Emotional Neglect and Being Human

I just recently finished reading a book on emotional neglect entitled Running on Empty by Dr. Jonice Webb. I can highly recommend it for anyone who feels like they’re struggling with a lot of the emotional stuff that should be easy in adulthood but for whatever reason… isn’t. Y’know, things like forcing yourself to do stuff that you don’t want to do, knowing how to self-soothe in healthy ways in response to stress, how to be firm but kind with yourself about your mistakes instead of beating yourself up.

Through reading it, I essentially learned that while contemporary culture tells us that these are inborn character flaws that we should look down on and tsk, tsk people for having… like many other things, they’re skills that for whatever reason, a lot of people didn’t learn growing up. You can learn them as an adult (and indeed, that’s what I’m trying to do now), it’s just hard.

It also lead me to come to terms with my situation in my adolescence in a way I hadn’t before. You see, the book is titled “Overcoming Childhood Emotional Neglect”, and emotional neglect in particular paints a particular picture of the caregiver that… I don’t know,¬†perpetrates¬†it, I guess. Specifically, a picture that tends to paint them as a villain in the mysterious case of “why am I so fucked in the head?”

But at least in my case (and I’m willing to bet in others, as well), I don’t think that’s true. What’s closer to fact is that my mom was in an untenable situation and did the best she could. Essentially my dad left us when I was at the end of elementary school, and left us in such dire financial straits that my mom took on a second (and sometimes even a third) job. Even when my dad came back, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and a lot of my mom’s energy went towards trying to make sure he took his medication, getting him to apply to jobs and just generally even do the basic kind of helping out around the house one expects from a partner. My dad himself had effectively been absent as a father figure since the day he left, and continued to be up until the day I severed ties with him.

As a result, I didn’t really get… PARENTED (at least not emotionally) when I was in high school. My mom always worked, or if she was at home, she was either catching some brief rest before going to her other job, making sure I had something to eat, or using the few threadbare moments she had to keep HER sanity intact. She believed that, since I was a bright kid, I had things handled. At the time, I enjoyed the freedom, but it’s only just now that I’m learning what the cost of it was.

I didn’t get, and then internalize a loving but firm ‘inner parental’ voice that I could use as a guide when I made mistakes, letting me deconstruct where things went wrong so I could learn from them. I, like many kids, had to make my own, and the result was an unbalanced voice that ranged from complete permissiveness (“It’s okay, just don’t let it happen again”) to outright abuse (“Why are you so fucking stupid?! What’s WRONG with you”).

I didn’t really learn how to self-soothe or practice many elements of self-care. When I was upset as a kid, we went to McDonald’s. Or my mom would bring home a treat. As an adult, I routinely eat emotionally… and over-eat, at that. I never really learned to grapple with and accept my emotions (even the distressing ones) as okay to have: I learned to bury them alive in a shallow grave of carbs, or otherwise to just ‘not think about them.’

All that fueled a lot of anger I had for a long time, first towards my dad, and then even towards my mom. But through reading Running on Empty, and thinking more about my mom’s situation at the time has lead me to be a lot more empathetic. If I’d been in her shoes, what more could I have done? We were holding on by the skin of our teeth as best we could, trying to keep the basics intact as far as a roof over our heads and food on the table. A mentally ill, largely unsupportive and increasingly alcoholic husband and a teenage son grappling with anxiety, depression, and unresolved abandonment and self-esteem issues would be overwhelming for even the most emotionally well-prepared person. Essentially, I’ve learned that even though I’m going back and understanding what I didn’t get emotionally growing up, the reasons I didn’t receive that emotional nourishment isn’t necessarily “my mom/dad/caregiver was a bad person.” A lot of the time, they’re the same as anyone else:

Scared. Broken. Dealing with unresolved issues of their own. Doing their best.

No one is given a how-to guide on raising an emotionally healthy family. Until very, very recently, it was just expected that we all knew how, and that silence has let a sickness of ignorance spread that claims thousands of lives and stunts the potential of millions more.

In the end, it’s not about placing blame. It’s about healing through understanding. Less about trying to go back and undo what was done (or wasn’t done), and more about seeking out and giving yourself the love, knowledge, and emotionally nourishing connections I need now, as an adult.

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