Emotional neglect: Invisible scars
We hear about loss and trauma almost daily. Horrific examples of both are often on the news and when we hear these words, we think of bereavement and other sudden, tragic events that are life-changing. But what if trauma and loss are not always so obvious, not even for those who are suffering from them?
It’s not unusual to hear in a first session from someone that their life is fine, their parents are good people, and nothing very significant happened; yet they feel low about themselves and their achievements, relationships feel overwhelming and complicated, and anxiety or stress fill their days with dread from what might happen next.
So, who are they, the sufferers of invisible scars? And are you perhaps one of them?
It has become common knowledge that our relationship with our parents moulds the way we relate to others. Attachment is a close bond between caregiver and child in which the child seeks protection in order to survive by staying close to the caregiver. Staying close means both physical closeness and emotional intimacy. Humans are born to be vulnerable and utterly dependent - we cannot survive our early years on our own. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that those first relationships have such significance. Our dependence on our parents doesn’t stop with our physical needs, they are also key to our emotional needs. If you have ever seen a baby crying, you know what I mean. The intensity of those difficult feelings is overwhelming even for bystanders, let alone for the parents and, most importantly, for the baby. And here we can turn our attention to those invisible scars: the trauma that stems from emotional neglect.
Caregivers play a major role in helping children to regulate their emotions; they name the feelings and help them to digest them, often just by being there and showing understanding (for example, “Oh, I can see you are very upset”). But what happens if the parents are not there or they show an opposite reaction? Instead of understanding, they become angry (for example, “Stop making a fuss, it’s not a big deal!”) or they feel overwhelmed (“I cannot deal with this now. Go to your room and calm down”). The child is left alone to deal with those big, intense feelings and quickly adapts to the parents by 'sparing them' from any negative feelings that could upset them.
An important question that often comes up when we look at our past is whether we play the blame game: blaming previous generations for the problems of the next one. In my opinion, that is neither the goal nor the result of our own explorations. Caregivers don’t choose to be emotionally unavailable; they might have been dealing with something difficult and didn’t know better ways to cope - it could have been depression, external stress (poverty, redundancy etc), bereavement or another form of loss. Maybe one sibling needed more attention due to illness or disability. Whatever the situation, the goal is not to find out who is at fault but to mourn our own loss and heal to find our true selves.
If caregivers are emotionally unavailable to the child and this becomes a pattern rather than a few difficult occasions, it can have long-standing effects on our attachment style. One possible result is avoidant attachment: we keep our feelings to ourselves to avoid overwhelming the other with our emotions.
How can you tell whether you follow this attachment style? Check in with yourself and see how much you recognise yourself in the following behaviours. What do you do when you feel emotional? Do you rather cut off and run in your relationship than tell the other how you feel? Do you share your sadness with others, or do you keep it to yourself? Are you someone who cries silently in the dark, so no one notices your tears? When you are stressed or frustrated, is shutting yourself away the first thing you do?
Notice the thoughts in your head. Do you believe your feelings would only burden others? Is there a sense that any negative emotions in others are somehow your fault, your shortcoming? Do you tell yourself that people should only see you happy and content? Do you call yourself weak if you cannot keep your feelings at bay?
If this all sounds way too familiar to you, you might be someone with many invisible scars. These invisible scars can be treated. Why is it important to work on these sorts of attachment wounds? Because feelings don’t go away just because you wish them not to be there. Repressing our feelings only increases their intensity over time and they tend to pop up or burst out when we are least prepared to deal with them. It can wreck any close relationships: we might seem cold and distant or superhumans with superpowers - who never need care or support from others. The result is imbalance: neither parties feel their needs have been met.
Ignoring or undervaluing our own feelings also comes with a price- we have feelings for good reasons. They are warning signs, nudging us to pay attention to our needs. You feel upset – you might need some comfort from others, some sharing of your burdens. You feel angry, maybe some of your needs are blocked and you need to change a thing or two. If you feel stressed, you might need a break and a chance to recuperate. If you choose to ignore all these signs, you are burning the candle on both ends and there will be a price to pay for that.
Lastly, when we repress our feelings, we can find the feelings of others very difficult to acknowledge. Intense emotions from others can threaten the fragile balance of keeping ours at bay so we might run from any situation where we would have to deal with feelings. Unintentionally we put ourselves in the same shoes as our caregivers and become emotionally unavailable to our loved ones.
What can you do to step out of these loops and most importantly, is change possible? Very much so. Firstly, try to increase your own awareness of your feelings. Ask yourself how you actually feel about a situation or person. Notice what thoughts are coming up and how you feel in your body. Try to name the feeling - the name is like a handle; you can get a grip if you know what you are feeling. Can this feeling be shared? Do you have someone you feel safe to do so? The first steps are always the hardest but over time and effort, it can become a new habit.
While this process sounds very straightforward, in reality, change is hard-earned. It is often painful to acknowledge what we feel - after all, there is a reason why we repressed them for so long. Therapy can support you to start this journey; your therapist can help you with noticing what you feel and can provide a safe place to share. At times your therapist will challenge you to look at your pain or evaluate your actions but these will be valuable chances to move forward and find ways to experience and deal with emotions. The fruits are invaluable; you can find your true self instead of pretending to be someone for the sake of others. You can learn how to express your needs and create your own space in relationships without being ignorant or too much for others. You can find acceptance and make peace with who you really are.