“Do I deserve love?” This is one of the most fundamental questions a person can ask himself. The answer will determine, to a large extent, our ability to connect to others, to feel G‑d’s love and to function effectively in the world.

At an early age children learn to feel either valued and important, or inferior and insignificant. This is largely the result of how they are treated during their first three years of existence, before they have any awareness of an ability to choose how to think. For those whose early years were filled with physical or emotional abuse, neglect or abandonment, love will not feel natural or deserved. For these “hidden children,” as normal as they may seem on the outside, part of them lives in the dark, afraid to emerge.

At an early age children learn to feel either valued and important, or inferior and insignificantHidden children can know, intellectually, that “beloved is man, for he was created in the image of G‑d; it is even a greater love that it was made known to him that he was created in that image. Beloved are the people of Israel, for they are called children of G‑d . . .” (Ethics of Our Fathers 3:14). They can be told that their Creator seeks connection, that the very word mitzvah comes from the root meaning “to form a bond.” They are aware that, with 613 commandments which morph into an almost infinite number, we can be involved in some form of connection to Him at all times.

But they don’t feel connected.

For the hidden children, the idea of a loving G‑d may seem like an abstract theory which has no experiential corollary in actual life. Unlike the entitled and arrogant narcissists, who have no room for G‑d since their egos take up the entire universe, with hidden children it is their own divine essence that is hidden from themselves. Their image of G‑d is intertwined with the images of those who betrayed and hurt them.

When children are unable to form secure bonds of trust with their parents, they cannot help but feel anxious and ashamed. Inevitably, they assume, “I must be defective. That’s why they don't love me.” Blaming yourself was, in a sense, a smart move; it helped you make sense of a senseless world. It made perfect sense to think, “I’m irresponsible, crazy, slobby, stupid, lazy, anxious and disorganized! That’s why I’m unloved.” This self-limiting belief seems to make perfect sense.

If you are a hidden child, self-blame gave you hope that “if I can just get top grades, be quiet and obedient, or have a personality like ——— [whoever did receive their attention and praise], then I’ll be loved.” When your efforts didn’t work, you might have sunk into depressive despair, or been consumed with jealousy of the “elite” who did seem to be loved and capable of living with ease and confidence, without being tortured by self-doubt and anxiety.

Blaming yourself was, in a sense, a smart move; it helped you make sense of a senseless worldFear and shame are highly addictive states, quickly becoming part of a child’s very sense of identity. Once hooked, then even if objectively there is nothing to be anxious about or ashamed of at a particular moment, the brain will generate endless reasons to arouse these feelings. Anything, from memories of failure and rejection to the daily frustrations—dirty dishes in the sink, socks under the bed, a critical remark from a relative, a child’s refusal to cooperate—any discomfort sparks an attack of self-doubt and self-castigation. “I’m not good enough” floods the brain, drowning out any attempt to feel positive, pounding away with the old mantras, “You’re not bright, brilliant or ebullient enough; not calm enough, organized enough or doing enough, to be deserving of love and respect.”

If these messages are an integral part of your self-talk, then your “inner child” is still cowering emotionally in the dark. Your childhood is over, but the child within you is hearing childhood distortions. You seek love and acceptance, but you are so scared of being rejected that you adopted self-defeating behaviors that cause others to reject you. For example, in an attempt to get others to fill the holes in your soul, you might cling too tightly, so desperate for reassurance and approval that your “saviors” feel stifled and shun you. You may try to numb yourself to your inner sense of emptiness and anxiety with junk foods, drugs, alcohol or the Internet. Or, you may be cynical and critical. The minute anyone gets close, the wall of “not good enough” messages goes up, preventing even the possibility of connection.

Hidden children are so used to being scorned, shamed and rejected that they expect G‑d does the same. Once a person is convinced of his essential inferiority, it truly does seem as if there is an impenetrable wall between himself and his Creator. How can you down this wall and trust that G‑d loves you, and is as much an integral part of you as a ray of sunshine is an extension of the sun? How can you believe in a loving G‑d, when His image is superimposed onto the faces of those who did not know how to love?

Recognize that it takes time to change brain patternsRecognize that it takes time to change brain patterns. Because you have “protected” yourself by avoiding connection for so long, you might feel that you are betraying your principles and endangering yourself when you think, “I do deserve love.” Be persistent. Remind yourself, “I don’t have to believe those old distortions. It wasn’t my fault. I was not to blame for their screaming fits, the neglect, molestation or punishments. There was nothing wrong with me! It wasn’t even personal. I was just an easy target, being that I was such a sensitive soul. I can stop giving myself rejection messages. I can free myself from the past by simply realizing that I do deserve love—right now, as I am. This is G‑d’s truth—not the truth of those who hurt me.”

At first, your inner child may feel more comfortable with negativity and resist adopting these new beliefs. Since writing is far more effective in making new neural patterns in the brain than mere thinking, take the time to write new messages to your inner child each day. If you have a desk calendar, write at the top of the page, “I deserve love. I can trust G‑d.”

Another exercise is to take a blank page and make a primitive, stick-figure picture, with your non-dominant hand, of any scene you remember in which you felt inadequate, rejected or unsafe. With your non-dominant hand representing your inner child, write the “child beliefs” that were being programmed into your mind as a child, such as, “I’m unlovable. I shouldn’t have been born. I just make everyone miserable.”

Think of your dominant hand as the adult you. Write words of praise to yourself, as if a loving parent is telling you, “You were a smart kid to figure out how to survive in such a hostile and scary world. There is nothing wrong with you! You are perfect as you are. They simply tried to control you through fear and shame. You don’t have to believe those lies! It is safe to come out into the light now. I’m here to help you slowly get used to feeling loved.”

Just as you don’t wear the same clothing you wore as a three-year-old, you don’t need to wear the same thoughts. Imagine taking the child out from that dank dungeon and bringing him or her into a new world. Imagine a place of safety and light. Draw yourself holding the child’s hand in that place.

To heal from a lifetime of negativity you will need to flood yourself with compliments throughout the day for whatever you manage to accomplishTo heal from a lifetime of negativity you will need to flood yourself with compliments throughout the day for whatever you manage to accomplish. It’s enough to get out of bed, wash your hands, say a prayer, take a shower, eat healthy food, smile at someone, do some act of kindness and notice your acts of self-control. Don’t push for spectacular or perfect, since that just discourages you.

It is inevitable that your inner child will regress at times and begin the old chattering, “What’s wrong with me? I’m really crazy! I made such a stupid decision. How come I can’t get along with everyone?” These thoughts indicate that you need to reinforce your new adult voice that says, “I’m perfect the way I am. I am the child G‑d wanted me to be. I’m doing great, considering what I’ve been through. I don’t compete with, or compare to, anyone. My Creator is my own personal coach. He never leaves my side! He just wants me to be compassionate and self-disciplined, and keep going despite my mistakes. I’m not crazy, just in need of reprogramming. As a child, I adopted someone else’s mindset. They gave me the wrong prescription, and I’ve been looking at the world and myself with a distorted pair of glasses. I can change that!”

It may still be difficult to trust and function at times, but with effort, this inner voice of love will become stronger. If it feels right, have compassionate thoughts for those who couldn’t love. They did the best they could. They gave what they had to give. Because they didn’t know the truth, they could not imbue you with the truth. The truth is that G‑d loves you more than you can even imagine. You are as much an integral part of Him as a ray of sunshine is an extension of the sun. You don’t have to believe this. All you have to do is notice your efforts to be kind and self-disciplined. That’s the best sign of the existence of your G‑dly soul.

Although we are all imperfect, fallible and disconnected at times, G‑d says, “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for Me. I was ready to be found by those who did not seek Me. I said, ‘Here I am. Here I am!’” (Isaiah 65:1).

Welcome your “hidden child” to this new world. Each morning, begin your day by thanking our Creator for being alive. See your new day and opportunities as a way of G‑d saying, “You deserve love. I believe in you—even when you don’t believe in yourself.”