When I listen to clients with poor self-care describe their childhoods, it’s pretty obvious why it’s poor today. How in the world could an infant grow into adult who values themselves when they’ve never been well taken care of? What is most painful to hear is how self-critical clients are for drinking too much, smoking, binge-eating, or other self-harming behaviors.
Take Florene, the child of parents with alcoholism who sought help from me for food and alcohol problems. When her father stopped drinking long enough to get a job, he was happy and loving to Florene and her younger sister and when he was on a bender, he disappeared for days at a time. Her mother’s drinking, more constant and even, led to her lack of attention to her daughters. Typically, she’d come home from her waitress job exhausted, tell the girls to do their homework, then head into her bedroom and fall asleep, often with her clothes and the TV on. For dinner, her mother would leave frozen and uncooked food on the kitchen counter for the girls to cook and eat.
Florene’s parents weren’t abusive in the sense of yelling or physically harming her. Most of the time, they simply ignored Florene and her sister who tried to comfort and take care of each other from a very young age. When Florene was 13, her paternal grandfather who’d suffered a stroke, came to live with the family and Florene was tagged to take care of him.
No surprise, here are some things she came into therapy believing. Alcohol and food are self-care. She isn’t worth fussing over. There are people who take care of others (her) and people who take care of themselves (mom and dad), and nothing could change that. Don’t ask people for help because they’ve got their own problems.
She had no clue what self-care was about for two reasons. First, her parents didn’t model behavior that indicated they were worth taking care of due to their own dysfunctional childhoods. Second, Florene did not experience anywhere near adequate care. She had no idea what it involved or that she should even expect it. She never dreamed that self-care is everyone’s right, no matter what circumstances they’re in as a child or as an adult. And it never occurred to her that she was worthwhile enough to take care of. She didn’t know what she didn’t know.
If you had a dysfunctional child, please don’t be hard on yourself for not taking the best care of yourself. You weren’t taught how, but you can learn now. You can ask for help in doing it and be kind to yourself for what you missed out on but what was your due.