After decades of destructive relationship patterns, psychologist Dr Debra Campbell decoded their links to childhood beliefs and discovered a new sense of self in the process.
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 somewhere 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 colour 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 nineteen 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 mum. 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. The 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. That day was emotional Ground Zero for me. A deep faultline zagged through my inner landscape, obliterating the ‘given’ that parents must love you. My lovelands were permanently scarred.
In the weeks following, there was no further information. Mum always seemed to be doing something else, something other than hanging out with me. I think she was trying to survive. She was 22 years old, alone with no support, broke and living in a tiny flat in a suburb where we knew no one.
Decades later, in therapy, I talked about that day. I remembered feeling the urge to go to the toilet and panicking that I wasn’t going to get there quickly enough. I sat on the toilet for a long time, surprised that my undies were clean. It confounded my three-year-old brain to have clean pants because it meant there was no simple explanation for Dad’s absence. If I had made some kind of obvious, dirty mistake I would have been able to justify Dad not coming to see me anymore.
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 idolise 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 relationships with our parents or caregivers create 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 behaviour is usually unconscious, meaning we don’t understand why we’re doing it. The patterns 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 unconscious tried hard to work out how to secure love, how to be ‘better’ and how to avoid any further 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 realise 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. As life coach and author Tony Robbins puts it, we become obsessed with what we did not have. Seeking love, yet without 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 and again, falling, wondering, ‘Why?’
Ideally, a girl finds a positive role model in 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 attractiveness as a person and loving her without ‘seductive’ undertones is one of the core tasks of fathering. It’s one of the factors that helps a girl grow into a balanced sexuality where 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.
People who have never felt fully accepted and loved for just being themselves tend to turn to whatever fulfills their hunger to be seen and adored by someone. It’s as if getting some attention will heal the self-doubt and generate some self-esteem. But of course it doesn’t work. Lust for attention at any cost just makes you vulnerable to exploitation and further damage. Page-three girls are one manifestation of an emotionally doomed attempt to get some love. Showing your boobs will absolutely attract attention and might feel like a rush for a while as you imagine a life of Kardashianesque fame and wealth. The trouble is, it’s not the kind of attention that tends to develop into a deep and lasting sense of being appreciated, valued or even seen for who you are. Chasing quick and dirty hits of attention because you’re hungry for love can get you hurt, and make you cynical and bitter after a while. You can only live off fast food love for so long before your body and mind need real nutrition to keep going.
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. Predators can more easily engage targets who are longing for attention and desperate to be seen and valued by someone for something … anything. The best protection is to prioritise love, acceptance, quality attention and compassion when we raise our children and in the way we treat ourselves.
Not all parents realise 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, as a child, someone consistently indicates that you are worthy and good enough in yourself just how 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 as a parent is important, it isn’t enough without emotional presence, without 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. I want to be very clear about the difference between blaming and unearthing insights that facilitate change. Blaming your parents or someone else for your sadness or low self-esteem is not what I’m on about here. Blame is disempowering and paralysing. Insight, understanding and awareness generate acceptance and fuel your journey towards emotional freedom. Insight means realising why things worked out as they did, why you are how you are, maybe why they were how they were. It’s not about making excuses for anyone. It’s about assessing the depths and locations of the faultlines so you don’t keep falling into them for the rest of your life.
This is an edited extract from Lovelands by Dr Debra Campbell published by Hardie Grant Books RRP $24.99