I’ve always questioned why I’m “like this”. Ever since I can remember, I’ve wondered why I associate love with fear and anxiety. Why, when (even as an adult) I thought, “I want my Mommy” I knew instinctively that I would not be comforted.
Turns out this is because I have what’s considered an anxious/avoidant attachment style. This comes from earliest childhood when attachments with primary care givers are formed. Inconsistency from the primary caregiver can impact brain development and foster an insecure attachment.
In insecure or anxious attachment, a child will often express need for the caregiver but then not be able to make eye contact. The child will be upset by the absence of the caregiver, yet not be soothed when the caregiver returns. The child learns that while her needs will most times be met, there is great inconsistency in the process. This creates an anxious and fearful child. One who learns that comfort and love are conditional.
Bartholomew’s Two Dimensional Model of Attachment
This entire thought process came about because I saw an article Tuesday about unloved daughters attracting narcissists.
This article was total click-bait, but I was waiting at an appointment that was already running late and left my book at home, so I clicked it.
I mean, I knew I spent the first seventeen years of my adult life being married to a narcissist, but was it because I was unloved?
I thought about my mother.
(Let’s face it, my father was absentee and would rather smoke weed, snort coke, and party in discos than be a dad. And his narcissistic shenanigans didn’t really noticeably impact me until I was an adult.)
My mom was my primary care giver. My mom is the one who stuck it out and raised us. My mom is the one who made sacrifices so we could have, and do, and be more.
I have never once doubted that my mother loved me.
(Even the year of my fifteenth birthday when she signed a card ‘Mommy’ instead of the standard, ‘I love you, Mommy’. It was the only time there was proof of her withholding love because she was angry with me.)
Obviously, her actions weren’t always indicative of that love.
She was cruel in the things she said. She placed a great deal of responsibility on me at a young age. She always shut me down when I expressed my thoughts or creativity. She was critical and quick to strike. She had such unrealistic expectations of me that I was always falling short. My brother was the golden child and I was the responsible one.
I grew up knowing that my mother’s love was conditional. That if I pleased her, or met her expectations, I would be loved. I learned to over-function so I’d be sure to get some love even if I didn’t do everything “right” or “well enough”.
I learned that I was not to be loved simply because I’m me. I was to be loved for what I could do, how I could function.
In doing research on this topic to create better understanding in myself, I came across Peg Streep’s blog, knotted.
This chick knows my soul.
She writes that the unloved child longs for specific things even as an adult.
The things she lists are as follows:
to feel safe
to be understood
to be accepted
to simply be
to be loved for who she is
This is me in six little lines.
Is this why I love so fiercely?
Is it because I don’t exactly know what it feels like to be safe in love?
So it seems that because these patterns are set in childhood, however self-aware one becomes, they are extremely difficult to break. This is because brains are pattern-seeking. And once brain patterns are developed, they can be altered, but those created in earliest childhood will always remain.
These patterns are in my brain. This insecure and anxious attachment. Actively (albeit unconsciously) committing self-sabotage because those deepest patterns are where I lived for so long.
I sought similar situations because they were familiar. Because I understood how to function in them. Of course, I was unaware of this at the time.
I married a man who lead me to believe he wanted nothing more than to take good care of me and give me babies. He was stable and reliable and consistent. All the things I’d been searching for without really understanding it.
Only it was a ruse. He manipulated me from the beginning.
He belittled me the same way my mother had.
His passive aggression was the stuff of legend. Gaslighting was a thing I experienced before I ever knew there was a word for it. Manipulations so subtle that I didn’t even realize what was happening.
I suspected it wasn’t meant to be this way, but because it felt familiar I didn’t question it. I drank the kool aid we made and I even served it to other people.
I learned the hard way not to question what was going on. His rage was epic. His ability to twist my words made me question my sanity. I was suffering from insomnia and chronic migraine pain. I was weak and helpless.
I turned my focus to my girls. To love them so fully they’d never have to question it. To keep them safe always. To protect them from the way their father treated me.
I remember the exact moment I realized that I was not the crazy one. Yet, I stupidly tried to talk with him about it.
I functioned from a place of fear and anxiety. It negatively impacted my health. It negatively impacted my daughters.
All these years later, I’m only beginning to understand that I made the choices I did because I felt unloved as a child.
The guilt inside me is overwhelming. The powerful urge to deny this treatment. My initial instinct is to quickly defend my mother. She loved me. She did everything she could on her own. Blah blah blah. Saying these things out loud, writing them here, it feels like a betrayal of epic proportions.
Only, that’s just how it goes for women (and men) who grew up like me. We spend our entire lives protecting the ones who abused us. That word made my stomach turn. Abuse is a big, scary, bad word. And to outsiders, my childhood, and marriage to the former husband, never looked like abuse. And for most of my life it didn’t look like abuse to me. Only it is abuse. And it’s horrific.
An unloved daughter is trained not to talk about what she thinks or feels. Everyone around her quick to tell her why she’s wrong. Quick to tell her how ungrateful she is. Quick to blame her and be sympathetic to her abuser.
If we don’t talk about it we can’t heal. And healing is of the utmost importance. I am actively attempting to learn self-compassion. Not pity. But honest, healing, compassionate love for myself.
This discovery has had me questioning everything the last few days.
Did I do this to my girls? Are they damaged by me? Did I abuse them? Did I protect them enough from their father? Do they see him for who he really is? Did they know this about me innately, before I ever even had a clue?
Did I specifically choose YBW because he’s not like this? Did I choose him because I question his desire and commitment to build a life with me? Am I simply sabotaging us to create my self-fulfilling prophesy that I’m not special or worthy of anyone’s love?
I’ve sat with these feelings since about eight o’clock Tuesday morning. I’ve struggled to research and understand. I’ve struggled to process and write. And that’s saying a great deal as I’ve damaged the tendons in my thumb and cannot hold a pencil. That means I cannot journal this.
I’ve talked with Jessica at length. Against my better judgment, I even talked with YBW about how I’m thinking and feeling. With one teeny exception of cracking an inappropriate joke, he surprised me and was a kind, loving, and wonderful listener.
Without doubt, I’ll be having this conversation with my therapist next week.
I feel as though I should have it with my girls too. Because if I am either abusive, or simply crazy, they have a right to know why.
I feel like I’m betraying my mother by saying I’m an unloved daughter.
That feels absolutely wretched.
But you know what feels amazing?
Finally beginning to understand why I’m “like this”.
As Albus Dumbledore said,
“Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.”
Dumbledore knew what was up.