Withholding Love: Growing Up Unlovable

This is a difficult subject for me. Love was something that was withheld and doled out with condition. I’ve written about this before, but I’ve recently had an experience that reminded me that no matter what I was taught as a child, withholding love now is a conscious effort on my part. I’d like to explore some of the emotions surrounding this experience a bit and how I’m working to turn my habits around to be more inclusive of love and the people who I give and receive love and support from and to. Let’s jump in at the beginning.

Making the Choice to Withhold Love

This is something I remember very clearly. I couldn’t have been more than 6-7. I was laying in bed, wrestling with some thoughts when I made the decision to hold back. Hold back my caring and affection. It was a stubborn, sort of obstinate defiance. The type where you see a child reacting disagreeably to something their parent is forcing on them.

With arms folded and a stern frown sagging on their face, this was how I felt. I no doubt learned this behavior from my role models. But I remember the night I decided to emulate that emotional state in myself. And the thing is, I still do this to some degree. Even decades later.

Even now, when I have interactions with people who rub me the wrong way, I get that same stubborn sense of, “no! I’m not letting you in.” And it’s not as though I’m not allowing myself to disagree, or even dislike what a person is doing. I’m deciding that the person who is offending me gets a hard “no” when it comes to letting them get close to me.

Predictable Results, Feeling Lonely Not Love

And, no surprises here, this leads to feeling very lonely. Especially when you practice this often. For me, it also led to acting smug, feeling superior, being unforgiving and petty as well. A cornucopian of difficult emotions, leading to feelings of isolation. So with so much detriment to the choice to withhold love, why do we, did I, continue to choose to do so? For me it was out of fear.

The Armoring

I believe this is what people mean by the phrase, “letting down your armor”. From my experience, I know that I just wanted to feel loved and a sense of belonging. I was afraid of opening up to those who could love me because I had been so hurt by those who I had let in in the past. Also, the fear of having the love I was receiving being given on condition, was another frightening prospect.

There are only so many times you can be wounded by those who are supposed to love you, who then leave you alone with your wounding, without support, before you decide to shut everybody out completely. And I suppose that this is where I decided to shut others out. Put up the armoring and use smug, petty judgements and an unforgiving frame of mind to keep others at bay. This isn’t ideal.

Nor is it conducive to healthy and lasting relationships. And I think that the longer I had this armoring up, the more I was losing touch with my emotions. If you practice hardening yourself against emotions of love, kindness and empathy, and your ability to forgive, it stands to reason that you will eventually lose your ability to recognize them in yourself.

Finding Yourself and Your Love Again

So if it’s practice that gets us to a place of losing our compassionate and loving, feeling selves, then it is practice that hones these attributes as well. But before we can start practicing these traits again, we first need to feel safe doing so. This was the case for me and luckily I had some help during this process.

Being Bold Enough to Learn to Trust

For me, my trust had been abused so many times, in such odd and disturbing ways, that I needed not only to recognize that I could rely on people for support, but also learn that people were not objects to be used and disposed of. These were difficult lessons.

I had learned to use people in much the same way I used alcohol: that’s to say that I was only around them for the good times. If they, in anyway caused me the slightest bit of discomfort, I was out of there so quickly it would have surely made their heads spin. Unfortunately, most of those closest to me were the same way. So when things got very bad for me, I found myself almost completely alone. Save for the few true friends and family that decided to stand by me. Which to this day shocks me, because I was a poor friend. And that’s being generous.

Role-Modeling Destructive Behavior

But this was also how I saw my role models act. Gathering to drink and be rowdy while spitting venom at everybody and anybody. I was torn down so many times at the hands of my, “supports”, during the “good times” that I had no idea what it meant to be caring, loving and supportive. Or what a good time, really was. And worse yet, when I saw genuine love and support from others, I viewed it as weakness of character. Something to be made fun of and ridiculed, rooted out of myself. Like a Hallmark movie, too campy and unrealistic for the real world. Full disclosure, I now sometimes watch and enjoy Hallmark movies : )

And this was how I lived my life until my early thirties. Unloving and unforgiving. This was the reason I had so few healthy, lasting relationships. So what changed for me? How did I make the change from untrusting and unforgiving to trusting and able to give and receive love? It happened slowly and took practice.

Role Modeling Loving and Trusting Behavior

After I had been abandoned by someone who said they would always be there for me, I had to rely on family who had abandoned me in the past. This was no easy task. I had given up just about every way I had used to cope with my emotions and was putting myself in the lion’s den. A place that was decidedly unsafe for me to be.

Trust started to come slowly. One way I was learning to trust again was, we were polite to each other to the point of being almost cold to one another. This was a complete 180 from the family of my youth who had no boundaries in regards to personal space.

As an example, my family would search through all of my personal possessions and space as though I wasn’t allowed to have a separate sense of self. This left me feeling suspicious of how genuine the people who were around me were. Being polite helped me to realize that I was safe enough in myself and surroundings to be at ease. And the more we were polite, the more I learned I could trust these people I was sharing space with.

Finding Love Again

It was from this shared space of mutual respect and trust, that I found the courage to feel compassion for those who had left me in the past. They became more real to me. They were no longer the person who did me wrong so long ago. We were in the present, building a new foundation for a healthier relationship that started with being polite and kind to each other.

I could now feel compassion, concern and care for these people. This was not something entirely new, but it was something that was difficult to allow to be. To be with the vulnerability and uncertainty of relying on them again. Hoping that the same would not happen all over again.

But also finding forgiveness. For the ways I had been treated, so I could move forward and build the healthier, new versions of the relationships I so desired. This was no easy as well. But it was in these moments of mutual vulnerability that we all learned to open up, if not slowly and a tiny bit at a time, to each other. This is how we learned to love and support each other again.

Family Dinner Fridays

A great example of this is, after I had spent some time getting used to my new surroundings and starting to feel comfortable again around others, I suggested starting family dinner Fridays. A day where we rotate who chooses a recipe to cook and we all pitch in and help to make the meal together. My family has a love of food, so this seemed like a natural place to start.

And it was during these dinners that we learned to work together. Ask what the other needed, help the other with their task. We learned to divide and delegate the tasks and share the responsibility of our jobs. We also learned how to communicate with each other.

Not only in asking what we needed from one another, as far as tasks being done. But also to ask for clarification from one another. “What do you mean when you say…”, something we were just too proud to ask each other in the past. If you’ve read my post on “disagreement and belonging”, you’ll know we had trouble admitting we didn’t know something, even when it was impossible to know what the other was thinking without being able to read minds. Because we didn’t want to be seen as weak.

Seeing Communication as a Weakness

And this is really what it came down to. We saw communicating with one another as a weakness, because we wanted to be right and seen as superior. All because we wanted to feel belonging. But we were really just cutting each other off from one another with our lack of communication because we didn’t want to be hurt. Something that happened again and again with malicious intent. I believe this is where we stopped communicating, everything really. And this is where I learned how to hold back my love from the other.

“Love is Stronger Than Pride” – Sade

But the need to connect is strong in us. Because we need to connect, to feel loved and belonging. So we keep trying, even if it feels like we’re fumbling our way through our relationships. That’s definitely what it feels like for me sometimes.

And the desire to want healthier ways of connecting is the first step in connecting in healthier ways. I believe that we all have it in us to be together in healthy, reciprocal ways. Ways where we feel heard, respected and most important, loved.

And it is that desire to be loved that is stronger than the ways we choose to disconnect from each other. As Sade so eloquently put it so many years ago, “love is stronger than pride”. The pride that keeps us from sharing and communicating our love with one another. So if you’re looking to make stronger connections and share love more freely, know that it’s not too late to open up and share your loving self. I hope this helps in some way. Peace, thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Heart” by Pandalia_YUE is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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