“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.
People who grew up in households with low tolerance for emotion tend to carry particular beliefs about emotions in relationships into their adulthoods. Below is a good, but not exhaustive, sampling of beliefs that I’ve heard many emotionally neglected people say. Please read through these seven beliefs, and put a mental check-mark next to the ones that you feel are true.
1. Sharing your feelings or troubles with others will make them feel burdened.
2. Sharing your feelings or troubles with others will chase them away.
3. If you let other people see how you feel, they will use it against you.
4. Sharing your feelings with others will make you look weak.
5. Letting others see your weaknesses puts you at a disadvantage.
6. It’s best not to fight if you want to have a good relationship.
7. Talking about a problem isn’t helpful. Only action solves a problem.
When you grow up receiving consistent direct or indirect messages, no matter how subtle, that you should keep your feelings to yourself (Childhood Emotional Neglect), it is natural to assume that your feelings are burdensome and undesirable to others. But the reality is that feelings and emotions are the glue that binds people together. Sharing feelings or troubles with a friend draws them closer and makes you seem stronger. Fighting out a conflict with someone you care about, when done right, is the best way to get through to the other side of that conflict. And talking about a problem has been proven to help people feel better.
Fortunately, not one of the above Seven Beliefs is true. In fact, they are each and every one dead wrong. Subscribing to any one of these false beliefs can set you at a disadvantage in friendships and relationships of all kinds. They will each and every one hold you back from making healthy, solid and meaningful connections with people; whether it be girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, sibling, family or friend.
If you put a mental checkmark next to any one of the Seven Beliefs, it may mean that you were emotionally neglected, in some way, in childhood. If that is the case, it will be vital for you to figure out how you were emotionally neglected so that you can overcome it. Read more about Emotional Neglect: what it is, how it works, how it affects people and how to overcome it throughout this website. Much more information on Emotional Neglect can be found in my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, at Amazon, or your local bookstore. The Kindle version is also available Here.
If you feel you need more help in dealing with this, I hope you will contact a qualified psychologist or psychotherapist to help you attack your false beliefs. If you don’t they may hold you back in every area of your life, but especially in your relationships with the people you care about the most.
“What the heck is wrong with you?”
“You are an idiot.”
“How could you make such a stupid mistake?”
These may sound like nasty, abusive comments that someone might say to his spouse during a major fight.
Actually, they are typical, everyday comments that many people say to themselves on a regular basis. Many of these people would NEVER say anything that hurtful to their spouse or anyone else. These are thoughtful, caring people who would not want to hurt another person that way, because they feel compassion for others. The problem is that they do not have that same amount of compassion for themselves.
Why would a person “talk” to herself this way? I have often found the roots of it to lie in Childhood Emotional Neglect. When our parents don’t teach us in childhood the process of: 1) acknowledging a mistake; 2) figuring out what we can learn from it; and 3) forgiving ourselves and putting it behind us, we have no choice but to become our own internal “parent,” which we then carry forward through our adulthood.
In the absence of a balanced, forgiving parent who holds us accountable, we become our own internal parent. A child-like parent who is excessively harsh.
Attacking putdowns like these can become almost a habit. When you do not treat yourself with the same compassion you have for others, you gradually break down your own self-esteem and self-confidence without even realizing it. You are doing as much damage to yourself as you would if you were living with someone who put you down and attacked you constantly.
If you were emotionally neglected in this way, and find yourself with that harsh internal voice, the good news is that it can be fixed.
Here’s the Reverse Golden Rule: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone you love and care about.
Start paying attention, and catch yourself in your “automatic putdowns.” Consciously put in the effort to challenge those destructive comments, and counter them with more productive one. This does take work, but it is well worth it. And please don’t hesitate to find a good therapist near you.