Most of us create a personal "myth of lost love," to explain why love has hurt us in the past. Unexamined, this powerful myth leads to painful relationships with people who aren't good for us. Decoded, it illuminates our most tender, authentic self; the very self that can lead us to love. This post will help you discover your own myth of lost love.
The Myth Of Lost Love
What I call the "myth of lost love" is the life-defining story we created in childhood to explain why we were not loved as we needed to be. As most of us grew beyond the relative paradise of infancy, we found ourselves crashing into the painful wall of our parents' limitations. As this happened again and again (as it must, for we are all flawed and human) a curtain went down inside us. We lost our sense of being fully loved, for reasons we simply couldn't understand.
In an attempt to make sense of this pain, we created a personal "myth of lost love" (I describe this concept in greater detail in my book Deeper Dating.) As we grew into adults, this myth became a mold that shaped our romantic futures. At its heart, the myth of lost love is simply a child's attempt to identify the inner flaws that made love go away. Often these "flaws" turn out to be our greatest gifts.
Using the composite story of "Debbie", I'll take you, step by step, through an exploration of the three main aspects of the myth of lost love. At each intersection, I'll present you with a simple question. I encourage you not to hesitate--just answer each question as you go along. You don't have to write anything down, simply think about each question until ideas, insights and answers come to you. At the end of this post, you will have a richer sense of your own myth of lost love.
Debbie's relationships were filled with conflict. No relationships seemed to last. Either she or her partner would become too battle-scarred to continue. She came to therapy because she truly wanted a lasting relationship, but had lost hope of ever finding one.
Debbie's parents divorced when Debbie was just seven. Being a single parent with three older boys and one little girl to raise, Debbie's mother had limited energy for the subtleties of her intense daughter's inner life. She seemed stressed and harried almost all the time. Often, she would ignore or even rebuff her daughter's childlike attempts to bring her mother into her world. Debbie assumed she was loved, yet she never felt cherished. She was full of emotion, creativity and enthusiasm, but being repeatedly rebuffed made her become more and more withdrawn.
The truth was too much for Debbie to comprehend or to bear: Her mother wasn't particularly interested in her sensitivity and creativity. So Debbie developed a private story to explain her mothers' rejection, and to protect herself from experiencing such shameful pain again. Debbie's myth, like most of ours, had three distinct parts; a belief in the unsafety of love, a blaming of self, and a set of strategies designed to protect her from further pain.
Part One: Love Is Unsafe
Debbie could only remember a few times in her life that her mother had shown her real tenderness, yet she had many memories of feeling humiliated when she showed her "soft side." As a result, Debbie grew up experiencing the world as a cold place, a place where true tenderness was unattainable.
• What parts of you were not understood or appreciated in your family? What parts were overlooked, taken advantage of, or even abused?
• What lessons did this teach you about the world?
• What betrayals are you still on the lookout for?
Part Two: We Are To Blame
Second, the myth of lost love explains why this is all our fault. As a child, Debbie had no way of knowing that her mother was the problem. In a child's land, the parent is God. So she explained her mother's limitations in the way that made sense to her. "She's right. There is something wrong with me."
Then, our myth of lost love continues its path of damage by telling us exactly what makes us unworthy of love. Most of us will be in battle with that message for much of our lives. Debbie's myth explained what was wrong with her in the most crippling terms. It homed in on her most vulnerable, needy, and nonconforming qualities - her core gifts of tenderness and passionate emotionality - and convinced her that those very gifts were to blame for her loss of love. It taught her that her vulnerability and intensity were humiliating traits that made her unlovable.
• What did you tell yourself was wrong with you?
• Which fundamental aspects of yourself did you become ashamed of, or learn to hide?
Part Three: We We Can Protect Ourselves
Third, our myth of lost love explains how we can defend ourselves from an unsafe world. As a child Debbie learned not to rail against her mother's coldness. She tried to be the best little girl in the world. But the anger that took root in Debbie as a child came to full bloom in Debbie as an adult. Although she was still trying to be the best little girl in the world, she also vowed never to be humiliated again. Instead, whenever she felt too vulnerable, she would mount a pre-emptive strike and, in the process, her over-the-top anger would undermine and eventually destroy every budding relationship.
• How did you learn to protect yourself from being hurt again?
• What pre-emptive actions do you take to protect your tender core? (Usually, typical defenses include withdrawal, suppressing feelings, anger and the use of manipulation)
The Heart of The Story: Your Core Gifts
At one point in therapy, Debbie had an insight which changed the course of her intimacy life. She recalled a childhood experience. She was about four years old, and she found a Monarch butterfly, dead on the pavement. She picked it up, crying, and brought it to her aunt. Her aunt, a very cold person, looked at Debbie's's tear-stained face and began to laugh. In fury, Debbie acted without thinking. She dropped the butterfly, hauled off and slugged her aunt!
As Debbie told me this story, her tears began to flow, but they were mixed with understanding laughter. She finally recognized the message of this story, and it helped her understand her entire relationship history.
Her insight was about her tender heart-and the passionate fury that surfaced when that tender heart was spurned. Her hair-trigger temper finally began to make sense. Now, she could begin to work more wisely with the anger she felt every time her soul felt unrecognized.
Embracing Our Core Gifts
As an adult, Debbie had learned to despise the gifts at the core of her identity. She believed, quite wrongly, that her vulnerability, her tenderness, and her sensitivity were weaknesses that she "must overcome." In fact, they were Debbie's greatest strengths. They were the language with which she expressed love, and so all her efforts to "overcome" or suppress them ultimately failed.
Those gifts were a central part of Debbie's whole being. As far as she tried to get away from them, and as successful as she became without them, an invisible string always kept her attached to them. At a certain point, the string just stopped stretching. She realized that she hadn't found the love she wanted, that the life she had dreamed of was passing her by. She felt an inexplicable emptiness inside--and she didn't know what to do about it.
• What are the gifts you thought you had to hide or control in order to find love?
• What parts of you are you most afraid will be taken advantage of, mocked, or ignored?
Core Gifts And The Search For Romantic Love
In therapy Debbie realized that by disdaining her core gifts she was in fact disdaining herself. She discovered that her most intense attractions were with people who, like herself, hadn't learned to value vulnerability, tenderness or sensitivity! She had wasted years of her life trying to get men to love her who were as ambivalent toward her gifts as she was. Finally, she realized that disavowing her core gifts would never get her the genuine intimacy she desired.
Debbie's task at that point was to find her way back to the gifts she had left behind, to identify them, to cherish them, to let them lead her to a partner who could also recognize and treasure her gifts. This is not an easy process, but it is part of the heroic journey to genuine intimacy.
In my years as a therapist, I've seen that the more we hide our core gifts, the more we will find ourselves with people who also devalue those gifts. Conversely, to the degree we embrace, treasure, and reclaim these gifts, we somehow find - and stay with - people who love us for who we are.
This is where the path to intimacy becomes almost binary. We can follow what I call our attractions of deprivation, choosing partners who almost love us, who sometimes accept us for who we are, and who are somewhat available-and then we can prove our worth by getting them to love us. This route is otherwise known as the path to hell.
Or instead, we can choose someone who treasures and validates our core gifts with relative consistency. These attractions are what I call attractions of inspiration, and they are, quite simply, the path to real love. They may not seem as exciting at first, because there is less of a chase involved, but they are the way to find happiness in love. Each of these two forms of attraction follows its own trajectory (attractions of inspiration need to be cultivated in ways that few of us are taught. More about this in future posts.)
• Who in your life has consistently valued your "core gifts?"
• What has it been like to have a relationship like that?
The more you follow your attractions of inspiration, the more you will find people who love you for who you are, and this is the greatest way to learn to love yourself. As you learn to build relationships with kind and available people, and learn to forsake the thrilling seductiveness of attractions of deprivation, your childhood myth will gradually lose its force, and your entire romantic journey will change for the better.
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© 2011 Ken Page, LCSW. All Rights Reserved
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