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You’re Not Unlovable Because Someone Didn’t Know How to Love You

binge eating body image childhood trauma Sep 21, 2021
Reflection of depressed woman in the window

I still remember the day it clicked for me that the people who love us do so for who we are, not for what we do. It was a rainy, wet morning and I was still lying in bed as I grabbed my phone to reach out to one of my closest friends.

I felt that I’d been a bit of a crappy friend to her recently. I’d been very caught up in my own stuff and hadn’t reached out to her in a while. As I clicked on her name while mentally rehearsing the apology I was about to send, I saw she’d sent me a link to a song.

As I listened, I burst out in tears, the lyrics piercing straight through my heart.

“The list goes on forever
Of all the ways I could be better, in my mind
As if I could earn God’s favour, given time
Or at least congratulations

Now, I have learned my lesson
The price of this so-called perfection is everything
I’ve spent my whole life searching desperately
To find out that grace requires nothing of me”
extract from “One” by Sleeping at Last

Here I was, reaching out to her to apologise for being an imperfect friend, when she’d just sent me a song about perfectionism which made me feel so seen.

That’s when I understood, for the first time in my life, that her love for me didn’t depend on whether I said the perfect thing or reached out regularly enough. That I didn’t have to do or say anything to earn her love. She just loved me… for me.

Did you feel loved?

As a therapist, I encounter many women who, just like me, thought they needed to look or act a certain way to be loved and accepted by others. Somewhere along the way they learned that love is conditional, that it needs to be earned — but when I ask where this comes from I’m often met with confusion.

“I don’t know why I feel this way,” said one client to me during a session, “I know that my parents loved me.” In return, I asked her: ”But did you feel loved? “

The answer stumped her. “I guess I didn’t always,” she replied. “I mostly felt loved when dad would take me out for ice cream because I did a good job at school, or when mum would go out and buy me a new dress because I lost weight.”

As she shared this with me, the penny dropped instantly on why she’d struggled so long with food being both a reward and a punishment. On one hand, food was synonymous with how her dad showed her love, so at times where she didn’t feel loved in her life she’d often seek out food to fill the void. At the same time, since a thinner waistline attracted more compliments from mom, she’d spent her whole life trying to lose weight. This created an inner conflict that would inevitably set her up for a lifetime of yo-yo dieting and emotional eating.

My client isn’t alone in this.

While many of us intellectually know that our parents loved us, we often felt their love was conditional on us behaving or looking a certain way, either because they praised us for doing a good job or because they criticised and punished us for not meeting their expectations. This can leave us feeling unlovable whenever we think we’re falling short.

Authenticity vs. attachment

Dr. Gabor Maté explains that in our early childhood years, we often sacrifice our authenticity in return for attachment — meaning we suppress our own emotions and adapt ourselves to meet the expectations of the people around us in order to receive love in return.

We need them to love us, because at such a young age we depend on the adults in our lives to feed us and put a roof over our heads since we can’t yet do this for ourselves.

Our survival instincts scan our environment to uncover what’s socially acceptable and what isn’t so we can learn to fit in and belong — and most importantly, so we can avoid rejection. This is why my client thought she needed to be skinny to be loved, and why I believed I needed to be a perfect friend to deserve friendship.

The thing is though, in most cases our parents really did love us. They just didn’t always know how to make us feel loved.

They didn’t know how to give constructive feedback that didn’t sound like criticism. They didn’t know how to compliment us in a way that left us knowing they’d still love us even when we did screw up. Because most of them never felt loved by their own parents either.

Learning to love yourself

When we learn from a young age that we’re valued for what we do or what we look like, it’s normal to think that others will only appreciate us when we excel in our careers or lose our muffin tops, but the truth is that we are loved for who we are — even if right now it doesn’t feel that way.

The harsh truth though is that we can only receive love to the extent that we love ourselves (if you don’t believe me, just think of how hard it is to receive a compliment) — so in order to feel loved, we need to learn to love ourselves first.

I find this oddly empowering though. It means our worth doesn’t actually depend on what other people think of us, as we grew up believing — it depends on what we think of us. And that’s something we can control.

So how do we do this?

Well, contrary to popular belief, we don’t actually need to learn how to love ourselves. We just need to unlearn all the ways we reject ourselves: all the ways we criticise ourselves, all the ways we tell ourselves we’re not enough, all the ways we judge ourselves for not meeting expectations. When we remove all negative self-talk, we’re naturally left with a feeling of unconditional love.

I’m not going to lie, it sounds easier than it is, because the road to self-love will have you bump up against every single belief you hold about yourself — and changing those takes a fair amount of courage and grit.

But it really is worth it.

And so are you.