It happens when my tween yells at me because her favorite T-shirt is missing. It happens when my husband stalks into the house after a terrible day at work, scowling but saying nothing. It happens when my father calls to tell me I haven’t been checking in with him enough. It even happens when a colleague praises my work or a friend compliments me.
I go numb.
I never know how to respond or what’s expected of me. Feelings glimmer just out my reach, then quickly disappear before I am able to properly identify them. It’s sort of like wiping away the words on a whiteboard before having a chance to read them.
If the interaction is negative, my numbness morphs into anger or shame as I try to defend myself in the face of the rejection I’m so acutely aware of. I wrack my brain to figure out what I might have done wrong. If I can’t pinpoint anything specific, I wind up feeling there’s something essentially defective about me that makes me unlovable and I withdraw.
If the words are kind, I am extremely uncomfortable. I don’t understand why anyone would think I’m wonderful or special. It makes me feel like a big fraud, and I worry people will realize I’m not who they think I am. I become nervous, thinking I need to do something tangible to deserve the positive attention.
I’ve gone decades hiding my overwhelm and discomfort, not knowing why emotional interactions leave my ears buzzing, my stomach hollow, and my heart empty. Connecting with people, even those I know I love, is really hard for me.
Then one day while doing online research for an article, I came across a condition called childhood emotional neglect (CEN). Identified by clinical psychologist Jonice Webb, childhood emotional neglect is “a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.” When that happens, there’s no way for a child to know if their feelings are valid. That lack of validation leads to self-doubt and a negative sense of self.
If you get the message that your feelings aren’t worth recognizing, you probably don’t feel you’re of much value. Feelings become “bad” because you grew up in an environment where they were shut down or ignored.
If you’ve never heard of childhood emotional neglect, you’re not alone. In an interview in New England Psychologist, Webb says, “Psychology overlooks emotional neglect. We lump it in with emotional abuse and physical neglect. It is hard for us to focus on this one thing as a stand-alone experience that has its own validity and its own effects.”
The tricky thing about CEN is that it’s not an active type of neglect. You can’t see it the way you can a child’s bruised cheek or hear their grumbly belly. As a child, you don’t know it’s happening. As an adult, you might not be able to remember specific instances because it was simply a condition of your environment. Childhood emotional neglect is an invisible force that often goes unnoticed until symptoms appear many years later.
Reading through the list of CEN symptoms, I recognized so much of myself. People who suffer from childhood emotional neglect often numb out, feel as though something is missing, and are perfectionists, easily overwhelmed, and sensitive to rejection. Of the 22 symptoms on the questionnaire, I exhibited all except two.
Still, I couldn’t believe I’d been abandoned in some way by my parents. Given my upbringing, it seemed impossible. Materially, I had everything I needed and much of what I wanted. We lived in nice houses, had plenty of healthy food, and enjoyed summer vacations every year. I went to good schools, played sports, and hung out with friends. On the outside, my family looked happy and successful.
Of course, that’s not the whole story. My father traveled a lot for work and was often tired and strict when he was home. I worked hard to be a “good girl,” doing well in school, taking care of my younger sibling, and keeping to myself at home. My mother was a stay-at-home-mom for most of my childhood, but she was very unhappy and was later diagnosed with depression. Some days she never got out of bed. No one asked me about school or how I felt about my friends or teachers or classes. When I went to my friends’ houses and their moms asked about our day, I thought it was weird and intrusive.
Turns out the way my parents interacted with me are two examples of the five different parenting styles that most often lead to emotional neglect: authoritarian and absent. Permissive, narcissistic, and perfectionist are the other three — and there are several more.
When I finished sifting through the description of childhood emotional neglect, I knew without a doubt I suffered from it. I was devastated — no child wants to find out their parents hurt them, albeit unintentionally — but I was also relieved. Finally I had an explanation for the sense of emptiness that plagued me. The good news is, sufferers of childhood emotional neglect can overcome their negative sense of self. Identifying your emotional needs, and believing that you deserve to have them met, is key.
Having an explanation for my emotional challenges gives me hope, not only for myself, but also for my kids. Knowing what I didn’t get and desperately needed as a child makes me very attuned to giving my children what they need emotionally. This is not easy for me. My kids’ emotions are powerful. My instinct is to run away from the commotion and chaos, but I force myself to stay in it with them. I know my kids deserve empathy and love and that even though I’m overwhelmed, I have to do my best to validate how they feel.
It sounds simple, and I’m sure for many parents, it happens automatically. For me, though, it’s a struggle — one I’m willing to go through to make sure my children never wonder about their self-worth.