Growing up in an emotionally neglectful household (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN) takes its toll on you. When, as a child, no one notices enough what you are feeling or what you need, you receive covert messages that are never stated outright, but which will nevertheless guide your life going forward.
Silent, unintended, and usually invisible, these messages take root early and well. As you go through adolescence, they undermine the self-confidence and self-knowledge you should be gathering. As you grow into adulthood, they prevent you from making the choices that are right for you.
As you form relationships and fall in love, they prevent you from valuing yourself. As you have children and raise them, they weigh you down and leave you feeling mystified about what you are missing and why.
The only way to reduce their power over you is to realize they are there and how you got them. And to make a conscious choice to stop letting them hold you back and push you down.
Here are 10 lessons victims of childhood emotional neglect learn early on and how these lessons are wrong.
1. It’s not good to be too happy or too sad.
As a child, you naturally had intense feelings, as this is how all children are wired. Exuberant one moment, intensely frustrated the next, you needed someone to teach you how to understand and manage your emotions. But what you got instead was a covert message that your emotions were excessive. What you learned was to dampen your feelings, not the skills you needed to manage them.
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2. You are overly sensitive.
As a child, you naturally felt upset when things upset you. You naturally felt angry when you were hurt. What you needed was to have your upset feelings soothed by a loving parent so that you could learn how to soothe yourself. But what you got was a message that your feelings were a weakness. What you learned was to judge yourself for having them.
3. Your needs and preferences are irrelevant.
As a child, you had needs, just as all children do. You had things that felt important to you, and things that felt good or bad to you. What you needed was for someone to notice, or to ask what you needed or wanted, so that you would feel that you mattered. When no one asked you enough, you learned instead that you don’t.
4. Talking about a problem will unnecessarily burden other people.
Growing up, you had problems with school, siblings, and friends. What you needed was to know that you could talk to a parent, but instead, you knew that they, for whatever reason, could not handle it. What you learned was that others couldn’t handle your problems, so you’d best keep it to yourself.
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5. Crying is a weakness.
All humans cry, and for a reason. Crying is a way to release and process your emotions. As a child, you cried sometimes (maybe often). What you needed was for this to be okay. Instead, your family didn’t know that crying has a purpose, so they ignored your tears or shamed you for having them. Perhaps they never showed tears themselves. You learned that crying is negative and should be avoided.
6. Others will judge you for showing your feelings.
Were you judged for showing feelings in your childhood home? This powerful message has been carried forth with you. “Hide your emotions from others” is the message, “or others will think less of you.” Or worse, they will use your feelings against you.
7. Anger is a negative emotion and should be avoided.
As a child, of course, you often felt angry, as this feeling is a natural part of life. As a child, what you needed was a help to name, understand and manage your anger. Perhaps instead your anger was squelched or overwhelmed by another’s. Maybe you were punished for showing it. What you learned was that anger is bad and that you should suppress it.
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8. Relying on another is setting yourself up for disappointment.
Children need help, period. So do adolescents and adults. As a child, you needed support, direction, suggestions, and assistance. But you could see that your parents were not up to that. What you learned was that it is best not to ask for help in general because you are setting yourself up for a letdown.
9. Others are not interested in what you have to say.
As a young child, you had endless wonder at the world around you. As you grew, you had endless things that you wanted and needed to ask and say. Yet talking was not valued in your family and you were not asked or listened to enough. What you learned is that your questions and words are not valuable and that you should keep them to yourself.
10. You are alone in the world.
As a child, you needed to feel that an adult had your back; that no matter what happened, there was support and help for you. Instead, when you needed something you discovered that your adult(s) were busy, overwhelmed, or not aware. What you learned was that you were all alone.
These lessons all seem so real and so true when you grew up receiving them in such a subliminal, global way. But do not forget that they are merely lessons of your family, not truths. The fact that you learned them does not make them right.
The truth is that strong feelings connect us to ourselves and to each other and that being able to have them is a sign of health and strength.
Knowing your own needs and preferences and expressing them is a key to living a happy, fulfilled life.
That talking about your problems helps you solve them.
That crying is a healthy way of coping.
That letting others see your feelings helps them know you better.
That anger is an important message from your body that empowers you.
That mutual dependence is a form of teamwork that makes you stronger.
That what you have to say is important, and you should say it.
And last but not least, that you are human. You are connected, you are important. And you are not, in fact, by any stretch, alone.
Jonice Webb has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is the author of the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.