The Emotionally-Neglected Child

emotional neglect

I’ve been reaching deep down into my past to uncover some unpleasant realities that have had a harmful effect on many of my relationships throughout my life.

First, let me say…I was, for the most part, a happy child and was certainly well-loved by my family. So, it’s difficult for me to admit that I was emotionally-neglected, even in a not-so-overt way by my loved ones. However, it’s something that has just surfaced in my individual counseling sessions so I’ve been diving into these long-buried feelings.

I recently finished Dr. Jonice Webb’s book “Running on Empty,” which covers Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN. The entire time I was flying through it reading the different scenarios or “vignettes” as the author calls them, I thought to myself, “This is so me!” This is a large, complicated topic and I will admit that I am not a trained psychotherapist so don’t take any of this as advice. These are just my reflections on a very small aspect of this issue and it’s an integral part of the work that Brett and I also are doing in couples counseling.

I know there are going to be friends of mine out there who know my family or even relatives of mine who are going to say, “Oh, you’re just exaggerating. Your life wasn’t that bad.” But here…let me give you an example…

As you know, I was adopted. My adoptive parents were significantly older and already had grown-adult children by the time I came into the picture. Yet, when people would recognize the huge age difference and say something to my mom, she would jokingly answer, “Oh, we just picked her up in a dumpster somewhere.”

When I was a kid, I thought, “Oh, that’s just a cutesy remark.” And, I whole-heartedly knew that they didn’t truly pick me up while dumpster-diving. Yet, subconsciously, the child in me was thinking, “I am truly a piece of garbage in someone’s mind. How can I ever be worthy of love?”

My mom had a way of saying everything on her mind, even if it was hurtful. I took it that she was just outspoken, independent and strong. But in truth, it really was a way of controlling everyone around her, a way to make things fit the mold that they needed to be in.

It’s hard for me to admit this kind of thing about my mom. I loved her and thank her and the rest of my family for giving me such a great life full of choices and opportunities. Still, they were not in-sync with my own personal emotional needs.

We didn’t talk much as a family. We rarely had conversations together, like “How was your day at school, honey” or “I notice that you were really upset, do you want to talk about it?” When I wasn’t at school or extra-curricular activities or with friends, I spent a lot of time alone. Reading books, newspapers, encyclopedias. Escaping into fantasy worlds. I would write a lot because it helped me get things out of my brain that I wouldn’t dare tell my family because I thought I was going crazy. A part of me always felt like an outsider.

I had to learn to be very independent at a young age. I learned way too much about the medical field as a kid, reading the PDR and Merck Manual. It’s probably why my dad is so disappointed in me that I never became a doctor. But, I would fetch my mom’s pills in the morning before school, knowing how many for each dose. Or, when my mom got really sick and was stuck in bed while I was early in college, I learned how to change her catheter and flip her so she wouldn’t get bed sores. I spent way too much time in ICU’s when my dad had a heart attack or an internal bleed. I’ve calmly called an ambulance way more times than I care to remember.

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of some of these feelings. I’m angry at how my parents who were in the medical field and were busy caring for other people for so long could have been so out-of-touch with their own child’s needs. They didn’t realize that I was just a kid and let me do kid things. I’m angry because we never talked about how we truly felt and now I have issues with deciphering my own emotions for situations. People say I’m very empathetic. However, when it comes to me, I push my feelings aside. I want to please everyone else so I avoid the feelings that hurt or I don’t truly let people know that I do/don’t want to do something. I’ve learned to accommodate others but not myself.

There are just so many dichotomies in all of the emotions flooding the surface right now that I’m filing through and trying to make sense, make some sort of peace. I know it’s not going to come overnight. I know it’s going to take a lot of work. But, I want to change and I want to become a better person who is more in-touch with my feelings, my needs and my wants.


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