December 29, 2020

Living with the Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect.


My tank was always on empty.

Seeking validation from others.

Copycatting others’ behavior so I could fit in.

Am I doing okay? Am I enough? Do I fit the part of a “normal” member of this society I am a part of? Am I blending well? Have I camouflaged myself well enough to hide my fears and insecurities? Can you tell I’m socially anxious?

I have recently learned about the effects of emotional neglect and how many of us are running from a “praise deficit.” I hope this information is as insightful for you as it was for me.

How does childhood neglect affect adults?

People who are emotionally neglected as children grow up to be adults who must deal with the consequences. Because their emotional needs weren’t validated as children, they may not know how to deal with their emotions when they occur.

The most common effects of childhood neglect in adulthood include:

>> post-traumatic stress disorder
>> depression
>> emotional unavailability
>> increasing likelihood for an eating disorder
>> shunning intimacy
>> feeling deeply, personally flawed
>> feeling empty
>> poor self-discipline
>> guilt and shame
>> anger and aggressive behaviors
>> difficulty trusting others or relying upon anyone else

I feel these traits deeply and have spent the last few years frequenting meetings for Adult Children of Alcoholics. I was struck by the similarities I had struggled with for my whole life after reading the book, Adult Children of Alcoholics, by Janet Geringer Woititz. I had been in recovery for alcoholism and drug addiction for 20 years when I found this book. I had worked the 12 steps, attended countless meetings, gone to therapy, and taken medication.

I still had times where I was unable to function and was stuck in a spiral of shame and depression. I had a deep sense of unworthiness. I spent so much time and energy mimicking people I wanted to emulate that I was exhausted. I spent so much time obsessing about things outside of myself, trying to add up.

I didn’t realize I had a praise deficit and was seeking praise outside of myself. I carried around the shame and pain of experiences I had early in my life, trying to counteract the effects of them by showing people that I was enough.

A praise deficit is a very real term in ACOA. We had been abandoned in our childhood and, in turn, spent years doing that very thing to ourselves. Abandonment and neglect were all we knew. They felt comfortable and familiar. We didn’t know another way.

The Big Red book of ACOA explains a praise deficit this way:

“Most adult children constantly seek affirmation but do not truly believe compliments and praise when they come. Most adult children have a praise deficit, which can never be solved by an outside source. Before recovery, we tended to operate with closed feelings and dismissed any affirmation coming our way from others. Or we manipulated others into praising us while we still felt inadequate and inferior. 

Because we shut out our parents as children, we tend to shut out people as adults. If we were not affirmed or praised as children, we are typically uncomfortable with praise as adults. Ignoring praise or failing to see our accomplishments as adults can help disqualify us from loving relationships.

By learning to praise ourselves and accept praise from others, we are less prone to suffer the debilitating effects of being a people pleaser. We tend to stand more steady and affirm ourselves when external praise does not come. Our mistakes, while still unsettling, are more tolerable.” (paraphrased from page 38)

Recently, a coworker looked at me and said, “Congratulations.” She said it enthusiastically and from a heartfelt place. She sincerely meant it, and it made me uncomfortable. I am much more comfortable with superficial acknowledgments. I didn’t realize this was an area I still struggled in.

For years, I looked forward to going to recovery meetings and receiving a sobriety coin, and sharing with the group how I accomplished another year of sobriety. The golden coins meant and still mean so much to me, and I soak up every clap and word of praise.

I had been running on empty so long that any accolade first makes me question the person giving it. Can I trust it? Do I deserve this?

And then it filled me with such an exciting high that I felt like I was floating on a cloud. I wanted more of that, so I found myself seeking out praise and accolades all the time, silently asking, am I enough? Am I worthy? Do I hold value? Can you see me?

I do feel like I come from a place of a praise deficit and any praise is absorbed deeply, however uncomfortable I may feel at the time of receiving it. I am constantly at a place of seeking validation. Hello, Social Media.

I will conclude with a story from many years ago. My former mother-in-law invited me over to make cookies. I felt uncomfortable with the prospect. I thought, why is she wanting me to come over to make cookies with her? She must think I suck at making cookies. She is thinking I am not domestic enough, and she wants to teach me how to be a better mother and wife.

I was indignant and angry. I was not going to go over there so she could make a fool out of me and my lack of baking skills. She was going to catch me making a mistake and see clearly that I have no idea how to make cookies.

I had severe anxiety about the prospect of going over to what was supposed to be a fun afternoon of baking and decorating cookies. This is something my mother-in-law enjoyed. She had wonderful heartfelt memories of doing the same with her mother and she wanted to share that joy with me. I shared my righteous anger about this invitation with others and had a “how dare she” attitude.

A friend said, “Maybe she sincerely just wants to make cookies with you. Consider that she wants to enjoy time with you in the kitchen creating something together. She wants to make memories and create an experience with you. She is not ‘out to get you.'”

This was an epiphany to me. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to spend time with me for the sake of doing just that. I didn’t see value in my worth and couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to connect with me on a deeper level, and, to be honest, the thought paralyzed me.

I grew up feeling like I was a nuisance. I talked too much. I was around too much. I asked too many questions. I was something to be tolerated—not celebrated. I was demanding—I needed to eat and wear clothes. I sometimes got sick, which in turn made my mom huff and puff about me coughing and having to go see a doctor, which cost money we didn’t have. I tried to hide and blend in, but it didn’t work. I was always doing something wrong. I was always walking on eggshells. I felt as if just by breathing and having needs—I was a problem.

I wonder how many other adults grew up this way and have a “praise deficit.” I wonder how many children are afflicted currently with emotional neglect. Especially with us as adults and caretakers right now, when we can barely stop to breathe and take care of ourselves.

Emotional neglect is a pressing issue for many adults, as well. I know I ran far and wide from my emotions for fear of them catching up to me. When I finally came to a screeching halt and stopped to feel, the true healing began.

Sharing about it can be our first step toward liberation and strength. Seeking guidance and help to walk this valley is instrumental.

We no longer need to be a secret. Sharing takes the shame away. It’s okay to acknowledge these parts of ourselves.

That is my hope for all of us.

(And, I did go make the cookies.)


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