The feeling of being valuable—”I am a valuable person”—is essential to mental health and is a cornerstone of self-discipline. It is a direct product of parental love. Such a conviction must be gained in childhood; it is extremely difficult to acquire it during adulthood. Conversely, when children have learned through the love of their parents to feel valuable, it is almost impossible for the vicissitudes of adulthood to destroy their spirit.
— M. Scott Peck
A child is dependent on the people who raise them, who have authority and power over them, and this is on their caregivers. The child learns about relationships from their relationship with their primary caregivers. And most importantly, this is how the child learns how to self-relate.
For these reasons, early relationships are tremendously important for a person’s development because it shapes our self-perception (i.e., our self-esteem), and it sets a model for our future relationships.
The ultimate form of a close, intimate relationship is love. The problem is, so many people have grown up not knowing what true, healthy love is because they lacked love growing up and didn’t have an example of a truly loving person.
As a result, they don’t know how to love themselves and how to have healthy relationships. Moreover, they are likely to be exploited, manipulated, and otherwise abused by others who also didn’t learn how to love and have healthy boundaries. Or, they become manipulators and abusers themselves, some to the degree of narcissism, sociopathy, or psychopathy.
Here, we will look at four incorrect or unhealthy perceptions of love we learn growing up in a wanting or otherwise damaging childhood environment.
1. Love is a mystery
A lot people have no definition of love at all. When asked, they might say, “I don’t know.” Or, “It’s something magical.” Or, “It’s something impossible to define.” Or, “It’s mysterious and unexplainable.”
Sure, some concepts are more complicated to define, and it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but relationships are such an important part of our lives that it is crucial to figure this one out. Yet many of us are unable or even unwilling to do so.
As a result, such a person can justify their unhealthy relationships because if you have no clear standards, then anything and everything can be normalized, justified, and accepted.
And so some people say they love the other person when they are actually in a codependent relationship where they self-erase and self-sacrifice. Or, they only seek narcissistic supply by using and abusing others because that’s what on an emotional level “feels good” to them and therefore can be wrongly interpreted as love.
In some extreme cases, people can even normalize the most abhorrent acts in their mind. For example, a pedophile who sexually abuses children can say that they can’t help who they love and that their abuse is actually a sign of love—which, of course, is the furthest from the truth.
2. Love is pain
Many individuals believe that love is painful. We hear it in movies, in songs, and around us. And sure, sometimes some experiences and feelings related to healthy love can be painful, too. However in most cases, people saying it are not really referring to that.
“Love is pain” is often used to justify abusive or otherwise toxic behavior. Victims use it to justify, enable, and even protect their perpetrators, and to stay in an unhealthy social environment. Abusers use it to justify and normalize their hurtful behavior.
The truth is, such a person grew up in an environment where they experienced pain, be it physical, emotional, or psychological, and that set up a pattern where a relationship involving pain seems normal, oftentimes even desirable.
3. Love is sacrifice
Way too many people grow up lacking love and care, and consequently later in life they struggle with self-love and self-care. Many of us have been raised in a role where we were expected to meet other people’s needs and be “selfless.”
Since that was what was expected from them in their childhood, pathologically taking care of others seems only natural. A person may even feel empty, anxious, or non-existing if there’s nobody to take care of.
However, taking care of yourself and truly loving yourself is something foreign, even forbidden. And so for many self-sacrifice, self-erasure, compliance, an inability to say no are the go-to behavioral patterns in a social interaction, especially in a close relationship.
4. I am unlovable
Children who are treated in an unloving and uncaring manner often internalize it and it becomes their method of self-relation. They learn to think that they are unworthy of love, fundamentally defective, worthless, undeserving of happiness, and so on.
These unhealthy beliefs manifest both in the person’s relationship with themselves and with others. In relation to self, they experience feelings of deep self-loathing, depression, low self-esteem, and myriads of other emotional and behavioral problems.
In relation to others, they may become attention-seeking, antisocial, even pathologically narcissistic. Or, again, self-sacrificing—and everything in between.
Children who come from an environment of conditional love, neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and otherwise traumatizing experiences need to learn how to love and take care of themselves as adults. They also need to learn about healthy boundaries, needs, emotions, empathy, self-expression, healthy, mature relationships, and much more. And that’s all of us to one degree or another.
Does any of it relate to you or people you know? Are there other things you would put on this list? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or in your personal journal.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.