Martha Beck on Healing After a Loveless Childhood
Martha Beck: Aminah, I'm glad you made it! I know it's not easy with your schedule. So let's just jump right in: What's on your mind?
Aminah Akram: Lately I've been frustrated at work. I've had some run-ins with coworkers who were disrespectful—snapping at me or trying to tell me what to do. I wish I could let go of it, but I can't.
MB: When stuff like that nags at us, there's a reason. Sometimes it just means we need to get away from certain people, but often it's a sign that something needs to shift inside ourselves.
AA: They act like bullies. I can't tolerate it.
MB: Right now you're at a point in your life when you're preparing to break free and assert yourself. The funny thing is, as soon as we decide to up our game in terms of our self-esteem, people are put in our path to challenge us. It's just how God, or the intelligence of the universe, or whatever you want to call it, works.
AA: I don't feel like I have low self-esteem, though.
MB: When I say "self-esteem," it's not about disliking yourself. I mean that you have an expectation that people won't value you for what you're worth, and you'll always be the giver in your relationships.
AA: It's true. I've fallen into that pattern with many people in my life. Friends, men.
MB: I suspect that these episodes with your coworkers are bothering you because deep down, a part of you subconsciously believes that it's okay for them to treat you that way. Otherwise, you'd just dismiss them as crazy. But I also think little hairline fractures are appearing in that belief system of yours. You're here with me because at long last, you're ready for a relationship where someone gives back to you for a change.
AA: Absolutely, yes.
MB: If you're repeatedly having interactions with people who are inappropriate or selfish, something deeper is going on. What's so amazing about the mind is that whatever we expect on a subconscious level is what we create. So if you want to find the right partner, you have to not only know your own worth but also believe that someone out there will see it.
AA: Well, I haven't found that person yet.
MB: There's a flatness in your voice—the kind that comes from trying really hard and never succeeding.
AA: I think this probably goes back to my family, too.
MB: Say more.
AA: My mother and father weren't around when I was growing up. I guess I'm always trying to find the loving situation I never had.
MB: Who raised you?
AA: My sisters and I lived with my grandmother. Let's just say it was complicated. I didn't live with my mother until I was 14, when she married and settled down. She's here for me now, and she helps takes care of my daughter.
MB: I respect that, and I don't want to blame your mom or dad. It's not about that. But the fact is, they weren't there during a crucial period of your life. The loss or absence of a parent can leave a child feeling absolutely abandoned—and if a kid's emotional needs are never met, she tends to assume it's because she doesn't deserve it.
AA: I felt very alone during my childhood. I still do, even though I'm surrounded by people.
MB: Oh, honey. When you didn't get adequate affection and attachment as a kid, you came up with a brilliant solution: You thought, Hmm, there's no love available? Then I'll be the source for everyone. You learned to love without expecting anything in return, which is a very lonely place to be. I think we've uncovered something extremely important.
AA: Even my 10-year-old daughter notices my pattern. Recently, it was my day off, and I really didn't want to be running errands for everybody else. She said from the back seat, "Mommy, why don't you just say no?" It shocked me.
MB: Out of the mouths of babes! She said that because you raised her with love, so she's secure enough to say no. She understands that you don't have to be endlessly depleted to be worthy of love. When you think about your loneliness now, whether you're longing for a partner or not feeling well nourished by the people in your life, how old do you feel? Does a number come up?
AA: Actually, I feel about 10.
MB: That's probably an age when you experienced significant suffering, but no one noticed your pain.
AA: I do remember being very depressed.
MB: Until that 10-year-old is seen and treasured, you will walk with a limp emotionally. It's like having a broken leg that's never set by a doctor; when it heals by itself, you're hobbled. Until you reset your broken heart, your relationships will follow the pattern of what you learned to accept as a child.
AA: My grandmother did take care of us. She just wasn't a "give me a hug" kind of person. I think that's why hugs mean so much to me today.
MB: The softness and sweetness you'd give your own kids wasn't there for you. But as an adult, you can offer your child self the understanding she didn't get. There's an exercise you might try later—it's adapted from the book Homecoming, by John Bradshaw, which I'd recommend. Take a pencil in your preferred hand—are you right-handed?
MB: So with your right hand, you'd write to that little girl, "Hello, sweetheart. How are you today?" Then with your left hand, write down whatever comes to mind. Let her "talk" while you listen. I think you might find it very helpful. However, reparenting your younger self isn't something you can do alone. You need nurturing and attention from people around you as well. What helped me immensely was group therapy, which you mentioned in our last session. I spent three years in a group of women who made me feel very cared for.
AA: Yes, I was in a group for a short period last summer and enjoyed it. I need to find another one.
MB: It's less expensive than one-on-one therapy, and for you, I think it would be more powerful. That setting forces you to accept positive feedback, companionship—all the things you need to expect for yourself. I'd love to see you in a community like that because I'd like you to practice being loved in a fair way.
AA: What would that mean?
MB: The kid inside you believes no one will pay heed to her feelings, but in the group, she can be heard and witnessed and validated. She has a family of sorts. She deserves that. Imagine if your own kids were going through what you did.
AA: I vowed I'd always be there for them.
MB: And by God, you have been. Now it's time to reparent yourself. When that wound heals, Aminah, I promise you're going to find the relationship you've been looking for.
AA: You think so?
MB: Abso-frickin-lutely. But to find the man, you have to take care of the little girl first.
Martha Beck is the author of, most recently, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening.