Startling Reason Why Past Abuse Makes You Hate Self-love

Experiencing narcissistic abuse since early childhood may result in having the idea of self-love and true love a wee bit backwards. If you feel like these concepts are cringeworthy and don’t belong in a ‘real world’ but rather in science-fiction – here’s why and what to do about it.

Our deepest beliefs about love and self-love form in our childhood, including whether we even believe in love or not. Developmental psychologists say that our parents set an example for us of what love is. How they treat us is sending our unconscious mind a message: this is the right way to take care of you. What you get is what’s ok for you to get. This is what you deserve. Such a mechanism usually works well when the parenting we receive is good enough.

So, if you grew up experiencing and/or witnessing abuse, you might think – ‘Great, then I’m screwed now?’ Well, Philip Larkin, in his poem ‘This be the verse’ said: ‘They f*** you up, your mum and dad’.

It definitely doesn’t make for much experience and understanding of what real love is, or who gets the right to receive it, and why? Frankly, it can leave you believing that safe, healthy, loving love is just a fairytale, and that’s my point.

Growing up with domestic abuse normalizes toxicity to a child

If a child never knew anything different, abuse can be ‘normal’. Even if it starts happening later – it will still be normalized in a process of adaptation. If you are a child, you can’t choose different parents. If you want to survive and you can’t escape – you adapt.

This might be your story. It’s definitely mine. Additionally, I had no idea about self-love until I heard about this concept in my 20-ties (yeah), and I was bewildered. When I was growing up (in the ’80s/’90s), love of oneself was a term describing indulgent, grandiose self-admiration. Now, people tell me that self-love is a good thing and everyone needs it. I was like, ‘Yeah, right, better wake up, Alice’. But culture wasn’t the only problem.

In a toxic environment, the odds are never in your favor

My model of love and attachment was formed by conditional love and a toxic mix of the physical, emotional, and psychological abuse I received growing up. With all this strange and dysfunctional notion of love, I happily marched into adulthood, forming a string of romantic relationships that fit the pattern I was taught. And reinforced it.

Peer validation plays a role, too. Luckily for my parents, I was surrounded by equally toxic families and friends. There was no way I could know any better.

Families should be a microcosm of society, but not all are an accurate representation

We live in a world that implies family should be a source of love and that everyone is born out of a loving union of two people. A child looks at their parents and thinks – aha, so this is what love is. That child is not silly. It’s normal. Love is a rightfully expected component of a parent-child relationship. It’s when parents are unable to form healthy, secure attachments with their child and provide unconditional positive regard (which means love in a language of psychology) that the problems start.

On a behavioral level – what we receive is what we get used to and learn to anticipate. On a meaning level – if there is such a thing as love, then it should exist in a family. How our parents treat us and each other teaches us what to accept and tolerate from intimate others and even – what we find attractive. A bad boy and femme fatal types are nowhere else as attractive as in a population of abuse survivors. Count me in. I used to believe that if it hurts really bad – that’s because it must be real love.

A Side-Note: If it resonates with you and makes you feel uncomfortable – that’s actually good news. Surviving abuse, through the process of adaptation explained here, we develop blind spots for toxicity and its red flags. We also learn to ignore our emotions and their feedback, i.e., signaling that something is wrong and might be unhealthy for us. So, if reading this, you recognize the patterns, and it makes you feel uneasy, you have a response adequate to the situation. That doesn’t mean you should be worried. Identifying a problem can motivate us to find a solution. But it’s much better than that. Any appropriate emotional response means your inner compass is re-adjusting, and you might be beginning to get yourself out of unserving patterns.

Emotions communicate needs and express the Self

A newborn child, when they’re hungry, thirsty, need warmth or a sense of protection – they will know it by getting a feeling. It indicates to them they have the need. Because they depend on their parents for everything, they must communicate it. They’ll do it in an unfiltered, direct, and relevant way because no child thinks that there’s anything wrong with them having that need. Not yet, that is.

Do our parents feed us when we’re hungry, do they listen when we cry, do they comfort us when we’re scared? How they respond to all our needs will condition us with what to do about them later.

When a baby gets older, and life gets more complex, they still look up to their parents to learn about the world. And what we should do with ourselves and our feelings in the face of adversity or opportunity. However, if our parents don’t care about our feelings or consider them an intrusion on their privacy – that’s emotional abandonment.

Internalizing emotional abandonment

If your feelings were an inconvenience to your mum and dad, or worse – a problem, and you were dismissed or mocked for showing them – you experienced emotional abandonment and neglect. Both are a form of abuse. Because our childhood experiences condition us, we internalize the abandonment. Now, we will learn to shut our feelings down, numb, hate, or ignore them ourselves. We will internalize neglect and gaslighting as an unconscious belief that our reality and emotions are not valid. We’ll learn we are not allowed to take space, it’s silly to seek comfort when stressed, and if we’d like compassion for our suffering, we’d look ridiculous.

That’s not a loving message. But what you experienced was very real for you. If self-love wasn’t a part of this experience, it would make sense that you believed it’s not real at all. 

Self-test for self-love

Looking out for yourself, standing up to injustice, protesting unfair behavior, self-nourishment, and self-protection are all forms of self-love. Can you recognize your limitations and moments of depletion and take time out, prioritizing yourself? And in the face of failure or mistake, can you comfort yourself, cheer on, and encourage yourself to try again? In the moments of striving to achieve success, can you support yourself, believe in yourself, and reward for your outcomes?

A self-test and the point of full realization for many survivors usually comes when they try to remember what their parents used to do when they expressed they felt hurt, especially by them.

Gaslighting distorts reality, and that’s just not your fault

Living with abuse is being attached to someone who keeps hurting us, won’t stop, and justifies it. Withstanding such circumstances over a long time destructively influences how we perceive reality. It shapes our ideas about ourselves, the world, and life. We create conclusions about what’s impossible, not to be expected, and not working – based on what does and does not happen in our experience. Developing disbelief in love/self-love – is a normal psychological response to this abnormal situation. I want to spell it out: your struggle to understand self-love is legitimate. There’s nothing wrong with you. What you had to go through was wrong.

To appreciate it even better, let’s not forget how abusers might stigmatize our need for self-care or emotional honesty by labeling it as a weakness. Let’s add to it toxic positivity and spiritual bypassing offered by social media, which doesn’t represent constructive positivity accurately but is another form of denial, and we have a perfect basis for feeling skeptical about it ourselves.

The effects of abuse don’t have to be permanent

Exposure to narcissistic abuse for a prolonged time causes a development of patterns of self-abuse, self-neglect, and self-abandonment, which are the opposites of self-care and self-love. To recover from it, we need to undo these changes.

This requires a therapeutic process that starts from sorting out what happened and articulating it to ourselves. I recommend finding a good trauma therapist who understands family dynamics and personality disorders. Therapy with a professional who is a good fit helps to form a healthy relationship where it’s safe to explore anything you need about yourself.

Another essential piece is psychoeducation. You can do it yourself, or with your therapist or a coach. We must expand our minds with healthy concepts we didn’t know how to approach before. We need a rough idea of how the mind works so that we can gain validation and understanding of how things affect us, but also how to take charge of it and turn things around. We need to learn to recognize abuse, manipulation, and gaslighting so that we can avoid it in the future. We need a new vocabulary to express what we feel about it, which means to tell it like it is. We also need to learn to ‘see’ again, or rather – to get rid of the ‘blinders’ and feel safe about it.

The next step is to learn the lessons from this experience. Like how do I recognize danger next time, what’s not healthy or helpful for me personally, and how do I notice when I need to protect myself. If your mind keeps obsessing about past abusive experiences – that’s because it wants to learn from it. If you feel anxiety, that’s your mind saying, ‘We need some boundaries. Otherwise, we’re not safe’. If you feel depressed, your mind communicates to you a sense of loss and a need to grieve it. That loss can be the love of a person but also the loss of hope, illusion, safety, etc. When you find a way to answer these needs, your mind will find peace.

Finally, we need to build up new foundations, including beliefs we can prove, to make us feel more supported in life.

Recovery – not just healing but also growth, empowerment, and self-leadership

Healing your wounds, shaping healthy beliefs about the world and yourself, and learning that you’re worthy of taking care of and standing up for – will make you not only healthier but stronger. It will allow you to exist in the world as an authentic you who knows who they are, who trusts themselves, and who knows that whatever comes your way – you can handle it.

This means a stable and sustainable existence. This means going out into the world and trying new things. And finding belonging with people who respect and celebrate you when you grow and take good care of yourself. And finally, it means knowing that the love you give others is indeed loving.