I am a victim of childhood emotional neglect. I grew up as one of the younger children in a large family. My mother, a child of Holocaust survivors, was withdrawn and non-communicative throughout my childhood. She provided us with physical nourishment, the way an orphanage would provide food and shelter for their charges, but offered nothing in the way of emotional support, nurture, care or concern. As for my father, I believe he tried the best he could, but between struggling to put food on the table and pay the bills, he was out most of the day. Exhausted from trying to support us he was rarely available. Every so often we did catch glimpses of his warm, caring personality, but by and large he was emotionally distant and disconnected from our lives. My daily struggles were mine alone. No one ever hugged me. No one ever kissed me. No one ever told me that I was loved. No one gave me guidance. There was no “Good morning” when I woke up or a smile when I returned from school. No one asked me how my day was because no one cared. I made my own lunches starting in the first grade and did my own laundry the following year.
No one helped me with my school projects or instructed me on correct social behavior. No one was there for me when I was depressed because I had no friends. I suffered in silence. I was completely neglected in the emotional sense. As a teenager, I had no curfew. No one cared how I dressed, what I watched, what I did or with whom I associated. No one even cared about my grades. I was on my own.On my wedding day, I was hoping beyond hope that my parents would use this momentous day to display emotion toward me, and finally tell me that they love me and that they are proud of me. Another disappointment. My parents didn’t tell me they loved me or wish me good luck in my marriage. It was all very matter-of-fact. My parents didn’t help me set up my first apartment. My kitchen utensils were purchased at the dollar store after we got married. Begrudgingly, my mother paid for a few necessary items to set up a new household. Because I physically had parents, my extended family thought it unnecessary to offer emotional support.
Worst of all, I had no identity. My parents didn’t enlighten us about our strengths, nor did they help us identify our talents. I grew up hearing only about the strengths of others. I didn’t know what I liked, what my tastes were or who I was. I had no idea what I was good at. In therapy, I described my inner world as “empty, as if I were a battery with no charge, leaking energy.” My inner child was “limp; her lips are pursed. I can’t get her to smile.” It was then that I discovered a newly-published book by Dr. Jonice Webb entitled Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It precisely described my feelings, my actions, my struggles and my challenges. My story was a cookie-cutter case of childhood emotional neglect. It was such a relief to know that my pain had a cause, and a very real yet difficult recovery program. From the book, I learned a technique that helped me to identify my feelings, accept them without judgment, attribute a cause, and take action when appropriate. A main symptom of emotional neglect is not feeling, accepting or even understanding our basic emotions, since they were never identified, nurtured or cultivated as children. Telling someone not to feel the way he does is like telling a small child not to be afraid of deep water. Instinctively, the child understands the danger and will protect himself.
Denying or repressing emotions, even “bad” ones such as jealously, anger, guilt or shame, causes us to “drown” in emotional pain. I used to feel uncomfortable when one of my children cried when we went to the orthodontist to have her rubber bands changed. I would tell her, “Please don’t cry, it embarrasses me.” Now I say, “It must be scary to have your bands changed. You’re probably upset because you don’t know how long it will take or how much it will hurt. It’s okay to cry; it’s normal. Crying is a human emotion. It shows that you’re human.” Now, all the hurt that people dished out to me, which I internalized and transformed into a negative self-concept, is beginning to come to the surface. Instead of internalizing all the pain, I’m learning to say, “What they did was very hurtful to me.” Internalizing other people’s negative messages without understanding and redirecting them was a main cause of my misery. In some ways I’m like a two-year old, a toddler first discovering the world and which things make me happy and which things don’t. I’m beginning to learn to say no to requests without feeling guilty, and to not make myself into a shmatte in order to please everyone. Each time I say no I feel exhilarated. For the first time in my life I am learning to put myself and my needs first! I am a person. I have needs. And it’s okay for me to assert them. My purpose in writing this article is to bring the issue of childhood emotional neglect into the spotlight. Those affected by it generally pass it down to their children, so it’s up to us to nip it in the bud.
In one therapy session my therapist asked me what I would have liked to have been told when I was a preteen. I replied, “It would have been really nice to hear, ‘You’re so special to me. I am so happy that you are in our family. Our family wouldn’t be the same without you. You’re perfect just the way you are.’” Now, my kids get that message from me as often as I can give it!I always wanted to give my children the love and acceptance I never received, so I desperately tried to express what would appear as love, based on what I thought I would have liked said or done to me as a child. It is very difficult to give something you didn’t get. Since beginning therapy, I have become much more in tune to my children’s emotions, accepting, validating and exploring feelings. I used to be afraid of emotions. I used to use the phrase “I love you” without really feeling it, because I didn’t fully understand the emotion. I also used to try to force independence on my kids, just as I was raised. Now I bend over backwards to demonstrate any form of love to them. I inquire about their day, what happened, how it made them feel. I take them out when they look sad; bring them their lunch if they forgot it at home. I look them in the eye when I say “I love you.” I squeeze them tightly and hug them. I dance with them and sing with them, help them with their homework and study with them for tests. I make sure to prepare the food they like. And I constantly remind them of their individual strengths and talents.
Still, I recognize that I may fall short. I hope and pray that the positive energy will outweigh any inadvertent neglect. Not surprisingly, most of my siblings suffer from some form of emotional issues, including eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression and anxiety. My sense is that most of them are suffering from the same neglect, but we are all at different stages along the journey to self-awareness. Some siblings mentioned that it was very cathartic to confront my parents. I’m not sure that I will obtain relief from that. I believe my parents did the best they could, given their own emotional limitations. I am not angry at them, nor do I blame them. At the same time, I have to show compassion to myself, since I am a victim of their neglect. Recovery is a process. I am so grateful to Hashem that I was able to embark on this journey and put an end to the misery I felt for so long. Finally, I can now really love my children because I am beginning to love myself. The journey has been painful, but I am glad that I am on it. I am not out of the woods yet, but I am overjoyed to have uncovered this aspect of my soul. I am beginning to put myself first and learn how to nurture myself. I am starting to identify the things I love, what makes me a lovable person and learn how to demonstrate love to others.