When I was three years old, my parents decided that they no longer wanted to be together. It was confusing and upsetting for me. I wasn’t old enough to realize that it was their shortcoming rather than my own and I began to believe that I must not be loveable. I adjusted to this belief by assuming that the only way that I could be safe was to keep my distance from people and be on guard for messages related to the probability that I was not loveable. I also overcompensated by constantly trying to earn love from people even though I didn’t trust them.
I was extremely ambivalent about relationships. I told myself the following story (mostly unaware that I was doing so). “Mom and dad had left because I wasn’t lovable enough. I need to work real hard to make people like me so that other people I meet will not leave. I won’t be loved for who I am but if I work hard enough, they might at least want to spend time with me. However, I should be cautious and not completely vulnerable because people can’t be trusted fully and will eventually leave. Also, I should not burden others with my own thoughts and feelings or they might leave sooner.”
The above narrative was written by John who had initially sought therapy due to an anxiety disorder. John was experiencing significant anxiety symptoms when preparing presentations for work. The anxiety was worsening when he contacted me. By doing an assessment of the thoughts that accompanied his anxiety, I noticed that a fear of rejection was among them.
While teaching him skills for managing anxiety, I learned the facts of John’s early childhood experiences and how they impacted his self-concept. As you read above, John had believed that his parents were rejecting him at the time of his parent’s divorce. His father had moved out of the family home and his mother, overwhelmed with increased responsibilities as a single mom, had been much less available. In many ways, he lost both his parents at the same time.
As a three year old, John’s cognitive development was still characterized by egocentrism. He was unable to think abstractly and put himself into other people’s shoes. Therefore, he made assumptions that although understandable, were incorrect. He often repeated a “story” to himself that went something like, “It is important for me to work hard to help mom out so she won’t be mad at me when she comes home from work. I shouldn’t expect her to want to spend much time with me and if I’m not real careful, she will leave too.”
John was also very sensitive and intuitive. He was highly aware of his mother’s moods and highly reactive to his own pain as well. He developed avoidant strategies to cope with his sensitivities. Starting at a young age, he attempted to manage his mother’s feeling by his own behaviors. He also was attempting to avoid his own hurt feelings by acting like he was coping well.
Although the beliefs behind John’s thoughts and behaviors were inaccurate, they were functional in that they probably did help him react in a way that brought praise from his parents. He appeared to them to be adjusting well. He rarely complained, was very helpful around the house even at a young age and was quite affectionate. The sad and ironic thing about this is that, because they both did love him dearly, they desperately wanted to believe that he would be okay. This caused them to selectively focus on how well he seemed to be adjusting. They didn’t want to think about how they may have hurt him. His parents had no idea that the motivation for his actions was actually fear based or that he was telling himself that he was unlovable.
As John grew into adolescence, he repeated to himself the story of his childhood and projected it onto relationships. He had formed very strong neural pathways related to these thoughts. John was more aware of the part of the story that he told himself about being helpful and attentive than he was the part of the story that implied that he was unlovable and that people would usually leave. People were initially quite drawn to John due to his attentive and affectionate manner. Overtime, however, they would recognize that the relationship didn’t deepen and was quite one-sided. John was oblivious to the reasons that his relationships seemed to taper off since he thought he was doing everything he should and could do.
I was hesitant to reveal myself fully since I “knew” that others would probably reject me. When they did, I believed that it reinforced the truth of my childhood. This belief became so much a part of me that it was like a chronic feeling operating even when I was unaware that it was in my thoughts. Every time I met someone, I was somewhat reserved regardless of the way that they were interacting with me. I would be generous and attentive but rarely talked about my own feelings or needs. I didn’t realize at the time that the beliefs I had formed years ago made me interact in such a way that resulted in making trustworthy people more likely to leave. I believed that they were leaving because I was inherently unlovable not because of the way I was acting in the present moment. It was a downward spiral that left me trying harder and harder to be attentive without expecting anything in return; yet being rejected anyway. Deep down, I believed that I would be alone forever.
He was totally unaware that his earlier formed narrative kept him from being really honest with people and that in fact, it was causing people to feel less interested in him over time as they sensed that they couldn’t really get to know him. Similarly, if someone did express love to John, he actually felt anxiety since he believed that it wouldn’t last. He was likely to deflect the love which then led to the other person feeling confused and even rejected. The story that John had been living by was actually creating the very scenario that he was trying so hard to avoid; being abandoned. This story was ruining his life.
The story that John had told himself from the age of three and its usefulness had become obsolete. I helped John to conduct a thorough assessment of the beliefs that he formed in childhood. He was then able to begin the journey of reevaluating those beliefs and training his brain to develop new ways of thinking about himself and relationships.
Once John developed a fundamental understanding of this process, he wrote a new story:
I realize now that no three year old has the power to keep parents together who have decided to separate, no matter how loveable he is. I also realize that all children have worth and need stability. As I look back at how hard I tried to earn my parent’s love, I see a person with a huge capacity for empathy, commitment, and love that I’ve never acknowledged. I realize that my parents didn’t actually leave me, they left each other. They, in fact, both continued to give me messages that I was loved but they were too difficult for me to believe given my assumptions. I have much to offer people with whom I choose to be in relationship. I can interact with confidence and expect that most people will see and appreciate my genuinely positive characteristics. Some of these people will get to know me well enough to love me and stay.
Although admittedly it takes a while to rewire the brain, John was able to start acting according to his new story even at times when the old feelings and beliefs would resurface. As with John, the stories that we create often cause us to make assumptions that then turn into self-fulfilling prophesies. The tragedy is that if we don’t reevaluate the early assumptions, they become further reinforced sometimes leading to repeated disappointments in relationships and failure to achieve goals or pursue interests. The path out of this downward spiral is to become conscious of your story and begin reevaluating your beliefs so that you can have the life that was meant for you. I would love to hear from you. Please scroll down to the bottom of this page (past the banner of recent posts) to leave a comment.