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.

On Giving Up

We’re taught growing up that giving up is one of the worst sins one can commit. Fail as many times as you want, but never, ever quit. Fall down seven times, get up eight. The quitter is the archetype to be reviled, spat upon, and feared. Feared that if you decide not to get up that eighth time, you’ll be cast out of respectable society and stripped of any right to support or empathy.

I think the “never give up” lesson is one of the most toxic ones that we still teach kids, and here’s why: there’s about a 99.9% chance that in your life, at some point, you have given up on something. So… now what? Game over, right? “Well, looks like I’ve failed at life! Time to go home and self-flagellate myself with the bootstraps that I so shamefully failed to pull myself up by.”

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely think people should be encouraged to hold on in the face of adversity, to not acquiesce on things that mean a lot to them when the going proves difficult. But I think there’s a significant difference between saying that, and the narrative of “quitters never win” that’s been the craze for about as long as the ‘rags to riches’ myth has been around.

When you say that some things are worth fighting for, you’re saying that, when something sets your soul aflame, when something is so fundamentally powerful to you that causes you to ignite with vitality and purpose… hold onto it. Hold onto it until your knuckles turn white and your hands bleed. Don’t give up that feeling, because that is a feeling that is very, very hard to come by in life, and you deserve to feel it. Something that awakens passion within you such that it brings you to tears is worth undergoing strife.

The “quitters never win” narrative, on the other hand, has deep, deep roots in the “not enough, never enough” story that so virulently infects millions of people in our culture (and helps no one, besides). When you say to a child ‘never give up’, ‘quitters never win’, you are giving them an ultimatum; a warning. If you give up, you will never be worthy. You will never be enough. Never have enough, never do enough, and never be worthy of love or acceptance, even from yourself. To be a quitter is to be the North American equivalent of the Untouchable caste. The sheer amount of disdain and disgust we hold as a culture for those we label ‘quitters’ is absolutely remarkable, when you consider that everyone has done it.

And for what? To what positive end do we continue to perpetuate this myth? So that individuals can continue to bang their heads against a wall in a relationship, a job, a vocation, that isn’t working? For those who, having attained material wealth or cultural status markers of success, are still miserable (but don’t you dare give it up, after all you’ve been through)? Of course not, because stubborn misery is the North American badge of pride.

The reason I write this, is that having left school for a year, come back, and struggled, I only now just completed and submitted a take-home assignment for the first time in two years. For the longest time, the assignment would come up, I would become paralyzed by anxiety, not do it, and inevitably fail the course because, well… not doing assignments tends to result in that. But once I gave up once, I was a Quitter. The narrative I was so afraid of had manifested, and I felt locked into a role that I couldn’t escape. Yesterday (the day I submitted the assignment) had been the first time I had not simply given up in two years.

I won’t lie; I felt proud that I persevered. That I plowed through when I wanted to curl up in my bed and hide from the world. But I also realized… having “never give up” drilled into my head for as long as I can remember did me absolutely no fucking good. All it taught me was that giving up is bad and wrong, and if YOU give up, you TOO, are bad and wrong. It taught me nothing about asking myself why I felt overwhelmed. It taught me nothing about how to objectively assess my circumstances and emotional state to see what could be improved (whether that be working for different time intervals or at different times, seeing a counsellor, being assessed for a learning disability, getting a good social support group, confronting distorted thoughts I might have, etc). All it taught me was not to do the Forbidden Thing (that is essentially inevitable at one time or another in life), and if you do the Forbidden Thing, well you should feel besmirched and ashamed for such an ugly failure.

The “Don’t Give Up” narrative is about pride. Pride to be able to say, “I didn’t give up!” after the fact. Absolutely, you should feel proud for overcoming your own personal struggles, but pride over your past should not blind you to the fact that other peoples’ battles are yet to come. Battles where many are woefully underprepared. Pushing the next generation onwards with only “quitters never win” to help does about as much good as it would to an unarmed soldier on a battlefield. Instead of sending them out to get skewered by the slings and arrows of life and then rubbing their nose in the mud, let’s help them armor up instead.

Cult of Positivity

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of positive thinking. Particularly because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. It seems like a fairly reasonable idea at first glance (“If you’re sad, why not think happier thoughts?”), but I think at the end of the day the problem with it isn’t that it’s WRONG rather than oversimplified. At my work (which shall remain nameless for obvious reasons) there’s a lot of lip-flapping about “creating a positive atmosphere for customers/members/workplace, etc”, but the practice of this version of positivity usually involves the punishment of those who speak of anything negative or critical of the company or its management to anyone other than the management in a one-on-one basis. It’s this sort of thing that led to my realization that a lack of negativity and the presence of positivity are not the same thing. All it resulted in was this latent tension as everyone is aware of things that are wrong but are too afraid to say anything (or are cynical because they’ve followed the prescribed procedure and nothing was done to improve it). It’s almost more stressful than an outright negative environment because of the amount of fakeness and performance involved.

But aside from the specifics, I think the cardinal sin of those in the cult of positivity is failing to understand the factors that lead to a positive mindset. And I think that’s it: having a positive (or Challenge, credit to Jane McGonigal and her book SuperBetter for teaching me that word) mindset is different, more complex, and more difficult, than the kind of fast-food drive-thru advice that people give when they say, “Just think positive!”

Essentially, it’s a means, not an end. It’s a result of a hundred different little skills that all take effort, to overcome a hundred little nightmares that haunt the people who struggle with them. The steps also vary from person to person along with how their struggles manifest, and I feel like that’s what not a lot of people understand. That even though one person may not find X problem a struggle, that does not make it less real or difficult for person Y. Especially with mental and emotional health, I think one step we can take towards better understanding is getting rid of the illusion that all pain is measured on a singular scale, rather than branching out like the subway from hell.

I get the distinct feeling whenever I hear that bullshit prescription, the only good it’s doing is helping the person who is saying it to think that they’re elevated in some way above the person asking for help. And it’s the perpetuation of that illusion that makes me pity them the most.


Thoughts on A Philosophy Blog? (And Philosophy in General, I guess)

So, I’m a philosophy minor. More than that, I’m a big fan of thinking about things (sometimes too much, as the number of posts on here about anxiety will attest) and picking them apart. However, one thing that bugs me about mainstream philosophy (if there is such a thing), is how…. limited in scope it is.

I find as I ascend in years at university, I find the questions get smaller and smaller. For instance, in a Theory of Knowledge class I had, the question that the entire semester revolved around was that of what the professor called “Epistemic Akrasia”, or the question of whether or not you could rationally do something that you were aware was against your own self-interest.

Now, to me that question DOES sound interesting. But the class, as philosophy often does, devolved into minutia about questioning the definitions of “rationality” and “what we could define as ‘awareness’, as well as the usual questions about free will that normally seep into many a philosophy class like a gas leak (and potentially just as explosive). That in itself isn’t necessarily BAD per say, as one of philosophical thought’s most valuable traits is teaching the ability to tease out people’s assumptions about meaning and put them to the test. The problem I had was the heavy feeling I had in the pit of my stomach after the class was done. The feeling of “Where did we get to? What was the point of this?” and the general dread that it felt like a pointless exercise in nigh-masturbatory nitpicking.

I feel like when we engage in philosophical questioning, a good thing to do might be to take a step back and also ask “Why are we asking these questions?” “What are the implications for operations within the real world for the things we might glean from their investigation?” Too many times I’ve read a philosophical paper or essay that included the statement that “Answers to question X may have important implications for A, B, and C”, but then fails to go on and give any kind of detail as to what those might be. For a sub-branch of philosophy as potentially useful as epistemology for affecting how we relate and engage with one another both individually and societally, to spend hours and hours quibbling over the definition of “aware” not even in general, but for the hypothetical purpose of a single PAPER, seems like a tremendous waste of mental energy.

Meanwhile, so-called ‘serious’ academics scoff at what someone might disparagingly call “self-help” philosophies, notably the rise in the interest people have in scholars like the greek Stoics. As if it’s a sign of weakness or intellectual frailty to look to philosophy for ways to live a good life, to improve our outlook on the world, or deal with its pain and difficulties. I feel like I have to ask: if philosophy isn’t making peoples’ lives better, what GOOD is it? Having dealt with the usual assumptions from people outside the field that we’re all a bunch of closeted eggheads with interest only in pointless discussions, views such as the above make me shake my head. Is it any wonder that universities defund philosophy programs, or that people don’t want to even talk to philosophers, when all we talk about are topics that have exactly ZERO relevance to the average person’s existence?

It’s in this line that I’m wondering about making a dedicated philosophy blog. I use “dedicated” in the loosest possible sense, as I mentioned above that I’d want to keep it as open as possible in terms of topics and ideas. Philosophy is something you can do with ANY topic, no matter how personal, cultural, or global, and it can help provide comfort and healing in times of darkness, perspective in times of confusion, and a potential path forward when the road seems muddled and confusing. I just… don’t want to start it, and then be afraid to start writing because of potentially having an audience. Ugh.

Creativity and Mental Illness

I think a lot about the number of people I’ve heard, whether on podcasts or in real life how they’re afraid to get medication to help with their anxiety, depression, etc, because they’re afraid without it, they’ll lose the “true” emotional core of who they are that allows them to express themselves creatively. But what if it’s the other way around? What if it’s the capacity, the mind set for creativity that predisposes people to be vulnerable to certain emotional struggles?

A number of different studies have drawn links between the two, but I always wondered that the nature of the relationship was. In particular, when I took a couple of Theatre courses in the past year, I had an interesting talk with one of my professors that led me to think it’s something like this:

If I had to define creativity, I would think of it in basic terms as an ability to take two previously disparate topics, two things you wouldn’t normally connect with one another (be they material things or abstract concepts), and associating/combining them in a way that most people wouldn’t consider. Now, apply that notion to a chronically anxious individual, say someone who’s nervous for their next job interview. They feel like if they can’t get this job, then it’s their last hope, then no one will hire them, then they’ll lose their apartment, end up on the street and live a lonely, forgotten existence. Sounds excessive, but that’s the kind of catastrophizing myself and many people I know do in their heads.

When you then talk to someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety, there’s a good chance they’ll respond with something like, “Isn’t that a bit of a leap? Just because X happens doesn’t mean that it’s going to lead RIGHT to catastrophic conclusion Y!”

Exactly. That’s exactly it. That capacity, that propensity to link two or more only tangentially related things into a cohesive whole is analogous to the kind of thinking that leads us to think that “shitty but manageable thing A will inevitably lead to B, C, D… all the way to life-ruining outcome Z.”

One way of thinking of it is the old “it’s a blessing and a curse” addage, but I think maybe a better way of considering it is like a really awesome, but really specialized piece of software. You have this awesome program for making breathtaking art, revolutionary inventions, and solving dastardly problems, and it does a fantastic job at that. But you feed this machine a question about the true nature of, say, Existential Ethics, and it might just fizz out and explode, setting things ablaze and taking out the printer two rooms over.

That doesn’t necessarily make it defective (though you should probably call someone to see if you can fix the whole exploding thing). It just means that you need to be aware when you’re using a certain tool to try and solve a problem that it simply doesn’t have the capacity to solve. I’m not a big fan of the whole right-brained/left-brained thing (largely because it’s been shown to be vastly oversimplified), but there IS value in thinking of your mental skills as modules in some way.

So next time you find yourself enveloping mentally into “my life is DOOMED” or something like it, maybe consider the possibility that you’ve got the wrong disc in. Take a moment, take a breath, and do your best to engage the linear, procedural reasoning part of your brain, or at least be aware of the possibility that some of the catastrophic thoughts you’re thinking are NOT, in fact, products of the situation, but of your own fears. That way, you can attempt to switch the focus from your perceived “DOOOOOOOOOOM!! (yes, I’m going to keep capitalizing it) and onto the reasoning that fuels that fear. There’s a good chance that digging at that root of the problem will get you a lot further than thinking up new and complex ways of torturing yourself emotionally.

And as always, don’t worry, I know. I should follow my own advice.

Vince Smith is a writer, podcast host, and dyed-in-the-wool geek of all trades. You can check out other articles and videos by him over at The Rogues’ Gallery, or drop by his Facebook Page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman for other musings from the catacombs of the Internet.