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How we can heal from absent parenting.

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

How can we mother ourselves?

When we are young we depend on our caregivers for survival. We are unable to feed ourselves or regulate ourselves in anyway. Our parents’ role is to nurture us and provide for us physically and emotionally. But what happens if the person that we depend upon is unavailable emotionally or incapable of providing for our needs? If our caregivers are emotionally or physically unavailable when we are children then by an act of nature we are programmed to cry out, and to alert them to the fact that we need physical or emotional attention. We look to them to provide comfort and when they are not there emotionally, or physically, then we have a choice; we can either fend for ourselves, once we are able, or enter a state of helpless collapse. Either way we feel an absence where there should be nurturing and love.

Growing up and as adults we then may become avoidant of others out of mistrust; we push people away. What we are unconsciously saying is, “you can’t give me any love and support. I can do this by myself as I have always done.” Or we become anxious; “I want love and support from you. I’ll do anything to get your love and attention.” In this way we become clingy and fearful of losing others instead of pushing away. When a caregiver has severe mental health issues; when they cannot function in our normal world, then they often struggle to form emotional secure attachments to their children. This is not to lay blame; this is simply what happens. My mother was battling the voices in her head, the voices that led her to self harm, suicide attempts, phobias and OCD. How could she then raise her children to become secure and free from anxiety when she was none of those things?

When our parents have been abused and their parents before them there is attachment wounding and trauma throughout the generations. This is difficult to overcome. When we feel a deep hurt we can sometimes pass on the pain we feel implicitly. We don’t knowingly do this but by being emotionally unavailable to our kids or by being anxious this perpetuates the cycle of trauma.

Our caregivers also help to give us a mental representation of ourselves; they help us to build a picture of who we are. This is not always a true picture. If we are told constantly that we are “useless, lazy, a bad child” then eventually we will believe it. A secure attachment with our caregivers help us to ‘mentalise.’ This is the process of imagining how others might feel or act. Yet in kids without a secure attachment they are not taught to do this. Growing up with a parent who has personality disorders and who is suffering from social and cognitive impairment due to their own neglect or abuse can impact our sense of self and how we relate to the world and others.

Given this then, if a caregiver has an inability to understand their child’s state or imagine how the child may be feeling then it is left to the child to interpret their own states or to explain to the parent how they are feeling. If so then what we have is role reversal. Furthermore, an insecurely attached child can trigger the parents insecure attachments and feelings of shame or anxiety can arise within the caregiver. This can lead to further neglect and shaming the child. The child will want to avoid this at all costs and will exclude from themselves any emotions that dysregulate the caregiver. How can we begin to heal the fractures that lack of attachment has caused?

Allowing ourselves to ‘feel’ is crucial. If it hurts then feel it. If you are sad, angry and frustrated then close your eyes and allow yourself to feel those feelings. So many of us numb through alcohol or drug dependency because we are afraid to feel the deep hurt within. Yet those feelings will never go away unless we allow ourselves to feel the hurt. Yes, it’s going to be difficult but the only way that we can acknowledge the pain inside is to allow ourselves to feel the emotions.

Compassion for the self is important. Yet it is so difficult for us to feel this for ourselves. We start understanding compassion by picturing someone that we care deeply about and we imagine what it is about that person that we love. Start off with a child or even a pet. We allow that softening towards them to fill our senses. Then we gradually progress to a softening towards ourselves. We can help by saying to ourselves in our minds words such as, “may I be happy. May I be deserving of love. May I be calm and peaceful.” This is really hard at first, I get that, but say those words even if you don’t feel it because eventually, little by little, you will begin to soften towards the parts of the self that is wounded and you will begin to feel compassion.

Look at your strengths. You’ve made it this far through all sorts of adversity. You have an inner strength and resilience to do this. Recognise this. How have you coped through the hard times? What resources have you called upon to get you to this point? For me meditation and running helped me to cope through some of my darker times. And often times it felt tough to make myself move out of a place of internal shutdown into a place of movement. For example, your strengths might be that you know how to reach out to people for help, or that you offer kindness and patience to others and this brings about an inner calm and peace at times of stress. Explore where your resilience comes from. Explore your strengths.

Sharing your feelings with another person is incredibly healing. A therapist gives us the sense that we are truly heard and felt which may be something that we didn’t experience as a child. If we express to our therapists or someone that cares for us in adulthood that we feel lonely or helpless and that person empathically reflects that back to us then we feel held and loved. The therapist can act as the secure attachment that we have needed in order to help us and teach us how to regulate our internal world and emotions. When we feel dysregulated learning how to soother ourselves can be crucial in bringing about a sense of calm.

This is just the start of a long road to healing. Be kind to yourself on this journey. It takes time but eventually you will develop the skills to self regulate and soothe yourself into loving who you have become.

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