As the scapegoat children of narcissists, we know how it feels to feel unloved. We know what it feels like to want to be loved and to feel its absence from our earliest memories.
Many of us spend our lives seeking the love withheld from us by our selfish, narcissistic parent(s) using a variety of largely unsuccessful techniques…I say they are largely unsuccessful because few people who actually feel loved find themselves reading a blog like this one.
The problem with growing up feeling unloved is that when we go out seeking to be loved, we don’t know what it is we are looking for. Having felt only its absence, how will we know when we have found what we are looking for?
What does it feel like, to feel loved? Would you know it when you felt it? Or would you, like I did, mistake something that felt comfortably familiar for it? Do you have a list in your head of what it would feel like to be loved? Do you use that list to guide not only how to recognize if someone else loves you, but as a way to show love to others?
One of the problems we face is that of subjectivity. What feels like love to one person does not feel loving to another. That not only means that what feels like love to one ACoN does not feel like love to another ACoN, it also means that what feels like love to me may not feel like love to you…or to my husband or to my kids or to anyone else on the planet. And while this may well be true of “normies” as well, I suspect that they probably have a clearer, more accurate sense of what it feels like to be loved than we do.
I grew up with the sense that love hurt. Unless my heart was wrung with anxiety and even a bit of fear, whatever I was feeling was not, I believed, love. My comfort zone included a dynamic in which I had to earn the love of my partner through excellence: being the best cook, lover, housekeeper (that one was really tough for me because I hate housework), most obedient and even anticipating the desires/needs of my partner and spoiling him. It means keeping my kids quiet and out of the way unless they were on their best behaviour, and demanding nothing in return…fidelity and love would be my reward if I was good enough.
Of course, this failed. And my failure generated a lot of fights because I perceived this as my partner’s expectations, and that they were unreasonable (then I married a malignant narcissist and those actually were his expectations and they were still unreasonable.) We would fight because I was stressed by the unreasonable expectations and my partner’s failure to live up to his end of my one-way unspoken bargain: to be faithful and to love me in a way I could feel loved. Because throughout all of this, despite having set up a paradigm in which I was supposed to be able to finally earn my partner’s love and then actually feel loved, it never happened. And no wonder, since I was going about it all wrong…
It took a long time and a lot of therapy to realize that, until I loved me…flaws and all…that I could not feel love from another person. And that was key…it didn’t matter if another person loved me or not because I was in a situation in which I could not feel loved, and what I identified as what I needed in order to feel loved was way off base. I was working against myself…no matter what I tried, I did not ever make the effort to love myself as I was because it actually never occurred to me. I thought that would come when someone else loved me and I felt loved…I needed outside validation—the love of another person—before I could allow myself to love me.
One of my biggest epiphanies came when I realized that without respect there is no love. A person who does not respect you and your very humanness does not love you. Oh, s/he may be obsessed with you, but without respect, there is no love. We mistake many things for love: obsession, passion, need, even fear…but the single most important component of love is respect for it is from respect that compassion and empathy grow, and without those, love is simply not possible.
We know what it feels like to feel unloved and some of us, simplistically, believe that whatever makes us feel unloved, the opposite will make us feel loved. For the most part, this is incorrect. This is like thinking that if we do the opposite of what our narcissistic parents did, we will be good parents and loved by our children: nope…extremes don’t work whether it is the extreme of non-nurturing narcissistic parenting or its opposite number of smothering and indulging a child’s every whim. And it doesn’t work for love, either, especially when you consider that, growing up conditioned to feel “normal” in being disrespected and unloved, the opposite might feel cloying and even mocking. Why? Because, simply, we don’t know how to handle it and we aren’t very experienced at accepting true expressions of love. We may even be suspicious of someone who treats us with the respect and kindness every human being deserves because we did nothing to earn it.
We may also find simple, honest love to be “boring.” How many times do you hear men lament that they are stuck in the “friend zone” because the women they meet are attracted to the “bad boy” type, the players, the men who will inevitably break their hearts? This is a manifestation of love being perceived as a competition, something to win: a woman who wins and weds a “bad boy” perceives herself as better than the women who failed to do so, never mind that people don’t change for other people and the marriage will likely be fraught with tension as she must keep up the competition indefinitely…just because he is married doesn’t mean he is necessarily tamed. Does she feel loved? Probably not…she feels victorious but the competition never really ends…as long as there are other women out there, the competition continues.
So what is it you think you need from someone else to feel loved? Can you analyse it honestly and determine whether or not you would actually feel like you were loved if you had it? I know that in my case, it didn’t matter what another person felt about me, until I could perceive myself as being worthy of love…which meant loving myself including my flaws…nothing another person could do would make me feel loved. I would have been uncomfortable with lavish displays of affection, embarrassed, even. I would have been very suspicious, thinking I was being led along until the big reveal, in which I would be humiliated and abandoned. Because I didn’t feel I was lovable, I not only didn’t love me, I couldn’t believe anyone else could truly love me, which meant those who declared they did were just leading me on, manipulating me, or otherwise trying to take advantage of me. This went for family members as well as romantic partners. Out of desperation I had allowed myself to be fooled a few times when I was young, and the bitter lessons stuck tight.
I didn’t come to love myself during therapy, but I was able to see that loving myself first was the key to feeling loved and internally accepting it. I had mellowed a great deal, no longer perceiving insults where they did not exist, and able to shrug off those that were real. Over the next years I came to view myself realistically…I began to see and embrace truth…and to recognize that having flaws is simply part of the human condition and not a barrier to love or being loved. I let go of the idea that I had to be perfect by some other person’s definition in order to be worthy of love and I also gave up the notion that I could remodel an unsatisfactory man into the man I wanted to love. It eventually manifested into an understanding of acceptance…that I must accept a person as he is and he must accept me as I am…as a key component of love.
I found, eventually, that what I needed to feel loved was to feel respected and accepted just as I was…by me. It didn’t mean I couldn’t recognize and work on character flaws…it simply meant those flaws did not render me unworthy of love, respect and acceptance, including my own. All of the things I thought I needed…beauty, wit, accomplishment, being “the best”…none of them truly mattered because I had achieved them all, in one way or another, and they had not changed anything about my feelings about myself.
What I eventually discovered is that my mother always found me wanting and I had adopted that mindset. A report card of 4 As and 2Bs should have been all As…and when the straight A report cards came, then I was found wanting because I had not been producing them all along. My hair was too straight, my posture unacceptable, my feet flat, my shapely legs marred with eczema. If I spoke like my peers, I was exhibiting lazy speech; if I spoke correctly I was being pretentious. To not have my chores done perfectly was to be defiant and lazy; to have them done perfectly was to be angling to get something from her. I came away from my childhood feeling fat, ugly, stupid, manipulative, unworthy, and of the opinion that if I was to get anything even resembling love, I couldn’t pass up any opportunity, and to get what I wanted from another person, I was going to have to fight for it.
And yet I went into relationships expecting to be loved and respected just as I was. Of course, by picking the wrong kinds of people—often immature and/or narcissistic men like my NM—I guaranteed that I would not get what I expected and wanted, and then I would have to either fight for it or go outside of the relationship for it…and sometimes both. Years of this type of interaction ultimately wore me down until I was suicidal and leapt into therapy with both feet, a lifeline at a time I was rapidly losing the battle.
What did I need to feel loved? What did it mean to me? For me, I ultimately discovered that feeling loved by someone else was secondary: I could not accept love from another without being suspicious of it until I was able to love myself, accept myself, accept that my flaws were simply part of my human condition and not barriers to respect, love and acceptance. Eventually I found that by being able to love and accept myself as having value and worth, despite my flawed condition, I was able to believe that others could love me as well. I learned to expect respect and acceptance from others before I would believe their declarations of love—how many times had I believed a man loved me when, in fact, he merely wanted something from me or wanted to remake me into the perfect woman according to his definition. Ultimately, I discovered that when a person tries to change me, he is not respecting me or accepting me and, once you truly accept and respect yourself, you really aren’t willing to accept anything less from others.
So what is it that you need to feel like you are loved. Do you have fantasies of when you are pretty enough or accomplished enough or smart enough, then someone will love you? Or have you learned that first you must love yourself, warts and all, before you can actually feel the love of another?
It is, I have discovered, a key part of healing and feeling whole.