When you were a child, perhaps the love you were shown by one or more of your caregivers was confusing because it was not consistent, unconditional, or pure in intention. Now as an adult, the mixed messages and inauthentic actions that you continue to observe help make sense of what was likely always there. What you are being shown is not unconditional love. It never was.
Perhaps there are times when we all need to make choices around self-preservation and self-love. We may need to ‘let go’ of the wishful thinking that someone could be kinder in their words or not ‘two-faced’ – acting as though they care when really they are just making the obligatory small talk – or perhaps feeding their own selfish need to feel good about their relationship with you. Perhaps it is enough that we take care of our own needs, honouring what would be best for us – even if it means spending much less time in the company of others whose professed ‘love’ of us is self-serving at best.
These are real life stories; they exist for real people. We cannot just assume that because we are ‘family’ that each member wants to or is able to love us without conditions. Rather than compromise who we are, give in to societal pressures, or lose our self in the quest for approval based on someone else’s subjective and limited views, why not first acknowledge what you see and feel. Validating your experience doesn’t mean it will change anything. But it will help you to make sense of what love is not.
Perhaps one person’s story of a childhood of “conditional” love will help explain what too many of us have experienced. Perhaps you or someone you know can also relate and through reading this, know that you are not alone.
“I watch closely but I do not feel love. I hear the words “I love you” but they are empty. Sometimes the words spoken carry a weight of expectation: they are spoken in order to hear the same in return. I can feel it. I watch the look on their face when I say the words back and they are satisfied, like an addict that has just found their fix. Love is indeed a drug to those who do not know what it means to love themselves.
I realize that words without truth are just words. They are confusing at best because they are empty. They do not give me comfort nor do I feel cared for. I am left confused – as if something is missing. Imagine a lifetime of this. How I come to know love is through the love that exists within me – what I feel inside is love felt easily, naturally when I can be around animals – when I can feel and experience unconditional love in my love for my pets. They return my love. (As do certain extended family members whom I feel a genuine warmth and an unconditional love from whenever I see them.) My pets return my love. This feels wonderful …but most of all it feels REAL. No words – just the experience of real love from within – expressed by me and also felt – reciprocated – in the instinctual behaviours of my pets directed toward me. My love given and received by another living being – unconditionally – validates my experience of what genuine love is.
As with all kids, I learned to read the body language and facial expressions of my primary caregivers. Perhaps most crucial – I could feel the energy attached to the words someone spoke. Almost like a human ‘lie detector’, I was able to know instinctively when the words someone spoke were congruent and authentic with their true feelings – and when it was not.”
This is how we know truth. Words spoken are not always truthful. In fact, we hide behind our words – spoken to cover our true feelings because it is safer – easier – and because it is what we have simply been conditioned to do. When you continue to communicate with words that are not backed in (your) truth, you will continue to feel empty inside. This is where the sadness comes from even though you may not realize it is building, growing – perhaps for years – inside you.
Words without truth are empty. They die in the space between being uttered from someone’s lips even before they reach you.
As a child there is NO “off switch”. Children learn how to guard and protect themselves only after many repetitions of being hurt, experiencing ongoing betrayals of trust, and of course through physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. These are the experiences that teach us not to trust, that love is uncertain, conditional, and unsafe when ‘delivered’ by certain people.
As a child your tap simply “flows” with love. You don’t know how to ‘shut it off’. You LEARN to close your heart in self protection and self preservation because if there is no escape from the ongoing harm of lies, hurts, or abuse, you must find a way to survive.
I hear many stories from clients who were emotionally, physically, and also sexually abused by the people they placed all of their trust and love in. These were people who I believe as parents had the most important job on the planet but failed to see it as so.
As a human race, we have all experienced conditional love. The difference is that some parents make the conscious decision to not treat their children as they were treated; and that it is up to them to love themselves – to heal themselves first – before repeating the cycle.
When you return to your childhood home – whether it is to visit those same caregivers or to reunite with extended family at holidays and special occasions – the ability to intuitively perceive whether there is real love or just empty words – carries much weight. As an adult you no longer have to feel uncomfortable, sad, hurt, “wronged”, betrayed, or a lack of belonging – even though you likely will.
Our feelings (and the situations in which we have been wronged) remain buried deep inside us – buried because that was all that we could do with them as a child. Buried because they were just too frequent and damaging for us to make sense of them at the time. Burying the hurt allowed us to carry on – to function in hopefully the best way possible – while always hoping, wishing – that what was told to us (when there were kind words) …was really true.
As an adult, one of the best ways to acknowledge any of the painful memories of your past is to open them; to look inside and see what is true. Find a means of first validating and then reconstructing the discrepancy between what you were told (e.g. empty words, lies, manipulation) and the truth. Once you can begin to make sense of what confusion you felt but could likely not explain nor understand (as a young child) – what inauthentic actions and hurtful words your caregivers did and said that made no sense, then you can begin to release – ”to shed” – this pain.
These vast incongruencies meant that you were “right” to feel confused, sad, and uncared for, at the mixed messages of love, for its inconsistencies, for love being withheld, for the inappropriate and disproportionate degree of punishment (aka discipline) that were based on your caregivers inability to contain their rage, frustration, or overwhelmed feelings. All of these examples were not love.
As adults, we are (in most cases) biologically able to have offspring. We are not always so able to offer the emotional security, unconditional love, and care that a child requires. Or – as in most cases – we are able to offer this some of the time.
We need to examine our own childhood long before we contemplate having children. We need to first make a commitment to heal our own past, (from abusive homes and parents who gave us conditional love (if love at all). We need to return to our childhood through the eyes of our ‘inner child’ and see what damage has been done – not for the purpose of blame and finger pointing, but out of the ability to heal past actions through understanding that the times when we didn’t feel the congruency of being loved – indeed we were “right” .
As an adult, if we remain observant to the actions of our former caregivers, we will be shown the accurate ‘proof’ of what was true. It offers the inner child in all of us validation for all of the feelings felt when there was no explanation for why we were feeling them. It also provides an understanding for all of the (years of) sadness, mistrust, and our reservation for letting our guard down with them now. In the presence of these former caregivers and everyone else who acts inauthentic and dishonest – now you know the truth. To know the truth will be enough to heal you.
THE PROACTIVE SOLUTIONS?
For some of us who are exploring the relationship with our inner child – (the inner part of ourselves that we recognize was hurt or wounded at a earlier age) – and because our inner child was without the adequate love, nurturing, protection, safety, kindness, etc to navigate through that particular experience successfully (aka without lingering emotional dissension or trauma) you may wish to return to a particular time in your mind where you experienced a past incident. Using visualization, allow your younger (inner child) self to speak ‘their’ mind. Allowing them to have a “voice” offers empowerment, and a way of acknowledging the wrongness of the past. Having an inner conversation with your younger self where you allow your true thoughts and feelings to surface gives your inner child strength and the power to change the outcome by going back in time. In your visualization, see the outcome you want – make it different! (There is great healing in visualizing a different outcome while feeling the effects of what you are seeing in your mind.) Let your inner child be heard, loved, validated, given fair treatment. This is how we can wrong what has happened in the past. This is what is meant by “taking back” or “reclaiming the self”.
Secondly, as an adult, it is up to you to speak honestly whenever you see (or sense) incongruence or in genuine behaviour. (If you sense something is not congruent to what you are being told there is a strong likelihood that you are receiving what is not perhaps being spoken but is nonetheless there). Speaking your truth is not to prove that your hunch is correct – it is to simply give your feelings a voice. Speaking your truth never guarantees that someone will change, admit the truth, apologize, etc. Speaking up with firm kindness and compassion simply gives you a window into the past – into acknowledging what is (and what you believe to be true) and for holding others accountable to their behaviours. It means that you have acknowledged what you are witness to in that moment even if they cannot. Notice how this step is enough to help you make your own peace with who they still are…and some of the past.
An Afternote or two…
The more inner work you do to be authentic and truthful, the more it will bother and even upset you when others are acting inauthentic.
Parents who themselves were mistreated or given “conditonal” love often seek love through their children – realizing their young children will love them “no matter what”. Because of this parents can ‘get away with’ being quick to anger, using harsh words to manipulate or scold when not obeyed. Parents can enforce what action they demand through guilt, bribery, and by withholding love or through punishment. There can be no trust gained for these caregivers for two main reasons: one being that these parents may still continue to act out in ways that are harmful and that inflict wounds. Second, if the damage is deep, their adult children will always be cautious, careful, and guarded – to not become prey to the habits of the past.
Parents have different relationships with each child because they are different people at each birth – and at each stage of child rearing. How inexperienced parents raise their first child will be substantially different than how they raise future children. Who that child is in their ‘nature’ and ‘personality’ also greatly affects the relationship a parent has with each child. Even though you may be in the same family of multiple siblings – each of your siblings experiences throughout childhood will be significantly different. Having older siblings to help (or hinder) a child’s experiences in their family of origin also plays another important role in their experience growing up.
For those of you seeking to make amends, to dialogue, communicate, seek understanding and an improved quality of relationship with your adult parent, realize that this may not be possible – not because you aren’t making a genuine effort or that your desire is not great enough – but for the same reasons that your caregiver’s behaviour existed in the first place. Your parents may not be capable of letting go of their ‘stories’ and the misperceptions that have served them so well. They may become defensive to your honesty and candidness – being triggered by the wounds of their own childhood. They may become enraged, resorting to the same type of behaviour you witnessed so many times in childhood: and they may lash back – causing your ‘inner child’ wounds to be felt all over again.
This is why much of the work in healing the inner child – or simply your adult self – is done without the presence of these caregivers. It is safer without their presence or involvement and the healing may happen best when you can give your (inner child) self what you need in order to heal rather than hope or wait on your needs to come from a place where it has already been proven that it never can.
In the end, you may decide to have a very different – perhaps far more distant relationship with your adult caregiver. In cases where the abuse and emotional and physical neglect were extreme – there is really no room for anything of substance (or depth). These caregivers themselves are stuck in the emotional habits of blame – of not being willing to look at their own actions, nor are they willing to truly seek the change that is needed to heal themselves so that they can cultivate a healthy dynamic. This limits any growth that could potentially happen.
What remains is your choice – whether to allow them a simple place in your life, or not at all.