Insights – 14 min read

Managing your emotional investments

May 16, 2020
By Metaphorical Therapy

What am I worth?

The question has nothing to do with your bank balance, what you drive or how many toys you have. What are you worth psychologically and emotionally speaking? If you feel you are undervalued and taken for granted you need to take positive action to repair your self-esteem. For those of us so unlucky as to have been unloved or unwanted as children, self-esteem is like a leaking metaphorical bucket. No matter how hard we try to top-up the bucket by being perfectionists, trying to please others and making undeserved allowances and sacrifices for others, our self-esteem just keeps leaking away.

To understand the origin of self-esteem problems, we need to rewind through the years of our growing up all the way back to our early childhood. When we were young children our parents were all powerful. Our home was a little kingdom and our mums and dads were the Queen and King. We were under their protection and their influence on us was deep, lasting and profound. Children who are unloved and feel unwanted suffer damage psychological damage that might not only last a lifetime but also be passed down to their own children.

Being wanted = worth

I was lucky. My parents gave me a sense of self-worth by making it abundantly clear that I was loved and wanted. Being wanted equals worth. Feeling that we are wanted and valued generates the natural positive response of feeling valuable and worthy. Feeling wanted is critically important to the healthy psychological development of a child. In nature unwanted and rejected offspring die. Children who feel unwanted sustain serious and potentially permanent psychological damage. Mothers bonding with their babies and young children suffering separation anxiety are hardwired reflexes evolved over millennia by irresistible biological imperatives. A child alone and unwanted is in grave danger. In the natural world, the lost or abandoned child that does not have the protection of caring parents will simply not survive. Being wanted is absolutely and quite literally essential to one’s physical and emotional survival. Feeling unwanted, being rejected, and even the knowledge that you were adopted assassinates, or at the very least undermines one’s sense of self-worth. It’s like taking 12-guage blast of buck-shot to your bucket of self-esteem. Heartbreakingly, this damage may perversely impel an unwanted child to choose a succession of rejecting partners as an adult. Because such children have an underlying core belief that they are not good enough or worthy they unconsciously recreate the toxic dynamic that makes this a repetitive self-fulfilling prophecy.

Love is emotional nutrition

Children need to be loved, because love is emotional nutrition. Emotionally starved kids “fail to thrive”. Their physical growth is literally stunted. An unloved child will grow up feeling unlovable. After all, “if your parents don’t love you, who will?” Later in life the unloved child is often attracted to a needy and demanding partner who is emotionally unavailable and unsupportive. Such an individual will only ever give what they unconsciously hope to receive. This may seem unintuitive but a from a psychological perspective the drivers are obvious. The unloved person concludes that they are unlovable. Thanks to repetition compulsion, a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats an event or its circumstances over and over again, in a futile attempt to resolve their problem. The unloved undervalued individual unconsciously repeatedly enters into relationships where they are unloved and undervalued. The unloved child as an adult is unconsciously driven or drawn towards uncaring, emotionally unavailable partners.

This motivation stems a subliminal desire to lay unresolved issues in their past to rest by resolving issues in the present. This can be distilled down to thinking that goes something like this: “If I can just make my unloving partner love me now it will resolve the problems in the present and heal the damaged unwanted was a child inside me.” Sadly, it obviously doesn’t work like that. As the saying goes, “The past is a point of reference not a place of residence.” However as many of us know through painful personal experience, escaping the influence and sometimes tragic consequences of the past is far easier said than done.

Damage is not the same is being defective or deficient

Children need to be repeatedly told that they are good enough, regardless of their appearance, intelligence or abilities. Parents have a duty to ensure that their children grow up believing that they are inherently good, that they are adequate to life and that their personal value is beyond question. They need to believe that doing their best is enough and that it is all that is expected of them. Asking the child who got 99% in a test why they didn’t get 100% can be deeply corrosive and cruel. The demanding disapproving parent sells their child into slavery on a metaphorical psychological hamster-wheel. No matter how hard the child tries, they never feel like they make any progress of get anywhere. They never feel like they can fill their leaking bucket of self-esteem. What’s even worse is that the child who grows up feeling that they will never be good enough for their parents may spend their whole life trying to prove their worth to a critical unappreciative partner, an exploitative friend or a demanding employer. They are doomed to make interminable futile attempts to fill a bucket of self-esteem that has holes in it and leaks just as fast or even faster than it is filled. This gruelling exercise in fatuity and futility becomes accepted as reality and as a reflection of their lack of worth. These children grow up believing they are defective and inherently deficient. They believe that they are bad, unworthy and unlovable at their core. They make a fundamental cognitive error that they cannot correct without intervention or external help. It is heartbreaking hear how often and how readily children of parents who have separated will shoulder responsibility for the break up. They will naturally assume that the parents’ separation was their fault, the result of some deficiency or failure on their part, or of something that they did wrong. They think, “I made this terrible thing happen by being bad or naughty.”

Finding your way through “tiger territory”

Children who were raised by parents who wanted them, loved them and believed they were good enough the way they were, were given the precious gift of a full and leak-proof bucket of self-esteem. They “know” that their “gold” (their time, love and energy) is as good as yours, mine, the Prime Minister’s and the President’s. I teach my patients that they may have been damaged but that they are not defective. Their metaphorical motor that runs on a sense of self-worth is in perfect running order. Their “shell” may have a few inconsequential superficial dents. Understanding the difference between being damaged and defective is pivotal to making therapeutic progress. I use metaphors to teach my patients that that the core of them is good and that their emotional gold is as precious and valuable as anyone else’s which corrects their cognitive error. For anyone who was neglected or unloved as a child this paradigm shift represents a major cognitive correction. This is tiger territory. Which is to say it can be distressing and confronting. The use of metaphors and the creation of a “safe mental space” makes it possible to trigger subtle and sometimes almost imperceptible changes over time that can have a profoundly positive effects on thinking and behaviour. They come to accept and understand that they may have a few superficial dents that they can have repaired. Conversely, they know that they are not defective and that they are not bound for the scrapheap of life.

Parents cannot teach their children what they do not know

If your parents were damaged you need to accept that they were incapable of teaching you what they did not know. They could not give you what they did not have. Damaged parents are damaging. Unhappily, they cannot be otherwise. By default, without intervention, re-education or a determination to do the opposite of their own parents, these individuals are predestined to produce children with damaged buckets of self-esteem who automatically, but quite erroneously, conclude that they are inherently defective. It must be said that some of these damaged parents do demonstrate the ability to learn new skills over time. They sometimes adjust and become quite satisfactory grandparents often triggering confusion, resentment and grief in their adult children who may have had to grow up in a loveless regime. When a person who has felt unloved as a child experiences the dawning of the understanding that their parents were in many respects incapable of acting differently they can redirect their anger and blame. They understand and accept that their parents may have done their best despite having being incapacitated by their own childhood experiences. Thus released, the individual can focus their energy on their own emotional recalibration and recovery. Mercifully it is not always true that history repeats itself. The individual who was beaten with a closed fist as a child does not accept that that slapping their own children in the face is necessarily an improvement. Notwithstanding the challenges of their childhood environment and being unwanted they learn that there are responsibilities, limits and consequences and may raise worthy self-respecting children. More about responsibilities, limits and consequences in the Unifying Spiral section that follows presently.

Your psychological health demands that you take ownership of your property, yourself, your emotions and your lack of self-worth. Repairing your damaged bucket of self-esteem is your job and your responsibility.

Investing your ‘gold’ and valuing your time, love and energy

To clarify and quantify your value of yourself, I metaphorically liken your time, love and energy to gold. Gold being both a precious and rare element and a universally accepted symbol of value. As a best friend or life-partner you have invaluable gold of to give. It is imperative that you are very discerning when it comes to choosing in whom to invest your precious limited resources.

I say you INVEST your gold, because a healthy relationship is an equal relationship in which you expect a return. No one has to; it’s a choice. But a healthy recipient who has a genuine interest in you will spontaneously reciprocate. They will want to shout the next beer, make the next phone call and make a special effort on your birthday. They want an equal relationship, not an advantage.

An unhealthy but kind, caring and generous person may ill-advisedly give their gold away to a needy family member or friend, or even to an insistent boss, in the misguided belief that their contribution is being recognised and that they are accumulating credit. This is worse than a high-risk investment. It’s gambling. If you gamble with your money you will lose it and go bankrupt. If you gamble with your metaphorical gold you will lose it and become emotionally depleted and in time you will find yourself bankrupt and at risk of a breakdown. Letting everything leak out of your bucket of self-esteem is akin to letting your car run out of fuel. You mental, spiritual and psychological life cannot run on nothing. Investing your gold in people who never return a dividend, and yet expect more, is dangerous and depleting and it will leave you empty, alone and depressed.

There’s a world of difference between an investment and a donation

A healthy relationship is an equal and reciprocal relationship. A healthy relationship is one where if the friendship or marriage breaks down, both parties lose. These consequences are what keep us honest and well aware of the value of the relationship. If my relationships are equal and reciprocal, I am emotionally wealthy. If I’m emotionally wealthy, I can make donations of my gold, my time or my money to worthy causes.

I do not donate to the gambler outside the casino or the alcoholic outside the pub because I value my gold. If I donate my gold I don’t expect a return. I don’t donate my capital, my car or my house. I donate as much as I can afford to give away. This is wise and healthy practice regardless how worthy the cause. If I am a member of a healthy society, I know that if we all donate a little we can make an enormous difference. That is how our community grows and stays healthy all the way from the microcosm of the nuclear family to the macrocosms of our nation and the world in general.

My time, love and energy are gold, and so is my care. But I can only care to “there”! “There” is the boundary that separates me from you. “There” separates my job from your job. “There” is the point where our relationship tips beyond being reciprocal.  “There” is the point demarcates my limits. When faced with someone “in need”, it is critical you ask yourself not just “Can I help? but “Should I help? Care but only to there. Give a little not a lot and stay aware of the fundamental difference between a donation and an investment.

Request can become expectation. Expectation can become demand

Remember that a request for you to invest more gold is a request because you can say, “No.” Beware of the trap where request fulfilled becomes an expectation and how easily that expectation can escalate to become a demand. A request is not a request if you can’t say, “No” it is the precisely the opposite. Not being able to refuse a request is the definition of a demand. A judge can make a demand. If you are a private, a sergeant can give you an order. Friends and family however, should only ever make requests. Depending on the nature and quality of your relationship, it might be reasonable to expect a friend to comply, respond or reciprocate. However, if your request was reasonable and they don’t fulfil it, demote them and give them less of your gold. Recognise and accept that your relationship is not as equal or reciprocal as you believed it was and make the necessary adjustments. You will find that Metaphorical Therapy’s organising principle The Unifying Spiral is and an indispensable aid when it comes to making these often very difficult and challenging but critically important decisions.

They say you learn who are your real friends in a crisis. This is true. Sadly, it is also all too often too late. You need to be sure now, that the gold you invested in friends and family has bought you substantial backup. To mix my metaphors a little; you want to know you’re your spare tyre of support is inflated with the gold you invested in others. In order to find out, you will need to ask. Do a little and wait for a response. You will soon see if your relationship is one-sided. Define the problems in terms of yourself, because you are the instrument of change. Stop giving away you gold if you are not receiving a reciprocal investment. The result of this might be a shallower less valuable relationship. But at it will be realistic, equal and healthy. It may be more distant but it will be fair, even and healthy. If they are more distant they may not be a spare tyre of support. Your life is a journey and if you are prepared to do your bit and if you look out for them along the way you will find people who are prepared to reciprocate and who, like you, want and appreciate a healthy, equal and reciprocal relationship.

If you don’t get it, don’t give it. And vice versa

Sometimes you may need to pack up your metaphorical bat and ball and go home. You might need to take your time, love and energy and the future gold you would have invested, gold that was not appreciated or reciprocated and therefore no longer deserved, and invest it in someone else. If you don’t give it, you don’t get it. No apologies. Never forget; equal is reciprocal. Withdrawing your gold can be self-validating and an emotionally satisfying consequence. Those who do not appreciate the value of your emotional gold do not deserve to receive it. If that person feels the loss they will make a correction and a healthier reciprocal relationship can rise like the phoenix from the ashes.

Your gold is precious. Do not give it away to people who do not value it, appreciate it. People who do not reciprocate will bankrupt you emotionally. Remind yourself constantly of the value of your emotional gold. Make it your mantra. Never forget it. Practice it. Live it. Your gold. Your choice. Your loss. Your lesson.

About the author

Metaphorical Therapy

Metaphorical Therapy is an innovative new way to deliver essential psychological education, support psychological wellness, and prevent mental illness.

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