“I scored high on the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire, but I actually grew up in a family that was the opposite of what you describe. My family was constantly yelling and screaming. How can this be?” –A question posted by a reader on PDAN.
Six-year-old Marcus feels invisible as he sits between his two older sisters in the back seat of the car. He actually hopes he IS invisible, because he doesn’t want to be the target of either of his angry parents. Marcus’ sister Marsha is sobbing loudly on his left. On his right, Blair stares ahead stone-faced with her headphones on, purposely shutting herself off from the brutal but familiar battle between their parents which is taking place in the front of the car.
Eight-year-old Marsha tries to sob loudly enough that her parents will hear her over their yelling, hoping they’ll realize what they are doing to their children and stop fighting.
Eleven-year-old Blair appears to be listening to music. Instead she is acutely aware that her mother will scream and hurl insults at her father until she “wins,” as she always does. Blaire repeats over and over in her head, “I hate these people. I’m going to run away from here as soon as I can.”
Here we have three children who are all responding differently to what is happening in their family. None of the three are experiencing direct verbal abuse, and no one is purposely harming them. But each suffers alone, unheard and unseen, in the back seat of the car. Each one is experiencing Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
These children are not growing up in the classic CEN family that I usually talk about: the family which under-expresses emotion, and which squelches the child’s emotion by ignoring it. Instead, it’s the opposite type of CEN family. This family squelches what the child is feeling by trumping it. Marcus, Marsha and Blair’s mother uses extreme emotion to express herself. Her feelings are so intense that whatever any of her three children is feeling pales in comparison.
So Marcus pushes his feelings down and becomes invisible, the classic CEN response. Marsha expresses her feelings loudly to try to “out-emote” her parents, and Blair sits outwardly quiet, but inwardly enraged.
Fast Forward thirty years. Let’s check in on Marcus, Marsha and Blair, and see how each has fared as adults.
Marsha is a doctor in a hospital Emergency Room. Married with two children, she is passionately dedicated to saving lives. In the E/R, she is cool as a cucumber in the face of injury and death. And true to her child self (she tried to stop her parents’ fight), at home she is also a manager of unpleasant situations. Marsha learned early and well that her tears would not be noticed or matter to anyone (no one ever noticed her loud sobbing). So as an adult, she makes sure that she is always “strong.” Married to an angry alcoholic, she makes excuses for him and tiptoes around him. She tirelessly drives her children from one activity to another while her husband drinks at home. She is unaware of how distressed and alone her children feel…
At age 36, Marcus has already been married for 16 years. He is a responsible, successful plumber. But even though he has a wife and children, he describes himself as “a loner.” Marcus looks around at other people every day and sees that they seem to live their lives fully, in a way that he can’t. “What do they have that I don’t have?” he wonders. From the outside, Marcus looks like a man who has it all. But inside, he feels alone, disconnected and rudderless. Marcus is going through his life with his emotions pushed down, as he had to do to get by in his childhood home. He does not have access to the rich connection, stimulation and direction that his emotions should be providing him.
Blair, now 38, struggles the most of the three. A very bright woman, she has had multiple careers and multiple marriages. Blair’s tendency is to initially put her new husband, friend or job on a pedestal, and invest her full commitment. But it doesn’t last. Eventually each lets her down, and she feels attacked, abandoned or betrayed. When Blair feels any of those things, she explodes. One after another, she unwittingly attacks and drives away every good thing in her life. She is intensely emotional and unpredictably angry. She has become her mother.
These three people grew up in the same household, with the same parents. With extreme emotion coming from their parents, and no one noticing or responding to their own feelings, they all grew up with severe Childhood Emotional Neglect. They each appear to respond differently to the same childhood experience, but the core of each of their struggles is the same. They are all unequipped to manage, tolerate, express or use their emotions. Marsha’s and Marcus’ feelings are pushed down, and Blair’s are her running her life.
Do you identify with Marcus, Marsha or Blair? If you are like Marcus, others may see you as aloof, or emotionally unavailable. If you are like Marsha, people may consider you a giver or an enabler. If you are like Blair, people may call you difficult or diagnose you with a personality disorder. But no one who sees you from the outside can possibly know the real you, on the inside.
Here’s the part of the article where I would normally give you Steps Toward Healing. But I will do something different here. Because let’s face it, there are no simple steps if you grew up in an intensely emotional family.
But you can heal! Once you see the problem, doors are open to you. Doors to stop blaming yourself for your struggles. Doors to recognize, own, accept and learn about your feelings, and why they matter. Doors to share your childhood memories of Emotional Neglect and intense emotion with someone who understands and can help (preferably a trained professional). Doors to learn and grow, and realize why you matter.
And what your happiness is worth.
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