I Always Felt Unloved

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 209 · Duration: 00:23:20

I Always Felt Unloved

What do you do when you were never shown love and affection by your parents and yet they showered your younger sister with plenty. And now as an adult, it’s still going on?Click To Tweet We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, I Always Felt Unloved.

Today we’re hearing from Nadia from Vancouver, BC, and Nadia writes:

Hi Neil! 

Thanks so much for your fabulous podcast. Your advice and knowledge have really helped me with my parenting skills and understanding of personal boundaries. 

My question today is regarding my relationship with my parents.  I have always had the feeling of being unloved. My parents always cared for me in terms of giving me the necessities of food, a nice home, clothing etc. but I always had the feeling of emptiness. They never attended any of my graduations (I have four degrees), I never had any birthday parties, at 13 my mother told me that if I'm not feeling well, I need to go to the doctor by myself. I was rarely given presents and cannot recall the words "I love you," hugs or kisses growing up. My older sister, who is less than a year older than me, feels the same. We often took each other out for our birthdays and made an effort to care for each other when we were teenagers and young adults going through difficult times.

On the contrary, my younger sister who is younger than us by seven years, was treated completely differently. She was celebrated in the ways that I felt that I wasn't. She was also given much more, special trips to Disney World just for her and a college education fully paid for. Today, the favoritism towards her is seen mostly by the treatment of her children versus the treatment of the other grandchildren. The love and attention they receive (i.e. hours of facetime chats, special meals etc.) has been noted by my kids. I think that my feeling of being unloved is related to this difference of treatment. I try not to allow my parent's unreasonable behavior to destroy my relationship with them, but sometimes the pain is very difficult to deal with. 

Perhaps if you could shed light on why parents choose a favorite child, I may be able to come to terms with this situation more. Any words of wisdom that you could share with me would be greatly appreciated! 

All the best,  


Now to Nadia’s questions:

With your childhood experience of emotional abandonment, it’s not at all confusing why you would feel unloved, and have that “empty feeling inside”.  You were not nurtured or supported by your parents in a way that all children need and deserve.  Nadia, it’s fabulous that you and your sister were aware enough of what was missing in your family that you supported and celebrated each other; provided at least some of the validation, and celebration that you needed and deserved. There was a dearth of acknowledgement of your needs and feelings. There is a lot written about attachment models these days and thinking in those terms, you experienced insecure attachment and that left you with what you describe as “emptiness”. So yes, the feelings of emptiness are related to not getting the essential love you needed and deserved as a child, teenager, and young adult.  Of course you would feel hurt, confused and perhaps jealous that your sister was treated so differently, so embraced and even indulged. That could make that hurt worse. 

It is curious that your parents did an about face with your younger sister and indulged her.  And it’s more surprising and somewhat telling that your parents continued to take you and your older sister for granted and ignore your needs.  Let me explain.

While I can’t know for sure what their feelings were or what their thinking was or is, here are a few things to think about that should be very helpful. Your parents are not healthy people.  Healthy people don’t say to their 13 year old’s, “if you don’t feel well, don’t bother me.”  They don’t ignore their children’s birthdays; they don’t show favoritism. Healthy parents wouldn’t miss the opportunity to attend their young adult children’s graduations and celebrate their successes. So it’s important for you to know, that the support, love, engagement they didn’t bring, is about their own emptiness.

I have to assume that they were raised in a compromised way by their parents and have their own emotional security issues, their own insecure attachment issues, their own trauma.Click To Tweet  

Nadia, I think it’s a safe bet that while your parents changed their behavior when your younger sister came along, they are mostly the same people. Parents with their own attachment issues can be painfully unresponsive to their children’s needs, OR over involved with their children, projecting their unmet needs onto their children. An over-involved style of parenting fosters dependency and a lack of confidence in one’s abilities; a lack of self-esteem, secure identity, and self-efficacy.  Depending on a child’s basic temperament or essential personality characteristics, children with this kind of parenting could act out or otherwise develop emotional behavioral problems.  These problems could manifest or show up as substance abuse, eating disorders, chronic depression or anxiety, and a lack of emotional maturity. 

You don’t mention your relationship with your younger sister.  I’d be curious what you notice about her.  Does she manifest some of the characteristics I referenced?  Does she reach out to connect with you and your older sister?  I’m guessing not much.

So while we can’t be sure about why your parents were negligent in their parenting of you and your older sister, and then indulgent of your younger sister, we could guess that they weren’t ready to be parents when their first two were born and were more intentional when their third child was born.  I’d guess, and I emphasize guess, that when they became ready to become engaged parents, that their relationship with you and your sister was already established, with you 6 or 7 and your sister barely a year older, that you were very independent and didn’t come to them with your needs; you had already learned not to. In that sense, they didn’t feel needed.  They didn’t have a way to interpret why you were not open, vulnerable, cuddly.  They may have felt inadequate, not needed, maybe even intimidated by your self-sufficiency, your independence, your achievements.   

So how can I help here?  You say that you try not to allow your parents’ unreasonable behavior to destroy your relationship with them, but sometimes the pain is very difficult to deal with. Nadia, some of the pain you experience is from the belief that your parents could be different, that they could and should relate to you and your children differently than they do. That they could act as lovingly towards you as they do your younger sister and her children. That they could and should be better grandparents to your children. And if they did act in these wonderful ways, it would heal the empty feeling you have inside. My guess is that regardless of what you might say or do, that it won’t change things or change things for the better much at all. My guess is that they aren’t healthy or mature enough to relate to you and respond to your needs in a healthy way; in a way that’s relevant to who you are.  But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be more open and talk with them about it.  You don’t mention if you broached the subject with them or not, but if you haven’t you could.  In order to not make things worse or evoke defensiveness from them, you could ask about what you are noticing, and your kids are noticing about the differential in how they are treated compared to their cousins.  Ask in a neutral way without exposing too much of your pain or judgment about it. 

Here is how you might say it, “ Mom, I’d like to ask you a question about our family, is that okay.”  Assuming she agrees, you could continue with, “I’m curious as to why you and I are less close than you are with Sarah, and why you’re less close with my children then you are with Sarah’s children. I’ve always been confused by that and I’m wondering if you can help me understand.”

My guess is that your Mother will say something like, “You’ve always been so independent and you’re so good with your kids and they have so much, that they don’t need me as much”, or something like that.  I’m guessing she won’t validate your concerns much if at all and if she decides she needs to do more for your kids, that it won’t feel different even if the behavior changes some.  

Also Nadia, you don’t talk about your mother and father as different people.  Often in a situation like yours, there is one parent who sets the tone, and the other lacks a voice or any availability to connect much or create change; they stabilize the dysfunctional system.

So Nadia, talk with your parents.  See what you get, but the bottom line is that you need to let go of your expectations that they will be different, that they will be better.  It will help to realize that the price your younger sister pays for their attention is a loss of her individuality, and most likely her functionality.  You could think of this as the price of admission to this club.  It may end up that the price of intimate connection to your parents is more about meeting their needs than getting yours met, so you can ask, who’s better off, my younger sister or me and my older sister.  In terms of dealing with that empty feeling you have, here is something you can do. First of all, you need to feel great about who you are, what you’ve achieved and created in your life. You are truly amazing and you need to know that.  I’m certain that you have many in your life who need your love, support, validation, benefit from it, are grateful for it and offer it to you as well.  My guess is that you most likely do too much and overdo others, and not enough for yourself.  So think about that and if I’m right, think about doing less for others and doing more self-care.  

Next when you are aware of that empty feeling inside, think about who you were as a little girl, the girl who didn’t get her needs met by her parents.  Think of her with empathy and love.  Maybe even take a space where you are alone, get comfortable and imagine her coming into the room with you.  Talk with her, your imaginary little girl or teen self, and let her know how wonderful she is, that the lack of support she’s getting from her parents isn’t her fault, that she deserves love and support, and that you, as your adult self will be there for her, comfort her, enjoy her and love her and that she’s easy to love and enjoyable to love.  Assure her that any reasonable parent would love to have a little girl like her. Offer that her parents aren’t able to love in a healthy way because of the problems they experienced in their lives.  

To do this kind of work Nadia, it will be important to get a good therapist who can help and guide you.

While it’s good that you don’t want to cut off your relationship with your parents entirely, simply work at it less.  Engage less often, for less time, with lower expectations.  

Getting upset with them about their behavior will lead to alienation and that’s rarely a good thing.  Working hard to build the relationship will be an exercise in futility and will exacerbate your hurt feelings.

So, invest in the relationships that bear fruit and are rewarding, and invest much less in those that are obligatory, and your mental health will improve overall.Click To Tweet Consider lower expectations and less time as the best of bad options and build your social emotional life around those who can benefit from your wonderfulness.  You deserve it. 

So listener, let’s take a moment and reflect on all this.  Nadia’s painful experience invites us to think about the importance of generational trauma and how it impacts parent-child relationships, attachment, and the mental health of children and adults.  If you’re a therapist with specific expertise in this area, let me know and we can do a deeper dive here.  Yet all adults need to emancipate, differentiate from their families of origin and while there is virtually always a certain amount of tension in the process, love and caring can still be honored and continued connection and engagement embraced, sometimes with lots of time together and other times less. But whatever you arrange, with healthy family dynamics, it’s looked forward to and enjoyed.  But what do you do when continued engagement leaves you with confusion and pain? When you engage your family of origin with hope and love, and yet what you get is hurtful and confusing, not reassuring and fulfilling. 

First realize that their behavior belongs to them, it’s who they are; you didn’t cause it and you can’t fix it.  Then think of it this way, what is the cost of membership in this club? I want to be a member and feel that I’m part of this group.  But what is the membership fee, what are the dues?  If the fee and dues cost you your mental health; if being close and fully engaged lowers your wellbeing, leaves you frustrated and unfulfilled, then consider not signing up. Instead, be a visitor, someone who stays connected, but less frequently, for less time, with lower expectations and on your terms.

Thanks for tuning in today listeners and special thanks to Nadia for sharing her question with us and before we end, let’s do this together. We’ll take a slow deep breath, hold and then exhale very slowly, ready?  Inhale through your nose, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, good, now hold, 1,2,3,4,5 and exhale very slowly 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10.  One more time, inhale, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, good now hold, 1,2,3,4,5, and now exhale and send your stress away, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7.  Are you remembering to slow down and breathe and do other easy positive things for yourself? They’re important because as I’ve said many times and I’ll say it again, this parenting business ain’t easy so self-care is essential; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.  Bye for now.

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