What is emotional neglect?
Early life stress can contribute to emotional neglect. Usually, when a child experiences this type of neglect, he or she has their feelings ignored, or they are made to feel that their emotions are not warranted. Emotional neglect can be caused by parents unaware of their dismissive patterns. Or it can stem from caretakers who are too busy or are not focused on the child’s welfare.
In the teen years, emotional neglect can be triggered by a parent who assumes all of a teen’s emotional responses are due to hormones or irrational thoughts. The impacts of emotional neglect, no matter when it’s experienced, can last a lifetime.
Common signs of emotional neglect.
The root of emotional neglect is when someone’s emotional needs go unmet. When the person who hasn’t had his or her emotional needs met grows into adulthood, these unmet needs tend to reveal themselves in relationships.
When a pattern of neglect has taken root in a child’s or a teen’s life, the consequences may be that the adult he or she becomes can’t form bonds quickly in relationships such as marriage. It may also mean that a teen who experienced repeated emotional neglect as a child struggles to bond with their parents later in life.
Other common signs to look out for include:
You can listen to others’ experiences and feelings, but expressing your own is complex and laborious. Because you lacked validation of your emotions as a child, you may struggle with self-validation of how you feel now. Recognizing your emotions may be difficult, and then sharing them with another person once you do realize how you feel can seem downright impossible.
You almost always let your family members/spouse/best friend/co-worker choose the restaurant, movie, or weekend plans.
When you’ve learned to submerge how you feel as a young person, you begin to repeat this cycle. It impacts your ability to not only to share what you need and want but even to understand that you have an opinion.
You may not have even realized that you agree to others’ plans without considering if you want to go along. This could be because you’ve become accustomed to ignoring how you feel and making decisions that don’t require you to admit your feelings and opinions.
Addressing conflict in a healthy way assumes you can recognize it, process it, and sort through the emotions that arise from it. If you clam up in the face of conflict, it may be a trigger to pay attention to in your relationships. Many people run from conflict, so just because you do not enjoy facing it does not signify you experienced emotional neglect. But in concert with other signs of neglect, it could be a clue.
You turn to distraction to avoid uncomfortable emotions.
If you struggle with sadness, anger, or frustration and you prefer to immerse yourself in an activity instead of recognizing it, you might have experienced emotional neglect as a child. Typically, adults who use food, substances, or television/media to avoid how they feel are doing so out of a learned response.
These learned responses to pain and negative emotions can stem from emotional neglect as a child. For example, if you are a man who is uncomfortable seeing sad movies or dropping your child off at kindergarten for the first time, so you avoid it, it’s important information. Look at your responses or instincts when something sad or emotion-inducing comes up.
Letting your spouse sort through the emotional distress associated with your child’s failed test or a tryout that he didn’t make may be because you were taught as a young boy that tears were for girls, not boys. Hearing words such as, “Be a man – quit crying,” are cultural conditions that many men grew up with because emotions were viewed as a female expression.
Your needs are usually low on the priority list.
If you experienced emotional neglect as a child or a teen, you could unknowingly set up a pattern of putting your needs last. This may mean you avoid taking time to grieve losses, such as a failed marriage, a job loss, or a broken friendship. The more you avoid healthy emotional processes, the stronger this pattern will become.
Emotional neglect and its impact on the workplace.
How do the preceding behaviors play out in an office or workplace setting? It may be tough to recognize, but there are subtle ways these struggles can impact your job and your relationships with co-workers.
First, if you find that you avoid leadership or struggle with bringing up how you feel to those in authority over you at work, it could result from emotional neglect earlier in life. Learning to speak up requires emotional security – something that people who were neglected emotionally fail to develop. Add to this a boss or authority figure who is immature or unsure about their role, and it can spell workplace chaos.
Second, not recognizing your needs at work will bleed into the rest of your life. For example, if you need to leave on time each day because you have a child to pick up at daycare, you can’t allow last-minute needs at the office to keep you there.
You will need to set a boundary with co-workers who insist on your presence beyond usual work hours. This requires emotional stability, and recognizing that your job isn’t to be popular or to please in unhealthy, unreasonable ways. It is perfectly reasonable to let a co-worker, or your boss know that late nights aren’t something you can give. You need to be at your child’s daycare by a specific time, and work will have to wait.
Third, choices are huge in the workplace. Beyond where to get takeout for lunch, you get to decide how your career advances. If you are not aware of what you want in the workplace, it can be difficult to
- Set clear long-term goals for advancement or self-improvement.
- Recognize when you are doing a job you don’t enjoy.
- Go after the promotion, get the extra training you need, or find a company that will reward you for good work.
- Know when your boundaries have been crossed.
- Set acceptable and non-acceptable workplace guidelines for relating to co-workers. (Drama, tension, and unspoken, unmet needs usually come out in some form if you or another co-worker do not have healthy boundaries.)
How to overcome.
Overcoming emotional neglect is similar to walking toward the shore from an across-the-road condominium at the beach. It must be done carefully, step by step, and with encouraging signage along the route.
When you walk toward the beach from across the road, you first have to cross a busy intersection. Next, you usually have to shuffle the beach items in your hands so that you’re comfortable for the next leg of the journey. Then, it’s time to begin walking along the boardwalk or path that leads to the beach.
Each step of overcoming emotional neglect is similar. Reaching out to a professional counselor in one of our offices can help. He or she will give you guidance and small, doable actions to keep you going on the journey toward healing.
Some of these may include self-compassion, writing a letter to your childhood self, or even stopping to write a list of what you want in various areas of your life. A counselor trained in helping adults heal from emotional trauma and neglect will help you determine the best way to begin. Contact one of our offices today.
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