As I strode to the dental clinic for my biannual visit to the hygienist, I watched helplessly as a father raged at his son, around the age of six, who had banged into the curb with his bike. Yanking his arm sharply, he yelled, “Idiot! I’ve told you a million times to stop short of the curb. You’ll ruin the bike. You never listen! You can’t do anything right!” Then he screamed at his four-year-old for following too closely behind his brother. Heartbroken, I walked on, knowing there was no way I could help them.

I was so happy, upon entering the clinic, to see a father sitting next to his son at the play area, his arm lovingly around the boy’s shoulder as he helped him put a puzzle together.

Children are exquisitely attuned to body languageI soon found a seat across from a mother who was reading a book. Next to her was a thin girl of five or six, in obvious pain, with a swollen cheek and large sad eyes, who barely moved, except for trying every few minutes to snuggle up to her mother in an attempt to elicit some gesture of comfort. Yet each time she did so, her mother jerked her shoulder irritably, as if trying to repel a repulsive bug.

These are three kinds of parenting—the explosive, the kind and the cold—each teaching a different “language of love.” Children are exquisitely attuned to body language. They see clearly that a parent’s face lights up with love around certain people, and tightens with hostility or anxiety around others. Even a newborn is attentive to the parent’s mood and reacts with distress if a parent is unhappy. Research has shown that love, or the lack of it, shapes the brain and produces certain chemicals which cause children to want to bond to others, or to fear people and seek distance. Being loved creates an abundance of “love receptors” in the brain, whereas a cold or abusive atmosphere inhibits production and produces cortisol, which leads to a high level of anxiety. Happily, research also shows that we can create our own “love receptors” and generate more and more of them as we get older!

To discover your own language of love, fill in the blank: “To get my father’s love, I had to be ——.” “To get my mother’s love, I had to be ——.” If you had a healthy relationship, your answer is, “I didn’t have to be anything but me! I was loved for who I was.” But if they did not know how to provide unconditional love, you might write, “I had to be something other than what I was.” Perhaps you wrote, “There was nothing I could do. It was useless.” You might have internalized an attitude of conditional love by thinking, “I cannot love myself because I am ——.”

We can create our own “love receptors” and generate more and more of them as we get olderHow can we do this? First, realize that just as many people suffer from learning disabilities, many are “loving disabled.” If you were often criticized, neglected or hit, tell yourself, “It was not my fault. They did not know how to love. I do not have to continue to reject myself.” As a child, you thought, “I’m unloved because I am not brilliant, beautiful, organized or obedient. I am defective if I can’t please them.” Now you can think, “It was G‑d’s plan that I receive precisely the amount of love that I got, just as the amount of rain that falls is precisely determined by Him.” I have faith that I can learn to love unconditionally. I can focus on the good in myself and others. I can see myself as perfect as I am right now, and at the same time, from this place of loving acceptance, strive to be even more loving tomorrow. I give myself permission to build a self-protective and nurturing environment right now, and praise myself for doing my best.”

Second, look at the strengths and compensations which resulted from your experience. When G‑d rejected Cain’s offering and favored Abel’s, Cain was filled with rage, jealousy and grief. Yet he grew from that experience and turned his life around. Even though Leah felt hated because her sister was “more loved,” she was compensated with six saintly sons, and built a family with fierce determination, despite her pain. Notice the sensitivities that you gained from your pain. Perhaps the father in the dental clinic was determined to be extra loving precisely because he knows what means to be deprived.

Third, adopt a forgiving attitude. We are told in Proverbs (16:2), “All a person’s ways are seen as good in his own mind.” Most parents have no intention to hurt. They truly believe that criticism and force are necessary to ensure that their children will become responsible, popular and successful. When they see a trait which they fear might cause a child to fail in life, they often rely on primitive tactics. Surely, the father of “bicycle boy” thinks he is training his son to be obedient and to take good care of his possessions. He doesn’t realize that his son is thinking, “I’m a stupid failure.” Or, “Rage is the appropriate response to frustration.” No doubt, the mother of the little girl believes that she is acting properly and training her daughter to be independent and undemanding. She doesn’t know that the child is thinking, “People are not supposed to love me. People should be cold and rejecting, since I’m just a nuisance.” Parents don’t know that these thoughts are internalized as absolute, unquestionable truths, and will create a distorted “lens” through which their children will view themselves. Those who rejected you did tried to do the best they could, given their own belief system and childhood programming. Forgiveness helps increase the number of love receptors in your brain! You can be polite and respectful, even if the relationship remains shallow and distant.

It is inevitable that we will meet “loving disabled” peopleFourth, realize that no one can “fix” your feelings of inferiority other than yourself. Your task is to reprogram your brain to believe, “It feels good to be around nurturing people. I am loved, important and valued.” Realize that your worth was already determined by G‑d at the moment of creation! If you think your sense of self-worth is dependent on external factors, you will always feel that you are not getting enough to make you feel “good enough.” It is likely that you developed a “love” for addictive substances as a substitute for a real relationship. After all, “food/alcohol/my computer is the one thing that will never reject me. Unlike people, it is always available, accessible and satisfying.” To those who have no idea what true love feels like, this bond feels a lot safer than a real person who can reject, scorn or snub them. See the addiction as giving you an opportunity to heal yourself by performing hundreds of acts of self-discipline each day, in both thought and action. This is the only way to overcome the shame, fear and guilt of the past.

It is inevitable that we will meet “loving disabled” people. They may be grouchy, critical, nasty or condescending. Catch your “initial reflex” to think, “They determine my value. I cannot value myself unless I get their approval and understanding.” Instead, think, “I will use this event to create love receptors in my brain by loving myself as I am.” Even if you have damage as a result of neglect or abuse, such as depression, anxiety, autoimmune illnesses or self-destructive behaviors, you heal by being proud of your acts of kindness and compassion, no matter how small they might seem to you.

You are as worthy as any person on the face of this earth. Forgive yourself for not being what others wanted you to be—or even what you hoped you could be. Find something to love right now, at this moment—simply by thinking a loving thought about yourself, G‑d, and those who can appreciate your loving heart. Keep practicing. It takes a lifetime to heal.