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.

Finding Your Values: What Are They? How Do You Know?

Values were something I hadn’t thought much about in my youth. I had a lot of opinions and I had a self-righteous streak when defending those opinions, but I never thought of them as values. Or even thought of them in a sense of structure or order. In short, I felt that most of the time I was right, and everybody else needed to catch up. This, as you have probably already guessed, did not win me very many friends. Nor was it a very sustainable way to navigate my life. I burned a lot of bridges being unforgiving. And if I could change it, I would.

But with that said, I feel the best way to atone for past mistakes is to make healthier decisions going forward into the future. And for me, that started with hammering out my basic values.

So What Are My Values?

For me, values are forms of expression that are lived through ourselves, our personality and actions. For example, one of my values is honesty. The simple act of being honest in my day to day interactions is something that is important to me. But this is something that I learned later on in life. And unfortunately, I had to learn this the hard way.

I was likely to say anything that would get me what I wanted when I was young. And later in life as well, I would think nothing of embellishing the truth. This was mostly due to me feeling as though I wasn’t worth the attention or affections of another. I was so use to being left on my own, that I would say just about anything for someone to want to be around me. And what was so strange about how I was acting, all to be seen and liked by others, that when somebody did show an interest in who I was, I was usually clueless. I was so wrapped up in what Brene Brown calls, “hustling for approval” that I was blind to those who would have been good friends.

Pay for Your Ticket

What turned honesty into one of my values was, while I was riding the commuter rail two stops over to the next town on my way to an appointment, I decided that I was going to always pay for my ticket. This seems like a simple decision to make. And it was. Only, before that day I had always looked for a seat with a zone tag on it, hoping to fool the conductor into thinking I had already paid for my ticket.

I could afford the ticket, so it wasn’t an issue of saving the $3.25 that the ticket costs. I was just trying to be sneaky, get away with something because I could. And one day I realized that that is not the type of person I wanted to be. Hiding from a conductor to avoid paying $3.25 seemed childish to me the more I thought about it. So it was this simple decision of always paying for my ticket, where my value of honesty was forged. And as far as values go, this is an important one.

Without it, we wouldn’t have many relationships founded on trust. This was a problem that I kept finding myself confronted with. Most of the people I had in my life, also didn’t have many values. And it wasn’t until I started practicing my values, that I came to know my true friends. And it feels good. Being able to rely on my friends, no matter what : )

My Short List of Values

Okay, so honesty is a pretty universal one. But how do we find out what our values even are if you’re starting from scratch. Much in the way that I started finding what I valued. As with most things when I’m uncertain of what to do, I start a list. And finding my values was no different. Below you’ll find a short list of the ways I want to live my life:

  • Kindness to myself and others, be forgiving, don’t talk badly about others or myself.
  • Physically fit and a healthy lifestyle so I can avoid injury and stay healthy. Another way to care for myself 🙂
  • Patience and calm
  • Women are not sex objects
  • Hard working and take pride in my work. Do a good job whatever I’m doing. Don’t cut corners.
  • Honesty
  • Stay away from drugs. alcohol is okay once and a while.
  • Find the time to relax and take care of myself.
  • Be humble, watch my judgements of people.
  • Stay clean and organized
  • Don’t over consume, less is more.

This list came to be after I had been practicing many of the different components for a while. These are the ways I want to be living my life. It’s also worth mentioning that I adhered to almost none of these values before I decided to make changes in my life for the positive. And it wasn’t easy making the change.

Some Habits are Harder to Break Than Others

My proverbial white whale was “women are not sex objects”. This way of viewing the world was foundational for my younger self. While I was growing up, I received so much negative reinforcement around self worth being intrinsically connected to looking attractive that it was law. So when I viewed women, this was the first criteria I used to decide their value. These were definitely unhealthy ways of viewing my world.

But, it was all I knew. It wasn’t until I finally felt heard with a woman, that I stopped the cycle of objectifying them. And that’s not to say that I don’t still appreciate their beauty, but it isn’t the ONLY qualifying factor now, as it once had been.

Now, regardless of whom I’m talking with or thinking about, they are people first. They have just as much going on in their lives as I do, possibly more. So it’s with this outlook that I come to each interaction and try to keep the judgmental side of me to a minimum. And that’s not always easy. I find myself constantly trying to refrain my thinking around each interaction. Trying not to fall into the old habits I once was so accustom to. And this is something that we learn as we go. It’s not something that’s just presented to most of us, unless we have great role models growing up. Which sometime happens if we’re lucky. Though usually it’s something that’s learned new, each generation.

How do We Cultivate Values?

So if you’re reading this, you may be wondering, “how do I cultivate or find out what I value?” For me, it took a lot of looking at what I was already doing and liking about myself and practicing those aspects. Journaling was something that was invaluable to me in figuring out what my values were.

I enjoy the process of bringing order to things, so making a list in my journal and fleshing out why they are important to me came almost second nature. I say almost, because I first had to find a vehicle for my voice. Writing to me just came naturally.

Finding Your Voice

When you think about the aspects that you admire about yourself, what are they? How do you express yourself in the best possible ways? What do you like about yourself? These are the elements of yourself that you can hold on to and develop into your voice. Maybe you’re good at organizing people and events. What about organizing gives you a sense of fulfilment?

For me, as I’ve said above, I enjoy writing and bring together feelings in this outlet. So journaling and blogging are two of my favorite pass times. But what’s important is, that we find what matters most to us and bring that out in how we decide to communicate.

For example, one of my values is self-care. So I’ve posted about my self-care routines on this blog, as well as a resource list on my notes app that I can access when I need a quick pick me up. I am able to convey my values through what comes naturally to me, my writing. And it’s different for everybody. So finding out how you like to express yourself, or what comes natural to you, is important to knowing how to express your values.

Expressing What You Are

After you’ve found your medium, now it’s time to express what you like about yourself. Do you feel best about yourself when you’re helping others? Or maybe when you’ve taken care of yourself and your surroundings. One of the things that brings me joy is looking at something that’s been designed well.

The clean feel with the warmth of colors and textures that come together to make a house feel more like a home has always held a special place in my heart. And staying clean and organized helps not only our physical space, i.e. if you clean out your fridge after you grocery shop each week, you more than likely won’t have a three week old container of whatever growing mold. But it also gives us the mental clarity to not worry about having to clean out the fridge. And this type of organizational mind space can be extended to other areas of your life as well.

In short, sticking to your values can create more ease in your day to day life. It may not be easy to begin this change to values based thinking and acting, but it will definitely help to create more confidence in how you move through the world.

Finding the Middle

Values are important, because they give us they impetuous to define how and who we want to be. But taken too seriously and you can become rigid and unyielding. On the other hand, if you side step your values when situations become difficult, then they aren’t really your values. So finding a middle ground to balance out being too ridged or too lax is important.

When I was younger, honor was driven into me as one of my values in the most militant way I could imagine. A family member would pull me out of bed at two in the morning and drill into me the importance of being a man. This was terrifying for a child of 8, but I held very close to those values, to the point of being mean and unforgiving to others. This is an example of taking values too far in one direction.

On the other side of the spectrum, in my teens and twenties, I was reckless and had no boundaries. I drank to excess and lived in squaller. I was looking to avoid the responsibility of being an adult at all costs, using whatever means necessary. Now that I’ve matured, I’ve been able to find the middle, where I’ve learned to be forgiving, while also holding to my values without judging those who hold values different from mine.

Don’t Worry You’ll Find Your Way

This was something I wish had been told to me as a child. I was so worried about how to feel belonging, that I didn’t have any values. I was just doing what everybody else was doing, hoping to feel accepted. And all the while not realizing who I was becoming. Spoiler, it wasn’t who I wanted to be. So if you’ve found that you are lacking in some moral center, or want to explore your values some, know that it is totally possible and you are probably already practicing some of what makes you, the best version of yourself.

For some more reading on the subject, my therapist introduced me to the 8 C’s and 5 P’s of IFS. This is a quality list of values that aren’t hyper masculine or gender specific. So they’re perfect for starting out on your journey to discovering what your values are and how to cultivate the ones that look, well, like they have some value to you. And know that it is never too late to cultivate the version of yourself you want to be. All you need to do is get out there and make it happen. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Value” by cameraburps is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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