Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Feeling Like a "Disappointment"
Feeling Like a "Disappointment"
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC
("Bonnie" is a composite of many of my clients who have had similar experiences with similar reactions.)
"Bonnie" came to my office feeling depressed. Over the weekend, she had attended a wedding (or a baby shower, or an engagement party) of a close friend. Even though she had a good time, she noticed a nagging doubt come over her. She started thinking, "I'll never get what my friend has." As the evening wore on she felt more and more alone.
As we explored these feelings I wondered aloud what her friend had that she wanted. "I'll never be loved like she is," came the reply. I could have pointed out the distorted thinking patterns or her inability to predict the future, but instead I asked why she thought so. "I'm not lovable. There's something wrong with me."
At that moment I knew what she was feeling because back in my own eating disordered days I too felt the same way. And even though I knew the answer I asked the next question anyway, "When was the first time you felt this way?"
"I've felt it all my life."
"As a child, what did you feel?"
"Like I was a big disappointment to my parents."
Many clients use words very similar to these. The events that trigger these feelings may be different, but the feelings almost always boil down to the same thing: "I'm a big disappointment to my parents. I'm not who they wanted as a child. There must be something wrong with me."
I have to preface the next part by stating that I firmly believe that all children are born perfect and whole, likable and lovable, just as they are! And if nurtured in an accepting and validating environment, they would be "perfect" just being themselves. (Being a parent myself, I know that there are NO perfect parents, NO perfect environments. Even the most empathic, nurturing parent sometimes has bad days or says hurtful things now and then. And the messages I am talking about in this article are not the result of the few times that a parent rolls their eyes and sighs with exasperation, but rather the accumulated effect of repeated occurrences of negative responses to the child.)
As I mentioned in the last newsletter many people with eating disorders got overt/or covert messages that said, "In order to be lovable, you should be different, you shouldn't be you." Now in the 14 years that I have been working with people with eating disorders I have consistently found them to be wonderful, likable, talented, incredible people, just as they are! So how did they develop the feeling that deep down inside they are "a disappointment"? I'd like to give an example from my own family.
I have a son and a daughter who I love very much, but more importantly I really like them. I think they are both great kids and I enjoy being with them very much. My daughter, Alison and I are very much alike in both appearance and temperament. So while raising her, I often have been in situations where it feels like I am watching old movies of my own childhood. When Alison was only 6 years old, she and her cousin James were hiking around in the woods by my parents house. I was relaxing and talking to the rest of the family, when all of a sudden we heard both kids screaming! They had disturbed a bees nest and Alison was stung repeatedly on her back. (If you've ever been stung by a bee you know how painful and frightening that can be! Now imagine that you are only 6.....) I ran as fast as I could, scooped her up in my arms and carried her, up the hill, to my parents house. She continued to scream and cry as we inspected the stings. My father volunteered to drive into town to buy some children's Tylenol and Benedryl for her. Sitting in a rocking chair together, I rocked her for a long time, applying ice to her back, while she continued to cry. I kept telling her, "It's going to be OK. Mommy's here." Eventually, my father arrived and we gave her the medicines and she was able to fall asleep.
Why am I telling you this story? It's because of my mother's reaction to the event. After we left she told my sister, "Alison always makes such a big deal about everything. She's such a drama queen." My first reaction was anger. "How dare she criticize my daughter! She's just a little girl!" I wanted to say I didn't care if my mother liked my daughter or not, that I liked her and thought she was a very likable little girl. But it really bothered me that my mother often didn't like my daughter. She's too "flamboyant", too outspoken for my mother, who prefers children who play quietly in the corner, who are "no bother". Then an incredible sense of sadness came over me. I started remembering all the times when I was a little girl and also was told in overt and covert ways that I was "too much", or "too over-the-top". I didn't feel liked or likable. I felt like a disappointment, like there was something wrong with me. And each time this happened I would try to not be me and a little bit more of my "self" was sacrificed.
I included this example to show that the problem doesn't lie in the personality of the child. But rather in the needs, preferences, or expectations of the parent. Maybe the "disappoint-ments" from your past are less tangible. If your parents wanted you to be an "easy child" then every time you were "fussy" you would feel their disappointment. If you were supposed to be a perfect showcase child, then every time you were messy or made a mistake (when you were "human"), they would be disappointed. If your body was supposed to be skinnier than it was genetically meant to be, they would be disappointed. If you were supposed to make mommy "happy",... yep, you guessed it, disappointment. And each time you may have vowed to be a different person, to not be your "self".
One of the developmental tasks a young child is supposed to learn is that love is constant. I believe that love should be like the oxygen in the room. Its just there, you don't have to think about it. But many people with eating disorders came from homes where love was turned on and off like a light switch: If you displease me, I'll love you less. If you make me angry, I won't love you. (Imagine if parents turned off the oxygen when they were displeased! We would report them for child abuse!)
Part of recovery is reclaiming our "lovability"! We were lovable even when we were "fussy". We were lovable even when we would rather run around the back yard than sit and look pretty. We were lovable even when mommy was unhappy - (that's a whole article unto itself!!!)
In order to recover our "selves", we need to reclaim our right to be who we were meant to be. We have to reclaim our inherent talents and personalities and see them as being "good enough" just as they are! In the next issue I will talk more about this in my article: "Right Brain/Left Brain and the Flip Side of the Same Coin".