Dear Dr. Alasko: Since I was a little girl my mother has never been very loving. She was too involved in her own career and, I suspect, alcoholic. Even today she finds ways to ignore me or criticize me. I've tried everything to get her to appreciate me but nothing works. Finally, after a year in therapy, I confronted her. She was "devastated" and refused to talk to me for months. When I don't see her, I feel a lot better--but also feel guilty. Should I just cut her out of my life completely?

Dear Reader: You're describing one of the most difficult and relentlessly painful situations any child can endure: a parent's lack of love.

This is a lot more pervasive than one would think, because people have a hard time acknowledging that their parent's love for them was less than ideal.

But children know the difference. Every child has a fundamental need to believe that he or she is valuable. Parents communicate this valuing through numerous interactions - far beyond simply providing food and shelter ¬- that tell the child, "You're precious to me." And as the child grows older and begins moving out into the world, she needs the parent(s) to communicate another message: "You have value in the world. You are capable and have something to contribute."

When both of these needs go unfulfilled, children will inevitably find life difficult and unhappy.

Given the difficulties that can result, I congratulate you for engaging in therapy to help you come to terms with your mother's lack of devotion, and would like to offer some ideas that might help you deal with this ongoing situation and lessen the pain.

First, when parents don't love their child unconditionally, it's a form of emotional abuse. The term abuse has been so commonly used that it's lost its sting, but abuse is not a casual issue. Its effects can cause permanent pain. It's essential, therefore, that you describe your mother's relationship with you as abusive. It's an accurate diagnosis, and that's the first step in forming an effective plan for treatment.

Second, a good treatment plan requires both a statement that defines the source of your condition and a description of how you'll deal with it day by day.

Try this, for example: whenever you feel oppressed by your mother's neglect or guilty about not interacting with her, repeat to yourself the diagnosis AND treatment. "My mother's neglect and emotional abuse is a fact of my life. It was not my job to make my mother love me. My mother was and still is incapable of loving me because of her own illness. I can successfully live my life without her love."

This series of statements summarizes your situation, your lack of responsibility in creating it, and what you can do about it now.

Should you cut her out of your life completely? Here's a general rule: if anyone in your life is painfully critical, destructive or offensive, yes, doing so is a wise thing.

On the other hand, if the person is merely neglectful or passive-aggressive, learning to deal with that without it affecting your feelings about yourself is a valuable way to learn new skills.

In the latter case, try to see your mother as INCAPABLE of unconditional parental love because of her emotional illnesses, including alcoholism. Take a "clinical" attitude toward her and be in her presence without falling back into the child role of expecting her to love you. You must accept the tragic reality that she has been unable to give you what you needed. Accepting this reality begins the process of healing.

Beyond Blame

Freeing yourself from toxic emotional bullsh*t
Carl Alasko

Carl Alasko, Ph.D. is the author of Beyond Blame (Tarcher Penguin), and like his first book Emotional Bullshit, it has been published in five languages.

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