Wrong: When Emotions Go Neglected

Emotional neglect.jpg

Meet Becky*, a high-energy mother of four. She earns a mid-tier income at her part-time job, runs a tight ship at home, and her children look neat and clean. From the outside, it’s the perfect picture, but peeling back the surface reveals a discordant reality of anxiety, self-doubt, and consuming guilt.

Becky feels like there is something wrong with her. She doesn’t know why she is not happy, but she is utterly miserable. She is harshly critical of herself and spends large portions of time and energy blaming herself when things go wrong. Her self-recrimination is ruthless, and she speaks to herself in a manner in which she would never speak to others.

Becky cannot understand why she is in so much pain. She feels as if it’s wrong to be unhappy when she and her family are healthy, have a robust income, and everything is truly okay. It’s as if her outer life and inner life just don’t match.

Becky’s case is not unusual. Often, successful adults can feel a deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction, sadness, anger or anxiety. These feelings don’t seem to match their outwardly successful life, and the sufferer often blames herself for feeling that way, thinking, “There must be something wrong with me. I have no right to be miserable when everything in my life is perfectly fine.”

In Becky’s case, the pervasive unhappiness prompted her to contact a psychotherapist. Becky didn’t know what exactly was wrong, but she’d had enough.

“I don’t want to live the rest of my life this way.” she said. “I just can’t stand it.”

After several sessions of therapy which were spent exploring Becky’s history, a pattern began to emerge from Becky’s childhood. Although Becky knew that her parents were well- meaning and that they loved her, she came to understand that while her parents had taken care of her physical needs, her emotional world was ignored - and often actively quashed.

For example, during the pre-holiday season, Becky’s mother began shopping for the children’s clothing and planned to buy matching outfits for everyone. 11-year old Becky had other preferences. “I don’t want to wear the same outfit as my younger sisters.” she told her mother before they left the house, “They’re so much younger than me. Why can’t I wear what I want for once?”

Had Becky’s mother been attuned to her daughter’s emotions, she might have responded in this way:

“Hmm, it sounds like you want to pick your own outfits this year. That makes sense to me. After all, you’re older so you want to look older... what girl your age wants to be matching to their little sisters, anyway?! Let’s find something different for you this time!”

What actually happened was that Becky’s mother shrugged off her daughter’s preference.

“Oh, come on,” she snapped, “You kids look adorable when you’re all matching. This is the way I like to dress you. Don’t be a complainer. C’mon, let’s go, it will be fun!”

Becky’s mother had not only resisted Becky’s request, but she had invalidated the feelings behind the request. She shamed and recriminated Becky for voicing a preference. This was just one example of a pervasive pattern in Becky’s mother’s parenting: meeting her daughter’s physical needs, while neglecting to attend to her emotional needs.

How Does Emotional Neglect Affect Children?

When a child’s emotional needs are chronically neglected, the child internalizes the idea that having feelings is wrong, and any demonstration of feelings must be suppressed. The child will struggle to tamp down his/her emotions. This creates inner confusion for the child because people are wired to experience, process, and communicate feelings.

Adults who live through childhood emotional neglect will present with a constellation of symptoms listed below. Although we might all identify with some of the feelings on this list, people who were emotionally neglected have a significant struggle with these problems:

  • Feelings of emptiness

  • Unrealistic self-appraisal

  • Alexithymia

  • Self-blame

  • Difficulty nurturing oneself or others

  • Feeling that one is essentially flawed

  • Feeling shame over common human flaws

  • Ability to be compassionate towards others but not toward oneself

  • Poor self-discipline

  • Unable to depend on others and must be strictly independent

Is it the Parent’s Fault?

No parent can ever be perfect nor are they expected to be. Even the most well-meaning parent occasionally neglects or fails to meet their child’s emotional needs. Parents are human and sometimes their own needs, or the needs of others, get in the way of giving a child the emotional support and connection that the child craves and needs in order to acquire a sense of self.

A significant problem develops only when the child is consistently deprived of emotional support and validation. The goal of tracing patterns of emotional neglect is not to place blame on parents, but to find the source of suffering so that healing can take place.

While emotional neglect is debilitating to a child and can have long-term effects, identifying the problem is not a blame game. There are many reasons why good parents who provide well for their children’s physical needs neglect children’s emotional needs:

Emotional neglect can happen If:

-parents have been emotionally neglected themselves

-parents have experienced trauma

-parents are coping with a mental health issue, chronic illness or other crisis

Parents do not have to be perfect. They just have to be good enough.

The Good Enough Parent

Renowned pediatrician, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Donald Winnicott coined the term “a good enough mother”, a phrase which implies that the mother (or primary caregiver) does not have to be perfect, just “good enough”.

A good enough mother meets both the physical and emotional needs of her child. Good enough parents provide the child with enough empathy, connection and attention so that she grows into an emotionally healthy and emotionally connected adult. When a parent is attuned to the child’s needs, the child feels seen, understood and most importantly, accepted and validated. This parental attunement to the child is essential; it help children recognize their innate value and worth.

A child who has her emotional needs met most of the time is robust and tolerates occasional neglect. However, if the parent fails to be sufficiently attuned, the child like Becky, grows into an adult who may appear outwardly successful but doesn’t feel that way.

The Road to Recovery

The most challenging task in finding one’s way out of the pain and disconnect is identifying that emotional neglect has occurred. Unlike physical neglect or abuse, there are no glaring signs. This is because emotional neglect, unlike trauma, is invisible; there is no significant event embedded in the person’s memory. Instead, the effects of emotional neglect linger in the unconscious, and the pain remains unprocessed. As a result, people who have experienced this suffer through the symptoms described but have no idea why they feel the way they do.

Those who have been emotionally neglected have “learned” that having feelings is wrong and any demonstration of feelings must be shut down. In order to heal, these lessons must be unlearned, and be replaced with new learning: how to experience, recognize, and process emotions in a healthy way. Therefore, working with a therapist is helpful.

While every recovery is unique, most people will go through a process that includes all or some of these steps:

  • Tolerate/accept feeling the emotion

  • Identify and name emotions

  • Validate and confirm that is healthy and acceptable to experience this emotion

  • Understand the emotion and why you are feeling it

  • Decide whether you need to take action or not

The good news is that most people can and will improve their ability to connect with themselves and others, as well as increase their overall sense of happiness and well-being. Most importantly, they can learn self-compassion.

Those who were emotionally neglected often report that effective therapy teaches them how to re-parent themselves. In the process of healing, self-criticism gives way to self-acceptance and most people will learn to relate to themselves with love and compassion. As people recover, they will recognize that it is okay to depend on others sometimes.

During therapy, the adult comes to understand her feelings, and more importantly, feels validated-the very essence of the unmet need in childhood.

If you think that you may have been emotionally neglected there is hope. You do not have to endure life-long suffering. Therapy can help you understand all of your confusing and painful experiences and discover a way to have the happy, balanced, and comfortable life you want. Finding the courage to reach out is the first step.