In the groundbreaking self-help book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, Webb and Musello introduce the idea of emotional neglect – an inconspicuous force from childhood that cannot be easily detected or noticed but may be significantly affecting someone in the present. It is so profound that it shapes our perceptions of ourselves, our families, and even the world. And because it happened in our earliest years within our families, without proper role models to educate us on how to regulate our emotions, many of us will not even recognize we struggle. Instead, we wade through the murky waters of life with a sense of uncertainty. We may have great difficulty with emotional regulation, feel distanced from our parents or other primary caregivers, and have turbulent relationships with others.
Emotional neglect is the most common form of child maltreatment. It is also the most hidden. Adults who experienced emotional neglect in our childhoods were usually not neglected in the broadest sense of the word (that is, our basic needs met. Also, we likely did not experience or witness physical or sexual abuse. On the surface, it may seem like we had the “normal, cookie-cutter” childhood. And because of this sense of normalcy, we truly may not know we went through emotional neglect.
Emotional neglect is not about what happened in our childhoods. It is about what did not happen, what was never spoken, and what cannot be remembered.
The 10 Red Flags of Emotional Neglect
- You feel empty, numb, or like you are more of an “outsider” rather than “participant” in life. Some people describe this as feeling like they are “always running on autopilot mode.”
- You bury your true self. You are convinced if others saw you as you truly are, your faults and all, they would dislike you. It may also be a challenge for you to show your vulnerability to others (to let down that “wall”) because you have a fear of rejection.
- Self-discipline is hard for you. And as a result, you may judge yourself as lazy or a chronic procrastinator. You may also have issues with binge-eating, compulsive shopping, etc.
- You are strong – but this is your greatest strength and weakness. You are fiercely independent and self-reliant, which others admire about you. But it is to the point you are terrified of being dependent on someone else, even your own partner. You will do whatever possible to prevent having to ask for help or looking needy.
- In school, you may have been that person who asked the teacher if you could work solo instead of with a partner or group. Why? Because you knew you would get the work done rather than having to put that trust in others.
- You try to feel only the easy, light emotions like happiness and excitement. You block yourself off from having the darker, heavier emotions to prevent yourself from feeling them and others cannot notice. It is to the point you think you must always be happy or else there is something wrong with you.
- You are “emotionally blind” – you struggle with defining your emotions or even noticing you are feeling them. Others may accuse you of “always being mad” when to you it feels normal. Or perhaps you say “I don’t know what I’m feeling” when asked.
- You are loving, compassionate, and forgiving toward others, but you are bitter and piercingly critical at yourself. You may even hate yourself. Ironically, you are also more understanding when others make the same mistakes or reactions and you give them a pass, but you are quick to tear yourself apart.
- You feel perpetually angry and resentful at yourself. You fully blame yourself for your lack of happiness.
- You do not know who you are. Sure, you know the raw facts about yourself. You know where you went to college or what you do for your career or whatever. But you struggle with the deeper things at the core. You may not have a solid idea of your likes and dislikes, your values, or your beliefs. You may come across as a social chameleon, taking on the interests of the people you associate with to hide your own shaky sense of self.
- Your care for yourself and others ends at a certain point. You may be amazing at giving practical advice, but not emotional support. You may feel awkward when others cry or otherwise show their vulnerability, or perhaps you are okay with that, but you do not allow yourself to be the same way.
Are you ready to foster yourself with love by overcoming the burdens of emotional neglect? Reach out to any of the talented therapists at Suffolk Family Therapy. We all have a thorough education in emotional neglect as a requirement of being trauma therapists. You can reach us at 631-503-1539 and explore our team of clinicians here!
Webb, J., & Musello, C. (2019). Running on empty: Overcome your childhood emotional neglect. Morgan James Publishing.
About the author, Valerie Smith, LMSW
Valerie Smith, LMSW, CFTG, is a therapist, social worker, and certified forest therapy guide at Suffolk Family Therapy under the supervision of our clinical director, Jamie Vollmoeller, LCSW. Valerie possesses a bachelor and master’s degree in social work from Adelphi University and Fordham University, both from which she graduated summa cum laude. Valerie is also a certified forest therapy guide through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT), where she trained in the Rocky Mountains to master sensory-based, mindful activities through a biophilic perspective. Valerie is passionate about the health benefits of a plant-based diet as well as holistic wellness. Valerie is trained in EMDR and TF-CBT, with experience in DBT-informed skills. She focuses her treatment on adolescent girls and young women with C-PTSD and PTSD. Additionally, she helps people with life-threatening disease and their caregivers. Finally, she works alongside those experiencing grief and bereavement, especially young adults who lost one or both of their parents/guardians.