Part 1: How insecurity robs us of a happy childhood
For as long as I can remember, I believed that my parents didn’t really love me.
I can’t tell you when I first had this thought, but there was an invisible thread running through my childhood memories, a faint whisper: “I’m sorry for being born.”
That whisper grew louder and louder over the years, particularly during times of conflict and change.
Many years ago, I went to see a natural energy healer and therapist, who pressed on my spine and asked me about my earliest childhood memory.
“I see a dimly lit room, my father is absent, I’m about two months old, wrapped up in a blanket, laying on the bed and crying loudly. My mother is sitting on the opposite side of the bed, looking away in distress, and can’t hear me.”
I opened my eyes and tears rolled down my cheeks. Puzzled about where that memory came from, I was unable to speak for the next few minutes.
I closed my eyes again, and the energy healer pressed on another place on my spine.
This time, I was 4 years old, sitting beside my mother who is looking out of the window late at night, watching for my father’s car to turn onto our street, not knowing what time he would return home.
The next memory is when I’m 6 years old, crying while watching my parents argue and yell. I asked them to stop fighting and so they asked me to decide who is right and who is wrong. Naturally, I sided with my mother, and this one simple decision unintentionally pushed my father away from me.
There was a heavy distance between my father and me that resulted from that one critical moment. On so many occasions, I wished that I would have stayed silent in that moment and not declared that my father was wrong. For the next 12 years, my mind believed that he was always the “bad guy.” I still feel guilty for doing this to him; for creating a wall between our hearts.
More and more of my childhood memories became tainted with the image of my mother crying. This is what my mind remembers the most about those days.
Frustrated with the persistent pain of watching her cry so often, I began to wonder how I can save her from it. One day, I asked her, “Why don’t you just leave him, mom?”
She replied, “I will. I will leave him after you and your brother are done with college and after you get married.” She didn’t want my future-in-laws to look down on me because I came from a broken family. I felt like an anchor tied around my mother’s neck, dragging her down, preventing her from living her best life.
I hated myself for all the sacrifices she made to raise us and all the pain she endured to raise a girl. I wanted to free her from that pain so badly. I hated the fact that I was a girl and yet, I felt guilty for the opportunities I had been afforded. My mind kept reminding me that my mother’s life would have been so much easier if I wasn’t born.
I kept myself under immense mental and emotional pressure, outwardly masked as an ambitious drive to succeed. What I craved the most from my parents was an acknowledgment of my efforts; I imagined one day they would say, you were a difficult child to raise but it was all worth it. I assumed responsibility to make it worthwhile for them because after all, they could have been doing anything else with their time, money, effort. Why invest it in me?
Growing up in an entrepreneurial family, it makes perfect sense why I believed that I am supposed to pay dividends for the rest of my life. Not necessarily in monetary ways, but in ways that made my parents proud and happy, so they can feel satisfied with the decision to bring me into this world and raise me to the best of their ability.
I pushed myself to graduate college a year early and nearly died doing it. Less than two years after graduation, I agreed to live and work in Afghanistan, again hoping to earn my stripes, make my parents proud and happy.
I was so afraid that my parents would experience buyer’s remorse; I was afraid that one day, they would regret giving me birth. Even thinking about that felt like death. That thought was always followed by a familiar, faint whisper, “I’m so sorry for being born…”
Part 2: How insecurity is passed down, generation after generation
My paternal grandparents didn’t need another son as they already had three sons before my father was born. Instead, they dreamed of having a daughter.
My father arrived five minutes after his long-awaited, highly-desired twin-sister. Naturally, he wasn’t sure of his place in his mother’s heart. He wanted to feel deeply loved and valued by his mother, and this is probably why he believes that “heaven is found under your mother’s feet.”
He still tears up when he tells his childhood story: father passed away when he was four and his mother had to work so hard to put food on the table for him and his siblings. He feels indebted to his mother, and perhaps even feels a bit like me: apologetic for being born, having needs, and wanting love.
I used to tear up telling my story: how hard it was for my mother to wait for my father to return home on countless nights. I felt her pain as if it was my own. All the injustices she suffered were reasons for me to be angry and cold towards my father and his family. I was enmeshed with my mother, just as my father was with his.
My father and I viewed our mothers as martyrs who deserved to be saved from their suffering – the suffering that resulted from the stories they told themselves and our families. We took on the role of saviors, vowing to protect our mothers from anyone who crossed their path. The roles of parent and child had been reversed and we had been parentified.
But parents do not need to be saved, and certainly not by their children.
The child’s mind naturally does this as it recognizes that the child is dependent on its caregivers for life and sustenance. The child prioritizes the caregiver’s needs to ensure its own survival and continues to do this in adulthood out of habit. It becomes part of the unconscious programming that continues on even when it becomes damaging for the individual and his/her future relationships.
Part 3: How I healed my insecurity cognitively in adulthood
I became an adult when I revised my family’s narrative and freed myself from external expectations. So, it’s not that my grandmother, widowed at the age of 26, had to work in 10 homes to feed her six children; it’s that she chose to do that. And good for her!
It’s not that my parents brought me into this world and had to raise me a certain way; it’s that they chose to raise me the way they did. It’s not that they had to pay for my education, it’s that they chose to do it. And good for them!
If they made these choices with expectations of me being a certain way, they had sowed the seeds to their own disappointment.
If we do things while expecting another human being to do what we want them to do, we’re living under the illusion of control. When things don’t go our way, we’re naturally going to be disappointed, frustrated, upset, and maybe even angry. We will convince ourselves that the other person is responsible for our pain and that they are the problem. But the real problem is that we’re unwilling to examine our own expectations, which is the real source of our pain.
I realized I don’t owe anyone anything, not even my parents. I am forever grateful, but I am not indebted. Feelings of indebtedness imprison the mind. It forces the mind to think of ways to repay our parents. But that is simply foolish. We can never repay our parents for what they did.
It was with this thought last year that I decided to take some time away from seeing and talking to my parents. Those nine months served as my cocoon, during which there was a radical internal transformation. I cognitively rewired my thoughts and was clearly able to see which ones were true and which ones were part of the made-up story from childhood.
I had a difficult relationship with my mom for many years by this point. I had inherited a deep mother wound. After my failed marriage and divorce, I felt the weight of her disappointment, not just in me, but also in herself. I wanted to relieve her of that toxic shame and wanted to relieve myself of the feeling that I am the cause of her pain. Again, I heard the faint whisper get louder… “I’m sorry for being born.”
On a cognitive level, I believed my mom didn’t love me. This belief caused me to be frequently triggered. We had reached a point where there was nothing she could say or do to get me to believe that she truly loved me.
By studying attachment science, I learned that insecurely attached individuals become hypervigilant of their parents’ (or caregivers’) behavior and tend to tilt perceptions in the direction of noticing or imagining insufficient interest, availability, or responsiveness. In other words, I was seeing what I was believing.
So I first had to recognize that my belief was faulty. There was enough evidence for me to admit that she did love me, but didn’t know how to love me.
Then I applied the attachment science lens to my mom’s role in this situation to gain a better understanding of what was going on:
My mom is operating from an insecure attachment style. She’s constantly looking for approval from her birth family. She sacrificed her education and got married at the age of 17 to lighten the load on her widowed mother. At the age of 18, she gave birth to me. I inherited the same insecure attachment style and was encouraged to be a self-sacrificing resource for others and to lighten the load on my parents’ shoulders.
If the child receives these messages directly or indirectly, his/her mind learns this: I am not important, I am too heavy of a burden, I need to take up less space, I need to make room for others, I will only be loved if I give more to others than I receive from them.
As a child, I was valued and praised for being mature beyond my age. I was a carbon copy of my mother’s nature – overly helpful, generous beyond measure, always resourceful, willing to do anything for love and acceptance from others.
However, when I started to say “no” and develop healthy boundaries, I became less useful and less praise-worthy. My mom no longer received compliments from her family about the kind, giving, sacrificing daughter she had raised.
It’s not her fault, but it wasn’t my fault either. It’s just the situation we were in and we were both trying to meet our needs; her needs for attachment and my needs for authenticity.
This helped a bit more and then my healing journey continued on to the next stage…
Part 4: How I healed my insecurity emotionally in adulthood
I still had a “hole” in my heart. I had incessant thoughts about being unworthy of my parents’ love and simultaneously, a deep need for them to accept me as I am, flaws and all. I would frequently cry while thinking of how unloved and alone I felt.
I knew they loved me, but I didn’t feel it consistently, and that’s what triggered me the most. It caused me to look to them for love and support, but I couldn’t fully rely on it. My mind was trying to create stability in my life and that’s why I tried to push my parents’ love away – because at least that would be consistent.
In the midst of all this, my mind became fixated on my failed marriage. I felt guilty for bringing my unresolved childhood wounds into the marriage. I was judging my old self through my newfound understanding of attachment science, and falsely believing that I could have somehow saved the marriage. My friends reminded me that it takes two to tango and that the end result would have still been the same.
Mahara confirmed my understanding. She said yes, you’ve done the work to understand how your mind works, what happened in your childhood, and how it connects to your marriage and divorce. That was a relief.
Mahara also confirmed my friends’ perspective that the marriage wouldn’t have worked because he needed to undergo the same healing process, and that this is a journey each person must undertake for him/herself.
For each three-hour session, we started with a long discussion of how I was feeling and what I was thinking. Mahara is adept at recognizing where each person is on their journey of self-discovery and self-healing.
Then I followed her into the breathwork room, lay down comfortably, covered myself with warm blankets, closed my eyes, and we started the deep, holotropic breathing. I’m a shallow breather, so the deep breathing technique was difficult at first.
Once the holotropic breathing was rhythmic, Mahara asked me to tell her who I was visualizing, and I immediately started to cry. The first two sessions were mostly focused on forgiving my ex-husband and myself for the failed marriage. I had no idea that I was holding on to so much from that time period in my life.
During the third session, I saw my mom holding me as an infant. Then I saw me comfortably sitting on her lap, feeling loved and protected. I was probably 5 or 6 years old.
Mahara asked me what my mom would say if she could talk to me right now. The tears came rushing down, I reached for more tissues, and I repeated the words my mom has said to me on so many occasions: You’re my angel. You know that. You are so special to me. I love you so much.
Next, Mahara guided me to talk to my inner child and so I spoke from my heart: You were loved, valued, and cherished. You always have been. I’m so sorry for all that you had to go through, all that you had to endure. You are free now, free from all of that. I will always be here with you and for you. I will never let you be alone.
Lastly, Mahara guided me to speak to my mom and tell her what I was feeling: Mom, I’m sorry I doubted your love. I’m so sorry for hurting you. I didn’t mean to do that to you. Thank you for being my mom. I love you. It feels good to be back home.
Then I cried more deeply than I have ever before. Crying releases emotions from our bodies and is deeply restorative. Mahara advised me to take a nap and then join her for herbal tea upon waking.
While I was napping, I recalled an image from the vision board I created in September 2010. The vision board used to hang on a wall in my room at my parents’ house in Chicago. The image was of a mother and daughter:
Something inexplicable had shifted inside of me. This experience permanently removed all doubts I had about being loved by my mom.
Once I recovered my lost self, I effortlessly forgave my mom, and this solidified and secured our mother-daughter bond.
The rebirthing sessions transformed the cognitive inputs into emotional healing for my entire body. My mind and body were finally in sync.
How did I get to this point?
- I first observed how my mind works and detected patterns i.e. how negative thoughts about myself create negative feelings. This is the behavioral scientist inside of me – inquisitive about how our minds create our realities.
- I habitually questioned thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and beliefs. I fired my inner critic (the super-ego) and replaced it with a chief curiosity officer.
- I consciously faced my feelings and fears, past and present, regardless of how scary it was. I actively uncovered and healed my insecurities by paying close attention to the things that triggered me.
- I prioritized my health – physical, mental, emotional, and relational. I spent thousands of dollars on therapy, books, workshops, classes, retreats, nutritional supplements, and experiences to repattern my thoughts and beliefs.
- I committed to meeting my own needs and loving myself even if no one else did. Everything was “allowed” now including not talking to my parents for nine months.
My journey matches the anticipated stages of attachment wound healing according to modern science. I became securely attached at the age of 33 and it’s been the most worthwhile accomplishment of my life. Let me tell you how this changes the game…
Part 5: Life as a securely attached adult
When children are able to trust their parents will recognize and meet their needs, they develop into securely attached children. This frees them from unnecessary worry and gives them the freedom to explore their surroundings and identity. The quality of our childhood experiences determines how our brains develop and function. Secure parents provide consistent and predictable environments for their children and thus, these children’s brains develop optimally.
When children are unable to trust that their parents will recognize and meet their needs, they become insecurely attached. These children live in a constant state of fear and thus, their brains develop sub-optimally. They have a limited capacity to explore, self-soothe in the face of separation, and connect authentically.
As a secure child grows, the parents (who are themselves secure) will reflect the child’s trust, and therefore, the child will learn, “I am safe. I trust myself.” This is how secure children learn to trust themselves and that the world is a safe place to be. During stressful situations, the secure child’s mind instantly recalls an image of the secure parents which allows him/her to self-soothe and prevent the unnecessary activation of survival instincts. The child is better able to remain calm and reason clearly.
As an insecure child grows, the parents (who are also insecure) cannot reflect the child’s trust, and therefore, the child learns, “There is danger everywhere. I need to watch out.” The insecure mind perceives situations as threatening more frequently than they really are and activates the nervous system (preparing to fight or flee) more frequently than it needs to. The insecure child’s mind becomes hypervigilant, focuses its attention externally, and attempts to control his/her environment (including others) in order to modulate the turbulent internal emotions. This strategy is bound to perpetually fail, causing undue stress on the mind and body over the course of the child’s life.
Attachment styles exist on a continuum and no one is 100% secure or insecure. These patterns show up most clearly when there is conflict in intimate relationships. Insecurely attached adults instantly feel threatened and unconsciously react as if it is a life or death situation. They are unable to maintain their logical reasoning ability and less able to work through conflict with a partner. Naturally, insecurely attached adults are more likely to have failed intimate relationships and marriages.
There are several factors that contribute to the development of an insecure attachment style. These are our parents’ unstable marriages, unmet childhood needs due to lack of parents’ physical and emotional presence, and rigid gender roles. Without taking the time to grieve what we didn’t receive in childhood and heal our attachment wounds, we cannot become securely attached. Without attachment security, we may arrive at levels 3 & 4 (belongingness, love, and esteem) on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but we will more easily lose our hold on those things. Most importantly, without attachment security, we cannot expect to create secure intimate relationships or raise securely attached children.
In order to transform my insecure attachment style to a secure attachment style, I had to learn to consistently trust myself. But this is not something we come into the world knowing how to do. We learn to trust ourselves only after it is reflected back to us from our parents. I needed to revisit my childhood, grieve the losses, and trust my parents – albeit momentarily – during the rebirthing therapy process with Mahara so that the trust can be reflected back to me.
The last rebirthing session served as a ceremonial transfer of responsibility from my parents to myself. I freed my parents from having to prove their love to me and freed myself from looking to them for consistent love and support. Now, I am fully responsible for showing myself love and compassion and protecting myself from harm. Everything else from others (parents, family, friends, significant other) is a bonus. This is how I plugged the “hole” in my heart I mentioned in the previous post.
Reparenting and rebirthing is the part of adulting no one told us about. I recently learned that during the nine months of no-contact with my parents, they underwent their own reparenting and healing process with the help of my maternal grandmother. When I wasn’t speaking to them, my mom felt she was being punished for the lack of effort she had made to keep in touch with her mother when she was my age. She discussed this long-standing guilt with her mother and healed her own mother wound. Since then, the two of them have strengthened their relationship. How remarkable it is that the time and space apart gave us all a chance to heal what was aching inside of us.
My parents and I have the best relationship today. It’s an adult-to-adult relationship. We care for each other immensely while honoring and respecting our differences. The same thing applies to the relationship with my brother and myself. No one tries to change or convince the other anymore. It’s warm, comforting, loving, and authentic.
The relationship between my parents and myself is the foundation for all relationships in my life today. With such a strong base, I am inclined to only form relationships in which I can authentically be myself with zero guilt, shame, or pressure. I no longer seek or need approval. With a secure attachment, I can propel more of my energy and efforts towards following my path wherever it may lead and actualizing my innate gifts in the service of humankind.
In undergoing this transformation, I had a few major realizations:
- All parents in all time periods who decide to have and/or raise children do it for this reason: to experience parenthood. All parents receive what they sign up for which is simply the experience of parenthood – however that turns out – good, bad, acceptable, painful, etc.
- The most loving thing parents can do for their children is to set them free from all expectations. When parents haven’t freed themselves from their own parents’ expectations, they also cannot set their children free.
- Everyone is looking out of their own window and telling the story as their mind sees it based on its previously established patterns. Listening and understanding someone else’s version of the story doesn’t make mine any less true or valid. No one has the full story of everything that happened.
Again, I am forever grateful to my parents, but I do not feel indebted in any way. After all, I am the experience they signed up for as parents!
It is clear that I have healed my core wounds and have become “earned-secure,” meaning I acknowledge there were dysfunctional parenting experiences in my childhood, and I am able to describe these memories in an accurate, coherent, and contained manner.
I no longer feel bad for my mom, for the tears she cried, for the pains she endured. I no longer harbor anger against my dad and instead, have compassion for him and his journey. I no longer feel bad for my inner child and younger self, the one who suffered along with her parents in their troubled marriage.
I am able to talk (and write) about all of this with ease. There is no pain or grief there anymore and sometimes it feels as though I am telling someone else’s story. I’m able to openly welcome discussion and other perspectives to deepen my understanding of the situation or these patterns.
The path of healing, starting with awareness, to attachment, and finally to authenticity, is painful and purposeful. It ends the predictable cycle of insecure attachment styles, frees us from generations of insecurity, honors our ancestors, and prepares us to be emotionally safe partners and parents, if we so choose. May you have the courage to break all the patterns in your life that are no longer serving you.