One of the legacies of not having your emotional needs met in childhood—feeling unloved, ignored, dismissed, unsupported, or all of these at once—is difficulty dealing with setback, failure, and emotional pain. This isn’t to say that people who come from loving and supportive families don’t struggle with pain or stress—of course, they do—but they are better at managing their emotions and tend not to see whatever’s happened as emblematic of their inner selves. That’s not true for an unloved daughter who’s much more likely to see whatever’s gone wrong—trouble at work, the end of a close relationship, general turbulence in life—as evidence of her inner failings and, often, proof positive that her mother (and perhaps other family members) were right about her.
Attributing setbacks to character flaws
Psychologists call this self-criticism, the habit of mind activated by unconscious processes which attributes whatever bad that’s happened to deep-seated, unchangeable flaws in the self. Securely attached people—those who grew up feeling loved, accepted for who they are, and supported—don’t do this in crisis; they’re much more likely to take a balanced view of things. They can acknowledge their mistakes, perhaps ruefully or painfully, without feeling that it proves how worthless they are. That’s not what happens to the unloved daughter whose default setting is self-criticism, which makes recovering that much harder. It’s not surprising that self-criticism—often echoing what was said to her and about her in childhood by her mother and other family members—often leads to ruminating and worrying about what’s happened, making the situation look even more dire. It’s no wonder that at these moments, an unloved daughter may feel as though there’s no way of fixing things or ever making things better.
But you’re not powerless…
There are ways to bolster your resilience once you realize what you’re responding to isn’t what’s just happened—being rejected, failing at a task you felt was important, making a mistake in judgment, losing a friendship—but is being amplified by your unprocessed childhood experiences. It’s important that you take an objective stance and listen to your inner dialogue as a stranger might and ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I focused mainly on self-blame, instead of objectivity?
- How realistic is my understanding of what happened?
- How are my childhood experiences influencing me in the present?
5 strategies to bolster your resilience (and get yourself unstuck)
These default settings acquired in childhood can be countered with conscious thought processes as research shows.
- Get a bead on your emotions
If you’re flooding with emotion, extremely anxious, or even panicked, you need to try to counter that tsunami with conscious thought processes. Work on labeling your emotions, figuring out what you’re feeling with a certain amount of precision—it may help you to actually write your feelings down—and then track them to their source. Let’s say you had a knock-down, drag-out fight with someone close to you. What precisely are you feeling? Are those emotions being triggered by what actually took place between you or are you reacting to old triggers?
- Stop catastrophizing
If you’re prone to rumination, the chances are good that you are most concerned about what you imagine as the worst- case scenario—you’ll never get hired again, no one will ever love you, no one will ever think you’re capable of doing anything. Invite that worst-case scenario in, have it take a seat, and argue with it, pointing out all the obvious things your automatic responses are ignoring. Remember that you are more than capable and that your mother was wrong. Recognize self-criticism for what it is.
- Use cognitive reappraisal
I’m usually not big on positive thinking or the Pollyanna approach but cognitive reappraisal has been shown to work in studies. This basically means pulling back emotionally and looking at whatever’s happened and seeing it as less threatening than it really is. Let’s go back to the knock-down fight, for example. You look at the argument and you realize that the person you were fighting with was just as stressed as you were, and that a lot of things were said in anger. Instead of seeing the smoldering ruins of a relationship, you see instead a way of talking things through calmly and an opportunity to actually strengthen your connection.
- Still the self-critical voice
Work on acknowledging and taking responsibility for your missteps and mistakes without resorting to thinking that they sum you up because they don’t. Recognize that what was said to you in childhood was manipulative, and not the voice of truth. Talk back to the critical voice, reminding yourself of your strengths and qualities. Yes, it’s hard but practice makes perfect.
- Have self-compassion
Instead of being hard on yourself, work at seeing yourself wholly. Self-compassion isn’t self-pity so don’t confuse the two; instead, it involves seeing yourself without judgment and with acceptance. This is notoriously difficult for children who were unloved in childhood and will take a fair amount of work but will proceed more smoothly if you combine your exercise of self-compassion with the other four strategies.
Mistakes, setbacks, and failures are a part of life. They need not take you down for the count. Really.
Photograph by DarkSouls1. Copyright free. Pixabay.com