When you grow up in a chaotic family environment, you get used to hearing negative comments about yourself. Your parents make disparaging remarks about your character, your self-worth, your appearance, your relationships, and your achievements. Being surrounded by this type of shaming and harshness can make us question our own worthiness of love and likability. These messages become ingrained in our minds, leading us to constantly question ourselves. But when our life story has been one of feeling unlovable, how do we shift our mindset and begin to like ourselves?
This blog looks at the patterns created when you’ve been told repeatedly that you are unlovable, and how therapy can heal these wounds.
It’s not you, it’s them
Before we dive in to this topic, I want to emphasize that this belief of being unlovable is your parents’ internal struggles, and has nothing to do with you. I know that telling you this doesn’t change your history or how challenging it’s been for you. Please hear me out.
Many kids internalize their parents’ words and assume they are to blame. How could they not? We need our parents and caregivers during our early years. They are our only means for survival. They provide us food, shelter, and address our basic needs. Our parents also guide and shape how we see the world. Given this biological need to rely on our caregivers, it’s natural to take their words as canon.
While there may be a deep seated knowing that your parents projected their own insecurities on to you, parts of you still struggle with accepting this is your parents’ baggage. These parts truly believe you are at fault and that you are unlovable. The first step in this journey towards self-acceptance and self-love is recognizing that those negative messages were never true in the first place. They were imposed upon you by caregivers who were struggling with their own issues.
When our parents project:
If parents haven’t addressed their own insecurities and traumas, these emotional wounds can be projected on to their children. For example, parents who feels insecure with their own lack of success and fame may push their child to great achievements. They may show interest when their son accomplishes tasks that they deem worthy, while expressing indifference when this child shows interests in less notorious activities. These parents brag, express pride, and show love only when their son has proven to be a grade A student, a perfect athlete, or some other form of success.
This child then internalizes these projections. He believes that he is only lovable when he is successful. Whenever he achieves less than perfection, his system becomes distressed with shame, guilt and panic because his lovability is being questioned.
Guilt over blaming our parents:
There may also be parts of you that are loyal to your parents, and worry that acknowledging their impact means blaming them. If this is the case, I want to emphasize that not every parent has the means or capacity to attend regular therapy or explore their own patterns and behaviours. Not every parent has the resources, safety, and time to practice and strengthen coping skills. This is not about blaming or shaming our caregivers.
With enough support, safety, resources, and time, this caregiver may have parented very differently. Rather than judge your parent as good or bad, we can appreciate that they experienced barriers and limitations and that harm was done.
How we protect ourselves against feeling unlovable
Avoiding feeling unlovable:
If you have a deep seated belief that you are unlovable, you will go above and beyond to prevent this belief from getting triggered. Rather than face a reminder of your unlovability, you sever ties from your parents. You avoid scenarios where you’ll be judged (e.g. leadership positions) or situations that require nominations or recommendations from others. You find yourself being overly cautious in relationships, ending things quickly if you feel rejection, abandonment, dislike is imminent. Perhaps you frequently people-please, seek approval, or act as the caregiver all in an (unconscious) effort to avoid feeling unlovable.
By avoiding these individuals and scenarios, you hope to shield yourself from further pain. However, there is a cost to this avoidance. You struggle with loneliness as a result of these efforts to avoid close relationships. You deny the opportunity to be seen and valued for who you truly are. While you are less likely to be attacked for being unlovable, it’s unlikely that you actually feel lovable.
Finding ways to soothe:
Because this sense of “I am unlovable” is still deep inside you, you will get triggered despite all of your best intentions. Inevitably, when this underlying belief shows up, your protective mechanisms kick in and finds any means to self-soothe or distract. This isn’t a bad coping pattern, but it can get extreme.
When you feel unlovable, you may chose to distract by watching TV, exercising, eating a slice of pie, or taking a bubble bath. However, you’ll notice that these coping strategies aren’t enough. While there are good intentions with these self-soothing strategies, these behaviours only serve as temporary relief. That sense of unlovability is still there and it still hurts.
In order to get rid of these feelings, you may find yourself reaching to more extreme methods. That one glass of wine turns to four, that short run becomes a marathon, that hour of TV becomes hours of binging. Unfortunately, these extreme coping mechanisms come at a cost. Now you feel unlovable AND you feel intoxicated, physically exhausted, ashamed, and full of resentment. Your system feels more distressed as it tries to compensate for the inebriation, exhaustion, shame, and resentment.
The impact on our relationships:
When you hold the belief of being unlovable, it will trickle into your relationship. Our closest partners and friends are (unconsciously) selected for certain reasons. The following explains these concepts briefly. I’d encourage you to read “You Are The One You’ve Been Waiting For” if you’d like to learn more about the impact of early emotional wounds on intimate relationships.
1) These relationships make us feel good.
You find yourself connecting with particular people who soften that sense of being unlovable. They make you realize that you are worthy, and they help soothe that negative belief. These are all positive factors and good reasons to have these persons in your life. Unfortunately, when these individuals do anything that would trigger this underlying wound of being unlovable (e.g. your partner forgets a date, your friend complains about your behaviour), you feel vulnerable once again. That threat of being unlovable surges right back up.
2) These relationships reinforce our beliefs about ourselves.
These people makes you feel unlovable. Since you already believe this about yourself, your friends’ or partners’ behaviours and actions feel valid. This doesn’t mean you like how you are being treated. But, because you already hold this belief inside of you, you don’t have as much fight to push back or leave these folks. Instead, you are far more accepting and forgiving when you are treated like someone unlovable.
3) These relationship helps us find redemption.
I want to emphasize that it’s very hard to see this pattern when you are in it. From an unconscious place, you chose to be with individuals who are similar to your caregivers. Perhaps your partner is dismissive, prone to criticism, or harsh in his/her/their feedback. The hope here is that, if this person will find you lovable, this underlying wound will get better. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Being with this type of person tends to further reinforce the belief that you are unlovable.
Therapy to Process
Therapy provides a safe space for us to unpack and challenge these internalized negative messages. It helps us recognize that these messages are not the truth, but rather burdens that we’ve carried for far too long. Therapy allows us to confront these emotional burdens, process them, and ultimately let go of the weight they carry.
There are other several effective trauma-informed therapies that can help you unburden these wounds. In my practice, I use Internal Family Systems therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocess to support clients. EMDR can help you target specific memories from childhood when you felt unlovable. Clients start to process these memories using the help of bilateral stimulation. IFS, on the other hand, helps you build relationships with various parts of your psyche. We start getting to know those protective parts that avoid and soothe from pain. We help these parts build trust in your own capacity to manage present day situations. With increased internal trust, we then begin the steps to unburdening our exiled parts that believe they are unloveable.
Starting to like ourselves is not an overnight process. It requires patience, perseverance, and a commitment to our own growth and healing. With the help of therapy, you can rewrite your life story and embrace the likeable, lovable person that you truly are.
If you’re curious about the information above, or would like support in addressing this belief of being unlovable, reach out!