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There are many people who carry within them a lonely, empty feeling that they will never get the love they need.
In my own therapeutic journey, I felt like something was missing, but was never really sure how to describe it. Others have described the feeling as never knowing what it means to be loved.
What I learnt over the years is that many people believe that they will be alone forever. Sometimes this is carried as a belief so buried underneath the relationships they do have, that they will never truly be seen or understood by anyone.
Sometimes, these same people find themselves in relationships but are disconnected, detached, and feeling like they are still all alone. They might also feel ashamed of their own neediness—the insatiable craving to be filled.
Emotional deprivation is what an emotionally neglected child feels. As a child, the parent or parents were unable to tune in to the child’s emotional needs. The lack of attunement resulted in an inability to respond adequately to that child’s emotional needs.
For those of us who grew up like this, we often had well-meaning parents who did provide for our material needs, and we were often not lacking in comforts, but never really considered or heard or seen when our inner world felt heavy to process by ourselves.
What we needed was understanding and emotional holding as we experienced our losses, discomforts, pain, and suffering. To be held and protected, so that our inner world wouldn’t feel so distressing and overwhelming. You may even have felt that they were too busy with work and their own activities to have time to look at you, look into your aching heart.
Emotional neglect, when it is subtle, can be extremely difficult to recognize. For a child who has repeatedly been unheard, or where there was no attempt to be understood from caregivers, they grow up feeling unseen, like their feelings are unimportant, but more importantly like they are unimportant.
I don’t know about you, but I feel moved to bring that child closer to me. Yet those same children are met with cold and unaffectionate parenting, and might not even be adequately held or soothed. Parents are often time-poor and provide limited attention.
Maybe as an adult, you have wondered, “Who can I depend on if my emotional wheels fall off?” or “Who is my person?” I know I often asked myself that question in significant relationships: Can I truly depend on you?
In Schema Therapy, if you were able to identify with more than five of the following statements, then you are more than likely to have a schema called “Emotional Deprivation”:
1. I have never felt emotionally supported.
2. I don’t expect my emotional needs to be met in relationships.
3. I haven’t had anyone to rely on for advice or guidance.
4. I don’t really understand my own emotions or needs.
5. I feel like there is a void in my life—something is missing, but I’m not sure what.
6. I haven’t really felt special to anyone.
7. I rarely share how I feel with other people.
8. For most of my life, people have not been there for me emotionally.
9. In my childhood, feelings and emotions weren’t acknowledged.
10. My parents were emotionally distant when I was growing up.
Emotional deprivation is not just the feeling that something is missing—it simply was never there to begin with.
So how does our childhood emotional deprivation affect our intimate romantic relationships?
Most people who have suffered emotional deprivation avoid romantic relationships altogether, or they stay in them for only a short period of time. Alternatively, those who do end up in a relationship are usually with someone who is emotionally unavailable or someone who is physically there, but emotionally cold.
These people often surrender to their loneliness and never speak up about their needs. They also are the givers and work really tirelessly, catering to everyone else’s needs, hoping that they will be seen. There are also others who demand that their emotional needs be met, and often attack when they feel that they are asked to consider the needs of their partners,
The story of your childhood simply repeats itself. The belief gets cemented: “See you are still alone.”
Here are some common complaints from adults in emotionally depriving relationships:
“I don’t feel like she even has time to listen to me.”
“My partner usually gets angry and accuses me of being too needy when I ask for what I need.”
“I feel like I’m too much for him.”
“I can’t remember when last I’ve been kissed or held, not just for sex.”
“My husband is available on his terms.”
“She gets upset with me, stops talking, and grows cold and distant.”
“I feel like I’m always the one running after her for connection.”
“The more unavailable and distant he becomes, the more I love him and want him—I’m obsessed with having him.”
“I give more than I receive.”
The beginnings of my own romantic relationships were filled with closeness and then unavailability. I never understood why they felt so intensely filling and then intensely lonely. I also have heard so many saying, “This is it; it feels so amazing,” but not too long after, it feels intensely confusing and painful too.
If your lonely, neglected childhood has continued into your adulthood, then the answer to your void lies in understanding what to do with that emotional deprivation, and what you could possibly do to change the story.
We want to change the story and have more emotionally satisfying relationships. Why? We yearn for connection, and we grow by having our emotional needs met. It is the life force, the energy that sustains us.
What I have gained over the years of my own therapy, through ending destructive and unsustaining relationships, are set forward by Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko:
1. Understand and connect with the deprived child in the “there and then,” and learn to listen attentively.
2. Monitor your own feelings of deprivation in the “here and now.” Get connected with your needs for nurturance, empathy, and guidance.
3. Review your past relationships, and really identify the patterns that keep being repeated. You can even focus on the relationships outside the romantic ones that are really important to you.
4. Avoid cold partners who generate high chemistry—there needs to be more than just chemistry that sustains the relationship.
5. (My personal favorite) When you find a partner who is emotionally generous, give that relationship a chance to work by asking for what you need and sharing your vulnerability. Give healthy relationships a chance.
6. Never demand that your needs be met—that’s not the basis of a healthy relationship, and don’t attack or shame your partner for expressing their needs. Narcissists, who experience emotional deprivation, do this all the time and avoid their own vulnerability.
None of these steps are easy ones, and they all require a commitment to change and working through genuine but truly vulnerable aspects of your past and present experiences. We are not meant to journey alone.
I know that finding a therapist who is committed to your healing and recovery can be tainted by your belief that nobody will ever get you. What I have discovered is that once you find that space, it is a sacred holding—by a professional who themselves are responsible to do their own inner work.
We never have to live empty and alone—that was never our destiny to begin with. We need emotional connection and intimacy, and there can be nothing richer and as wonderfully soothing than to be wholly loved.
Another excellent one by Giselle: 4 Mindful Choices for Getting Unstuck from our Emotional Sh*tstorms.