As children, there were times when all of us felt alone. And I don’t mean physically, somehow isolated from others in space and time—but psychologically: Not feeling any positive connection to those around us—and on whom we might be sorely dependent for understanding and support. Not feeling listened to, appreciated, encouraged, or validated. Or not feeling safe or protected. In short, times when we experienced extreme vulnerability—completely unable to feel loved, or secure in our own skin.
In such moments what we needed more than anything else was some sort of fairy godmother: Someone who would reassure us and tell us that things were all right and, far more important, that we were all right. That our feelings of loneliness, abandonment, and not being cared about resulted either from an inaccurate perception on our part, or were an indication not of our deficiencies but our parents’. More to the point, that what we were experiencing didn’t signify anything bad or wrong about us. That our present situation didn’t warrant feelings of guilt or shame. That whatever precipitated our sorrow or anxiety didn’t in any way reflect our inherent adequacy or worth. And, finally, that the negative messages we were getting from our family (or our broader surroundings) could be newly apprehended in a manner that would alleviate our hurt, forlorn feelings.
But, regrettably, in such situations of disapproval or rejection the possibility of some supernatural entity’s immediately grasping our psychological crisis, rushing to the scene to comfort us, and instructing us how to comprehend what just happened more benignly is only an illusion. A thing of fantasy. An imaginary solution occupying no place in the real world (vs., alas, a Disney-constructed one). And in most instances, we couldn’t run to our parents for succor. For it’s likely they were responsible for provoking our torturous feelings to begin with. Or, if they weren’t the direct cause of our distress, we might yet have been be too ashamed of what we were experiencing to go to them—fearing that they might actually confirm our deepest fears about ourselves. Or we might have refrained from confiding in them because the particular circumstance left us confused or emotionally overwhelmed, unable to express what was now plaguing us from deep within. Or we may not yet have possessed the vocabulary to convey what so disturbed us.
In such situations, we felt helpless and hopeless. Unquestionably, we were in dire need of a sensitive, empathic and compassionate individual who might offer us succor and support. But there was just nobody to reach out to. No one to call upon who might appreciate what was tormenting us and causing us excruciating self-doubt. So all we could do was try to cope with our anguish as best we could: either through trying to dissociate from it, distract ourselves from it, or angrily turn against the other(s) who induced these feelings in the first place. The single worst thing we might have done, for it could have led to chronic low-grade depression continuing to plague us even as adults, would have been to fully “internalize” our hurt and conclude that we must be unworthy—or even unlovable.
As someone who’s been doing therapy for over thirty years, I can no longer count the number of times I’ve worked with people who’ve been (however vaguely) more or less depressed since childhood. Maybe their caretakers were alarmingly insensitive to their basic dependency needs. Or maybe these caretakers were actively (though unconsciously) repeating their own childhood scenarios of not feeling good enough for their parents, by adopting a similarly critical stance toward their offspring—and, in turn, making them feel inadequate. In such instances these parents may actually have succeeded in making themselves feel better—at the tragic expense of making their children feel worse; inferior. Rather than learning from the parental damage done to them how to treat their own children more humanely, they unthinkingly passed on their legacy of emotional abuse to their progeny.
Obviously, ideal parents—acutely sensitive and responsive to their child’s needs and always able to correct their inevitable mistakes and misdeeds lovingly—do not exist. Nor is it likely they ever existed. Which is why, to whatever degree, all of us occupy the ranks of the (psychologically) walking wounded.
And which is also why every one of us could have benefited from having a fairy godmother during those times when our caretakers—or the outside world generally—left us with the impression that there must be something wrong or bad about us: Something at our very core that was irreparably damaged or defective, and would be with us forever. The fairy godmother (or “guidemother”—or, for that matter, “guidefather”) that I have in mind here is one that would encompass a broad array of caring, nurturant qualities: such as empathy, compassion, understanding, trustworthiness, and respect. And their (in the critical moment) demonstration of these qualities would then have allowed us to feel good about ourselves—even in situations severely testing our ability to hold onto positive self-beliefs.
Any human (superhuman?!) who could have manifested such qualities would have enabled us to feel that despite the outward “assaults” on our (still fragile) self-image, we were still basically okay —totally acceptable and having as much inherent worth as anybody else. Our fairy godmother’s ability to soothe and validate us—regardless of what we’d just done (or been misperceived as doing) would have helped us develop into fully self-accepting adults, confident about our abilities and forgiving of our shortcomings.
And doubtless, this is what all of us adults need to—deserve to—think about ourselves. In fact, such unconditional self-acceptance is perhaps the key prerequisite to personal happiness and resilience: the capacity to remain at all times—despite whatever aversive circumstances—on the best of possible terms with ourselves.
So what can we do if as children we didn’t have anyone like a fairy godmother to offer us emotional support during times of emotional crisis? That is, no sympathetic, understanding close relative, neighbor, teacher, or friend who might have effectively helped us refute the negative messages we received from those to whom we felt compelled to give judgmental authority over us?
The answer is simple, though it’s hardly simple to put into practice. We must ourselves become that missing godmother. We must learn how to better understand why our caretakers, given their own unhealed psychic wounds, couldn’t adequately nurture us. More than this, we need to effectively counter—and reject—those negative messages that, however inadvertently, we may regularly have received from them. In short, we need to stop parenting ourselves as harshly as they may have done so many years ago. We need to “strip” this internalized critical voice of its original authority and begin to talk to ourselves as compassionately as any fairy godmother worth her stardust would surely do.
There are countless books on the subject of improving one’s self-image by successfully challenging the negative self-talk engendered primarily from growing up with insensitive, overly judgmental caretakers. And I invite all readers who can relate all too well to what I’ve described here to look into them. Finding a competent therapist (i.e., a long-overdue “surrogate” fairy godmother or godfather!) to assist you in resolving deep levels of self-doubt can also be invaluable.
But the essential thing is that in one way or another you learn (at least metaphorically!) to impersonate the fairy godmother that—if only she’d been there when you needed her—would have prevented you from becoming overly self-critical and -doubting in the first place. And helped you to see yourself in a much more positive light: A light in which everyone (struggling beings that we all are) ought to be able to see themselves.
NOTE: If you know of anyone whom in some way this post might “speak to,” please consider sending them the link. Additionally, if you’d like to explore my posts for Psychology Today generally (since so many of them also address the concerns focused on here), here’s a link to my PT blog page.
© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.