Prior to starting my private practice, I worked for an agency serving homeless teenagers (and, to a lesser extent, helping young adults with transitional housing). In the three years I was there, I spoke with over 500 adolescents, and almost all of them reported chronic adverse experiences. Homeless adults lack homes, but homeless teenagers lack functional families. I’d worked with teens throughout my career, but in this job I was immersed in a teenage world where just about every family was dysfunctional. Many of the youth reported significant abuse experiences (emotional, physical, sexual) but interestingly, the ones who seemed to have the most problems (emotionally, functionally) were the youth who reported neglect. Abuse can be defined as the presence of a negative: getting something you don’t want (like being called a name, receiving a punch, having someone touch you). Neglect on the other hand, is the absence of a positive (not being fed; having the house stay uncleaned; not receiving any attention). Abuse is knowable - we (generally) remember who bullied us, who hurt us, who molested us. To suffer abuse is to become a victim, and to transcend abuse is to become a survivor. Neglect, however, is much less knowable, especially in it’s most pervasive form: emotional neglect. Emotional neglect can be thought of as invisible: for children, it’s the absence of experiencing that their parents are aware, respectful, or helpful to them in their emotional lives. The longer I work as a therapist, the more I feel that neglect is often more harmful than abuse. I recently came across the book “Running on Empty” by Dr. Jonice Webb; I communicated with her a bit, and browsed her site (http://www.drjonicewebb.com/). She’s devoted herself to raising awareness of childhood emotional neglect (CEN), and she describes much of what I see in people who’s development (for various reasons) featured emotional neglect. I strongly recommend her book, and have begun to share sections of it with clients. When children are neglected emotionally, a number of developmental outcomes are possible (everyone and every situation being different, of course). In some instances, they grow into adults who fail to recognize their own emotions (the fancy word for this being “alexithymia”). Much more commonly, however, they grow into adults who judge their own emotions and by doing so end up having pervasive emotional issues. Because emotions are impossible to turn off, hating your emotions means you’re likely to experience chronic anger; being scared of your emotions leads to experiencing constant anxiety (in various forms); and being sad about your emotions leads to ongoing depression. If you think you might be suffering in ways that correspond to what I’ve described, I encourage you to check out Dr. Webb’s site, or her book. I was particularly impressed by her list of ten “common themes” that she identifies with the experience of CEN: 1. Feelings of Emptiness 2. Problematic independence (hating help) 3. Unrealistic Self-Appraisal 4. No Compassion for Self, Plenty for Others 5. Guilt and Shame 6. Self-Directed Anger; Self-Blame 7. The Fatal Flaw (fearing being known) 8. Difficulty Nurturing Self and Others 9. Poor Self-Discipline 10. Alexithymia (having minimal emotional awareness) (for more information on this list, and the associated concepts, go to Dr. Webb's site, or better, purchase her book Running on Empty)
If you feel that your struggles in life might be related to CEN, I encourage you to take your struggles seriously. Perhaps the most difficult symptom of CEN is that you learn to invalidate your own experience, so that you end up telling yourself that nothing’s wrong (when things are wrong) or that you don’t really deserve happiness (when you do) or that asking for help is a sign of weakness (when it isn’t).
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