What didn’t happen in your childhood and what you don’t remember has as much power over who you’ve become as an adult as the things that did happen and that you do remember.

It’s an invisible factor called Emotional Neglect, and it can disrupt your health, personal life, relationships, and career in silent, invisible ways. Many of us suffered Emotional Neglect from our parents to some degree or another.

But it’s difficult to realize the effect this lack of nurturing, connection, and compassion has had on your adult life. Instead, adults who have been emotionally neglected often mislabel their unhappiness as something else, like depression, marital problems, anger, or anxiety.

As a psychologist, I’ve seen that even a very subtle lack of enough nurturing, compassion, and connection when we were children can have an insidious effect on us as adults, causing us to struggle with self-discipline and self-care, and to feel unworthy, disconnected, and unfulfilled.

But one thing folks who experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) have in common is difficulty taking care of themselves. Putting your own needs first, in the way that everyone must do in order to live a happy and healthy life, feels selfish or wrong.

Or, since you are literally “wired” to ignore yourself and your own needs, putting yourself first is simply not even in your mind as an option. It’s not on your radar screen.

The good news is that once you become aware of this unseen force from childhood, you can accept that your needs and preferences and wishes do matter, and you can begin to express them. You can begin to treat yourself the way you should have been treated all along. You can begin to put yourself first in a healthy, energizing way.

Four Ways to Put 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 rule: 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.

  1. Ask for Help. Then Accept It. 

As an emotionally neglected child, you internalized your parents’ message: “Don’t have feelings, don’t show feelings, don’t need anything from anyone, ever.” 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 for you.

  1. 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 and least 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.

  1. Prioritize Your Enjoyment.

When you were growing up emotionally neglected, you probably weren’t allowed to make choices that led to your own enjoyment. Or, if your family was scrambling for resources, perhaps there wasn’t much left 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 allow for opportunities,  such as a movie or hiking companion. And you need to know what you like so you can seek it out. Think of one activity you’d like to pursue, and then follow up by taking action. Having more pleasure in your life will make you a happier person.

Following these four steps can have a tremendous impact on your life. As you gradually work on implementing them, you will find yourself feeling stronger, happier, and more empowered. You will find the voice you never found before, feel the fun you never knew existed, and preserve the inner energy you never before protected.

You will slowly,  step by step, bit by bit, send much-needed, long overdue messages to yourself:

Your needs matter.

Your feelings matter.

You are worth it.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible and difficult to remember, so as an adult, it can be difficult to know if you have it. I invite you to visit my website to Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

Photo by Marie in NC