If you erect barriers to others actually ready to offer you the love and acceptance you sorely missed in growing up, it’s essential to understand what forced you to shut down and turn away from precisely those individuals who could help you heal your deepest psychological wounds.
-The way your caretakers treated you made you feel neglected, disapproved of, or rejected—in a word, unloved.
For whatever reason, your parents felt threatened by you, or—maybe because of a narcissistic self-absorption—couldn’t make you a priority. Critical of, or unresponsive to, your asserting your needs and desires, or frequently complaining that what you were doing was wrong (and rarely complimenting you for what you did that was right), you concluded you must not be good enough for their acceptance.
It can’t be overemphasized that young children take virtually everything their parents say and do personally. So if you didn’t feel cared about by your family, or may regularly have felt humiliated or shamed by them, you probably concluded you didn’t deserve their love.
Obviously, if you don’t feel you’re worth caring about, you don’t want to broadcast such self-disapproval to others. And if, despite your negative self-image, they still show love and caring for you, their concern will make you suspicious, as you anxiously wait for the other shoe to drop.
For conditioned to assume that permitting anyone to truly know you is dangerous—that sooner or later they’ll be disappointed in you and reject you (as, so very painfully, you felt your parents did)—you believe it’s only circumspect to keep others at a distance. Having been subject to the enduring anxiety of never feeling safe or secure in your parental attachment, you vowed never again to let yourself be so vulnerable to the protracted hurt you suffered.
You simply won’t let yourself forget the lesson of distrust imparted to you by your parents’ inability to make you feel loved, or that you were an important member of the family. As a result of this overarching self-protective programming, expressly designed to eliminate the chance of any further emotional pain, you dismissed relational intimacy as unattainable.
Even further, you may have convinced yourself that you didn’t really want or need such closeness anyway. So when it’s actually offered to you, you can’t help but defend against it. What the other person may be proposing simply feels “too close for comfort.”
-You had frightening experiences of abandonment, and so resolved never to allow yourself to be emotional dependent again.
Any close relationship will bring to the surface past experiences with intimacy. And by definition, your first intimate relationship was with your family—and it failed you badly. If you grew up in a chaotic, unpredictable household where your parents were either too emotionally volatile or self-obsessed to make you feel you fit in, you thereby learned you were all alone, that in various ways you had to raise yourself. And this kind of isolation is tantamount to abandonment, since your crucial connection to your caretakers wasn’t really there for you.
Additionally, you may have suffered through circumstances that you couldn’t help but perceive as desertion. Perhaps one of your parents abandoned the family, was hospitalized for an extended period, was incarcerated, or died when you were young. Or your parents divorced and the way they communicated to you about the break-up ended up making you distrust the whole institution of marriage (especially if infidelity was involved).
Or one of your parents molested you, and their making you feel like an object for their gratification left you feeling totally alone in the family—particularly if you were either sworn to secrecy or, if you did tell the other parent about this intimate betrayal, you weren’t believed. And so on, and so on.
There are, finally, so many ways you could have experienced abandonment in growing up. And what, likely, they all have in common is that they determined you not to set yourself up to be “discarded” ever again.
-One of your parents sought to “absorb” you into themselves.
This is what’s known by mental health professionals as engulfment—the opposite of parental abandonment, but not really any less abusive. And in your caretaker’s relegating you to the position of giving them the caring or connection they never received from their own parents, they flagrantly violated a generational boundary central to your healthy development.
Feeling this subjugation acutely but without the ability to articulate just what was happening to you, their behavior would have made you anxious—as though their ongoing endeavors to dominate you were swallowing you up, not permitting you the freedom to be the separate individual that (even as a child) you needed, and had every right, to be. Their continuing efforts to “take you over” made you feel so crowded, so invaded, that you later swore you’d never let yourself to be so transgressed against again.
In such instances, where you had constantly to struggle to achieve some sort of autonomy from an overly possessive parent, cultivating an intimate relationship with someone could feel much too threatening. Never having had the opportunity to rectify your parent’s chronic intrusiveness, you’d fear that if you became too close to another, you’d no longer be able to hold onto yourself.
Given such defensive programming, allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another would distrustfully be linked to forfeiting your own control, self-determination, and freedom—that is, virtually your whole identity. So you’d seek to ward off such intimacy, since you’d assume that the other person’s hidden agenda would be to rob you of, well, you. So even though you might actually crave the loving, respectful relationship another might offer you, from deep within you’d experience an irresistible urge to push them away.