What is emotional neglect and how do I heal from it?
Emotional neglect is a very common underlying cause of CPTSD and insecure attachment, but one that is often overlooked because it’s hard to identify what was missing from your childhood if you never experienced it.
The book Running on Empty (amazon affiliate link) opened my eyes to just how much my childhood was missing healthy emotional interaction and competent parenting. I knew that I grew up feeling like nobody loved me, that I couldn’t trust anyone, and that nobody was on my side, but I didn’t know what a healthy childhood looks like.
Signs you may have experienced emotional neglect growing up
- You have a hard time trusting that people really care about you for who you are, rather than what you can do for them.
- You developed healing fantasies where someday you would get the love you desperately desired. This could take the form of idealized romantic love, and/or escape fantasies where you leave everything behind, move somewhere where nobody knows you, and start a new life.
- You don’t know why you do the things you do or you don’t know what you want, no matter how hard you think about it.
- You resist being nurtured or cared for as an adult by others. It feels vaguely wrong, dangerous, or that you’ll have to pay for it later. Or, it feels like you are being told you are weak or broken, and you have a defensive reaction of “I can take care of myself!”.
- You are incredibly self-reliant, even to your own detriment.
- You feel like you are broken in some fundamental way, no matter what you have achieved or what your life looks like.
- You feel shame around your needs and wants.
- You feel an internal sense of emptiness and lack of meaning in your life. Life seems like a boring chore, a long pointless march to the grave.
- You avoid people because you don’t know how to interact in a mutually satisfying way, no matter how hard you try.
- You have superficial relationships but guard your heart for no apparent reason, because you’re also extremely lonely.
How to heal from emotional neglect
When we are neglected, we don’t get the mirroring that helps us understand who we are, and we don’t get enough emotional socialization to learn healthy interdependence.
Healing this is a two-part process.
- Develop a loving, kind, nurturing relationship with yourself.
- Develop loving, kind, supportive relationships with others.
Easy, right? No, not really, and I know how hard it is. It’s something that’s going to take time, patience, effort, and energy. And you might not have a lot of energy if you have been running on empty for a long time. But all you can do is take it one step at a time, one day at a time.
How to develop a positive relationship with yourself
There are many approaches to this, but I’ll just list some things that were invaluable for me.
- NVC or Nonviolent Communication. You can find the book on Amazon, but I really recommend going to local practice groups, which will also help you develop relationships with others. NVC was crucial for me to translate my inner critic into feelings and needs. I also recommend Pete Walker’s page on Shrinking the Inner Critic.
- Parts work, also called IFS or Internal Family Systems. There is a free IFS intro course, the book Self-Therapy, and a lot of resources and books available online. But the basic idea is to have a dialogue with the various parts of yourself. I actually just started doing this on my own before I ever heard of IFS, in my journal. The key to this is to relate to your parts with curiosity and non-judgment. Also, Google the term “unblending” as this is a key concept.
- Learning self-validation. This is huge.
Developing self-love starts with a decision and intention to change your relationship with yourself. If you really struggle with self-hatred, I wrote a longer article about the purpose of self-loathing and how to heal.
How to develop a positive relationship with others
This takes practice and time as well, but ultimately healing relational trauma (which is what emotional neglect is), requires us to come out of our self-imposed isolation and trust other people with our heart.
This is something I’m still in the middle of learning, but here’s are some suggestions:
- Join groups specifically devoted to healing, that are trauma-informed. While I have also joined a lot of personal growth groups that are not trauma-informed, your mileage will vary with that. But there are many online communities that have sprung up in the last few years that are devoted to helping people connect with resources for their own healing. I list some on my resources page and am also working on creating my own.
- I don’t have personal experience with this, but many people get value from 12-step programs. There are programs for many types of issues, not just drugs or alcohol dependence.
- Talk therapy is also an option, if you can afford it and find someone who is a good fit for you. Some therapists also offer support groups which can be beneficial.
Whatever places you find that seem positive and good, show up repeatedly, until you start to make connections. Make a commitment to yourself to not give up until you’ve devoted a few months of consistent showing up. Be engaged, post questions, answer others queries.
And while you are there, use mindfulness to notice when you start to shut down, when you start telling yourself stories about how it is pointless, and want to withdraw. Use those triggers as opportunities to work through your fears and patterns using parts work. I’ve gone through many cycles of being overwhelmed and withdrawing, but the important thing is to just come back when you feel up to it. Don’t give up on yourself. You absolutely deserve to be happily connected in a web of support that works for you.