As a kid, when people asked about my father, I said I didn’t have one. It felt true, although I knew there was a man alive out there whose name I carried. He gave me three years of sporadic contact and nothing else—no goodbye, no explanation, no love.
Worse, I felt his abandonment as unspeakable shame. If I had been prettier, a better little girl, my own father would have chosen to stay rather than leave me, right? That question haunted my subconscious for decades.
The fear that my flaws must be serious and obvious for him to just leave cut into the bedrock of me. My inherent unworthiness became an unquestioned "given," as basic as the color of my eyes. Other girls were Daddy’s little one. I assumed I was some kind of "anti-princess" and I would have to cover and compensate for it for the rest of my life.
How loved or unloved we feel as children deeply affects the formation of our self-esteem and self-acceptance. It shapes how we seek love and whether we feel part of life or more like an outsider. Why wouldn’t it? Our caregivers’ responses are the clearest and most consistent feedback we have as we develop our identity.
My dad ran from his blinding fear and rage at finding himself stuck with a wife and child at 19-years of age. So, like countless fatherless kids, I wore the tattoo of a defining abandonment that I believed my defects had caused. When the dream of love dissolves and we don’t know who to blame, we usually secretly become our own prime suspect. Over time my pain calcified into the anxiety and shame of a kid who can’t understand how they failed but believes they must have.
The last time I saw my father during my childhood, he came to pick me up in a brightly painted station-wagon. We visited his girlfriend’s mom. They were kind enough people, but Dad himself hardly gave me the time of day. He was already absent, but he hadn’t told Mum or me how permanent and profound this absence was going to become. Although we hardly interacted, I remember feeling a sense of pride and childish ownership that day. I was proud to be in the same place as my dad, feeling accepted and valued by him, even after weeks apart. He took me back to Mum after a few hours, kissed my cheek, and that was that.
The next weekend, Mum dressed me up in something special and told me Dad was coming soon. The time passed. I waited and waited and waited and waited. More time passed. I asked Mum why he didn’t come. She told me the truth: She didn’t know. He just stopped coming. It broke my heart.
Years later, I understood that I had formed a belief that day that I must have flaws only others could see. Those flaws, I believed, had led to this sudden and permanent rejection by my own father, my own blood. I felt shamed because Dad didn’t value me enough to show up, enough to call, enough to even make up an excuse.
As young kids we unconsciously tend to assume our parents’ failings must be about us because, for a while at least, our parents are godlike figures. We’re hard-wired to idolize them for the first few years of life because we have to rely on them for every aspect of our survival. That’s why we may blame ourselves rather than them for some of our disappointments or for problems in the family that actually have little to do with us. It can be hard on our self-worth.
Our relationship with our parents or caregiver creates an "attachment style"—a blueprint for how we handle close relationships later. Attachment styles range from being secure and trusting to avoiding intimacy, or to experiencing mind-boggling ambivalence. Some people with an ambivalent attachment style become preoccupied with seeking love and attention and tend to feel powerless, needy, and insecure in relationships.
Others seek love vehemently, then run when it’s returned or becomes intense because it feels dangerous to let someone get too close. Insecure or ambivalent attachment styles lend themselves to self-defeating patterns of trying to love while defending a heart that feels vulnerable.
This conflict between wanting to love and be loved so much but getting sidetracked and screwing it all up out of a deep, unconscious fear of loss, is at the base of so much relationship pain and struggle. Of course, the self-sabotaging patterns are usually unconscious, meaning we don’t understand why we’re doing what we're doing. They were formed before we had words to describe what was going on for us. That’s why they can be so hard to identify and forestall.
In my case, I became ambivalent about intimacy as a child, losing confidence in myself as lovable. I longed for closeness with others but felt afraid of being rejected again. I often kept to myself rather than reaching out to others because there was less risk of humiliation that way. My subconscious tried hard to work out how to secure love, how to be "better," and how to avoid any more abandonments along the way.
I discovered early that pleasing others won praise. Pleasing others is great, but only if you don’t negate your own desires in the process. It’s too often synonymous with neglecting your own heart and feeling afraid to risk putting yourself first in life. Change starts when we realize that by diminishing ourselves we please no one. Yet it takes time to own these aspects of ourselves, and it takes courage. The first step is to cultivate self-awareness, leading to the possibility of self-compassion and the building of self-worth.
Low self-worth early in life can lead to inadvertently choosing paths that erode our self-worth even further as we get older. Inexperience combined with intense need is a volatile cocktail. Seeking love yet not having reliable indicators of what it feels like to be loved well makes you vulnerable to quick and dirty fixes of love that end up making things worse.
It’s hard to know what you’re looking for when you’ve never seen it or felt it. You may repeatedly find yourself perched on unstable precipices of desire that you know are bound to collapse and hurt you at any moment. Yet there you are again, falling, and wondering why.
Ideally, a girl comes to identify with her mother’s self-esteem, assertiveness, and self-awareness in life and relationships. Then she knows what she’s looking for when it’s her turn. Similarly, supporting his daughter’s self-worth as a person and loving her generously is the core task of fathering. It’s one of the factors that helps a girl grow into a balanced sexuality in which she values herself and doesn’t settle for whoever pays her some attention, where she can both love and desire another person without fighting through a wall of fear and insecurity every step of the way.
It’s the same for boys, only that being female adds a few extra cultural, gender biases about sexuality and shame. It’s still not the norm to call boys slutty, but for girls, sexual shaming remains at the front line of verbal abuse.
We go looking for love in all the wrong places because of fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of love, how it feels, and how to go about giving and receiving it. We don't know these things if we weren’t taught them.
Not all parents realize that just being physically present isn’t enough, although it’s a fine start. Love is essentially a form of focused and generous presence—a special kind of authentic engagement. Love is the highest-quality presence of heart and it’s a gift that builds self-esteem. When someone in your childhood consistently indicates that you are worthy and good enough just the way you are, this becomes a part of your reality as your sense of identity develops. While being physically present as much as you are able is important in parenting, it isn’t enough without emotional presence, engagement, and an interested connection.
The consistent affirmation of your innate worthiness to be seen and heard serves as a platform on which to build your emerging impression of yourself. Unfortunately, many people don’t receive sufficient or consistent engagement to help them feel acceptable and worthy in themselves as they reach adolescence and beyond. But regardless of the gifts you receive—or don’t—from caregivers, eventually you have to take on the care of your own heart and soul and determine what might need a bit of work.
How to heal the wounds:
Knowing yourself, building self-esteem, and finding self-compassion are typically a few steps forward, a few steps back, but there are some steps that won’t lead you astray:
1. Keep developing the things you are already good at and the things you love, so you spend more time in flow, or immersion in your loved pursuits, living passionately.
It can take patience, I know, to stumble upon the things you love and the zone where you’re brilliant, where time melts away into bliss. We don’t always know our passions until we find ourselves doing them and realize we’re totally in our element.
2. Take some measured risks (nothing dangerous) but try things that push you out of your comfort zone.
As well as patience, building self-esteem takes courage. You’ll feel proud of your courage when you push yourself and see that you are stronger and braver than you may have known.
3. Get physically strong because the process of it strengthens your head as well.
Looking after yourself physically, attending to your wellness and self-care nurtures emotional strength and stability more than you might realize.
4. Building self-esteem and self-compassion requires deeper changes, too.
If your self-talk, meaning the way you talk to yourself in your head, tends to be harsh and critical, it’s essential to become aware of this and to start infusing some new ideas. If you’re hard on yourself, ask yourself whether you’d speak to someone else that way. Would it help a child to grow in self-esteem if you spoke to them the way you speak to yourself in your head? If not, think about giving yourself the same level of kindness and compassion you’d give another because feeling ashamed and criticized, for whatever reason, is hell.
5. Insight, understanding, and awareness generate acceptance and fuel your journey into emotional freedom.
Insight means realizing why things worked out as they did, why you are how you are, why they were how they were. It’s not about making excuses for anyone. It’s about assessing the depths and locations of the scars in your inner landscape, so you don’t keep falling into those same patterns for the rest of your life.