Childhood lays the foundation for self-esteem. Children reach out for comfort and affection when they’re scared, sad, and hurt, needing to feel loved and appreciated by their caregivers. Sometimes, their caregivers are vicious, exaggerating their inadequacies to them when labeling their characters. You don’t just mess up; you’re stupid. You didn’t just fail; you’re a failure. These criticisms are quickly internalized and carried into adulthood. On the other end, when our needs are neglected, and our attempts at gaining our parents’ affection are futile, we automatically personalize, blaming ourselves for our inability to gain their approval; nothing we do is ever good enough. Therefore, we assume that we aren’t good enough. Seeing other children with loving parents reinforces this belief. If their parents love them and mine don’t love me, after myriad attempts, it has to be that I’m unlovable. Attempts to change our parents are evident in both types of relationships and in relationships with parents who are both abusive and neglectful. The child in these relationships may come to believe that affection is conditional, if ever at some point attained, or impossible for them.
We see ourselves in our roles as children and our parents in their roles as caregivers, but don’t know of the broader patterns of their personalities. If mom is mom and dad is dad, then they’re supposed to love me, unless they can’t. And if they can’t, it must be my fault. Children tend to perceive mistreatment through the lens of their own wrongdoing because they can’t conceive of others harming or neglecting them, essentially mistreating them, unjustly. In their worlds, life is fair; thus, they must have deserved their punishment.
To take a deeper look inside their parents’ minds would give us a glimpse into the characters behind the roles. A dad is a dad unless he can’t be, which is true. If that parent was himself abused and/or neglected, he may have developed a personality style that made loving you impossible. Again, we only see them in their roles and through the lenses of our expectations. It took me years to accept that my own father was a high-level narcissist incapable of love, because, as with most other children in my situation, I blamed myself. If I ever caught a glimpse into his relationships, and had a deeper knowledge of psychology, I may have accepted that he didn’t love me, but only because he couldn’t. Plus, I was a pretty adorable kid.