7 Signs That You May Have Experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect (and How to Begin Healing)
We are wired, from the beginning, for connection to others. Particularly, how we are related to in an emotional sense throughout our upbringing, sets the platform of how we connect to ourselves and to others in the future.
It's easy to see the impact that adverse childhood experiences such as physical abuse, and even emotional abuse have on our relationships. There may be visible scars, in the case of physical abuse, and often there is psychological scarring from both physical and emotional abuse.
Yet, there is something more elusive that happens and is just as harmful and enduring as the pain inflicted from intentional abuse. Emotional neglect is often unintentional, and because it is hard to truly pinpoint when the wounding occurred, it can be difficult to identify and heal from.
While there are several instances of caregivers who intentionally ignore their child's emotional experience, it is often more likely that well-intentioned caregivers either don't notice or are unable to respond to the emotional experience of their child. When this happens, the child is left to make sense of their experience on their own, and because our ability to regulate our own emotions as children relies on our parent's ability to help us....well, you can see how that wouldn't work out.
So what happens instead?
When our caregivers aren't able to notice or respond to our emotional experience, or question our emotions when we have expressed them, they unintentionally send a message that our experience is not valid or doesn't matter. The message we take in is that there is something wrong with us for feeling the way we do, and because our survival requires close connection to our caregivers, we learn ways of becoming more "acceptable." Often, this looks like bottling up or "stuffing" our emotions, or only expressing "acceptable" emotions such as happiness or anxiety, rather than the emotions we have learned were "unacceptable."
We can hold compassion for our caregivers, because it is very likely that they, too, experienced emotional neglect. Without having a model for how to appropriately deal with their emotional experience, they did the best they could with what they had. Even if they tried in many ways to provide you with a better experience than they had, it is possible that they still weren't able to meet your emotional needs. Couple this with the various life transitions such as divorce, employment issues, loss, or illness that may have taken up more of their emotional energy, and it's possible to see how our well-meaning loved ones still missed our needs in some ways.
When our caregivers treat our emotional experience as unimportant, "too much," not valid, or less important than other things that are going on, they are neglecting our emotional needs. Statements such as:
"You're so dramatic./ Quit being so dramatic."
"It's not that bad."
"This isn't worth getting upset over."
"I don't think you really feel that way."
are all indicators that you likely experienced emotional neglect as a child. Being able to acknowledge this is important to your ability to heal.
As an adult, the "scarring" of emotional neglect shows up in several ways. See if any of these apply to you.
You often reject offers of help and support because it is hard for you to rely on others.
Because you learned that others weren't able to meet you in your experience, and you learned to handle things on your own, it very hard to allow others to help you or offer their support now. Even compliments can be hard to take in.
You truly believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with you, even though you can't name what it is.
When your emotional experience was discounted, it left you feeling like somehow you "shouldn't" be feeling what you were feeling....and sense you were, the message you took in was that something is wrong with you. In any given situation, if something feels "off" you always assume it's you, or something you've done.
You are very critical of yourself, and often place blame on yourself exclusively.
This is directly connected to the idea that something is "wrong" with you. Because you believe that in almost every circumstance you hold some fault, you blame yourself and become critical. You're familiar with the inner dialogue of "You should have known better" or "You should have done better." You're more mean to yourself than you could ever imagine being to anyone else, and you often think you deserve it.
You experience low self-esteem.
Your self-criticism eats away at you and it's hard to believe that you are worthy or valuable, let alone to be confident that you are.
You have a hard time identifying your own emotions and values.
Because you had to transform your true emotional experience into something that was more "acceptable" for others, over time it has become difficult to identify what you really feel. Or to be confident in what you like or dislike. You might feel the need to find out how others are feeling to gauge your own experience, or you find yourself second-guessing your decisions.
You often feel guilt or shame when you notice your own needs or feelings.
The messages you received often left you with the understanding that your needs, emotionally or otherwise, were not important, were wrong, or were "too much" for others. Now, every time you do notice your own needs or feelings, you feel the same way. It's an automatic path that has been wired into your brain that keeps you feeling ashamed and guilty about your own experience.
You are very sensitive to rejection.
You've learned that in order to remain in connection to the people you care about, you must be "acceptable" to them. Often, this looks like what is commonly referred to as "people pleasing" behaviors. You tend to accommodate others regardless of the cost to you. Perhaps you say "yes" to things you don't want to do, or you don't share your opinion to avoid conflict. This is because you've learned that your own needs often lead to rejection, and more than anything, you desire close connection to the people you care about.
If these statements sound familiar, you aren't alone and you don't have to feel stuck any longer. It's important to acknowledge your experience with a sense of curiosity, which will eventually lead to your increased ability to be compassionate with yourself. Making sense of your experience is the best thing you can do to begin to experience healing, and eventually, change.
The help of a therapist is highly recommended to begin to unpack all of the ways your experiences have impacted you, but in the meantime, here are two ways to begin your healing process:
Learn to identify and make space for your emotions. Find resources that help you name what you are feeling (take a look at my past blog posts for some helpful information and resources). Take time to freely journal and be curious about what comes up for you. Notice the way your body feels throughout the day and see if you can describe the feelings with emotional language.
Practice identifying your needs and asking others to meet them. You can start small, but it's important to start somewhere. Maybe you need 5 minutes to decompress after a long day at the office- make that space for yourself. Perhaps you need a hug because you're feeling sad, or a phone call with a close friend to share your worries- ask for it. Little steps go a long way when it comes to re-wiring your brain's natural pathways.
Remember that healing is a process, and the most important thing we can do is to continue to "show up" for ourselves when we recognize our needs. We can't change the past, but we can make changes that impact our future, and it often starts with the way we show up for ourselves that makes the difference.
If this information feels like it applies to you, and you would like to learn more about healing through therapy, I can help. Let's start working towards the life of authenticity you want. We'll do it together. Call for your free consultation today.
Think of one emotion that, as you reflect, you realize you have come to understand as being "unacceptable." What emotion is it? Can you think of a time when you were feeling this emotion? If so, how was it responded to and what message did you take in about expressing that emotion to others?
As always, I would love to hear how this information has impacted you, what you learned about yourself, and what you'd like to know more about. Don't hesitate to email me. I read every response.