When you grow up feeling unlovable

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.

parents projecting traumas. Internalizing messages of feeling unlovable.

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:

helicopter parent. needing achievements in our kids. Psychological defense mechanism. projecting our own internal struggles onto our kids.

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.

IFS and firefighter behaviour. Attempts to soothe when triggered. Ways to cope can vary in extremity.

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.

Gay relationship. Positive relationship. Finding exile redemption through our intimate relationships. Healing the belief that I am unlovable.

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.

feeling unlovable in your relationship. Man feeling not seen by his partner. How childhood wounds impact our adult friendships and relationships

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.

therapy room. processing childhood wounds. Therapist of color. Helping people of all ages. feeling unlovable.

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.

Next Steps

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!

Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.

Using validation to improve your relationship

When it comes to some challenging relationships, we all recognize that miscommunications and frustration seem endless. It feels like every conversation hits a roadblocks, and both you and the other person walk away feeling hurt, pissed off, and unheard. So how do we work through these blocks so that we can improve our relationship with these individuals? Whether you are a family member, a partner, a friend, or a work colleague, validation is an incredibly simple and powerful skill that can help reduce conflict and improve your relationships.

What is validation?

Validation involves acknowledging how another person’s thoughts, behaviours, or actions make sense given the context. This means finding even the smallest piece of the other person’s argument that you can appreciate and find valid or reasonable. Not only do you need to recognize this understanding, but you’ll need to take the time to express that understanding to the other person.

Validation to improve your relationship. Kasi Shan Therapy offers counselling services online and in Kitchener, ON.
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

There might be some guess work when it comes to validation. After all, you can’t know for sure what a person is thinking or feeling unless they are actually stating these points. However, can you look at the situation with an empathetic perspective, and guess as to what may causing them to behave this way at this time? If not, can you ask them to help you understand why they feel so passionately about a certain stance?

Let’s take an example of parenting teenagers. Let’s say that, most recently, your arguments have been about curfew and arriving home on time. Typically, when you and your teens get into a conflict, it is the most exasperating conversation. It feels next to impossible to find any points that your teens are voicing that makes sense. In the end, you all end up screaming at one another, and the relationship stays rocky.

Validation to improve your relationship. Kasi Shan Therapy offers counselling services online and in Kitchener, ON.
Photo by Moose Photos on Pexels.com

If you could step back from the conflict at this moment, is there any understanding for why your teenagers want to push back a curfew time, and how that makes sense? If you were in your teens’ shoes, what might they be feeling? What does staying out later mean to them? What opportunities are they hoping to meet by staying out later? Would having a slightly later curfew mean more time with friends? Would it mean they feel like they belong in their peer group? Are they worried about not having time with their partners? What do they worry will happen if they don’t get to have this time? If they are worried about their social status, does it make sense that they are pissed off right now that they can’t stay out later? If they are wanting to spend time with their friends, and feel socially isolated right now, does it make sense that they are arguing so strongly?

Validation is not approval or agreement

Validation to improve your relationship. Kasi Shan Therapy offers counselling services online and in Kitchener, ON.

I tend to lose parents in trying to see things from their teens’ point of view because they worry that validation will mean approval or acceptance of their behaviour. And of course, at the end of the day, you don’t want to condone them to stay out later. You’re worried about what kind of trouble they’ll get into at later hours. You’re concerned about safety and whether their peers will be making responsible choices at this time. You’re tired of being anxious, and staying up late in order to ensure they’re coming home safely…. Did you notice what I just did there? I focused on validating how you may be feeling. I didn’t agree with you or claim that your point of view was correct. However, I focused on trying to find kernels of truth that I can appreciate from your point of view, and expressed how they are valid and reasonable. When you read these words of validation, how did they land with you? Did you get more upset or was there some softening on your part?

When we validate, it helps us shift out of stuck patterns of all-or-nothing thinking, where either you are right or the other person is right. When we are focused on findings things to validate, it forces us to pay attention to how an experience might be for another person. This can be tough because our natural instinct is to focus on our own emotions, thoughts and feel affronted that the other person “doesn’t get it.” By taking their perspective, it helps us move away from the extreme all-or-nothing framework that we often get caught in when we’re angry. Validation helps us shift into more dialectical thinking, teaching us that there can be more than one side to an argument.

Validation to improve your relationship. Kasi Shan Therapy offers counselling services online and in Kitchener, ON.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Once the emotional intensity goes down during an argument, there is more capacity to work together and find options that likely fall somewhere in the middle. When we express words of validation, the other person will feel more understood, and therefore, more amenable to talking. While the actual problem will still need to be addressed and resolved, you’re both more grounded in order to have a conversation that improves your relationship rather than cause harm.

When it comes to validation, I try and follow the rules of Dr. Adele LaFrance, founder of Emotion Focused-Family Therapy Dr. LaFrance recommends working validation in sets of threes, meaning, can you find three points to validate? Let’s assume that your partner is really angry that you didn’t wash the dishes. If you were to say the following validating statement to your partner, how do you imagine it would go?

I can really appreciate that you’re frustrated right now. (1) You’ve had a long day at work, and (2) you’ve been so excited to come home and relax, and (3) seeing the pile of dirty dishes would feel so cumbersome when you already feel so tired.

Notice how in the above statement, there was acknowledgement of how your partner may be feeling, thinking or behaving, and how you can genuinely empathize with these factors. If you’re feeling stuck with how to validate, try and begin with statements such as:

  • I can appreciate that you
  • I could understand how you…
  • I could imagine that..
  • It makes sense that…

Stuck places: When does it go wrong?

  • Not knowing what to validate: If you really feel stuck, and can’t guess what to validate, simply ask. Ask the person to help you understand why they feel this way or to explain why it’s so important that they push this specific agenda. By asking for clarification, it will give them a chance to express their feelings, and also provide you some opportunities for potential validation points.
  • Using BUT after you validate: There is no other way to kill a beautiful validating sentence than using “but”. It negates the initial positive statement, and focuses more on selling your point of view. It’s not that your point of view is wrong. However, validation is all about helping to lower the intensity of emotions so that the other person will be more willing to listen and work amicably. This won’t happen if you’re agenda is to convince them that you’re right (even though you may be right! Nevertheless, it doesn’t change their willingness to work with you).
  • Forgetting to be mindful of our tone and non-verbal cues: What’s the point of saying all these lovely words if we don’t express them in a genuine and gentle fashion? Your friend will not feel understood if you’re rolling your eyes and scoffing while you tell him/her/them that you get it. So check in on your external presentation. Can it soften? How is your volume? Does it need to lower? What is your body posture like? Is your tone clipped or curt? Can you express your interest in hearing what the other person has to say?

So the next time you find your in a stagnant conflict, give validation a try and let me know how it goes. As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out.