“What do you think?”
“How do you feel?”
“What do you need?”
“What do you have to say?”
Imagine a child, let’s call him Zachary, growing up in a household in which he is seldom asked the above questions (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). Perhaps his parents are emotionally neglecting him because they have five children and are overwhelmed with getting them all dressed in the morning, much less what they think or feel. Perhaps his father died, and his mother is so enveloped in her own grief that she is barely functioning. Perhaps he has an older sibling who is autistic and who takes up the huge majority of his parents’ attention and resources. Or perhaps his parents are self-centered, and pay attention mostly only to what they think and feel.
The reason for Zachary’s parents’ apparent lack of interest is almost irrelevant. Because whatever the reason, the impact upon Zachary is the same. Since his parents are NOT asking him these questions, he is NOT receiving this vital message in his childhood: Your thoughts and feelings matter.
Think of childhood as the “programming phase” of life. The way our parents treat us in childhood sets up all of the “programs” for how we will treat ourselves throughout our lifetime. If our parents don’t ask us these questions when we are children, we will not naturally ask ourselves these questions as adults. Zachary will grow into a man whose natural default setting is to undervalue and under-attend to his own feelings, needs and thoughts. Zachary will be out of tune with himself. He will have difficulty asking for things, expressing his feelings, and perhaps even knowing his own needs.
In a sense, Zachary is growing up receiving the classic, invisible and subtly conveyed message of CEN: Don’t value or express your feelings and needs. This message is the complete opposite of assertiveness, which calls upon us to do just that. In order to be assertive, you have to:
Having been raised with the wrong message, Zachary will naturally follow his default setting – unassertive. If he is troubled by his difficulty standing up for himself, he will have to make a conscious decision to override the default. He will have to make changes in his basic views of himself and his own importance.
If you identify with Zachary, good news! It is entirely possible to do this. Once you understand what’s wrong and why, you can make a decision to change how you view yourself, and you can learn the skills involved in assertiveness.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how it might be affecting you, see my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Do you have an obnoxious uncle, a surly son, a snide sister or a mean mother?
Few people can hurt us as much as the people closest to us. Usually, that’s family. Most people have at least one family member who is verbally brutal, judgmental or just plain thoughtless. Unfortunately, when we react to the rude comments these people make, our reaction can easily make us look worse than them. Here is a good example of how this can happen:
When I was 22 years old, I went with my friend Jackie to her parents’ house for Christmas Eve dinner. I was a little nervous about going, because Jackie had, over the two years that I had known her, told me many stories about how critical her father was. He had said things to her in the past like, “Well, Jackie, looks like you’ve put on the proverbial Freshman Fifteen,” and “I never thought a child of mine could be as poor at math as you are.”
Jackie had a large family, and dinner was served buffet style. As all of the twenty-some people were bustling around filling their plates, Jackie’s dad said, “Watch out everyone, don’t get between Jackie and the food.” Everyone laughed. That is, everyone but Jackie and me. I was looking at Jackie, as a momentary look of devastation crossed her face. Then she did something extremely surprising to everyone. She dropped her plate of food on the tile floor, and stomped out of the room with a look of impenetrable hatred directed at her father.
Everyone stood in stunned silence for a moment. Then her cousin said, “Wow, what’s with her?” Another relative said, “Man, she’s touchy.” I seemed to be the only person there who understood the background, and that Jackie was not reacting to that one comment. She had finally snapped after a lifetime of putdowns and insults from the man who was supposed to nurture and protect her.
Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to NEVER draw the negative attention to yourself, while still defending yourself. Here is the “magic formula.”
Tip #1: BE PREPARED. Before your family event, it’s important to do some thinking. Try to recall some of the rude comments this person has said to you in the past. What basic theme do they follow? Imagine the upcoming scenario (location, event, e.g., family dinner), who will be there, and exactly what your critic might say in those circumstances. Next, think of some comebacks that you can pull out of your metaphorical back pocket and throw at your critic as needed. Expect a mean comment. It is better to be prepared for something that doesn’t happen than it is to be unprepared for something you didn’t foresee. See the examples for comebacks below in Tip #3.
Tip #2: BE CALM. Vow to stay calm, no matter what. Remember that your critic’s attacks upon you say more about him/her than they do about you. Do not let yourself get worked up. The calmer you remain, the more effective your comeback will be.
Tip #3: BE ASSERTIVE. “Assertiveness” is basically this: Speaking your mind in a way that is not designed to hurt the other person.” Here are some examples of some effective assertive comebacks for situations like this:
“Dad, comments like that are hurtful.”
“Excuse me, that was uncalled for.”
“That’s nice. Real nice.”
“I don’t understand why you feel a need to say something like that to me.”
Tip #4: BE STRONG. The worst thing you can do is let a critical or verbally brutal person hurt you. If you prepare yourself in advance, stay calm, and say something assertive, you will appear unscathed and will earn the admiration of all those around you. Then, when you go home, think it over and remind yourself that this person is attacking you because of his or her own weakness. Don’t take it in. Be Strong.