Healing Emotional Neglect: The First Step.
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
“Hey, Mum!” I exclaimed as I opened the door.
I was greeted with silence and frowned.
The house seemed empty and cold and dirty dishes were piled up in the sink. The living room had clothes drying everywhere and dust particles were floating through the air. The TV screen lit up the dark room but it looked like somebody had just left it on. Maybe to watch something before they left for work or school. A dim light came out under a bedroom door. I’d rather not find out what mood lived in that room right now.
I was 14 and it’d been months since she gave up being my mother. Now both my mum and dad might as well be my landlords. They check to see if I’m making too much noise or using too many utilities so they can find more for me to do around the house. And then, make me feel even more guilty and obligated.
I had other “jobs” in the family too. I was there to look as pretty (but as modest as a nun) as I could. I was there to do REALLY well in school (when I got 99.9% on a couple of subjects, I was honestly asked about the .1%). I was there to do what I was told without question. And – I was there to make them look good. I had these 4 ‘jobs’ and it seemed I could never do any of them well enough.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is a psychological trauma that affects children who haven’t received enough empathy, understanding, and affection. These kids are often left to fend for themselves even when things are really tough. They may be actually neglected by their parents or guardians; they may live with an alcoholic parent or their parents might even be unwell physically or mentally.
It is possible to recover from Childhood Emotional Neglect. I have. I have a huge fear of changing. But I did it.
The Bad News: it is important to remember that this process isn’t always easy. The Good News: there are heaps of things people can do to heal Childhood Emotional Neglect.
If you’ve had some Childhood Emotional Neglect (let’s call it CEN from now on) then you might recognise this feeling. The one where everyone else knows something that you don’t?
I always tell my clients that they are enough just as they are – gulp – but I’m going to have to eat my words here and deliver some truth. Some of us just didn’t learn the same stuff that other people did. Especially when it comes to anything social. So you’re right – other people know things you don’t. But it’s not your fault.
Our parents are our first and biggest teachers of social skills in our early lives. If they didn’t do their job properly – then – yep, like with my useless Year 12 Chemistry teacher – we end up at the exam knowing absolutely nothing. This time the exam is being sent out to mix with other people, interact and have fulfilling relationships.
The biggest thing I sucked at, was my relationship with myself. To put it simply, I didn’t look after myself. I had absolutely no idea how to do it. I’d been both over and parented and it was like I’d been spun around in a room and had to find the “look after yourself” door.
Because of this, this is something I try to work on as soon as possible with my clients. I need them to know that the reason that they don’t know how to do some things is NOT because they are dumb or “thick” or stoopid. People say those words to me a lot.
These are skills that other kids learned from their parents. You didn’t. And – these are all skills that are never, ever too late to learn.
If someone has never taken guitar lessons – or even seen a guitar – you wouldn’t think they were stupid if they couldn’t play. Yes?
So – let’s get this party started.
I’m going to let you in on some insider secrets by telling you the 4 skills I teach people really early on in therapy.
All 4 of these skills seem natural and easy to people who got enough gentle but firm love from their parents during childhood.
For the rest of us – we look at these people and are amazed at their ability to look after themselves and stand up for themselves. We’re baffled by their ability to make decisions and by their talent to attract healthy and loving relationships. Magic. I tells ya.
Do you know what the biggest magic is? We can get you there.
Be gentle. Any new hobby or habit or any skill takes time. You wouldn’t yell at a baby trying to walk every time they fall. It’ll take work. It’ll feel really weird. You might even feel like you’re pretending or acting sometimes. This is all fine. Everyone needs time to get new pathways in their brain. And that only comes with practicing skills over and over again.
If you’re stressing that other people will notice that you’re looking like a really bad actor in a really cheesy play. Chill. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Most people are far too interested in how THEY look to other people to worry about you. And all the people who love you will be patient.
Learn one skill at a time. Take at least a few months for each one. Make sure it feels comfy before you move on to the next one. I know you’ll want to charge at them like a bull at a gate. Mostly because you’re dying to fix everything you think is “broken “about you.
But don’t. Please. You aren’t broken. You’re learning.
So – my friend. Today is brought to you by the number 1.
Learning how to look after and care for yourself.
1. You need to put yourself first.
If you were emotionally neglected as a kid, I’m going to bet that your superpower is looking after other people. I know – I’m psychic. Cough.
Now it’s your time. Time for you to start paying attention to your own needs and taking care of yourself. Did I hear you say that’s selfish?
Uh – uh – uh – uh – uh. *I’m Holding my hand up at you*
Back off for a sec and give me a paragraph to explain why you might (are) be wrong.
When you’re healthy and strong, you can give to other people without feeling resentful or drained. Like the oxygen mask spiel in an airplane. Give yourself the oxygen first or you won’t be able to help anyone else. It’s true.
A healthy, strong person can give so much more than someone who hasn’t allowed themselves to rest and refuel.
When you first start to work on putting yourself first, you’re going to cop some slack. And – it can be from people close to you. People get used to things being the way they are. The people around you know that you’ll pretty much always say yes when they ask you for something. The first time you say “No” – they will look a little surprised or perplexed. They could even look a bit pissed off. This is NOT because you are a bad person. It is because something happened that they weren’t expecting. Big difference.
I’d give a few key people a heads up. The people who care about you need to know that you’re working on yourself. They’ve probably told you they should stick up for yourself more anyway – so let them know you’re doing it. They might still get a bit surprised the first few times when you stand up for yourself to them.
They just need time to adjust – this is a good thing. Anyone who genuinely cares about you will adjust with you and will respect you for the work you’re putting in. This leads me to the next one…brace yourself…
2. You need to learn to say “No”.
Annnnnnnnnnnnnnd – strangely enough – I know you’re probably saying “No” to me right now.
No. Nix. No way Hosey. No can do. Never Rebecca.
“I will not say “No”. Selfish, bad, ungrateful, unhelpful, self-absorbed, uncaring, unkind people say “No”. I have to say “Yes”, or people won’t like me.”
People in your life will be very used to you always being there for them and saying “Yes”. They know you well.
They know that you’ll be there for them because that’s what emotionally neglected people do. Your amazing compassion for others makes you feel like you should always say “Yes” to requests from your friends, family, children, boss. And you always have.
There is actually nothing wrong with saying “Yes”. You need to say “Yes” in healthy relationships. You need to say it in life to be able to move forward. But – the problem comes when you know you really can’t do something – but you still say “Yes”.
When this happens, you might end up giving up something you’ll love, something you need to do, or your precious time or energy. All just to say “Yes” to please someone else or so you don’t seem like a selfish person.
Remember this. Everyone has the right to ask you to do something. And you have the right to say “no”.
This is called a Boundary and Boundaries are Beautiful. Boundaries mean you want to continue in a relationship. Setting a boundary with someone means that the relationship matters enough for you to stay engaged. Also, that the relationship matters enough for you to show up as your honest self.
Something I’ve found is that when you do state your boundaries clearly and honestly; no games, no crazy excuses. People will start to respond in positive ways. Hearts know when someone is speaking their truth.
So – let’s start saying “No” when you need to. With no fear, no obligation, no guilt. This is such a cool part of self-care to learn.
3. Ask for Help.
I know – the hits just keep on coming. Big Smile. But remember – we’re working on these one at a time.
If you have any effects of CEN, then you’ll be one very independent puppy. And you’ll pride yourself on not needing anything from anybody.
When you couldn’t rely on the people closest to you as a child, you decided to never do it again. But life isn’t like that. People actually do need other people.
There’s another tricky thing about someone with CEN asking for help. Because they find it so hard to say “No” – they assume everyone finds it hard. Combine this with the fact that they don’t want to upset anyone or cause a fuss. What this witch’s brew makes is someone who never wants to put anyone else in the awkward position of having to say “No”. Or heaven forbid– in the position of feeling obligated to say “Yes”.
Let me stop you right there and tell you something very important. Most people don’t feel guilty saying “No”. They’ll let you know if they can’t do something, and they’ll move on and forget all about it. They even expect other people to say “No” to their requests some of the time. They won’t replay the conversation again and again in their head trying to work out why you said “No”. They’ll accept that you have a good reason, that it’s nothing personal and they’ll go and find someone who can help them.
This is assertiveness. Assertiveness. NOT aggressiveness. Which I’m sure is how you feel it comes across when you try to say “No”.
4. Work out what you do like and what you don’t like.
No really. I do want to know. You want to know. You need to know.
All those things you squashed inside as a kid because they “didn’t matter”. The world wants to know them. They actually DO matter. They make you the amazing individual that you are.
“What do you feel like doing today?”
“Would you rather have pizza or burgers?”
“Do you want to buy this t-shirt in blue or pink?”
“How do you feel about that?”
“What sort of books do you like to read?”
“Do you watch True Crime?”
Those last two – send me an email 😉
Emotionally neglected adults will find these questions really challenging. Depending on how much your parents showed interest in you growing up – you might have certain areas where you know yourself well and certain areas in which you’re mystified.
This is normal.
I have a list of questions I use with my clients. Start with the ones I just suggested. One a day. There is no right answer.
You might have no idea. That’s an okay answer for now. But let the questions rattle around in your head for a while until your brain feels that it is safe enough to answer.
It is safe to have likes and dislikes. It is safe to have needs and wants. Everyone has them. It is part of being human.
And you, my friend, are a human who has gone through some pretty amazing stuff to get where you are right now.
Ah – you thought I’d give you all 4 this week. Tricked ya.
I knew you’d read them all at once and blow your mind.
Be gentle with yourself. Gentle with that brain of yours that did the best it knew how to protect you. Let it take baby steps.
You have all the time in the world.
P.S. Make sure you don’t miss out on the 2nd step by filling in the form below. ⇓⇓