When Did You Become Unforgivable?

toddler-staring-out-windowI see many people who struggle with self-esteem issues. In fact, self-esteem issues and depression almost always occur together. Which one causes the other is not always clear, but the majority of people seem to have the self-esteem issues first.

People often tell me they want to die—because they “shouldn’t exist,” were “never wanted,” never “fit in,” are a “burden,” “don’t deserve anything,” or even have the feeling they “did something horrible” but don’t know what.

Generally, this viewpoint comes from something that happened when the person was very young. We now know that even embryos traveling down the fallopian tube are being affected by their environment in ways that have implications for physical and emotional health throughout the rest of their lives.

To work with this, sometimes I ask people if they deserved to live (or die) when they were an embryo, then a fetus, then a newborn, etc. Most people see themselves as innocent and deserving to live at some point. Going through this exercise helps them see that there was a time they could have compassion for themselves, rather than blame or condemnation. For others, as we advance in age, we come to a place where they can no longer say they were innocent and deserved to live. That can lead us to the origin of the issue. If they can’t say they were good anymore after age 2, 4, 10, or whatever, then we look for what happened at that age to change that. Almost always, it was some kind of abuse or trauma.

For example, I saw a woman who wanted to die and believed she didn’t deserve to live, despite the fact she was a kind, giving, loving person. She was severely depressed and obsessed about suicide. She told me if therapy didn’t work, she was going to kill herself. One of the things I did was to take her through this exercise. She reluctantly conceded that she was innocent as an embryo, fetus, and newborn. When we got to 2, she said she deserved to die at that point. When we explored it, she said something happened then to change this, but she didn’t know what. Few people have conscious memories from that age, so early memories can be challenging to resolve.

But then she said she had an image, but she was sure it didn’t happen—”it couldn’t have happened.” The image was of a sexual assault from a family member. It was very specific and unusual. We processed the image as if it was a memory with EMDR, and she felt enormous relief. She no longer thought she was so bad that she didn’t deserve to live. She finally saw that she had done nothing wrong and the shame wasn’t hers. It belonged to the adult perpetrator.

Others blame themselves for their parents’ divorce, or for their parents’ lost lives after marrying each other only because of the pregnancy. People blame themselves for being the gender the parent didn’t want, for their mother dying in childbirth, or for their parent’s depression. When children try to make sense of something that feels terrible in their world, and no one helps them, they tend to think they caused the problem. So many innocent children grow up feeling guilt, shame, and self-hatred because of this. Sometimes, they don’t even remember why. Once they can connect their adult perspective with their child beliefs, they see that it’s unreasonable to punish themselves the rest of their lives because when they were too young to be responsible, their parents made the choices they did.

So if you think you are bad, disgusting, undeserving, unlovable, or inadequate, were you so as an embryo? A fetus? A newborn? An infant? A crawling baby? A walking toddler? A talking toddler? When did you become unforgivable, and why?

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT

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  • Jayme

    August 20th, 2013 at 5:39 AM

    I guess for some people that whole mindset starts when they themselves do something that they think that they could never forgive another person for doing to them.

    So they then start to think that they should not be forgiven for doing that to someone else.

  • Ada

    August 20th, 2013 at 6:39 AM

    There are homes where kids are told time and time again that they don’t deserve to live, that they are trash and worthless and they are hated by their parents. I guess that if you are told that enough then you come to believe that

  • Cynthia Lubow, MFT

    August 20th, 2013 at 9:16 AM

    Jayme, yes, that would be tough to deal with; all you can do at that point is to try to repair the damage you did and learn from it, vowing not to do it again. I almost never see this, though; the people I see feel as if they’ve done something horrible, but haven’t at all. Most of the time I find people can easily forgive others, but not themselves. They have a double standard.

  • Cynthia Lubow, MFT

    August 20th, 2013 at 9:17 AM

    Ada, Yes, sadly you are absolutely right.

  • Danielle

    September 6th, 2013 at 7:34 PM

    I know in rational thought, I am a worthwhile person, and I have my good traits, as much as I do my flaws, like any other. But what my brains say intellectually, is not how I FEEL, emotionally, all the constant time of late. I feel inadequate, and stupid, because all I do is just keep making stupid and trivial and constant mistakes. People tell me I am abnormal, that I am a freak, that I am rude, that I am clumsy, that I am forgetful, that I’m selfish, that I am this, that I am that. ALL the time. And most of all the time, they tell me that I am too sensitive. But I realized today that the only reason I am so sensitive, is because I am not resentful of the fact they are honest enough to address my flaws, and only want to correct them so I can be a better person, I resent being told it because I ALREADY KNOW they are right, and I am trying so very hard to be a better person, but deep down it feels like no matter how much I lie to myself, I know I will keep making people unhappy and keep making the same dumb petty mistakes I keep getting, understandably, attacked over. I just wish I could run away from my life, and become a better person, just for their sake alone, so they’d never have to deal with me. I realize the main thing I have going for me, is that I am ‘nice’ and the only reason I am considered to be so generous and nice, is only because I know that is the ONLY quality I have to offer: I am not talented enough, attentive enough, smart enough, witty enough, tough enough…I can just sucker up to people well, and make them feel like someone understands their problems and help them feel better. But no amount of suckering up to people makes them feel better at the end of the day, when you still pragmatically have nothing useful to offer people. I know this goes back a long way down, because my father told me I was an accidental child, and that they had intended to abort me save for a last minute change of heart, and all that has caused them a lot of missed opportunities. So while I know TECHNICALLY I am innocent as an embryo for existing in the first place, as I after all did not ask them to marry or have intercourse and thereby get me so young, I know I via causation of my birth, everything has been difficult since, and that I am a difficult flawed person who has never reciprocated all of the wonderful blessings in equal share. So I try to compensate, as best i can, by being ‘nice’ to people. But Niceness doesn’t fix stupid. And every time I am called out for being a moron or being a loser or being whiny in front of my loved ones, I know they are only saying it for my benefit, but it makes me feel so ungodly awful inside, because I know that I am, ESSENTIALLY SPEAKING, a useless to destructive individual, both to their mental tranquility, and to society at large. I wish I knew how to be a better communicator, and a more competent person. I know it is not easy, or comes overnight. I just wish people would not make me feel like I am so low all the time. I know a lot of it is all in my head, and I just wish I knew how to fight it, because having just 1 ounce of bitterness with genuine reasoning behind it towards me, seems to make ALL the bitterness against me, even irrational kinds, feel legitimate too. I wish I could afford a psychiatrist, because I have been thinking about suicide, albeit only in a completely normal abstract sense…I know it is not a solution and it won’t prove anything to anybody except that I am even more pathetic and needy as a person if I do so. I wish I had health insurance, but I don’t. If anyone could help me with any suggestions, or reccomend any services who work pro bono, or very cheap, I’d really appreciate it. I just feel so sad all the time. Thank you.

  • dan

    May 23rd, 2018 at 2:48 PM

    hi Danielle
    I just came a cross your message. May 23, 2018
    I wonder how are you these days.
    I wish the psychiatrist I am still looking for will have you depth.
    I may use some of your phrases because I can never say it so clear as you do.
    it appears you are few years ahead.

    I feel the same sometimes, without heaving the same birthday story.
    I don’t think I can offer much more than another perspective on the same tune.
    I wish I’d know how did you cope to now. I naturally skip out of these tracks occasionally and then it feels better. if it’s useful to you , I can share what I do.
    I hope to hear from you

  • Cynthia Lubow, MFT

    September 8th, 2013 at 10:17 AM

    Danielle, You express yourself very competently, insightfully, and intelligently. It sounds like you are in an abusive environment. You talk about how “people” talk to you, and it is not how anyone should tolerate anyone talking to them. I hope you can find a way to eliminate from your life anyone who regularly calls you “abnormal, rude, clumsy, forgetful, selfish, a moron, a loser, stupid, whiny” or anything else insulting. I’m guessing that your parents talked to you like this, or maybe you translated their not wanting you into these words, but no one should be allowed to talk to you like this. It’s not helpful to you; it’s just abusive. Even if you talk to yourself like this (and I would advocate for that to stop too) no one else should ever do this to you. It’s not helpful to anyone to be insulted and criticized like this. YOU DO NOT DESERVE TO BE TREATED LIKE THIS AND IT MUST STOP! You are not stupid, and if you make a lot of mistakes, it’s probably because that’s what people do when they are constantly criticized.

    Sometimes free or very inexpensive counseling is available where counselors are trained. See if you have any graduate schools training therapists in your area and find out if they have clinics.

  • Kat

    June 26th, 2014 at 11:29 AM

    I am the oldest of 13 children, 7 brothers, 5 sisters; my parents are both deceased now. I attempted suicide twice when I was 15 and 16 because my father always told me among may other things that I was “just another mouth to feed.” Both attempts were with narcotics that I had because of a traumatic bike accident and surgery. I didn’t really know what I was doing and didn’t take enough. The first time I still remember laying on the floor and he steps over me and said that, “you are just another mouth to feed.” The second time was in college at the age of 16. He was very verbally abusive. His other nasty thing to say was, “when God was passing out brains you thought he said trains and you missed yours.” I think about it to this day and I am 59. Also, how could your first child be such a burden? I was raised in a strict Catholic home. If they allowed birth control methods maybe he wouldn’t have had so many “mouths to feed.” I love my father, he was greatly respected but that macho thing was destructive as well as the Catholic guilt ridden upbringing.

  • Marcus

    September 27th, 2021 at 8:11 AM

    I think I started actively hating myself around 6-7, but my dad says I was shockingly self-deprecating as early as 4 so I don’t really know what happened. I remember being quite happy as a little kid but I was always bouncing between excitement and terror, as I became aware of mortality very early on (a close family friend, almost like a second mom died when I was 3, and my dad was in his 50s when he had me so I knew I wouldn’t have as long with him as other kids would have with their younger parents)

    I think the hardest thing for me other than internalising the abuse I suffered from my parents (they tried their best but both have anger issues and probably shouldn’t have had kids) is the fact that I’m trans. I stayed in denial about it until I was literally about to die from anorexia, which was triggered from my desperation to look more like a boy. I pretended to be a boy all the time as a kid until I went to middle school, since that’s the age where you can’t get away with that kind of free expression any more without being labelled a weirdo. Puberty was hell and I’m so glad I’ve finally accepted myself as a man and started testosterone, but the reason I being all this up is my stubborn self hatred can’t help but tell me it’s my fault I’m trans, and that if only I’d tried harder to be a woman I wouldn’t have to go through all this. So much of the world doesn’t even think we exist, or that we are trapped in the wrong body as some kind of karmic punishment, and as much as I know intellectually that’s nonsense I still FEEL it to be true. That I’m fundamentally flawed and freakish and unlovable because I couldn’t even get something as basic as my gender right.

    I haven’t done anything wrong but I feel guilty for existing at all. My whole life just feels wrong. It’s hard to trust in any kind of higher power or love when it seems like the universe doesn’t give a damn about me, or else why would I have to struggle so hard all the time just to feel okay

  • Mai

    November 21st, 2021 at 11:55 PM

    Maybe being dead isn’t so bad… I rather be dead than constantly hate myself…

  • Edwina

    August 1st, 2022 at 5:06 PM

    I feel very fortunate to have found this website. Every article is concise and clear and filled with compassionate direction for these ubiquitous mental health problems. You have helped me today and I pray all those gathered here find a balm of compassion in your dedicated help.

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