Dear Lauren,

I have trust issues. I don't trust people, even very close family. I always think people are out to get me and that everyone hates me. Also, if I feel loved or happy a warning goes off in my head telling me I shouldn't be fooled: no one REALLY loves me, and if I believe that they do, I will end up getting hurt. I don't know why I feel this way! Nothing ever happened to me to justify this intense fear of rejection.

I understand that part of my believing no one loves me is because I don't really feel worthy of love because I don't love myself. Feeling like there is no safe place, no person that can be trusted, is an awful awful feeling. I always feel in danger, I don't believe the people around me. I feel like people are trying to be nice but they are really lying to me. Please help me feel better.

Lauren Roth

Lauren Roth's Answer

“Nothing ever happened to me to justify this intense fear of rejection.” I know you believe that, but I’m certain that something must have caused this “awful feeling” in you. My guess is that your parents didn’t give you a consistent, constant feeling of “YOU ARE IMPORTANT. YOU ARE LOVED. WE LOVE YOU JUST THE WAY YOU ARE, ALWAYS.”

When parents give children those messages, loud and clear, kids don’t feel the way you’ve described your feelings in your question.

But parents’ making (or not making) the statement to kids: “YOU ARE IMPORTANT. YOU ARE LOVED. WE LOVE YOU JUST THE WAY YOU ARE, ALWAYS,” can be very subtle. The process starts when the child is about 2 months old, and he searches his parents’ faces for a smile. Do the parents give the smile, or do their eyes slide on by? If the parents give that 2-month-old the loving, attentive recognition that the infant seeks, that baby will grow into a person who feels solidly beloved, who feels confident, happy, and secure. And these moments occur billions of times over a lifetime. And those billions of teeny moments either build the child up or break him down.

Every moment, for billions of moments, parents are building or breaking their kids.

For example, how do the parents react upon seeing the child first thing in the morning? “Hello, sunshine!!” Or: “Why are you waking me up so early?” How do the parents react when the child says, “Look at that blue truck!” Do they say, “I know you love trucks! I love trucks, too!” Or: “Bobby, that truck is not blue. It’s purple.” How do the parents react when the child runs in, waving his spelling test? “Wow! A 92! You’re so smart!” Or: “You left your room a mess this morning.” Every moment, for billions of moments, parents are building or breaking their kids.

You might not remember a specific traumatic event which caused you to feel this constant fear of rejection, but it’s possible that you’ve had many small moments of destruction instead of building.

(By the way, parents reading this: don’t despair! All the parenting research shows that it is NEVER too late to start becoming a better parent. Even if your child is 20, 60, 80, 100 years old—it’s never too late to start becoming a better parent than you were before. “Children” of any age can be healed from childhood wounds by rapprochement with their parents.)

If you want to resolve your issues and learn to trust, you should go to a psychodynamically-oriented therapist. He or she will explore with you your relationship with your parents and significant others throughout your life, and will help you figure out where the hurt is coming from. Awareness of the source of the emotional pain in and of itself can heal emotional pain. The fact that you don’t know the source of all this pain and fear you’re experiencing is a big part of why you’re hurting so much and feeling so fearful. The awareness will help you heal.

“I understand that part of my believing no one loves me is because I don't really feel worthy of love because I don't love myself.” How fantastic that you realize that! A therapist will help you figure out ways to love yourself. And, once again, the source of “Why don’t I love myself?” is probably the same dynamic: if your parents didn’t give you the message, loud and clear, “YOU ARE IMPORTANT. YOU ARE LOVED. WE LOVE YOU JUST THE WAY YOU ARE, ALWAYS,” how could you have ever learned to love yourself? A good therapist should explore with you the ways in which your parents didn’t make you feel “YOU ARE IMPORTANT. YOU ARE LOVED. WE LOVE YOU JUST THE WAY YOU ARE, ALWAYS,” even if the messages were subtle.

This kind of therapeutic exploration does not mean that your parents are “bad people,” nor does it mean they are “bad parents.” It simply means they made some mistakes, and didn’t give you exactly what you needed. A good therapist will help you realize that seeing your parents’ mistakes so that you can heal from them is not a betrayal of your parents, and not a condemnation of them as people.

People are only human; people make mistakes. We parents are human and we make mistakes. You can heal yourself by exploring the pieces your parents didn’t give you enough of, and you can help your parents know what you need to feel healed by discovering it and sharing it with them.

It’s highly probable that your parents believe they did tell you: “YOU ARE IMPORTANT. YOU ARE LOVED. WE LOVE YOU JUST THE WAY YOU ARE, ALWAYS.” However, parents don’t always express these vital ideas to their children in a way that each specific child can really hear them and really believe them. Parents usually don’t mean to hurt their children; they only hurt them because they themselves are not aware of their behaviors and the effects of those behaviors on each specific child.

Personally, as I’ve written many times in this column, I rely on my children to tell me, “Mommy, it made me sad when you…(fill in the blank).” I’m not omniscient, and I’m not perfect. (And no parent is!) Therapy helps all parties realize what is hurting them and what they are doing to hurt others. It’s a process that eases people’s pain and brings family members closer together, and helps them stop hurting each other, and helps individuals heal from (often unintentional) hurts and traumas.

Some people might take issue with my opinion that parents are incredibly powerful in their children’s lives, either building or demolishing the little souls entrusted to their care. But I’ve seen parents give a child what that child needed, and I’ve seen that child heal and thrive and blossom. And I’ve seen parents not address children’s needs, and I’ve seen those kids go down a sad path. I’ve seen it (and read the research about it) so much that my opinion stands: parents are incredibly powerful in their children’s lives, and they can create secure, confident people or insecure, fearful people.

In fact, nine times out of ten, when someone calls and wants me to do therapy with a child, I work with the parents, instead, because they are the most powerful people in that child’s life, and working with them is the best way to heal the child or change the child’s behavior.

My guess is that therapy (with a good therapist) will help you become aware of what forces are at play in your life, and will help you learn to trust, learn to love yourself, and learn to believe that others truly love you, too.