It's not "Why don't they love me"? it's "Can they love me"?

Jason Brien.

Depending on how long you have followed my page and my writings, you may or may not know that in addition to this life coaching/counselling business I also work as a residential youth worker. The youth worker role requires me and my co-workers to support children who have been removed from their high-risk families for anything from domestic and family violence to parental drug use/misuse. Our service in particular involves young persons between 12 and 17 years who are deemed as having complex to extreme needs. How long these young people remain in care depends on their ability to successfully reunify with their family (or they may self-place).

Most of these young people have regular family contact with at least one member of their family. Sometimes it might just be contact with siblings but not parents. It can even be contact with aunts, uncles or grandparents. Depending on the family dynamics, the family contact may be supervised, unsupervised or restricted to supervised or unsupervised phone calls or video calls. For some of these children, their first few weeks or months in care are littered with regular family contact opportunities but as time progresses, the contact starts to dwindle and may even stop entirely.

When the family contact slows down, is limited only to special occasions or stops completely, the young people inevitably become confused. It is always hard as a youth worker to say to a young person week in and week out “Sorry such and such had to cancel today because they’re working, or sick, or can’t travel”. It is even harder for these young people when they see their co-tenants continuing family contact and going camping, having sleep overs, coming back with presents, etc. These young people inevitably start asking themselves “Why don’t my parents, grandparents, etc, love me”?  Some young people have even asked their co-tenants or youth workers “Do your parents love you”?

If you have been raised in a dysfunctional family, these may be questions you have asked yourself at some point or another. When assisting my clients with my life coaching/counselling business, my clients are often confused about why their parents or other family members don’t support them, care for them, call them, visit them, etc. They can often be completely dumbfounded about how a mother can give birth to a child and them reject that child so coldly. With these clients, I ask them to consider rephrasing their question from “why don’t they love me”? to “Can they love me”? This rephrasing is not just about semantics. The true question really is “Can they love you”? Do they have the warmth, the empathy, the time and the nurturance necessary to love you?

When these clients start thinking in this way, they suddenly begin to see that maybe they are not the problem after all. That maybe its not a case of them being unlovable but more a case of their parents, family, etc, not being able to love them properly or even adequately. These clients are then able to shift from an idealized “They should love me because they brought me into the world” perspective to a more realistic “They struggle to love me” perspective. It can even be a case of them loving you as best they possibly can and that it may be the best level of love that they will ever be able to provide you. Shifting mindset is not absolving abuse, neglect, harm, etc., it simply provides a way to understand things more realistically.

It also allows you to release some self-blame and resentment. Whereas when you were younger you may have felt that you needed to jump through all sorts of hoops just to be loved by your parents or family, you can now focus on simply being you knowing that your extreme efforts to please or be noticed are unlikely to elevate or impact your parents or family’s capacity to love you. If you think about it in realistic terms, is becoming a doctor really going to make your parents ‘love’ you? You may become more endearing in their eyes because you now improve their image, social status, etc., but that is not love.

The same rephrasing of “Why don’t they love me”? to “Can they love me”? can be used in other relationships. Being ‘rejected’ by a spouse who is a serial cheater or an abuser does not make you an unlovable person. It does not make you unworthy of love and it does not mean that you can never be loved. For some personalities, people are mere objects to them in the same way a toaster or microwave is a mere object to the rest of us. Apart from cooking some bread or reheating some food, how much use are these electrical appliances and how often do you think about them? A serial cheater may see men or women purely as sex toys and once that function has been served, there is no further use until next time.

It is easy to say that people who cannot love are self-absorbed and, in some ways, that is correct but not fully. There is a difference between someone being self-absorbed because they lack empathy and an ability to recognise others as separate entities and someone being self-absorbed because they are struggling with mental health issues and so their capacity to look outwards is stunted. If you think of a mother who is in an abusive and controlling relationship/marriage, their focus is on surviving day-to-day. They may be completely consumed by anxiety and depression and so they may lack the resources necessary to love you and attend to you ‘adequately’. Again, this does not mean that you are unlovable or unworthy of love.