What does "overcoming" Childhood Emotional Neglect look like?
December 10, 2017 11:41 PM   Subscribe

Through therapy and all that, I've come to the realization that a multitude of the feelings I've always had stem from childhood emotional neglect. All my material needs were taken care of, but my parents were otherwise pretty shitty. I've always had a hard time making friends and maintaining connections with people. I'm ready to start doing the work and attempt to make positive changes, but.. what does overcoming emotional neglect look like? Is it really not too late for me to make meaningful connections with people?

I feel relief that all the feelings I've struggled with throughout the majority of my 30 year life are because of something and not just me being a faulty person. I pretty much hit all the signs of someone who grew up with emotional neglect. I've always felt different, on the outside, like people knew how to "live" and do things and I just couldn't figure it out.

I'm already in therapy doing that piece, mainly trying to get more in touch with my emotions. In particular, I really hope that working on this means that connecting with others will become easier. I've never dated or had many friends, because I just... kind of fear that intimacy and I just don't know... how do that? However, is this realistic? What does healing or overcoming emotional neglect look like? I'm kind of afraid of doing all this work and it will just... lead me nowhere and I'll still be disconnected from people?

Are there any other resources that would be helpful to look at?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
I found this book useful: Running on Empty By Jonice Webb.
posted by matildaben at 11:48 PM on December 10, 2017 [8 favorites]

Two, perhaps useful books.
The first by Pete Walker talks about complex PTSD, and surviving to thriving. Complex PTSD is the effect some of us suffer from our abusive childhoods.
The second is Intimate Connections by David Burns (pdf) (amazon) which is a great resource for practising the things that lead to "making close friends and finding a lifelong partner".

Both of these books are very formative and supportive in understanding and finding ways to ameliorate the effects of an abusive childhood, even one or especially one of benign neglect.
posted by Thella at 2:43 AM on December 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have done this in the last few years, to some extent (most of it was overcoming long-standing depression-related stuff, but a significant component of the depression was childhood emotional neglect/abuse-related).

Intimacy, getting in touch with your emotions and connecting with more people are going to be absolutely key, so keep working on those things inside and outside of therapy.

For me, experiencing unconditional love was transformational. In my case it was a romantic relationship, but other relationships/even pet relationships can be good here. I still spent the first 3-4 years of the relationship questioning my partner's love constantly because I couldn't understand why they'd still love me when I was obviously not perfect (my parents' love was conditional on meeting their expectations, which were high to the extent that they were never realistically going to be reachable, and which did not take into account appropriate developmental stages for children, so I had a lot of baggage around Never Being Good Enough). Sticking with it and learning not to question the love and learning to enjoy the feeling and be able to reciprocate were all important parts of the process.

I'm kind of afraid of doing all this work and it will just... lead me nowhere and I'll still be disconnected from people?
This resonates a lot, as I was in a similar place depression-wise for several years. I had the specific fear that I would do all this hard miserable work on myself in therapy and beyond and then would end up being one of those people who dies of horrible terminal cancer in their early 30s and so what was even the point of doing all the hard miserable work if there was a chance I might die soon anyway? Most of that was depression talking, and since I've been able to make some progress I no longer feel this way at all - even if I died tomorrow it would have been worth it to have been happy for just the last six months alone, because being happy is so much nicer than being depressed all the time.

I think the feeling that there's no point or it's too late is one of those things that is a symptom rather than a root cause, and if you do the work on the other stuff and start seeing some traction from it, these feelings will start to shift too. You kind of have to know what being happy is like in the first place for it to feel worth putting the effort into, and I didn't have any real idea of this until I did a lot of work on myself (I was miserable and anxious most of the time even as a child, see also: Never Being Good Enough). I know it sounds like magic/a leap of faith when you've got no real idea what it's like but it really is good and worth it once you start to experience it.

I also think there's an element of "the best revenge is living well" to this whole thing. I realised eventually that it would be tragic and terrible if I killed myself or lived in misery the rest of my life because my parents happened to be lousy. For ages I felt like my unhappiness was a way of showing them just how shitty they were, and it did actually cause some guilt on the part of the parent who was slightly less abusive (although not enough guilt/guilt associated with the actual cause of my problems to really justify how terrible I felt all the time), but the person who got hurt most by all of this was me. Now I see living well and being happy as triumph. Like, "haha, you were too shitty to raise a child well and that cost me dearly as the person on the receiving end, but damn I am doing well now." My surviving parent is probably going to be emotionally crippled for the rest of their life in ways that seem really sad to me now that I've learnt it's possible to change. That sucks for them but I have a choice and damn it I am choosing my own happiness.

Learning more about your own particular dynamics and the emotional/behavioural impact on you is useful - getting to a place where you can say, "oh, I'm feeling [thing], this is probably because of [shitty childhood experience/parenting pattern]" and be able to challenge the default thought/feeling and be compassionate with yourself during the experience. Just because the people who made you weren't able to treat you well doesn't mean you can't learn to treat yourself with the compassion and kindness you deserve. You don't have to keep treating yourself the way they made you feel you had to be treated growing up. It feels like breaking a rule, to some extent ("well I'm a garbage unloveable person because that's how my parents made me feel and it would be gross and weird to pretend I was a real person worthy of love and stuff"), but there are no bad consequences for breaking it, only good ones. There are no worthy-person police who turn up at your door if they think you're getting ideas above your station; no one except you is going to feel weird and gross about taking steps towards this. Turn down the volume on the judgemental parental voices in your head and turn up the volume on compassionate self-talk.

In terms of practical steps I took to bolster my own happiness, I covered a lot of that stuff in this recent thread, so if you're looking for explicit tips there are some in there.

Finally, there's no reason to feel like this is a horrible secret or you're broken in some way that the majority of other people aren't. Especially as you get older, you'll meet more and more people who can empathise with a shitty childhood and non-ideal parents to some extent. I've found late 20s/early 30s much better for this (I think late teens/early 20s people are more likely to still be emotionally entangled with their bad parents/not see things clearly for how bad they were/still be financially or otherwise dependent on the parents in ways that make it hard to deal with the legacy of being parented by them). You might get more mileage out of sharing this stuff than you realise, especially if any of your trauma is around growing up in a home that looks perfect on the outside but is horribly broken on the inside and no one is allowed to talk about all the things that are wrong with it (*cough*).

There will always be people who believe that creating/giving birth to a human automatically makes you a great parent worthy of respect, but they're wrong and their experience has been limited and you can learn to identify and ignore them. And you will meet people you would never expected to have had a terrible childhood, because they've done the hard work of processing and dealing with it and are now equipped to live their best lives. And you can become one of those people.

You can do this too and it's definitely not too late; as long as you're alive there is no end date on the potential to be happy, no magic age where you tick over it and suddenly it's not worth doing. Sixty happy years or six happy months are both better than feeling empty and worthless all the time.
posted by terretu at 3:15 AM on December 11, 2017 [52 favorites]

Oh that sounds rough. But I hope I’m not sounding too callous when I say, gently: many, many people grow up to be thriving adults from truly terrible, traumatic, abusive childhoods. That at some point, all of us have to realize that we can’t go back and get the love we needed in the past. And that we can’t really depend on other people to give us the love that we need now. At some point, we all have to do that work for ourselves. You have to learn how to give yourself the love that you need.

So I would just work on that: become your own parent, as it were - start giving yourself the kind of things you wish you’d had as a child. It can start with just basic self talk: I deserve to be loved - I am more than the sum of my childhood - I am a good/thoughtful/hardworking/etc. person. And from there, you can assess whether or not your actions align with these values and choose to adjust those or undertake different actions accordingly.
posted by pinkacademic at 6:30 AM on December 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

This may not be an "and then one day everything will be all better" thing, too. I notice you're asking about what it would be like to "get over" your past, which suggests you think that one day you'll, like, have forgotten it or something, or like it was a serious virus.

This may be more like a genetic condition rather than a virus - in the sense that it is part of your past and you will always have it be one of the things affecting you. However, people who have genetic conditions learn to live with them and how to compensate for them - like, say they were born with only one hand; they would learn how to do everything with only the one hand, and would function just perfectly fine with that. Sure, there may be one or two inconvenient moments, but they learn workarounds and fixes and techinques and such.

This may be the same kind of recovery. Therapy will get you better at recognizing "oh, that's why I'm feeling uncomfortable in this present-day situation, because it reminds me of something my dad did. But this person isn't my dad, I just need to remember that." Or "Oh, right, I know how to calm myself down when I'm feeling anxious now, let me do those things."

I point this out to reassure you that even after a long time in therapy, you may still have moments that throw you a little; and that doesn't mean you're failing therapy or anything. It just means that you're a human being who had a bit of a rough patch as a child - but the adult you are now took the brave step of figuring out how to take care of yourself, so you can recover from those moments.

good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:38 AM on December 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

The Body Keeps the Score is a very good book for any kind of trauma or trauma reaction, including childhood neglect. This article has some good excerpts. But besides the underlying discussion, the author talks a lot about different ways of integrating these experiences into yourself - EMDR, yoga, writing, play. There might be one that fits you.
posted by quadrilaterals at 8:18 AM on December 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

It’s not too late for you to have meaningful connections. I’m also someone who was emotionally neglected as a child. The changes come in starts and fits and two steps forward and one step back, but there are more and more moments where I feel a deep sense of compassion, a joyous open hearted ness and a sense of being truly known without shame. I have connected with people I never thought I would have. That’s what overcoming looks like for me. Perhaps it will be even more marvelous for you. Regardless, the journey is just as precious as the destination. Wish for what you do not yet see.
posted by SyraCarol at 5:14 PM on December 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've never dated or had many friends, because I just... kind of fear that intimacy and I just don't know... how do that? However, is this realistic? What does healing or overcoming emotional neglect look like? I'm kind of afraid of doing all this work and it will just... lead me nowhere and I'll still be disconnected from people?

It is absolutely not too late. Therapy is a good start, and your fear can be managed in part by ramping up in baby steps, gradually exposing yourself to increasing levels of social risk.

A lot of intimacy and connection is based on successfully deploying social skills: the ability to read other people, and assess their needs, for example. These skills are harder to develop in a climate of emotional neglect, but they can be developed. Social interaction is not magic. Being observant and compassionate goes a very long way, and there are many tools and resources out there on how to be a good friend/lover/etc.

I suggest that it would be helpful to start by examining your existing ideas and assumptions about interaction and human connection. Get a notebook or start a text file on your computer and think at length about a series of questions:
  • You seem to want to connect with people. Examine that more closely. What do you think close friends or romantic partners will add to your life? Be as specific as you can about what you're hoping for. Someone to share your hobbies with? Sex? Cuddling? Someone to talk to about your fears and hopes? The experience of learning those intimate details about someone else? A travel buddy? The feeling of ease and acceptance and contentment that comes with knowing with absolute certainty that you're unconditionally loved?
  • Think about what you think you can offer to someone else in such relationships, realistically, right now. Are you good at offering affection? How easy do you find it to make conversation? Do you feel at ease comforting people who are sad? Are you a good listener? Are you good at giving thoughtful gifts? Do you have patience when other people tell you about their feelings and interests? Try to be honest about what you could offer to a relationship and, in contrast, what you might want to offer in theory but don't yet feel you'd be able to. It's good to have an idea of where you are and what you still need to work on.
  • When you think about amorphous goals like love, intimacy, and close friendship, what specific tangible behaviours or situations do you identify as markers for those things? What would feel significant for you? Perhaps it would be the ability to admit a fear or vulnerability to another without fear or rejection. Or perhaps it would be someone being willing to admit to you that they'd made a mistake, or ask you for help, or be very honest with you about their opinion on a delicate issue. Perhaps it'd be physical contact (hugs, cuddling) or other symbols like giving someone a key to your apartment, calling each other by first names or nicknames, or texting every day. Paint a vivid and detailed picture of what intimacy might look like for you.
  • Consider your fear of intimacy. Make a very specific list of what you're afraid of. Not just general ideas like 'rejection' but specific examples. The more detailed the fear scenarios the better.
  • Think about relationships you admire or view as successful. You can pull these examples from people you know in real life, or fiction. What do you like about the relationships? Why do you think they're successful?
Introspection like this is hard work and can be exhausting. It's an ongoing process, and expect your answers to these and other questions to change. But it's important to know your own expectations, assumptions, and opinions, because they will influence how you act in relationships and you'll be much better equipped to handle issues that inevitably arise if you understand a little better what is causing you to react and feel the way you do.

When you're starting out trying to meet new people or deepen existing relationships, take it slow. Start in safe settings where it's appropriate. Many people find meeting people online to be easier at first than in person, for example. Or try a context where people are explicitly there to make friends: a meetup group, for example. If intimacy scares you, try something small like sharing something about yourself you wouldn't normally feel comfortable sharing. See what happens. Pay attention to how you feel and work to understand it. And make sure to show interest in others. Practice being a good listener, and cultivating compassion and empathy.

The fact that you're interested in doing this work is probably the best proof that you have the ability to make it work. Good luck :)
posted by Severine at 7:35 PM on December 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

I second Running on Empty. It has many examples of emotionally-neglectful parents - you’ll probably relate to at least one of the stories.
posted by bendy at 9:51 PM on December 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

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