I sat with a 32 year old female client (that I’ll call Alice – not her real name) who had come for psychotherapy, because she wanted to have a long-term relationship with a man that would eventually lead to marriage. Her pattern was to have 2 to 3 month relationships that went nowhere. As we talked it became clear that she felt irrelevant in her life, both professionally and with men. Alice described how her parents had divorced when she was 6 years old. Her mother had to work two jobs to support her, and as a result had little energy to pay attention to who Alice was behind her ‘good girl’ exterior. Alice’s father was an immature young man with little capacity to act as a responsible father. This meant that he often would ‘forget’ to pick Alice up for their designated time together, leaving her spending hours looking out the window waiting for him to come. Her mother’s response was to vent her rage at her ex-husband on her daughter, which left Alice feeling overwhelmed by anger and disappointment. Alice was left feeling confused by what she herself was feeling vs. what she felt coming from her mother’s overwhelming outbursts.
This vignette is an example of the many ways that children end up feeling forgotten and unnoticed. What parents, in the midst of their own frustration and disappointment, often ignore or forget is the impact that these events have on their children. So while Alice’s mother vented her rage about her ex-husband because he had failed to show up for Alice, she didn’t understand the importance of talking to Alice about how she was feeling. Having a parent (or a significant adult) recognize one’s feelings as a child, teaches the child that her feelings are important and that she counts. The lack of recognition is what frequently leads to a deep conviction that one is irrelevant, with little ability to impact their own life.
This conviction has enormous implications about how one acts in intimate, professional and social relationships. Another client, Bob, described it this way,” I don’t think that it matters if I go the extra mile at work or even with someone I’m dating…it’s almost like I feel invisible, but then I’m surprised when I don’t get the recognition at work or the woman I’m dating doesn’t want to go out with me again.”
Feeling genuinely recognized is an important factor in developing a positive sense of self. True recognition by parents is not conditional, and is not based on whether the child is pleasing, performing or gratifying the parent. Genuine recognition is an acknowledgement of all parts of the child, whether they are happy, sad, angry or disappointed; whether the child is an A student or doing poorly in school. In other words it’s the parent seeing the child as a whole person with feelings of their own, and then helping their child cope with difficult situations. Children who are lucky enough to get this from their parents grow up with a sense of self-agency; they think what they do and how they act greatly impacts the outcome of a situation in all areas of life.
To get back to Alice, she can’t undo her childhood and put different experiences into her memory, but through therapy she began to identify what she was feeling in the present moment and see her own experience as what was most relevant. When the feelings of irrelevance surfaced in stressful situations, Alice had the skills to counter these thoughts with a different perspective. This has translated to Alice being able to shift her focus from trying to figure out how the man she was dating was feeling about her- to paying