For years, I assumed everybody felt the way I did. I wasn’t even quite conscious of the need for a long time. It was just a vague hunger that I felt — more strongly with an occasional person — to be understood.
When I could finally put it into words, I realized that I often felt invisible. I didn’t feel understood. I didn’t feel that anyone saw my worth in the ways I needed it to be seen. I didn’t need for everyone to see me and to understand me. But from certain people — who rarely came along — I craved something which was hard to put into words.
I wanted love. Acceptance. To be seen. To be understood. I wanted for someone who I saw as my equal to be able to see me in the same way.
I eventually discovered this isn’t a universal need. Most people don’t seem to care that much about being understood. And after a lot of reading and therapy and thinking, I finally realized that my fierce need was related to a very old abandonment wound.
I wasn’t even aware the wound was there, but it was changing the relationships I cared about the most.
My wound goes back to my very early years. I’ve talked about it before. My mother left us when I was 5 years old. And from the viewpoint of my young mind, my mother had abandoned me.
My father and my grandparents said terrible things about my mother. I assumed she deserved it.
“I don’t want to say anything bad about your mother, but…,” was the way my father started a lot of the terrible things he had to say.
“Even a mother dog won’t abandon her puppies,” is something I heard at least once from my grandmother — and I heard my father quote her on that point innumerable times.
I assume now that they just wanted to make sure I was on their side in the war between my parents. But that wasn’t my battle. All I knew is that my mother had abandoned me.
Somehow, I wasn’t good enough — wasn’t worth enough — to cause her to choose to stay with me. That’s all my heart could feel.
As an adult, I can look back and understand why she did what she did. I can justify her leaving my sisters and me with my father, but a hurting child isn’t interested in justifying someone else’s actions. I only knew that my daily life was a continuing nightmare. My parents fought all the time. There was constant yelling and tension and blame.
But my mother left the nightmare — and she left me behind to grow up in it. She didn’t protect me from him. That left an emotional wound on me that I couldn’t see or understand for many years.
I realize now that I still feel the need to be seen and understood because I still need assurance that I have the worth which I believe I have. It would be far better for me if I didn’t feel this way, but saying that makes as little sense as saying that a man who’s lost an arm shouldn’t need that arm.
Without consciously realizing it, I’ve felt driven to fix this past hurt by somehow convincing others to see me as I see myself. If someone who I see as having very high worth can see me as having enough worth myself, it can say to the child in me, “See? You are worth loving and understanding. You’re worth being seen. You’re not someone to abandon.”
I’ve come to see that the need to be seen and understood can keep us stuck in places — jobs, friendships, romantic relationships — from which we should have moved on. The need to find healing from an abandonment wound can cause an unconscious decision to stay where we will never find what we’re looking for.
This feels as though we’re trying to prove our worth to other people, but what I’ve realized is that we’re actually trying to get them to prove our worth to us — by choosing us in some way or by acting as we believe they would act if they saw our true worth.
I think this is why I’ve felt so fiercely protective of animals and children. Every dog or cat who has come to live with me has been abandoned by some human in some way. Someone else has failed that animal at some point — and I have an incredible passion never to give them all that they need for life.
I’ve told you before that in rescuing animals, I’m somehow rescuing myself. Even though I haven’t “rescued” children, I feel equally passionate about finding help for those who are in pain or peril. I think I see my own hurting 5-year-old self when I see hurting children.
But here’s the thing. Despite my need, you’re not ever going to see me and understand me the way I want you to. Maybe nobody ever will again. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll never heal this awful wound that’s been an invisible emotional handicap since I was a small child.
It would be great to reach a point that I no longer needed anyone’s validation of my worth. But until that happens, all I can do is to be the best person I know how to be — and to hope someone comes along who really sees me. And who understands me in the ways I need to be understood.
Nothing can take away the original wound, but it might be life-changing to find out — after all this time — that I’m not the one who’s worth leaving.