Do you struggle with self-care?

Do you put others’ needs before your own?

Are you afraid to ask for help?

Is it hard for you to know what you like, what you want, what you feel?

What didn’t happen in your childhood, and what you don’t remember has a great deal of power over how you feel now.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions and emotional needs while they are raising you.

Emotional Neglect can be incredibly subtle when it happens in your childhood, and yet it can hang over your adult life like a cloud, disrupting your happiness, health, personal life, relationships, and career in silent, invisible ways.

As a psychologist who’s been practicing for over 20 years, I’ve seen that a seemingly unimportant, often barely noticeable, and typically unmemorable lack of emotional validation when we are children can have an insidious effect on us as adults, causing us to struggle with self-discipline and self-care, or to feel unworthy, disconnected and unfulfilled.

When you’ve been emotionally neglected, you may tend to mislabel your unhappiness as something else: depression, anger, anxiety, or marital problems to name a few.

But growing up without enough emotional nurturance can be the root cause of each of these problems. Scores of research studies have shown that we all naturally grow up to treat ourselves in adulthood the way we were treated by our parents as children .

So it’s no surprise that perhaps the most ubiquitous struggle I see among those who grew up with a shortage of emotional validation and response is a tendency to fall short on self-care. You are literally raised to under-focus on your own needs, and to over-focus on others’ needs. 

How can you know what you want, what you need, or when you need help when you are not paying attention to yourself? How can you feel that it’s okay to assert your needs when all signals in childhood trained you to keep them quiet?

The good news is that once you become aware of this unseen force from your childhood, you can take charge of it. You can re-parent yourself. You can heal it yourself!

Four Steps to Putting Yourself First

  1. Learn to Say No: The people in your life have learned that you will be there for them, because that’s what emotionally neglected people do. Being a generous, compassionate person is wonderful, but sacrificing yourself too much by saying “yes” to things that deplete your time and energy is not. Remember this simple guideline: Anyone has the right to ask you for anything, and you have the equal right to say “no” without giving a reason. Saying no when you need to, free of guilt and discomfort, is a vital building block of self-care.
  2. Ask For Help: As an emotionally neglected child, you internalized your parents’ message: “Don’t have feelings, don’t show feelings, don’t need anything from anyone.” If it’s hard for you to say no to others, it’s probably equally hard for you to ask them for help or a favor. To free yourself from this difficult bind, all you have to do is accept that other people don’t feel guilty or uncomfortable saying no, and they don’t have angst about asking for help. As soon as you can join them, a new world will open up to you.
  3. Discover Your Likes and Dislikes: If you were emotionally neglected as a child, you may have difficulty knowing yourself, perhaps because your needs were not considered often and you weren’t invited to voice your preferences. As a result, you may have certain areas where you know yourself well, and others in which you’re mystified. If you’ve been focused outward for much of your life, you may not be able to identify your likes and dislikes, such as the types of people, food, and entertainment you most enjoy, or even the style of clothes, hobbies and future aspirations that appeal to you. Your likes and dislikes are valid and important, so take the time to write them down.
  4. Prioritize Your Enjoyment: When you were growing up emotionally neglected, you may not have been able to make choices that brought you enjoyment. Or, if your family was scrambling for resources, perhaps there wasn’t enough time or money for fun things. In some ways, this last strategy encapsulates the previous three. In order to put a higher priority on your own enjoyment, you have to say no to requests that pull you too far away from it. You have to ask for help sometimes so that you feel enough support and connection to others to feel comfortable initiating an enjoyable activity, such as a movie or a hike. And you need to know what you like so that you can seek it out. Think of one activity you’d like to pursue, and then follow up by asking someone to join you. Having more pleasure and connection in your life will make you a happier person.

You can stop allowing that invisible cloud to hang over your life. You can face those gaps that were left by what you didn’t get, and you can fill them.

Putting yourself first is not selfish or self-centered. In fact it is healthy. It’s loving and it’s caring and it’s nurturing.

And you deserve it.

To learn more about Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how it leaves you struggling with self-care, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty.

Since Childhood Emotional Neglect is so subtle and invisible, it can be hard to know if you have it. Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test.

Photo by Suus Wansink