What if there was a reason why we have moments where we feel utterly alone and like nobody understands us?
What if there was a reason why we have a hard time expressing and understanding our emotions?
What if there was a reason why we feel empty at times and feel the need to fill our lives up with relationships, people, sex, drugs and alcohol.
There might be a reason.
The book that opened my eyes was Dr. Jonice Webb’s Running on Empty in which she explores emotional neglect in childhood and how this neglect eventually leads to feelings of inner emptiness in adulthood. This article addresses aspects of her book and explains how the way in which we were taught to experience and express our emotions has everything to do with the sorts of relationships we will have with others and with ourselves.
Emotional neglect is an invisible force from your childhood which you can’t see, but which may be affecting you profoundly to this day. It is about what didn’t happen in your childhood, what wasn’t said, and what cannot be remembered.
Whilst the term neglect suggests physical, psychological and emotional abuse, the truth is that we don’t have to be abused to be neglected.
Being an emotionally neglected individual is not a personality disorder, nor is it a taboo topic that we should feel guilty or ashamed of. It is not even something that we should blame our parents for (unless our parents deliberately inflicted harm upon us). Emotional neglect is common and is mostly invisible.
We are all born into a family template where old behaviours and patterns lurk. They are often invisible and some of them are not necessarily harmful, but they are there affecting us as children and adults. There is no such thing as a perfect family.
I grew up in a fairly normal family environment with hard working parents, responsible older siblings in an average suburban home. I went to a good school and had plenty of friends, participated in sports and hobbies, went on family vacations.
I have so many memories of my childhood—some good, some bad, some just average.
As a teenager I was fairly average, with a few tendencies to withdraw from people on occasion. I had my first relationship, then a few more, each time ending in either heartbreak or feelings of emptiness and loss. I accepted that being a teenager was hard. But the next decade was a little harder, with losses being more profound, sometimes not just emotional but spiritual too.
The emptiness lingered longer the older I got.
So I embarked on some thorough self-analysis. It was obvious I was attracting people into my life for the wrong reasons. And it was mostly because I felt empty and I expected the other person to fill my state of emptiness and loneliness. So I tried to fill that emptiness with things that offered instant gratification; like food, alcohol, socializing, transient encounters and materialistic things in order to mask my insecurity, lack of self-esteem and low self-confidence.
But why did I have these issues in the first place? Why did I constantly feel lonely, confused, in need of something—in need of emotional nourishment? Why did I attract the wrong people into my life; not just relationships but friendships too? I mean, I grew up in a nice home with loving parents, I always had friends and family around me, a roof over my head and a warm meal on the table.
There is nothing in my childhood that I could recollect that would have contributed to these feelings of self-questioning and emptiness. But obviously there was something and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. There was something I was feeling but I couldn’t understand it.
And then I found what was not there, heard what made no sound, and saw what was never in front of me: A completely invisible emotion.
One of the most important things about growing up is one’s relationship to their own feelings. If we grew up in a home where our feelings were heard and encouraged, then we are likely to develop a good relationship with ourselves so that when a feeling surfaces inside us, we don’t just push it away or ignore it, we listen to it and we act on it, no matter how unwelcome or painful it is. But if we grew up in a home where our feelings were not heard, were repressed, overlooked —or if we were made to feel ashamed and guilty for having feelings, then this is the primary basis for feeling emotional neglect.
Sometimes being neglected is unavoidable and inescapable.
We might have been emotionally neglected as a result of our parents working too much, or maybe our parents did not have a good relationship with one another, or one parent abandoned the home, or was widowed or divorced. Maybe our parents had to take care of an ill child or family member. We may also have suffered emotional neglect if our parents didn’t understand their own emotions or how to vocalize them in a positive way. Or maybe they were too young or were not ready to have us.
Maybe we grew up in a house that was over authoritarian or not authoritarian enough. Maybe our parents hated conflict so when a fight broke out between siblings, they would send everyone to their rooms without addressing what started the fight in the first place. Or maybe mum was the child of a narcissistic parent herself and dad had depression or a mood disorder and he didn’t even know it. We might have even had to grow up too fast because our parents were not around as much and we had to take care of our younger brother and sister, or maybe we had to take care of our own parents for whatever reason.
All these factors are the foundation for our emotions and they will determine how we will grow up.
Some factors to consider which mean that you could have experienced emotional neglect.
- We have a hard time understanding our emotions or lack of them
- We feel empty often
- We abuse substances or overeat
- We tend to end up in co-dependent relationships or relationships which hurt us constantly
- We feel like an outsider looking in
- We feel detached from our surroundings
- We feel like nobody understands us and have a hard time vocalizing our wants and needs
- We can’t relate to our child or spouse on an emotional level
- We feel out of place
(These are just a few examples; if you would like to do the questionnaire, I suggest you visit Dr. Jonice Webb’s website.)
We may not feel all of these things, but it is important to see which ones we actually do feel and address them.
When the neglected child grows up, he/she feels confused and responsible for not being happier—and he/she blames themselves for this invisible emptiness.
None of us want to name and shame our parents, especially if they gave us all they could give us considering their circumstances, which is why acknowledging emotional neglect is so difficult. And you may not have been in any of the situations I describe above, but there is a reason why you feel what you feel—and it all stems from the relationship you were taught to have with your own emotions.
No feeling or emotion is wrong, even if it is a nasty one—but what we have to understand is that it is coming from somewhere inside us—and there is a reason why it is erupting inside us.
What we need to learn is to identify and name it, self-monitor, accept and trust in our feelings and then express them effectively. This does not mean that if you are feeling angry that you should commit a violent act. It means that you should listen to your feeling and channel it in an assertive way which involves both empathy and understanding.
Author’s note: Dr. Jonice Webb who I mention in this article has given me permission to write this article and use quotes and links to her website.
Author: Barbara Conrad
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Hernán Piñera/Flickr
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