Skip to content

What Does the Family Foster: A Lovable or Unlovable Self?

The family is the center of every individual’s life because one’s sense of being, one’s sense of self, is first built there and carried forward into the rest of life. Will the child build a sense of being lovable? Or will the individual forever feel inadequate, self-loathing or irredeemably unlovable?
The Lovable Route. Babies expect love and relationships of giving and receiving. In fact, the sharing of emotional and social space with caregivers, what is called intersubjectivity, is how the individual develops capacities for mutual recognition and appreciation. Within the social relationship with caregivers, the child needs to be recognized as a person in her own right with her own interests and gifts.
Yes, the baby receives many things from parents and hopefully they are happily sacrificing themselves to the baby. But the baby also has gifts to share—the joy of being alive, humor and play. When baby’s gifts are recognized in the give-and-take of relationship, she develops a sense of communal belonging and a lovable self.
Companionship care provides the immersion of intersubjectivity that fosters social (and moral) capacities. Jessica Benjamin describes it well:
“To affirm, validate, acknowledge, know, accept, understand, empathize, take in, tolerate, appreciate, see, identify with, find familiar,…love…What I call mutual recognition includes a number of experiences commonly described in the research on mother-infant interaction: emotional attunement, mutual influence, affective mutuality, sharing state of mind” (Benjamin, 1988, pp. 15-16)
How do parents nurture a baby? With physical affection and presence, attending to cues to avoid distress in the baby, and with help from other compassionate caregivers.
Pope Francis, in his address to the U.S. Congress on September 25, 2015, noted that the family “is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without.”
Pope Francis mentioned several external threats to families: lack of employment, housing, health care, workers’ rights, basic needs, and inadequate support and laws that protect families. I would add to the list: rigid work schedules and practices, lack of parental leave and lack of a loving extended family or community to help with child raising.
These external threats undermine the parents’ capacities to attend lovingly to their children, which becomes a threat from within.
The Unlovable Route. Too often, parents who are unable or unwilling to provide what young children need and are unaware of the long term harm they are causing to the child and to society.
Tragically, sometimes mothers and fathers buy into the myths about babies (that you can spoil them, that they are to be coerced into independence or obedience)—often this comes from how they were raised or how those around them bully them to be insensitive to their baby.
Breaking the spirit of the child was encouraged in parental advice books of the past with the aim of creating an obedient child. Alice Miller’s work described how this type of domination of children (“poisonous pedagogy”) was common in Nazi Germany and leads to an empty self, manipulable by authority figures.
Sometimes mothers and fathers are unable to provide companionship care because of their own trauma as babies. For example, if the parent’s parent did not recognize her and respect her individuality, she may have developed into a narcissist. A narcissist has unstable self-esteem and often takes either a grandiose or a self-loathing view of herself. Either view prevents her from being-with others in-the-moment. She is holed up in self-protective mechanisms built from early undercare.
Or, which is more common today, with inconsistent or partial parenting, the individual may have developed insecure attachment. She may intellectualize her life, out of tune with her own emotions, or be controlled by extreme emotions which she uses to manipulate others. Both are signs of poor neurobiological development and keep her distant from relational attunement with her children.
This creates a trauma-infused early nest for baby, with long term effects on the psyche of the child (which may not be visible till adolescence or early adulthood). It creates a “basic fault” in the psyche of the child that haunts them forever after.
The effects of these suboptimal childhoods on parents can be at least partially remedied with therapy. When parents realize their own trauma and self-heal they can prevent (unconsciously) passing the trauma along to their children.
But parents can also undermine baby’s development by sending baby to daycare where providers don’t intimately know (mutually recognize, as noted above) the baby because they are preoccupied with many children at once.
When babies do not experience the give and take of companionship care, the seeds of self-doubt and depression are planted. Moreover, their worldview can become inflexibly black and white.
When caregivers are not emotionally present, giving loving attention and taking in the baby’s overtures and maintaining the back-and-forth communication (verbal and nonverbal), the baby assumes the fault is in the self. The world is right and my caregivers are good. My overtures for affection and play are unacceptable, therefore I am wrong; I am bad.
What replaces the experiences of intersubjectivity? You may recognize it because it is rampant in our society. The alternative form of relating to others that is practiced and adopted is what Benjamin calls “complementarity,” a sadomasochistic, domination-submission dynamic of “doer-done-to” (Benjamin, 2004).
In complementarity, each person in the relationship seeks to maintain power over the other, asserts their reality as supreme. Relationships are based on calculations to maintain that dominance for fear of otherwise being destroyed by the other. One becomes the destroyer in order not be demolished. (Do you see this orientation in yourself or in the people around you?)
Pope Francis, in his lectures on the family, noted that self-concern seems paramount in society today. I agree. Undercare in early life is toxic and necessarily builds a stress-reactive brain which biologically focuses one on the self. The pope also lamented that young people are not marrying and starting families. Indeed, in the USA, over 50% of adults are now single and single-adult households the most common and growing (Klinenberg, 2012).
These facts may be more signs of early experience gone wrong. The unlovable path writ large. Therapist, Daniel Shaw, notes this in his clients:
“In my clinical work, I repeatedly observe in [clients] the pain, suffering, and stunted potential that has resulted from their feelings of being unlovable, unworthy of loving; unable to love satisfactorily; afraid to take love from others; and unable to hold as valuable both their own love and the love of others.” (p. 127)
Pope Francis said that “family life as the place where we come to learn the meaning and value of human relationships.” * He said that when things go as they should, the family is a “factory of hope.”
But when things go poorly, as Alice Miller documents, the family might be called a factory of death.
Of course, people can grow and change. As Pope Francis noted in his address to the Festival of Families in Philadelphia (link is external), “Perfect families do not exist. This must not discourage us. Quite the opposite. Love is something we learn; love is something we live; love grows as it is “forged” by the concrete situations which each particular family experiences.”
Indeed, there is always hope no matter what has happened before. With courage and faith, families can repair themselves. “Recognition is a “constantly renewed commitment” we make, working other creating a dialogue with our others—parents with children, spouses, siblings, colleagues, teachers with students, analysts with patients—that moves us toward mutual liberation from the tendency to seek power and control through negation of the other, out of fear of otherness.” (Benjamin, p. 6).