Your childhood was likely less happy than you think.
I sometimes ask myself whether it will ever be possible for us to grasp the extent of the loneliness and desertion to which we were exposed as children. Here I do not mean to speak, primarily, of children who were obviously uncared for or totally neglected, and who were always aware of this or at least grew up with the knowledge that it was so. Apart from these extreme cases, there are large numbers of people who enter therapy in the belief (with which they grew up) that their childhood was happy and protected.
How do people with unhappy childhoods think about their own experience? They repress the hell out of it. They have no sympathy for the child they once were. They aren't able to admit that there are things that a child needs and that they didn't get.
In the very first interview they will let the listener know that they have had understanding parents, or at least one such, and if they are aware of having been misunderstood as children, they feel that the fault lay with them and with their inability to express themselves appropriately. They recount their earliest memories without any sympathy for the child they once were, and this is the more striking as these patients not only have a pronounced introspective ability but seem, to some degree, to be able to empathize with other people. Their access to the emotional world of their own childhood, however, is impaired—characterized by a lack of respect, a compulsion to control and manipulate, and a demand for achievement. Very often they show disdain and irony, even derision and cynicism, for the child they were. In general, there is a complete absence of real emotional understanding or serious appreciation of their own childhood vicissitudes, and no conception of their true needs—beyond the desire for achievement. The repression of their real history has been so complete that their illusion of a good childhood can be maintained with ease.
What do you need as a child? You need somebody who is completely aware of you and takes you seriously. If you don't get it, you're going to spend your whole life looking for it, but (spoiler) you won't succeed as long as you are unable to mourn what happened to you in the past.
The child has a primary need from the very beginning of her life to be regarded and respected as the person she really is at any given time.
When we speak here of “the person she really is at any given time,” we mean emotions, sensations, and their expression from the first day onward.
[...] Parents who did not experience this climate as children are themselves deprived; throughout their lives they will continue to look for what their own parents could not give them at the appropriate time—the presence of a person who is completely aware of them and takes them seriously.
Does it mean the parents can not simply treat the child as a little adult who happens to live with them and is alright as long as he doesn't cause any trouble? Even if it's very convenient for them? YES.
If a child is lucky enough to grow up with a mirroring, available mother who is at the child’s disposal—that is, a mother who allows herself to be made use of as a function of the child’s development—then a healthy self-feeling can gradually develop in the growing child. Ideally, this mother should also provide the necessary emotional climate and understanding for the child’s needs.
Feeling rage at your parents is the most natural thing in the world. And at the same time you aren't allowed to express it:
If Bob had been able as a child to express his disappointment with his mother—to experience his rage and anger—he could have stayed fully alive. But that would have led to the loss of his mother’s love, and that, for a child, can mean the same as death.
You repress negative feelings as a child — not "hide", but "try not to feel at all" — because if you are afraid that you will lose parents' love by getting angry, you have no choice but to stop feeling anger. The alternative is worse.
On the basis of my experience, I think that the cause of an emotional disturbance is to be found in the infant’s early adaptation. The child’s needs for respect, echoing, understanding, sympathy, and mirroring have had to be repressed, with several serious consequences.
One such consequence is the person’s inability to experience consciously certain feelings of his own (such as jealousy, envy, anger, loneliness, helplessness, or anxiety), either in childhood or later in adulthood. This is all the more tragic in that we are concerned here with lively people who are often capable of deep feelings.
[...] These people have all developed the art of not experiencing feelings, for a child can experience her feelings only when there is somebody there who accepts her fully, understands her, and supports her. If that person is missing, if the child must risk losing the mother’s love or the love of her substitute in order to feel, then she will repress her emotions. She cannot even experience them secretly, “just for herself”; she will fail to experience them at all.
If you weren't respected as a child, you will yearn for that as an adult. And you might try to get it from your own children, creating a vicious cycle.
A person with this unsatisfied and unconscious (because repressed) need [to be respected and taken seriously] will nevertheless be compelled to attempt its gratification through substitute means, as long as she ignores her repressed life history.
The most efficacious objects for substitute gratification are a parent’s own children. The newborn baby or small child is completely dependent on his parents, and since their caring is essential for his existence, he does all he can to avoid losing them. From the very first day onward, he will muster all his resources to this end, like a small plant that turns toward the sun in order to survive.
However paradoxical this may seem, a child is at the mothers disposal. The mother can feel herself the center of attention, for her child’s eyes follow her everywhere. A child cannot run away from her as her own mother once did. A child can be brought up so that it becomes what she wants it to be. A child can be made to show respect; she can impose her own feelings on him, see herself mirrored in his love and admiration, and feel strong in his presence. But when he becomes too much, she can abandon that child to a stranger or to solitary confinement in another room.
Miller gives examples of several broad categories:
There are countless ways we may transmit the family climate under which we suffered as children. There are people, for example, who never say a loud or angry word, who seem to be only good and noble, and who still give others the palpable feeling of being ridiculous or stupid or too noisy, or at any rate too common compared with themselves. They do not know it and perhaps do not intend it, but this is what they radiate: the attitude of their parents, of which they have never been aware. The children of such persons find it particularly difficult to formulate any reproach until they learn to do so in their therapy.
Then there are the people who can seem very friendly, if a shade patronizing, but in whose presence one feels as if one were nothing. They convey the feeling that they are the only ones who exist, the only ones who have anything interesting or relevant to say. The others can only stand there and admire them in fascination, or turn away in disappointment and sorrow about their own lack of worth, unable to express themselves in these persons’ presence. These people might be the children of grandiose parents, whom they as children had no hope of emulating; but later, as adults, they unconsciously pass on this atmosphere to those around them.
Quite a different impression will be given by those people who, as children, were intellectually far beyond their parents and therefore admired by them, but who also therefore had to solve their own problems alone. These people, who give us a feeling of their intellectual strength and will power, also seem to demand that we, too, ought to fight off any feeling of weakness with intellectual means. In their presence one feels one can’t be recognized as a person with problems—just as they and their problems were unrecognized by their parents, for whom they always had to be strong.
Contempt for children is absolutely ubiquitous.
Here's a small vignette about a boy, his parents, and ice-cream:
I was out for a walk and noticed a young couple a few steps ahead, both tall; they had a little boy with them, about two years old, who was running alongside and whining. (We are accustomed to seeing such situations from the adult point of view, but here I want to describe it as experienced by the child.) The two had just bought themselves ice-cream bars on sticks from the kiosk, and were licking them with evident enjoyment. The little boy wanted one, too. His mother said affectionately, “Look, you can have a bite of mine, a whole one is too cold for you.” The child did not want just one bite but held out his hand for the whole bar, which his mother took out of his reach again. He cried in despair, and soon exactly the same thing was repeated with his father: “There you are, my pet,” said his father affectionately, “you can have a bite of mine.” “No, no,” cried the child and ran ahead again, trying to distract himself. Soon he came back again and gazed enviously and sadly up at the two grown-ups, who were enjoying their ice cream contentedly. Time and again he held out his little hand for the whole ice-cream bar, but the adult hand with its treasure was withdrawn again.
The more the child cried, the more it amused his parents. It made them laugh, and they hoped to humor him along with their laughter, too: “Look, it isn’t so important, what a fuss you are making.” Once the child sat down on the ground and began to throw little stones over his shoulder in his mother’s direction, but then he suddenly got up again and looked around anxiously, making sure that his parents were still there. When his father had completely finished his ice cream, he gave the stick to the child and walked on. The little boy licked the bit of wood expectantly, looked at it, threw it away, wanted to pick it up again but did not do so, and a deep sob of loneliness and disappointment shook his small body. Then he trotted obediently after his parents.
It seemed clear to me that this little boy was not being frustrated in his “oral wishes,” for he was given ample opportunity to take a bite; he was, however, constantly being hurt and frustrated. His wish to hold the ice-cream stick in his hand like the others was not understood. Worse still, it was laughed at; they made fun of his wish. He was faced with two giants who supported each other and who were proud of being consistent while he, quite alone in his distress, could say nothing beyond “no.” Nor could he make himself clear to his parents with his gestures (though they were very expressive). He had no advocate. What an unfair situation it is when a child is opposed by two big, strong adults, as by a wall; but we call it “consistency in upbringing” when we refuse to let the child complain about one parent to the other.
(An unexpected thought about "consistency in upbringing" at the end.)
Why does that happen? Miller suggests it's a part of the vicious cycle:
We can only solve this riddle if we manage to see the parents, too, as insecure children—children who have at last found a weaker creature, in comparison with whom they can now feel very strong. What child has never been laughed at for his fears and been told, “You don’t need to be afraid of a thing like that”? What child will then not feel shamed and despised because he could not assess the danger correctly? And will that little person not take the next opportunity to pass these feelings on to a still smaller child? Such experiences come in all shades and varieties. Common to them all is the sense of strength it gives the adult, who cannot control his or her own fears, to face the weak and helpless child’s fear and be able to control fear in another person.
No doubt, in twenty years’ time—or perhaps earlier if he has younger siblings—our little boy will replay this scene with the ice cream. Now, however, he will be in charge, and the other will be the helpless, envious, weak little creature—no longer carried within, but split off and projected outside himself.
What do you do when somebody wants an ice-cream on a stick but you don't want them to have the whole ice-cream? The obvious solution is to throw some of the ice-cream away and give the rest, on a stick, to the child, except that why would you waste half an ice-cream. It's just a child, after all.
Why, indeed, did these parents behave with so little empathy? Why didn’t one of them think of eating a little quicker, or even of throwing away half of the ice cream and giving the child the stick with a bit of ice cream left on it? Why did they both stand there laughing, eating so slowly and showing so little concern about the child’s obvious distress?
This is contempt, right there. The child's feelings don't matter.
[The] fountainhead of all contempt, all discrimination, is the more or less conscious, uncontrolled, and covert exercise of power over the child by the adult. Except in the case of murder or serious bodily harm, this unrestrained use of power is tolerated by society; what adults do to their child’s spirit is entirely their own affair, for the child is regarded as the parents’ property in the same way as the citizens of a totalitarian state are considered the property of its government. Until we become sensitized to the small child’s suffering, this wielding of power by adults will continue to be regarded as a normal aspect of the human condition, for hardly anyone pays attention to it or takes it seriously. Because the victims are “only children,” their distress is trivialized. But in twenty years’ time these children will be adults who will feel compelled to pay it all back to their own children.
To heal, you have to accept that you didn't get something extremely important as a child, something that you really, really wanted. And you will never get it again. The moment is gone.
And then you need to mourn.
In therapy, the small and lonely child that is hidden behind her achievements wakes up and asks: “What would have happened if I had appeared before you sad, needy, angry, furious? Where would your love have been then? And I was all these things as well. Does this mean that it was not really me you loved, but only what I pretended to be? The well-behaved, reliable, empathic, understanding, and convenient child, who in fact was never a child at all? What became of my childhood? Have I not been cheated out of it? I can never return to it. I can never make up for it. From the beginning I have been a little adult. My abilities—were they simply misused?”
These questions are accompanied by much grief and pain, but the result is always a new authority that is establishing itself in the patient—a new empathy with her own fate, born out of mourning. [...] Even as an older child, she was not allowed to say, or even to think: “I can be sad or happy whenever anything makes me sad or happy; I don’t have to look cheerful for someone else, and I don’t have to suppress my distress or anxiety to fit other people’s needs. I can be angry and no one will die or get a headache because of it. I can rage when you hurt me, without losing you.”
Another thing — mourning should not prevent you from recognizing that as an adult, you no longer critically depend on what you needed as a child. It's possible to simultaneously know that you were denied unconditional acceptance, and not chase it endlessly:
The child must adapt to ensure the illusion of love, care, and kindness, but the adult does not need this illusion to survive. He can give up his amnesia and then be in a position to determine his actions with open eyes. Only this path will free him from his depression. Both the depressive and the grandiose person completely deny their childhood reality by living as though the availability of the parents could still be salvaged: the grandiose person through the illusion of achievement, and the depressive through his constant fear of losing “love.” Neither can accept the truth that this loss or absence of love has already happened in the past, and that no effort whatsoever can change this fact.
"What, do children need to be loved unconditionally?"
"But what if they haven't earned it?"
They still need it. There's nothing you can do about it. They need unconditional love. Either you give it to them, or you fuck them up.
[As] long as we despise the other person and over-value our own achievements (“he can’t do what I can do”), we do not have to mourn the fact that love is not forthcoming without achievement. Nevertheless, if we avoid this mourning it means that we remain at bottom the one who is despised, for we have to despise everything in ourselves that is not wonderful, good, and clever. Thus we perpetuate the loneliness of childhood: We despise weakness, helplessness, uncertainty—in short, the child in ourselves and in others.
The contempt for others in grandiose, successful people always includes disrespect for their own true selves, as their scorn implies: “Without these superior qualities of mine, a person is completely worthless.” This means further: “Without these achievements, these gifts, I could never be loved, would never have been loved.” Grandiosity in the adult guarantees that the illusion continues: “I was loved.”
Unconditional love is possible only in childhood. Nobody else, ever, will love you unconditionally.
This is what you have to mourn, so that you can move forward.