This further convinced Carl that people could not be trusted, and intensified his tests of future friendships. When his father died, Carl was left alone in the world, without a romantic partner, friends or family.
Eileen: Although lucky to have an attentive and loving mother, Eileen’s father developed a drug and alcohol addiction when she was a pre-teen. When her parents divorced, Eileen would initially spend weekends and summers with her father. However, she increasingly found that they would meet only when she initiated contact, and began to sense that he didn’t care much whether she was around or not, no matter how affectionate or well behaved she was. Hurt, she reduced contact to see if he would reach out to her more, but this led to a gap of years when they would not speak or write. In the meantime, she formed romantic relationships with men who in various ways, treated her as badly as her father did. In each case she persuaded herself that if she was a better girlfriend, they would love her and treat her well. She unconsciously looked for difficult and challenging men that she would have to appease, just as she had to appease her father, but hoping for a better result.
Sally: Sally’s parents were angry and demanding individuals who became more difficult as time went on. Her two younger brothers escaped the family as soon as possible and rarely saw their parents. Sally, however, took the opposite tack, attending a local college so she could stay at home to help her parents manage their retail store as well as do more than her share of household chores. Her romantic relationships were brief and unsuccessful, and she seemed devoted to winning the approval of her parents for being a dutiful daughter — approval which was doled out sparingly, and always with conditions. Although frustrated with her parents’ behavior, she turned her frustration upon herself, believing that if she was a better daughter, more accepting and willing to accept criticism even if unjustified, that her parents would be more approving.
In helping these people, and others like them, I know that it is no use denying reality. The fact is that Carl’s mother valued her freedom more than her son; Eileen’s father loved drugs and alcohol more than his daughter; and Sally’s parents would never show her the love she craved. And each of these three individuals (and many more like them) have unconsciously concluded that there is something wrong with them, and that their parent’s inability to love them means that they are not quite lovable.
But it is this assumption — “their parent’s inability to love them means that they are not quite lovable” — that I challenge. The truth is their parent’s inability to love them speaks volumes about their parent, and nothing about the child. It says that the parent was simply unable to love the way they should have. It is a limitation of the parent, and not the child. Carl’s mother left because she was unable to love a child; Eileen’s father was driven to drugs and drink by his own demons, thus crowding out the love he had for her; and Sally’s parents were simply too angry and bitter to love anybody.
Our parents, and for that matter our romantic partners, friends, relatives and children, all have limitations that prevent them from giving us everything that we need. It’s not our fault, and it’s also not their fault. They are fallible human beings, each with their own set of unique limitations. They’re doing the best they can, and sometimes, the best isn’t very good. But once we recognize that their failure to love us the way we wish they would is not a comment on who we are, then we can forgive them for their limitations.
And hope that others will forgive us, in turn, for our limitations.