I’d like to start this post with a passage from the author Jesmyn Ward in Men We Reaped. Here, she talks about how she learned to undervalue herself when her dad left their family:
“I looked at myself and saw a walking embodiment of everything the world around me seemed to despise: an unattractive, poor, Black woman. Undervalued by her family, a perpetual workhouse. Undervalued by society regarding her labor and her beauty. This seed buried itself in my stomach and bore fruit. I hated myself. That seed bloomed in the way I walked, slumped over, eyes on the floor, in the way I didn’t even attempt to dress well, in the way I avoided the world, when I could, through reading, and in the way I took up as little space as possible and tried to attract as little notice as I could, because why should I? I was something to be left.”
Now, I’m not saying that Jesmyn Ward’s dad was a sociopath. All I want to talk about, really, is her last line:
“I was something to be left.”
Because this is a very real and human feeling of devaluation. Some of us experienced it as children. We were left and somehow decided that it must’ve been because we deserved it. Others didn’t feel this kind of loss until we were adults, at which point we encountered complete devaluation.
And we took it in.
Devaluation and Sociopathy
Anyone can devalue another person. What’s unique about sociopathy is that there’s often an agenda behind the process. Planned or unplanned, the results are the same.
You lose sense of your value.
In relatively functional sociopathic relationships, it can come through silence. A complete inability to hear or address your needs. A way of judging you for having needs in the first place. Your needs are ridiculous. If your feelings are hurt, it’s because you’re flawed. If you get angry with this person, it’s because you’re mean. Or because you have a temper. Or because you expect too much. Or because you’re just completely unenjoyable as a human being.
In relationships with people who lack empathy at mild or extreme levels, you will not be able to express your needs in a way that is acceptable. You’ll always be told that you need to find a new way to express your needs if you want them to be met. But you’ll never quite get it right, even if you twist yourself into a pretzel trying. You’ll never feel like it’s really ok to want a warm apology when you’ve been hurt, and you won’t find understanding when you talk about why it matters to you. You might find yourself talking and talking and talking too much as you try to inspire some understanding.
It won’t come.
And you’ll often start to feel lonely. To wonder if you’re selfish, or if you demand too much, or if you think too much of yourself.
So you may try harder to understand your partner. To focus less on your needs and to instead focus on how you could help this unempathetic person feel close to you.
A Person Lacking Empathy to Any Degree Will Not Become Close to You
Not in the ways that can help you experience your value through a relationship.
And feeling our value in relationship is a basic human need. Yes, it’s ideal to know your own value before you even enter into relationship. But considering that we’re born into relationships that either build us up or fail us from the start, there’s something very human about experiencing our value through our interactions with those around us. Wanting to know that we matter. Wanting to know that we matter enough that we won’t be left suddenly and without a trace.
But people do that to each other all the time. They do it to children. They come up with whatever reasons they need for going, and then they go. They leave on birthdays without a departing gift, and then they don’t even think or know to apologize. They can’t empathize with the way their actions are going to impact a child’s sense of value for the rest of his or her life. And if you try to tell them about it, they simply get mad that you’re trying to make them feel bad.
They don’t want you giving them a guilt trip.
And they’re not going to look back. What you’re left with is the sense that you weren’t worth it.
That you were something to be left.
Empathy is the Foundation of Intimacy and Lasting Bonds
Devaluation through abandonment can rock your sense of being. Realizing that the person who left is not going to care and is not going to make the process of leaving feel more acceptable. Realizing that a person you believed in could just walk away on Christmas with a new, more exciting plan. Realizing that you’re not allowed to say, “That really hurt. You shouldn’t have done it like that.” Waking up to the fact that if you do say it, you won’t be heard.
Waking up to the fact that you’ve been in relationship with someone who doesn’t have a full capacity to empathize with how his or her actions impact you.
This person can be nice or mean. Quiet or loud. Proper or crude.
But without a full capacity for empathetic bonding, this person will always be able to walk away.
There are always more exciting places to be in the world, let’s face it. Better ways of living.
And without emotional attachment, empathy, and intimacy, there’s no real reason to stay. There’s no reason to feel like a commitment is an important thing. But there are a million ways to justify why it’s not.
You’re Not Something to be Left
Trying to prove that you’re worthy of a relationship with someone who can’t sustain one is an exercise in despair.
You can spend your whole life in relationships like that.
If you find yourself working daily to inspire your partner to invest in you and the dreams you hope to build together, then you might need to take a step back and consider what investment means. How do you build value? What are the things we value in life? If you value something, you put time and energy into it. You meet needs. You prioritize. You pour yourself in. You daydream and you make real plans, and then you work hard to make those plans happen. You invest yourself fully. You commit to doing this for the long haul, whether it feels fun or not.
And when you do this, you care.
The opposite is to live on the outskirts. Whether through defiance or sluggishness or deflection or withdrawal. Instead of sharing, you self-protect. Instead of getting excited about another person’s experience, you watch silently or even work to deflate it. Maybe you smile and secretly sabotage. The results are all the same.
These destructive tendencies may or may not be directly linked to sociopathy. But there’s some common thread when it comes to human empathy, emotional attachment, commitments that last, and a cultivated sense of self-worth.
For those who do not have those capacities, life may be lonely. For those who love them, life may hurt. But the thing to remember, in the end, is that it’s not about whether you’re good enough to be loved or not.
Their ability to leave so easily is about them.
Because we all have some things we could work on. But who you are is enough. For love, care, and commitment.
Jesmyn Ward is a famous author. She’s beautiful, insightful, and incredibly talented. She has clear value. But there were times in her life when she couldn’t see it. When she hated herself because her dad left.
Our attachments impact us deeply. But even when we doubt our own value, it’s there.
We just have to work to see it. Recover it. Cherish it. And spend time with people who know its worth. Who have the capacity for empathetic attachments. And who know how to commit.