Dear Neil: Why do I feel so unlovable? I never feel I’m good enough, I doubt myself all the time and I seldom trust my own judgment. Although people often describe me as a beautiful woman, this lack of belief in myself has caused me, as an adult, to choose men over and over again who are terrible for me, and to reject the men who are good for me.

I grew up with a mother who was very judgmental and critical of me, my siblings, my dad and everyone else. My dad catered to and supported her, and seldom shielded us kids from her blistering tongue lashings and warnings of dire consequences if we didn’t shape up. Could this be related to why I struggle with love relationships? I’m not even sure I’m capable of love.

Feeling Unlovable in Virginia

Dear Virginia: Parents who are narcissistic give their children the message that you’re not good enough, that the world revolves around them, their feelings and their wishes, not yours.

If you had (or have) a parent who is narcissistic, your task was to be there for your mother, to attend to her feelings and desires, even as a young girl. Karyl McBride, in her excellent book Will I Ever Be Good Enough? describes this process. She says that narcissists lack empathy and are unable to show love. And without that empathy and love from your mother, you are far more likely to lack that sense of true emotional connection, to feel that something is missing in your life, and to feel that your emotional needs have not been met.

McBride describes the process between mothers and daughters, but in my experience, the same rules apply to either parent. She says that if you are a child of a narcissistic parent, you likely feel that you’re not good enough, that you feel valued for what you do rather than who you are—and you are far more likely to feel unlovable. Because you heard self-negating messages growing up, you are likely to also feel one or more of the following:

  • You feel emptiness inside, and a general lack of contentment.
  • You long to be around sincere, authentic people.
  • You struggle with love relationships.
  • You fear you will become like your mother.
  • You worry about being a good parent yourself.
  • You have great difficulty trusting people.
  • You feel you had no role model for being a healthy, well-adjusted woman.
  • You sense that your emotional development is stunted.
  • You have trouble being a person separate from your mother.
  • You find it difficult to experience and trust your own feelings.
  • You feel uncomfortable around your mother.
  • You find it difficult to create an authentic life of your own.
  • You find yourself constantly attempting to win your mother’s love, attention and approval, but never feel able to please her.
  • The way things appear is far more important to your mother than how they feel to you.
  • Your mother is jealous of you.
  • Your mother does not support your healthy self-expressions, especially when they conflict with her own needs or they threaten her.
  • In your family, things were always about mom.
  • Your mother is unable to empathize.
  • Your mother can’t deal with her own feelings.
  • Your mother is critical and judgmental.
  • Your mother treats you like a friend, not a daughter.
  • You have no boundaries or privacy with your mother.

The more of these that fit you, the more likely it is that you grew up with a narcissistic parent. I will talk about how to heal the messages you received as a child in a future column.

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