Childhood Emotional Neglect

Here’s another big topic. Childhood emotional neglect is something that has recently been on my radar. But it’s also something that, when I read about what it is and its effects, I identified with and immediately knew what it was. In the family that I grew up in, we never spoke about emotions. But what I think and feel was so damaging about this was, that when we did have an emotion openly, or displayed an emotional need, it was made known that the person having the emotion was just one more cross to be born by the other.

I would later realize that this was my parents’ inability to establish healthy boundaries around how much they are willing vs. able to give. But as a child, this sent the message that it was not okay for me to have emotions. As though my emotions were a punishment bestowed upon those who were in charge of my well being, and not an aspect of being human.

In this post I’d like to talk a little about what emotional neglect looked like growing up in my family in action. And ways that I’m coming to understand what happened to me and how I’m healing from it. Here’s a link to the site that sparked the inspiration for this post. And also, I’m not a professional, these are only my experiences and opinions. If you’re experiencing difficult emotional states, speaking with a trusted professional therapist or counsellor is advisable.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall…

When I was a child, what I remember most about my family was, that they had one look, one affect. And it was of disapproval. Seldom did my family look on one another with loving and caring gazes. If I was happy, I would get a tentative look in response. As if to say, “I see you’re happy, but are you really happy?” And on top of the confusion of not understanding my family’s responses and lack of mirroring to my emotions, I felt as though there was something wrong with me.

Their constant, judgmental stares reinforcing my deficiency in some way. So every time I had an emotion, I felt compelled to seek my family’s approval. “Is this right? Am I feeling this right?” was how I felt most of the time, in regards to how I was feeling emotionally. This would also play out in my relationships with women, later on in life. More on that later. But with this type, or rather lack of mirroring of emotions, I was left not understanding how I felt about pretty much anything at any given time.

My emotional world was a confusing maze, thanks to the emotional neglect I had been through. And one I had no map to navigate. So I drifted. I floated from one relationship to the next, one set of circumstances to another, without direction. What I was looking for was a place to feel accepted and approved of mostly. I think I was also looking for someone to tell me how to feel. But that was a lesson that was still on its way.

Choosing Relationships not Knowing How I Felt About Them

Relationships are difficult to understand when you don’t know how you feel about them. The best way to describe the experience is, that I was so afraid of not belonging, being accepted, that I was in survival mode for most of my life. Fear was the number one emotion in my world, and something I knew well. So when it came to choosing a relationship, I went along with whomever was going to tell me how and who to be.

Due to my emotional neglect, I had no idea what was expected of me in a relationship. Or even more importantly, I had no idea what made me happy in a relationship. So I chose people who, in no uncertain terms, would tell me how to be accepted by them.

In these relationships, I spent a majority of my time sedated with alcohol while letting my S.O. tell me what she expected from me. I had successfully created a space where I could exist in a sort of half numb state, where I didn’t have to live my life or take responsibility for who I am or my emotions. I was so busy being what everybody else wanted of me and feeling that I was a burden in some way, that I had no idea what I was feeling emotionally or who I was like. This was confusing.

When Fear is the Glue that Binds

And what held me together in my relationships was mostly a sense of fear. Fear of being abandoned and left alone. A fear of being judged bad or not worth being with and feeling shamed for it. The emotional neglect I endured had left me feeling so much fear, that I was paralyzed in my emotional body. Frozen solid. Too afraid to wake into the reality of what my thoughts and feelings were about who I was.

This did not bode well for my relationships. I was acting against my better moral judgement by treating women like sex objects, as well as writing people off while acting incredibly arrogant. And all to make myself seem “acceptable” as a certain type of man. The type of man I had modeled for me and was suggested for me to be, when I was a child. Needless to say, the types of women I was attracting were not women who were best suited to who I actually wanted to be.

Being Sensitive as a Man in a Relationship

Because under the arrogance and pettiness, I was a super sensitive, thoughtful and caring, hopeless romantic, who was terrified of the ways I was behaving. I was rejected by my family, for who I was, so many times that I tried forcing myself to be as they implied and modeled for me. But this was also how I came to be my own abuser.

By freezing and numbing my emotions, while behaving the ways my family did that terrified me as a child, I had become my own abuser. And in turn, I chose women who craved this type of man. Emotionally neglectful and abusive. Time and time again I would choose relationships that left me feeling worse while I was in them. Too afraid to be my sensitive self due to the fear of being rejected or torn apart for having emotions that weren’t “manly”. So I numbed them to fit into the mold of who my S.O., friends and family wanted me to be.

We were repeating the patterns of emotional neglect, from my family, in my romantic relationships. All for the sake of “fitting in” with the people I had come to fear. This was unhealthy. I wish that I could say that there was a defining moment, one where I woke from this fear and started living a life more true to my emotions. But there were some dramatic events that coincided with my awakening.

Waking from the Fear & Emotional Neglect

I drifted through my relationships and most of my life, until I was married in my mid-twenties. Our relationship wasn’t terrible by any means. We were amicable to one another and pleasant most of the time. One day, my now ex-wife came to me and said that we felt more like roommates than a married couple. Looking back now, I understand more clearly what she meant. And she was correct. But I was so numb at the time, that I couldn’t tell the difference.

My family members had acted much the same way as I was acting, so it just seemed natural to me. But what I realize now, what was missing from our relationship was, a felt sense of affection for each other. Sure physical attraction, but more the type where you would lay in bed and talk and cuddle. Being open in emotions and thoughts while being physically close. What I missed when she brought this up was, that these were the questions that would have lead to more intimacy.

But I was much too scared to be intimate in relationship then. I’m only now realizing that intimacy comes after overcoming your fears of being close to another, not before. I first needed to learn to feel safe in relationships with others, before I could be intimate with another. These lessons are usually learned with family in childhood. So in order to feel safe in relationship, I went back to where it all began. To my family.

Safety with & Among Those Closest

After my divorce and the break up of the relationship which immediately followed my marriage, I had no choice but to move back in with family. What made this move so difficult was, that I had been so thoroughly neglected by this family member, I was terrified to get anywhere near them. But I stayed.

I stayed and learned how to take care of myself, but also and more importantly, I learned how to allow myself to be supported by those I was with. I had been so used to do things my way and Feeling Supported By Communicating

And it’s during these interactions where we’re collectively reversing the emotional neglect that we had all experienced in the family. The more often we connect, the more comfortable we all feel with asking each other more and more questions. In the family of my youth, there were no boundaries. Family members would root around in one another’s belongings to try to find something, anything that was being hidden from them.

It turns out that all we were hiding from each other was love and trust. What we wanted to know, we didn’t trust that the other would be honest with us if we asked. Due to us feeling as though we had to be secretive about ourselves and our emotional states for fear of being torn apart. Fast forward to family dinner Fridays and we’re communicating more open and honestly than we ever have.

We’re concerned about each others well being. We share things we find that we think will aid each other. We’re creating community by being honest and open with our emotional states. And this is what we were missing all along. Because we were too afraid to be our authentic, sometimes scared, vulnerable selves around each other, not knowing or realizing that whatever happened we would and could be there to take care of ourselves. Care we could then extend to each other.

Finding Your Connection

I recognize that my situation is unique. Not everybody can go back to a fearful place and make a fresh start. And it was a lot of hard work on my part too. It’s not as though our connection didn’t have its difficulties. But what made it possible to reconnect again was an open mind and staying in the discomfort. Knowing it’s going to be hard but staying anyways, that’s what helped us to create tighter bonds with each other.

Emotional neglect in relationships is not easy to overcome, but it’s also not impossible to either. If you’ve found yourself relating to some of what I’ve written, please seek help. Feeling alone and isolated are two major parts of emotional neglect. And the longer we live with these feelings, the more difficult it is to come back from them. Reaching out to a professional can be a great way to open the door, if only a little bit, to start letting people in again.

Because it is in relationship where we really come alive. The love and trust that we share is life blood to our relationships. And our relationships with each other can be so rewarding. I also find that it helps to think the best of others as well. Not everybody is out for themselves. There are good people out there doing good work. It’s our job to be that person and recognize it in others. Good luck on your journey, and know that you are not alone. Peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Broken Mirror” by Rakesh Ashok is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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