Book Review: Self-Care for Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents

Self care is the basis of recovery from Trauma, Addictions, Depression, and many other psychological issues. It is an absolute must for a healthy, comfortable life. Often, this is what we never learned or what we forgot because of what happened to us.

I once believed that self care meant buying myself stuff, or taking a hot bath with candles. I don’t know where I picked up this idea (probably from people who have an investment in me buying stuff, like women’s magazines): shopping or taking a bath are not my thing. That’s not what self care means for me.

Self care means we are able to identify our needs, we believe that we deserve their satisfaction, and we take action to get these needs met. It took me decades to understand this, and I believe I still have much room to grow.

Sometimes, we find it difficult to believe that we have needs at all. Beyond simple survival (food, water, air) we can not identify them within us. We have difficulties feeling our body is cold or in pain (well, I did). Sometimes, what we need is to feel and share our emotions, and what we do is eat instead. We can stay alone during long stretches of time and not feel the natural need for companionship. We can lash out when we what we need is reassurance. Or we tolerate unfulfilling or damaging relationships because we don’t know and can’t communicate what our relational needs are.

It is very difficult indeed to satisfy our needs if we don’t know what they are to start with.

The problem is, without knowing what our needs are, without believing we are allowed to have them satisfied, and without working towards their satisfaction, we can well drive ourselves straight into a depression or an addiction – possibly both. There is no way to be happy without working on having our needs and wants met: it will not happen by chance, or because someone else will take care of it – that would be nice, but no. That’s what I learned the hard way.

That’s also why I bought this book. It is about self care, and I clearly still need guidance in this department. It’s for adult children of emotionally immature parents (yes, that’s me). And I appreciated Lindsay Gibson previous book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents.

Self Care for Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, the review

In fact, nothing much interested me in the first part of the book (Protecting and Caring for Yourself), but I really appreciated the following part (Dealing with People). I’m not sure if I reacted like this because I now graduated beyond caring for myself, or simply because the book is better at exploring needs within relationships.

I suspect the second option is the good one, unfortunately for me and for the book. But feel free to leave a comment and give your opinion if you think otherwise. Your view will always be valued here.

All in all, do I recommend reading this book nevertheless ? Absolutely. I usually highlight sentences that I find particularly interesting, and frankly, from the Dealing with People part, a lot of sentences are highlighted; it means I really resonated with what Lindsay Gibson had to say.

Please note that it’s a great book if your early environment was not supportive. If your family of origin was reasonably nurturing, and the trauma you went through took place elsewhere, it may not be of great value.

Growing up with immature, narcissistic or violent parents presents a special challenge: not only did we grow up in a environment that ignored and devalued our needs, but we have been shaped by this early experience.

Don’t get me wrong: trauma has changed us, whatever our age when it happened, and wherever the violence came from. But us people growing in this type of families have never known anything else. When we enter recovery, we need to learn everything from scratch, for example what normal or nurturing relationships look like, or that we have needs and that it is our job to attend to them. We need a lot of education, and this book can be a good start.

3 takeaways from Self Care for Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents

Moving away from self neglect

Some of us grew up within a family who was unsupportive, or even hostile to our needs and wants. We may believe that a parenting role is about meeting physical needs : a roof, food, medical care. That’s true, and sometimes even this is denied. But our needs go far beyond that: we also need time, attention, warmth, and guidance from our caregivers.

When this does not happen, we become experts at suppressing our wants, and needs. So much so that we would not be able to identify them even if our lifes depended on it. We can even resort to looking at other people and what they like, or social expectations, to determine what to do with our lifes: we have no idea.

If you recognize yourself, do not panic: your needs and wants did not disappear. You just don’t have access to them yet, but they are here, within you.

Paying attention to our emotions is a great way to pick up on our repressed needs: envy, desire, or longing can point us to the right direction. Anger, frustration or resentment can show us that the satisfaction of our need is being denied, sometimes by ourselves.

I remember, for example, being irrationally angry at women in my family who were taking care of everyone except themselves. Well, there was certainly a message for me in that misplaced anger. I addressed the problem in my life, and the anger at other people faded.

Finding out about our needs has to become an explicit recovery goal. It means making as much space as we can in our lifes for our own inner experience and self expression. Ways we can do this are :

  • Journaling : there is something about putting our thoughts and feelings on the page that allows us to gain clarity.
  • Therapy, of course, is all about making space for your inner life, within a safe relationship.
  • Talking about us, what we feel, what we want in other relationships, is also a great option if we do have access to safe (i.e. non-judgmental) people to do that with
  • Reading psychology and self help books or blogs like this one can help us as well; it can facilitate self reflection.

Chosing a relationship wisely

Lindsay Gibson uses a great analogy to explain what happens when we initiate a relationship from a place of unfulfilled needs: it’s like looking for a place to eat while starving.

From this place of desperation, we cannot afford to be selective about the restaurant. As long as there is a parking lot and a nice façade, we rush in and hope for the best.

Minuscule signs of interest can trigger an unreasonable hope for commitment and fulfillment; we don’t see red flags even if they are obvious. We are so focused on luring people into a relationship that we never stop to ask ourselves if they are really interested in us, or good for us.

And then we expect our newfound relationship to fill us up and make us feel better, because on our own we don’t do a good job of that.

Neglecting ourselves is also fertile ground for love addiction or limerence. What happens here is that we are starved emotionally, and we decide The One is the only person on earth able to solve the problem for us. In our mind it’s then a matter of convincing him or her to do just that. In truth, they are not able to perform miracles, even if they were willing to. It takes a whole team to meet our needs, and the most important team member is us.

We have very good reasons for behaving like this. It’s silly to beat ourselves up, our quest is completely understandable given our history. We litterally don’t know how to do otherwise; but a good objective is to change how we think and what we do.

Because there is a problem with this approach: it does not work. Unknowingly, we are in fact making sure that our emotional needs will not be met. A far more productive attitude is to learn how to take care of ourselves first. Then, we can look for a relationship from a place of genuine curiosity and openess, and taking our time to check what others have to offer before committing.

We can also avoid casting our significant other into the role of “the one who will fix everything and take care of me”: these expectations are unrealistic and unfair. The other person is in charge of his or her needs, not ours. We can partner to attain mutual satisfaction of some of them, but certainly not all.

Taking care of ourselves in a relationship

I’m now relatively good at identifying and addressing my needs when not in the context of a relationship. I can understand most of them, and I have learned to expect my share in my family’s ressources to satisfy them – as opposed to waiting for everyone else to be satisfied to have my turn (guess what : if I do this my turn never comes around).

But something Lindsay Gibson highlights striked me still : we have needs about how a relationship operates, and it is also our job to get them satisfied. Believe it or not, it was not obvious for me. I used to think a relationship is a “take it as it is or leave it” proposition.

Apart from relationship with people who are unsafe emotionally (and they exist), we can identify things that we don’t like about a relationship and trigger change. We need to be true to ourselves about what we want. We need to communicate clearly to our partner what does not suit us. And we have to insist to work out with them what needs to be done, in spite of their potential discomfort.

In other words, we can, and should be relationship leaders. We are entitled to take a relationship on safer ground and show the way. There is no such thing as a “take it or leave it” healthy relationship anyway.

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