ask polly

‘I Want My Family to Love Me Unconditionally’

Photo: Diana Robinson Photography/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I’ve found that the root cause of my decades-long depression is the distance between me and my cousins, aunts, and uncles, plus the absence of siblings. This is not the first time I’ve had this epiphany. But what use is an epiphany with no solutions?

Here’s the context: Thirty-five years ago, when I was 5 years old, there was a huge rift between my father and my uncles, a rift that caused me to lose the weekly contact I had with my cousins. My cousins were the only people my age in my life. I am an only child. My cousins are like siblings to me, but they already have siblings, so to them, I am no one — no one they feel compelled to keep regular contact with, anyway. Once I tried to get invited to New Year’s Day with a particular aunt and her children and was told they’d rather “spend the holiday with family only.”

As a child and teenager, I didn’t feel any special bond with kids my age outside the family. It took STEM in college to find my kind of people. I have some friends now, but it’s … different. It just feels so fucking elective. So much goddamn space. Not even close enough for drama. Why am I the only person who wants more drama in her life, not less?

It has been suggested the only way out of this would be to have children of my own. I want siblings, not children. I AM the child, for fuck’s sake. Managing myself is a full-time job I neither signed up for nor have the competence to perform.

As for romantic and sexual relationships, they don’t fulfill me either. I find the entire human race unlovable and cold. Everybody is too different from me. How do you bond over absent common experiences? Why does 99 percent of the population have to be neurotypical?

I have been through too many traumatic events and experiences to list them all. I want out of depression at all costs. It’s been 35 years. I haven’t even had a childhood or normal teenage years because I was TOO. FUCKING. ALONE. I want my father to have cheated on my mother and accidentally spawned a half-sibling somewhere, or several, preferably several, so I don’t have to be so cosmically alone.

My therapist has nothing useful to say about this. None of the nine therapists I’ve seen have been that useful. It’s always me educating them.

I’m turning 40 soon and I realize I’m hurting as much as I did when I was 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 years old. Since the pain hasn’t gone away in 35 years, what hope do I have for the next 35? I could swear I’ve been crying the whole time.

When Does It End?

Dear WDIE,

I hear you. You’re saying: I’m sad, I’m exhausted, I’m angry, and I have nothing to give anyone. I deserve to feel loved by a family, by cousins, by siblings. I deserve friends who are warm and loving. I deserve to feel good and happy and whole.

I’ve felt that way before and I completely understand. And unfortunately, what I can do from here is limited. So before we get to my words, I want to urge you to take your depression seriously, above everything else, and talk to a therapist about medication if you haven’t already. You don’t deserve to feel sad all the time.

I hit a wall with my own family about a decade ago. I just felt tired. Suddenly I couldn’t connect with my mother or my siblings or even friends. I felt like I was the only one who wanted deeper connections. It seemed like no one was as intense as I was. No one seemed to have the capacity to love me the way I wanted to be loved.

I also wanted my mother to be different. I had a vision of how a mother should be, and my mother didn’t fit that vision. Almost every time we talked, I felt angry at her. I wanted unconditional love, someone to lean on, someone who accepted me for exactly who I was, but when I pushed her for more love, my mom would often strike me as distant, self-protective, afraid of my intensity.

I craved people in my life who could let down their guards and be vulnerable and love me for me. The more I thought about what I wanted and how far from my reality it was, the angrier and sadder I became. My anger and sadness made me distant, self-protective, afraid of my own intensity — just like my mother. I couldn’t let down my guard and be vulnerable and love myself or anyone else. I felt too weak and needy to do that. I was embarrassed of myself. I was confused. I was afraid of other people.

You’re up against a lot more than I was. I can’t even go into the details of any one dimension of where you are, because you’d need a trained therapist for that. You’ve already seen nine therapists and I’m sure you’ve gathered plenty of information from them, but no one seems to get it. So now, you just want someone to understand.

But you already feel sure that a therapist won’t understand. And you feel that friends aren’t enough, either — they don’t care enough, or they’re neurotypical and don’t have the same problems, so they won’t get it when you describe the folds of your reality. You specifically want your cousins to love you and understand you, not friends. You want your cousins to treat you as part of the family, embrace you with all of your strengths and flaws, love you unconditionally, always.

You can’t have cousins like that, though. Your cousins aren’t like that.

I couldn’t have the mother of my dreams. My mother wasn’t like that.

So what’s left? When does it end? It ends when you live in reality. This is reality: You don’t have the family you want. You’ve been through a series of traumas that have made you incredibly sad and angry and self-protective. You have trouble with relationships and friendships and they always feel like they’re not enough, because you still encounter yourself as not enough.

You’re struggling to make space for your own feelings, to be vulnerable in relation to other people, to show up and be present and welcome people as they are, the way you want to be welcomed. You never had a model of that and your experiences have made you fearful and self-protective. Why wouldn’t they? You’re a survivor. That’s how you survived: by shutting the door on disappointing relationships, by seeking new information, and by protecting yourself intellectually and emotionally. That’s how many of us survive.

That’s reality. Reality is you, surviving and feeling shitty. But your reality won’t change dramatically just because you want it to. It’s set in stone. What you can change is how life feels inside of you. You can feel less shitty immediately, by putting all of your intellectual efforts and your narratives aside for a minute and opening your mind to one thought:

What if I’m wrong about everything?

This is (not coincidentally!) the most terrifying thought you could ever have. As someone who’s carefully constructed a detailed list of what’s gone wrong in her life, as someone who uses those delineations to explain herself (why wouldn’t you?), as someone who experiences other people as misunderstanding her and rejecting her based on her peculiarities (anyone in your shoes would do this!), as someone who feels like she’s alone on an island a lot of the time (it would be almost impossible not to feel that way, given your circumstances), the worst possible thing you could think or believe is that YOU MIGHT BE WRONG ABOUT EVERY SINGLE THING YOU’VE CONCLUDED ABOUT YOURSELF AND THE WORLD.

Now, listen closely: When I ask you, “What if you’re wrong about everything?” I’m not saying, “Hey, guess what? You’re wrong about everything!” In fact, part of this exercise includes prodding you to separate fear from actual rejection, to separate not being seen clearly from the person who seems unable to see or understand you.

When my mother couldn’t shower me with unconditional love under every stressful condition under the sun, that didn’t mean that she didn’t actually love me unconditionally. It only meant that she had her own emotional challenges and therefore she could not become the kind of mother I wanted, who welcomed my emotions and listened closely when I was emotional. She struggled to show up in the moment and meet me where I was.

And even though that felt like rejection, every time, that wasn’t remotely her intention. The reality was that she has trouble joining other people in their own emotional territory. She’s someone who likes to stay in her own emotional country and have people visit her there. This is true because her own mother was loving, smart, and supportive but she was also an alcoholic who raged and turned punitive out of the blue, randomly, depending on her drinking choices on any given night. Visiting other people’s emotional realities is and will always be threatening and scary for my mother as a result.

But the fact that she doesn’t just tolerate but welcomes my writing on this subject tells you that people can slowly change. They just can’t change in the exact ways you want and take the exact shape you want. If you’re fully committed to keeping them in your life, you have to accept the small changes they can manage, and love them and feel proud of them for those changes. And then you have to try to get some of your needs met from other people with more capacity to show up for you in the ways you dearly want them to.

You don’t seem to be adjusting your expectations of others based on reality. You still want the imaginary loving cousins of your dreams. And as long as you’re focused on that one desire, you’re going to block a lot of other paths to joy and satisfaction that are available to you, the same way I blocked my own happiness by living inside a stubborn space where my mom had to change or nothing else could change.

Right now, instead of telling the same story about magically turning your family into one that loves you unconditionally, you need to see a therapist and focus on becoming more open and loving to everyone in your life. Your current state of despair presents an opportunity for you to become more vulnerable and explore the ways you shut people out and keep yourself safe from the love that is available to you, from sources other than your cousins. It’s time to stop looking at reality and saying “I don’t want this.” It’s time to look at reality and say, “I’m going to start from here now.”

In order to start from here, you have to recognize that nothing you’re describing is your fault. You grew up in a terrible situation. You’re a person who deserves love. Put down all of your stories and greet yourself as a simple animal who needs simple things. Get up in the morning and focus on how you feel. Focus on what you enjoy, physically. And say this to yourself: “Today, I’m just going to live in reality.”

I know you can’t change everything at once. I know your intellectual analysis of where and who you are won’t go away completely, and I know the difficult challenges of being who you are and living through what you’ve lived through will continue. And I’m guessing that your first reaction will be, “I can’t afford to feel.”

I have a friend in crisis who told me the same thing the other day: I can’t afford to feel right now. I have a few friends in crisis, actually. And the ones who are feeling better and better, by the day, aren’t the ones whose circumstances are improving. They’re just the ones who are surrendering themselves to the moment, allowing emotions in, and staying vulnerable in the face of frightening life changes. They’re the ones who might wake up feeling bad, but they try to do small things that might feel good until a few good feelings accumulate. They try not to look at the big picture too much. They keep it simple. They are not seeking escape. They are living where they are, accepting that sadness and anxiety and fear will be a part of the picture now and then, within reason.

I know that’s uniquely difficult for you. But no one gets to put off feeling indefinitely. Feelings find a way in. When your feelings of shame and despair and self-hatred and rage start rushing in, I want you to forgive yourself instead of blaming yourself for them. I want you to say, “I might be wrong about a lot of things.” Tolerate that notion and don’t let it panic you. Most of us are wrong about most things MOST OF THE TIME.

Your world will take a different shape the more you feel. You have to trust that, and preemptively accept yourself for exactly who you are, right now, with or without a quiet mind and an open heart. I want you to be still and let yourself be a flawed animal. It’s not true that you’re impossible to understand, impossible to love, impossible to see clearly. It’s not true that friendships and lovers aren’t good enough. It’s not true that your world will never change, that you can never find the key that fits the lock to the door that leads to your new life. The door is already open. This is reality. The world is filled with love for you, love from flawed, disappointing people. Their love is not what you thought you wanted. But it is enough.

So stop telling old stories and proving old theorems. Stop confusing the root cause of your depression with THE ONLY SOLUTION to your depression: Changing your cousins will not change you. Stop trying to change people into the shape you prefer. Mourn what you’ll never have, and celebrate what you do have. Open your heart and your mind as wide as it will go.

This is when it ends: When you decide it’s over. When you decide to stop living in a fantasy and trying to fix things that can’t be fixed. It ends when you learn to be a simple animal and breathe and let other simple animals into your life. So be a cow in a field, chewing grass. Feel the sunshine on your back. Savor this day. This is how sad people in bad circumstances finally become happy people. They learn how to sit still, without telling stories. They learn to connect and trust other people. It’s that simple. They give up on old puzzles. They savor every drop of sunshine.


Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here

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‘I Want My Family to Love Me Unconditionally’