Emotional neglect – despite being more commonly experienced than verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse – has painful and lasting effects on one’s development. Greatly misunderstood but ever so present in the narrative of those who grew up in dysfunctional and toxic families, emotional neglect is often a silent but very real self-esteem killer. It is naturally challenging for those who were made to feel like their emotions did not matter to nurture love and respect for themselves. How can one even build a reliable sense of self, when what they experience in their bodies is consistently ignored, denied, and discarded by those whose role is to model (emotional) maturity, congruence, autonomy, and intelligence?
When you grow up in a family culture of emotional neglect, you carry an emptiness that is felt strongly in your body. Emotional emptiness, as a result of failure to connect fully with others, makes one feel heavy, alone and alienated. Some may even feel numb and dissociated, as if they inhabited a body or lived a life that were not theirs. Because we all crave a sense of wholeness to experience happiness, those who suffered emotional neglect are particularly prone to relying on external factors, such as others’ reassurance, approval, and validation to feel good about themselves. Even when their parents are unable to give them what they want, they keep seeking their validation and support in an exhausting and, at times, obsessive fashion.
So how do you know when enough is enough? At what point can you state with confidence that your parents are truly unable or unwilling to validate your suffering?
In Burnout (2019), the Nagoski sisters advise on the following questions to determine a goal’s worth (my comments are in brackets):
What are the benefits of continuing? (Is there a realistic probability of your parents genuinely recognising their neglectful behaviour? How likely are you to feel better in pursuing that recognition?)
What are the benefits of stopping? (What effect would stop chasing your parents’ validation have on your mental/emotional health? How likely are you to feel better as a result of quitting that habit?)
What are the costs of continuing? (What effects feeling unseen and unimportant over and over may be having on your self-esteem? What influence would that continue to have on your self-confidence in relational contexts?)
What are the costs of stopping? (How stopping trying to connect emotionally with your parents may make you feel? How much do you trust your ability to process and accept that loss of connection?)
Even if the idea of not being able to rely on your parents for true emotional support and connection brings up great sadness in the short term, it is worth grieving that loss as an investment for authentic happiness in the long term. Once you have given up on insisting on fixing dysfunctional and toxic relationships, you will feel freer to focus on more rewarding and satisfying ones.