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‘My Parents Don’t Love Me!’

Photo: Paul Mckenzie/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I need your advice because no one in my life can relate to me, not even my own brother. While I have struggled with this since I was a child, there are milestones coming up in my life that will be exacerbating this problem very soon. The problem is, my parents don’t love me. It’s hard to describe the unique pain that I feel about this, but it’s a very deep hollow sadness that makes me feel worthless, unlovable, and like I’m nothing. I just feel like I’m nothing at all. This is especially painful because they treat my brother so differently.

The typical reactions I’ve gotten from friends on this issue include confused looks, stunned silence, or my least favorite, the “No, you’re wrong, they love you; they just don’t know how to show it.” I know for a fact that I’m not even in the top ten when it comes to their priorities and I’ve unsuccessfully dedicated my entire life to try to win their love and support. I don’t want to give up trying to have a good relationship with them, but I probably should, for my own sanity. Unfortunately, my mom is a very insecure person and a royal bitch (seriously, she has no friends and none of her family members like her), and my dad fully supports the way she treats people and he is also terrified of conflict. I know other people have it worse, so I feel a bit bad for complaining, but in general, this dynamic duo made for a very unpleasant childhood.

Growing up, my parents were all about our grades. I heard, “Why did you get an A- and not an A?” and, “You know your brother got another 4.0. You need to try harder” quite a few times. While trying to match my younger brother’s grades, I also tried doing productive things like regularly volunteering at 11 years old and getting my first paid job at a prestigious organization at 14 years old. By the time I was 16, I was busy seven days per week — volunteering all day both Saturday and Sunday, going to school Monday through Friday with an above-average GPA, on the varsity volleyball team, and going to work right after school Monday through Friday. One day I was watching TV on the couch and my dad said to me in an exasperated tone, “You’re always watching TV. I mean, do you even know what you want to be when you grow up? You better get into some good colleges.” Well, the job I was working was already in my desired field and that experience paired with my GPA got me acceptance letters from a number of good universities. It was then that my dad revealed he and my mom never actually put money aside for me to go to college, so I had to figure out how to pay for it by myself. I ended up going to my local community college since that was all I could afford. A couple years in, my mom told me that she was really disappointed in my work ethic (despite my working full time at a museum and going to school full time) and said I needed to move out of the house. After I moved out, my parents fully funded my brother’s college education while he worked part-time in retail.

Well, I eventually earned and paid for my four-year degree, got a job at a world-famous organization, and was elected to serve on the board of directors for a national organization and a local organization, all by the time I was 28 years old. All the while, barely having any communication with my parents, with the exception of a “Happy Birthday” or “Merry Christmas” text message. When I received an even better job offer (higher pay, better schedule) I was excited and wanted to share the news with my parents, in hopes that they would be proud of me. Big mistake — my mom was absolutely furious. She told me that I shouldn’t change jobs and that I should just stay at my old one. She didn’t really have a sound argument for this, but she was very disappointed in me. I told her that I was hurt and that I wished she could just be happy for me. She ended the conversation right there. I then reached out to my dad, who was happy for my new job, but when I mentioned that I really wanted Mom’s support, he too abruptly ended the conversation. Neither acknowledged my feelings at all and sadly, similar conversations like this have taken place many times. I never learn my lesson.

We are about to go through this disappointing cycle again right now. I’m finishing up graduate school and will be receiving my master’s in science with the highest honors this December from a very well-known university. I would love for my parents to attend the commencement, but I can already tell they’re not the least bit interested. I’ve asked them and sent the details on two different occasions, but thanks to the iPhone’s read receipts, I know for a fact that they’re ignoring me. Not only that, but my fiancé and I are starting to plan our wedding and I’m afraid they won’t go since they’ve expressed zero interest in our relationship. If we have our own children later down the line, I imagine my parents would be equally uninterested.

Yes, I’m hurt that my parents are terrible parents and, yes, I still want them to be a part of my life. At first, I thought I just needed better grades. Then, I thought I just needed to work harder. But I see now that it’s really none of those things, as my brother is 28 years old, still working the same part-time retail job he did in high school, and living with them rent-free with their unwavering adoration. I have spent way too many hours trying to figure out what is wrong with me. I’m stubborn, that’s obvious, and I tell it like it is, but I also love making people laugh till they cry, creating lifelong friendships, and I’m not ugly at all (which would be a real concern for my shallow parents). The more I try to have a relationship with my parents though, the more they hurt me. But if I don’t try, then we don’t talk or see each other at all and it’s equally painful for me. I guess what I want to know is, what the hell should I do?


Dear Unloved,

When you’re in a painful, unresolved place about your parents, it can be extremely difficult to explain it to anyone else. You try to paint a full picture of how bad it is, but somehow, unless you were chained to a toilet in the basement until age 10, no one is willing to admit that you had it bad. Instead they say, “No, they just don’t know how to show their love!” or “Aw, I’m sure they were just doing their best.”

Which is pretty infuriating. If your parents are really doing their best, then their “best” is absurdly half-assed. Their best includes blatant favoritism and avoidance. Their best includes the open but unspoken rejection of anyone they don’t understand and/or can’t directly control.

So I want you to know that I hear you and I believe you. Maybe your parents love you and maybe they don’t, but it doesn’t matter either way, because your parents are terrible. Noticing that doesn’t make you ungrateful or deluded or unstable. Your mother has at least one undiagnosed personality disorder. She demands that you overachieve throughout your entire childhood, but then she makes it crystal clear that she doesn’t want you to succeed. It sounds to me like she has trouble making room for you because, for whatever reason, you trigger her insecurities and fears. Her disordered mind causes her to view you as competition for limited resources. When you shine, she feels dull. When you excel, she finds a way to make what you’re doing a mistake. By “stubbornly” telling the truth and asking for what you want directly JUST LIKE ANY HEALTHY PERSON DOES, you become an active threat to her lockdown-level of control over her life, your dad, and your brother. Because your dad is weak and dependent on your mom, he enables her. He tries to be good to you in his weak ways, but really, he’s just as bad as she is, because he’s willing to stand by and let her sickness destroy everything around them. Sadly, sick parents with enabling spouses aren’t rare. Disordered people need a partner who’ll pretend that life inside their twisted bubble is normal and everyone else is crazy.

If I had to guess, I’d say your mother qualifies as narcissistic or borderline. I’m throwing out possible diagnoses not because I want to sound like an expert but because I want you to take your mother’s callous behavior seriously, so that you’ll understand at a deeper level that this isn’t about love. I simply want you to take your mother’s bizarre reactions seriously and understand at a deeper level that this isn’t about love. Your mother probably needs a safe bubble around her just to function. She seems to struggle with any situation that takes the spotlight off her or doesn’t adequately flatter her by aligning perfectly with her preferences. The fact that you feel invisible and unimportant while also feeling guilty for not liking your mother is consistent with her practice of ignoring your opinions, needs, and feelings. She cuts you off the second you ask for anything, even when it’s completely reasonable. This probably stretches back to your early childhood. Your bond with her is incomplete. In other words, you shouldn’t feel guilty about this. It’s not your fault.

Here’s just one article about borderline mothers, but there are plenty more where that came from, along with a giant pile of articles on narcissistic parents. These are not exotic diagnoses, mind you. I know a lot of overachieving, creative, sensitive, perfectionist adults who had borderline or narcissistic parents. It would blow your mind — and it will, once you read more about your situation and talk to friends about it. Once you understand and accept what you’re dealing with, the people with similar stories start coming out of the woodwork, trust me.

Which probably sounds ridiculously depressing and awful. But it’s not, once you really look at the truth and see that your situation is not remotely unique. People out there are FUCKED. UP. Believe it. Lots of them. FUUUUUUUCKED. UUUUUUUUP. I’m not saying you can’t have a personality disorder and be a good person. Plenty of people figure out their puzzles and learn how to live in the world with other people! But this isn’t a letter to your mom or dad. This is a letter to you, someone who’s hurting, thanks to her screwy parents, and needs to understand how to proceed without falling to pieces.

Listen: I know your situation sucks beyond words. I know that the way your mother acts hurts more than you can even say. I know how high the stakes feel for you. You feel like nothing. I hear that, and I know exactly what you mean. My parents weren’t like yours, but I felt very emotionally stuck when it came to them, for a long time, and it held me back in other areas of my life. You need to understand that you feel like nothing because your mother treated you like you were nothing. Your opinions were irrelevant. Your feelings didn’t exist. You were invisible.

But you’re not nothing. You don’t deserve to get hurt, over and over again. So now, you need to start protecting yourself.

Your mother is not well. You can’t fix her. She is a hot stove. You have to stop going back and putting your hand on the stove over and over again. You have to stop hoping that this time, at last, the stove won’t burn you. You keep going back, thinking, “She’ll show me her love this time! She’s my mother! If she doesn’t, then I must be the crazy one! I must be the one who needs to change, to do better, to achieve more, to finally win her love!”

But listen to me: You can’t change her. She is a stove. The stove will burn you. You have to keep your hand off the stove.

I know that this equation hurts like crazy, too. “MY MOTHER IS A STOVE!” you’re thinking. “IT’S NOT FAIR. Why do I have a mother who is a fucking STOVE?” You aren’t alone there. A lot of us have stoves for parents.

Do you have to cut your mother out? No one would blame you if that were your choice, under the circumstances. What does she do, to show you her love and concern? Send a text here and there? Accept your calls, ignore your hard-fought victories, and then criticize you for whatever reasons she can invent on the spot? Who needs that?

But I believe you when you say you want to maintain a relationship with your parents. You can do that, as long as you protect yourself. You protect yourself by repeating the truth to yourself: My mother is unwell. She is a hot stove. I don’t deserve to get burned again.

Here’s how you avoid getting burned: You stop looking for affirmation, offering up tidbits from your life to your parents, hoping that they’ll approve. You stop wishing for more love from them. You stop longing for a time when your very disappointing mother will transform into the mother of your dreams. I understand why this is your fantasy. This fantasy may have kept you alive when you were younger. This fantasy might be part of the reason why you’ve accomplished so much up to this point in your life. But you have to let go of it.

You need to find a smart therapist. You need to let out all of your feelings of rage and frustration and NOTHINGNESS, built up over several decades. And you need to accept that you mother isn’t going to change. No amount of reasoning will reach her. All you can do is navigate around the hot stove. Don’t touch it! Smile politely, from a distance, and ask it how it’s been.

You can invite a hot stove to your wedding. You can invite a hot stove to your graduation. You can prepare yourself for disappointment by recognizing how difficult it can be, logistically, for a hot stove to get on a plane. Practically speaking, if you want your mom to behave for a few months, it’s best not to challenge her directly or address the obvious truth. You could even announce, “I would love for you to simply be there, no expectations” so that neither of your parents is on edge about WHAT BAD PARENTS THEY ARE. But you also need to be realistic: Even if a hot stove shows up, a hot stove won’t bring you a nice gift or seem happy for you. That’s not what hot stoves do. A hot stove won’t seem happy to be there. A hot stove will sit in the corner, waiting to burn you. Just keep your distance, and it will be fine. Accept that this is what it will take to have your parents at your wedding. Unfortunate, but true.

But there are good things about this picture. The second you say to friends, “That’s my mom, she’s not well,” or something similarly final and resolved? Suddenly they’ll believe you for the first time, simply because you’re not trying to convince them of anything. God, I hate that this is the case! But in my experience, looking for reassurance and help when you’re emotionally distraught and confused about your parents just makes people knee-jerk gaslight you. No one likes the idea that parents with good intentions can still be insanely shitty at parenting. Also, maybe we all get trained by a world full of gaslighting motherfuckers to respond to big question marks with more gaslighting.

Either way, once you recognize this pattern of Looking for Love/ Reassurance → Feeling Lonely/Rejected, you can avoid it. You learn to turn to yourself (and to trusted friends who understand your situation) for reassurance, and you learn to trust your own instincts. This means that soon, you’ll no longer be obsessed with convincing other people that (1) You’re not nothing, even though you FEEL like nothing and (2) You’re not crazy, even though your mom makes you crazy and (3) Your mom doesn’t love you and it’s truly not your fault. You’ll let go of the question of whether or not your parents love you. Love is not the issue. You have to let go of the mysteries and deal with the concrete reality of their behavior, and how it has affected you. Once you do this, you’ll have less to prove to everyone. You’ll know that you’re a person who deserves love and respect. Your childhood was not your fault. Your anger and sadness and longing aren’t your fault, either.

And suddenly, instead of disputing your account, your friends might start to rally around you. They might start telling you about their own hot stoves. But don’t expect your brother to join you in this. Siblings never view their parents the same way, and your brother is living on a completely different planet as far as your parents go. He’s living on their planet, in fact. Your parents’ approval is what keeps him stuck in his compromised life as their dependent. He may never break out of that trap. Consider yourself lucky.

Unlike him, NOW YOU’RE FREE. You’re free from explaining yourself to your parents for no reason. You’re free from feeling envious of your brother. And you’re free from explaining yourself to everyone in your life, as if everything you do is wrong, as if you’re nothing, as if you’re almost always to blame for MOST THINGS.

You’re not to blame. You built a life and escaped. You built a good relationship with someone who truly cares about you. You’re strong and you speak your mind and you know where you’re headed. No wonder they fear you.

That’s the trick with hot stoves. You’d never know it, but they fear you like nothing else in the world. You reflect how messed up they are. You’re not afraid to tell the truth about them, and they know it. It’s hard to see that until you get a little distance. But once you see the truth? Pity them, too. Because you’ll never be that sad or that desperate. You’ll never carelessly hurt people who are close to you the way they do.

You may end up wanting to talk to your parents about this stuff, since that’s your nature. But I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. It’s really hard to get closure from people who live inside bubbles of denial and shame. They’re built to push away any threat to their worldview. Instead of focusing on them, it’s time to focus on your own belief system, the one that got you here. It’s time to honor yourself, and center the people you love and trust, and move these broken old hot stoves to the periphery of your life, where they belong. You can still love them, in your own way. It’s okay to love something that’s broken, from a safe distance.

I know this is a big loss, one that you’ll have to mourn. But don’t forget to celebrate, too. Because you’re free. You’re finally free. Everything changes from here.


Order Polly’s new book What If This Were Enoughhere. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘My Parents Don’t Love Me!’