Unlovable and unworthy
May 23, 2012 8:07 AM   Subscribe

How do you cope with feeling unlovable? What do you do (or undo) to feel lovable?

My boyfriend and I recently hit a rough patch. He hasn't been considering my feelings or compromising with me. We've talked about it a lot and never came to any resolution. I'm starting to panic that this relationship is over and to feel increasingly desperate. He keeps reassuring me that he loves me and that we'll work it out but I still feel uncomfortable because I don't think he's as empathetic or caring as I need, and he refuses to compromise on some issues that I think are pretty basic.


The issue is not as much about him as about me. When I have a conflict with a loved one, I get so anxious that I am unable to function. I start to berate myself and to feel inadequate, unworthy, and unlovable. These thoughts and feelings are so intense as to be nearly unmanageable.

I know, I know. I'm in THERAPY, but I feel like I've been over and over my childhood a million times and I understand how all of the crappy things I experienced affected me. I've done cognitive-behavioral therapy and I know that there are other perspectives, not to catastrophize, etc. I'm not thinking that the world will end.

I'm thinking that he won't love me, and that it's because I'm unworthy of love. I've always been unlovable. Etc.

(It's hard to use cognitive therapy to disprove this, because my family is full of problems and it's a fact not an exaggeration that no one has ever really loved me. Many times when I desperately needed someone, no one at all was there. I survived (obviously), but I know very well what it's like to be suffering, and alone. So it's not a case of "Well, really, if you think about it, you are totally lovable!", because, well, that's never really happened.)

So my questions:
- How helpful is it for these issues to have someone really love you and care about you?
- What specifically did you do to work on the issue of feeling unlovable? (I'm in therapy already, so want more specific things that happened or how you worked through them.)

TL;DR: If you deal with the issue of feeling unlovable, what specifically has helped you? Did it help to be in a relationship with someone who really cared for you? If so, how?
posted by 3491again to Human Relations (15 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Volunteer work!
posted by KogeLiz at 8:17 AM on May 23, 2012

As corny as it sounds you must first love yourself. You can't define your "lovability" by whether or not someone loves you at this moment in time, or demonstrates this love in a way that eases your anxiety about being loved. That will never work.

Let's be real, while you may have certain needs to make you feel secure and loved in a relationship, they may be outside the norm (we don't know for sure, since we only know this from your point of view). Very few of us need someone to reassure us of their love constantly. We understand that our partners may have different ways of expressing their love for us and we work with it.

Are you a bottomless pit of need? That is awfully hard to live with on a daily basis. Or, are you merely asking for some consideration in a relationship, that's very different.

An Anecdote: Husbunny loves me distractedly, but, he's also incredibly insular and not used to thinking about others. We'll be in a fast food restaurant ordering lunch and he totally forgets to include me in the order. I'll tell him things and he won't be listening. He'll get his drink out of the fridge, but not mine when setting the table for dinner. VERY self-absorbed.

Is this because he doesn't love me or care about me? No, it's because he was a spoiled-rotten only-child and so far as he knows, the entire world revolves around him. Now, I could get my feelings hurt behind this behavior, but it has nothing to do with me. It's just how he is.

So, in therapy what you have to do is to learn to be comfortable alone, in your own company, and know that you are lovable, even if no one in particular is loving you at the moment. Tall order, I know, but relying upon your partner to prove to you that you are lovable, by having him perform certain behaviors and tasks is giving him a second, full-time job and that's not fair.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:37 AM on May 23, 2012 [10 favorites]

When I was in my 20s I felt a lot like you. A lot. I think for me what it came down to eventually was that I needed to spend time alone to get myself sorted. I think spending time alone helped me learn to love and accept myself for who I am.

How much time have you spent alone? As in single? Obviously you're in a relationship now, but have you traveled alone? Lived alone? Gone to a concert or club or bar or social event totally alone? The more comfortable and accepting you become of yourself as a stand-alone person the more you will appreciate you. If this isn't possible, how about doing things for yourself to bring yourself up and make yourself feel good about you? I love the suggestion earlier about volunteering. What about exercising or a new hobby? Something fun and enjoyable that you could see yourself exceling at!

You are loveable. However, the feeling of being loved needs to come from within first before you feel it on the outside.
posted by floweredfish at 8:55 AM on May 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

You've just got to find the human interaction somewhere else. Find a group of people doing something you like to do and go do it. A few days ago I went to a game store and was told that they'd be playing Magic that night. The guy seemed cool, so I went. And all of the people there were really nice about stuff. Letting me borrow a deck, letting me take moves back even though this was the most competitive game night of the week since store credit was on the line, stuff like that.

It wouldn't ever go in the relationship file, but it's a human interaction that took place over a shared interest with genuinely nice people.

And as hard as it is to believe, there are people who care about you.

3491again: "(It's hard to use cognitive therapy to disprove this, because my family is full of problems and it's a fact not an exaggeration that no one has ever really loved me. Many times when I desperately needed someone, no one at all was there. I survived (obviously), but I know very well what it's like to be suffering, and alone. So it's not a case of "Well, really, if you think about it, you are totally lovable!", because, well, that's never really happened.)"

This part made me think of a girl I had a crush on in high school. She seemed real nice, was pretty cute, your basic crush on a person you don't know. Her friends who I was sort of friends with found out I thought that and let me know that life situation was shit. But they trusted me not to be a dick and tried to help me out.

Looking back, both now and right after I gave up on trying, it seemed like her life was so messed up that she didn't even want to open herself up to the chance that anyone else could hurt her. And if you never let anyone in they can't. But it also means that you're keeping people out who can be really good for you in a lot of ways.

3491again: "I'm thinking that he won't love me"

And he might not. That's the way things work out sometimes.

3491again: "and that it's because I'm unworthy of love."

That part's not true. You're definitely worthy of love. Maybe too good for his version of it though.

3491again: "I've always been unlovable. Etc."

And here's where I call bullshit. Because there's no way to twist this around and make it true.

Honestly, it makes me want to invite you over for Mario Kart just to prove you wrong.

Just to wrap up my earlier story: This girl was just, for lack of a better way to say it, really off. To the point where she'd obviously ignore me, but never tell me to leave her alone or make an attempt to get me to leave. The kind of stuff where individual incidents could be taken as just being really shy around new people but when put together are so obvious you want to kick yourself for not seeing it. Eventually at lunch one day I was over there really trying to get her to say something to me. Didn't happen. So I angrily got up, and as I walked away told her that the least she could have done was told me to just leave her alone. Then I went back to my other friends at lunch, shook the anger out of my head, and got dealt into a game of rummy. One of her friends said something to her, and came over to our table. I thought I was going to die. She apologized for this girl's behavior and made sure that I knew I hadn't done anything wrong in their eyes.

A few weeks, maybe a few months, later class ended and the last people out of the room were her, my blind friend, and me. She went up to the teacher crying about something. My friend had some question about classwork. It took a few tries, but I finally got it through his head that right then wasn't a good time to ask about it and I wasn't going to tell him why. On our way past the girl and the teacher I got this look from both of them that could only be taken as a sign of thanks. After that she'd actually ask me questions and initiate superficial conversations. I'd like to think that she finally got it through her head that I wasn't some sort of evil being. But I never asked because it didn't really matter. She seemed happy and actually smiled, and those were just as good as I thought they'd be.

TL;DR: You're lovable. He might not love you, but that's a very small sample size and nothing to make any sort of conclusion over. If you're close enough, Mario Kart at my place.
posted by theichibun at 8:57 AM on May 23, 2012

--> and that it's because I'm unworthy of love. I've always been unloveable.

Hold a baby.

Or just look at a baby, and think about holding her and looking into her eyes.

You know in your heart that that little baby should be loved, and cared for, and protected and cherished. That little baby deserves tenderness, and compassion, and someone to guide her lovingly as she grows.

And she didn't have to do anything, anything at all to be worthy of that love, except to just be.

And neither do you.
posted by Ausamor at 9:07 AM on May 23, 2012 [18 favorites]

Have you spoken to a psychiatrist?
posted by discopolo at 9:10 AM on May 23, 2012

Also, realize that you can only do your best. Love him as you want to be loved. That's the best you can do.
posted by discopolo at 9:12 AM on May 23, 2012

Best answer: I typed out my answer, and then I deleted it, and here goes again. Ugh it's long. I hope this helps, because it is a very tough question but I think I have a bit of insight being further down the road.

I had this feeling and sometimes still do (childhood abuse, PTSD). I have been married for 18 years to my best friend and you would think I would have resolved it based on his love and support. And who am I to say really?

EXCEPT about 8 years ago our first child died a few days after her birth. My husband, who had loved and supported me through a whack of PTSD issues, couldn't cope and he took a job contract for over a year 5 hours away and worked himself nearly to death. In other words, he fled.

I feel like that was kind of the time that I really started to get my shit together on the 'loveability' axis. Because in the past I think I would have freaked out (and I did, some). But I also just...was alone. I mean I was married, but I was living alone but for two weekends a month, I was bereft -- empty nursery I hadn't been able to pack up yet -- and wandering and kind of broken down. I reconnected to friends and interests. I did some volunteering. I puttered around the garden. I cried, a lot...for me, for the life I wanted and didn't seem to be having, for my husband, for my daughter, for my past.

This is what I kind of realized. I am unloveable and I am totally loveable, just like everyone else on the planet. It's humbling. I can choose to go after love, risk it -- watch my partner of, at the time, ten years be broken down by goddamned death and destruction, or I can shut myself off. Either way, things happen. Things fucking happen.

And...I chose to stay in my marriage and kind of tough it out NOT because I was afraid he wouldn't love me or would love me or whatever. I did it because I had love *to give him*. Knowing that he might not come back, in some essential way. And I followed him to where he was not because I was lonely (I was) but because I was prepared to give it my full effort

...and then divorce, if it didn't work after a couple of years. Because I also needed him to show up again, and he wasn't. And for the first time...I realized I could do that. And be okay.

It is so hard to describe but I just realized...I am okay. I am okay if I screw up every relationship, or if everyone dies. Not because I am good or special or anything but because...I'm just the same really as everyone else. Good and bad. Healthy and unhealthy. With needs and with things to offer.

I wish I could bottle that and give it to you but I can't. Most people I know have come there because they faced down the loneliness in some way. Then they created a life that gave them joy regardless - the joy of a sunny day, of good food, of friends, of volunteering, of cats and dogs - and yes, romantic love too. But no ONE thing.

Maybe that's it: No one determination of your worth. No one has that power. It's not about that One Love. It's about being a part of life, love being just one aspect, and that a whole different bunch of kinds of love.

When you were growing up it wasn't just love you lacked. You probably lived in fear of doing things wrong, and you had to pull back and not really *live.* You *survived*.

So here's my prescription: Live. Take risks. Keep going. Find what you like and do more of that. Fall in love with *the world* and then it will love you back, and it won't depend on one guy, on your boyfriend's day, on the ring and the dress. But it's okay if you don't believe me 'cause what do I know? I don't really. It's okay. It's going to be okay.
posted by Zen_warrior at 9:15 AM on May 23, 2012 [62 favorites]

I had a similar problem to you in that, growing up, my parent's love was always conditional. If I was "undeserving" it could be taken away and I would be effectively cut off from the family. It caused me a lot of trust issues in relationships.

One thing that really helped me was figuring out what kind of person I felt "deserved" to be loved and taking steps to become that person. Doing volunteer work and trying to make a positive contribution to the work around me helped me establish an image of myself as a "good" person, and therefore, one who was entitled to expect positive treatment from others.

Once I had internalized this view of myself, the other half was expressing to others how I expected to be treated (ie, "setting boundaries") and - most importantly - cracking down on them when they violated those boundaries. Sometimes this required being a hardass, and sometimes I felt bad about disciplining people who hurt me. When I wavered in my view of myself as a "good" and "deserving" person, I would simply go out and do more volunteer work to reaffirm how I identified myself.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 9:17 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Would suggest you pick up a copy of this. Also, this is pretty good to nurture yourself with when you're feeling down.

Ultimately I realized I'd have to accept the painful end of the relationship in order to fully enjoy the good stuff. If you insist on avoiding the pain of heartbreak, you may bind yourself to something that doesn't work. You should be happy. He should be happy. Hold lightly any romantic ideals.

Be honest and true to yourself in the relationship, and realize that the hunger you feel can be sated by many many people, not just your boyfriend, and most importantly and richly by yourself. It's a lie that you need this specific person to fulfill your love requirements.
posted by griselda at 9:48 AM on May 23, 2012

I struggle with this sometimes. I would like to feel more confident in my loveability.

I'm certain my parents love me. But they failed me in many ways when I was a kid, just because they 1) didn't know what I needed or 2) didn't know how to provide it. But those failures don't prove a lack of love. This isn't to say that you are wrong about whether your parents love you or whether anyone has ever loved you. Just that everyone is failed by people who love them. It's pretty much a given in life.

Sometimes it helps to think about the different ways different people have shown me love and not worry about whether all their behavior towards me is 100% loving. FriendX remembered my favorite ice cream is rocky road and she got me a cone one day when I was feeling low. Maybe another day she failed me, or maybe we've fallen out of touch, but that cone still counts as a moment of love. Make a list of all the little moments of love in your life, and all the random things you're grateful for. If you have emails or letters expressing gratitude/appreciation/admiration towards you, save those. Keep them in one place and look at them when you feel blue.

The other things that helps is thinking about the people you love and showing it. If you want to get spiritual, you could think of love as an energy that comes and goes in the universe and not a contract between two people. It's a conga line, and you don't have to wait for someone to ask you to dance. How to join the conga line of love?

Small kindnesses can help you see yourself as a source of love in the world which can help you feel more loveable or even make your loveability seem irrelevant in the face of your awesome ability to love. I would advise against focusing this on your boyfriend - yes, show him your love, but not just him. Get coffee for someone at work, send a card to your favorite aunt, pet a dog, tell a stranger that you like their shoes. Don't worry too much about whether you are thanked or whether you get anything in return. Just think ahead to your next act of love. Don't give beyond your means or your comfort level.
posted by bunderful at 10:59 AM on May 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

As a lifelong battler of the "I am unloveable" tape...I get it. Most people do not. Personally, it used to be an automatic thought and with a lot of work has decreased to a few times a week, depending on the week. The work I have put into it has been a combination of therapy, exercise, and just telling people that I absolutely trust that this is an engrained belief about myself that I am slowly unlearning. When I named it and talked about it with people whom I knew wouldn't judge me, it really dawned on me that this isn't something everyone thinks/feels. Most people do not carry this around with them and when I realized that, I knew I needed help specifically for this belief.

I was very skeptical and completely surprised to find that EMDR was the most helpful to me with this specific issue. As you probably know, EMDR typically is used for people who have experienced trauma, and when I was open to broadening the definition of trauma, it made sense to try this systematic course of therapy.

I also found some reading about codependence to be helpful, just in terms of reframing my thinking about relationships. Sometimes I will just do some brief reading on this to get my brain back on track. I hope some of this is making sense! It is so complicated, isn't it?

It is a hard and heart-breaking road at times, but it is lovely on the other side.

Feel free to memail me to talk further, if you like.
posted by retrofitted at 1:27 PM on May 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

Mindfulness meditation.

CBT can be great, but it can also be too exercise-driven. Meditation will help you to quieten your mind so that you can listen to where this unlovable feeling is coming from. For me it stemmed from "uncertainty" - uncertainty about events in my childhood and my ability to believe myself. So once I honed in on that, the feelings of being unlovable diminished (because it was never really about being unloveable in the first place).

He keeps reassuring me that he loves me and that we'll work it out but I still feel uncomfortable because I don't think he's as empathetic or caring as I need, and he refuses to compromise on some issues that I think are pretty basic.

It could just be that he is not able to meet your needs and that this relationship is not for you. Sometimes what someone is able to give you in their love is not enough. That's okay.

When I have a conflict with a loved one, I get so anxious that I am unable to function.

Many times when I desperately needed someone, no one at all was there.

In those situations you were a child so you needed someone because your survival was dependent on them. Now you're an adult and your basic survival is not dependent on anyone except yourself so you don't really need anyone to be there for you in order to survive but your brain thinks you do. When there's conflict, you may think you'll be deserted again so your brain is panicking because it thinks you won't be able to survive on your own - but you're not a kid anymore, you don't live in that house anymore, someone else isn't feeding and clothing you anymore.

As trite as it sounds, the only person you need to love you is you because the only person you can really depend on consistently to always be there is you because you are an adult now and you don't need to depend on anyone else to survive.
posted by mleigh at 4:50 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

How helpful is it for these issues to have someone really love you and care about you?

Love and care are good and helpful; they're healthy and we all need them. But overburdening any given relationship with my healing, my total wellbeing .. pinning that on someone else is, in my experience, a recipe for pulling on someone so hard that I chase them away. Then blaming myself again. Not recommended. Accept love when you get it, but don't wait around aching for it.

What specifically did you do to work on the issue of feeling unlovable? (I'm in therapy already, so want more specific things that happened or how you worked through them

Well, I still kinda think I'm worthless, but working on it, y'know. I find it helpful to think of it as merely a weakness, like some people are weak at lifting weights or memorizing fractions. You just work on your weak spots until they're strong enough to function.

Your question, especially about painful memories from family life, reminds me of a really enjoyable CBT exercise I know (it's ch16 in Thoughts and Feelings). It involves visualizing and script-altering painful memories of helplessness as a child. You replay the scene enough to arouse the most painful interpretation from the eyes of yourself as a child, then again from outside, then you do so as a visiting version of your adult self helping the child version. Or at least comforting it. Saying things will be ok, explaining what will happen, making the child-self feel more secure and cared-for in that scene. Then re-visualizing that visitation-of-adult-self, that modified script, from the child's perspective. Literally modify all the "nobody helping me" visual memories so that you're looking at an adult version of yourself standing in the memory, helping you out, being competent and powerful and useful and all the things you know your adult self would actually appear to be, to your child-self.

That's a quick summary but it really involves many passes and hypnotic/relaxation prep to get into. But can be effective at this sort of helpless-memory trigger. Turns out your subconscious isn't so bright about the real vs. convincingly-re-imagined events of the past.

I'd also second mindfulness meditation. And know many people who had good results from EMDR.

Good luck. And btw you are, of course, totally lovable. We all are.
posted by ead at 12:32 AM on May 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've felt pretty unlovable & undeserving of love for the majority of my life. Like you there were times when I really needed someone to lean on & found I was alone, not a good feeling at all. This is such an understatement.

The thinking that your boyfriend won't love you because you feel you're undeserving of love, yeah I get that. I know for me (& maybe this is the case for you) that a lot of those feelings came from my family, not feeling loved or valued. This transferred into pretty bad self esteem issues growing up & a general feeling that I didn't deserve love (because I didn't get it from the people I needed it from in my formative years, my family).

I still have self esteem issues I have to work on from time to time, but nothing like I had when I was younger. What helped me was actually working with kids, & seeing families that were loving to each other & I realized that this is what a family should feel like. Working with children can be wonderful, because they don't have all those walls up yet that keep others out, & are in touch with the present moment & being genuine. If you can develop a bond with a child, believe me you are definitely going to feel some love, & feel that you are worthy of it. It can come in a manner that's pretty unfiltered, which will help you believe in it's own worth. The fact that you can love & give love, you might find one day is enough of an indicator that you deserve getting love back too.

Also, if that still brings up road blocks for you, forget people for a while. Go spend time with an animal. Again, just creating a bond with them (dogs are particularly good for unconditional love), the seriously unbridled affection & need for you that you get back is pretty hard to ignore, & pretty hard not to feel "loved". Start with that, & build your way up. The more instances where you've been in situations where you've experienced love from different sources, will make you start to think "hey, I'm getting a lot of love back from different places & I'm the common denominator in these experiences, I'm starting to realize maybe I do deserve love"- I have proof that someone (or something) does love me.

I also had a long relationship that was the first time I ever felt love, real love & affection. This really helped as well. Even though it didn't end well, I know I was loved & can appreciate that love for what it is, & the time I experienced it.

These things have made me realize it doesn't matter if I hold onto the love so much (because that's been more of an issue for me, definitely not feeling like I don't "deserve" love which I definitely know I do), it's more that I am capable of giving it & experiencing it, & I'm happy for all the times I've felt love, & the people I've felt it with. That emotion is always with you, you own that. I'm sure you've had experiences with your boyfriend where you really felt love, & that is yours. You can call up that feeling whenever you want to. No matter what the outcome is, being present in the moment with that emotion, you can have that anytime. No one can take that from you. Being a little less hung up on the outcome of love, would probably help. Easier said than done, right? I know :)

Still, if you can start small & look for the smallest traces of love, I'm sure you'll start finding them. & that's gonna help you start feeling like your worthy of it, because you are. We all are.

Best of luck to you :)
posted by readygo at 10:23 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

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