Sister, brother, husband, wife, aunt, uncle, or friend. There are many different roles that important people may play in your life. But no role is anything remotely like your parents.
The people who brought you into this world are special, and they enjoy some very special privileges. Privileges you would probably never award to anyone else under any other circumstances.
Any mental health professional will tell you that it is extremely hard for even strong, capable adults to set limits with their parents and hold them accountable, no matter how much harm the parents may do in their children’s adult lives.
In many ways, holding our parents accountable is one of the most difficult for us human beings to do. Between our own biology and the messages we hear every day from the culture around us, it’s impossible to not receive the megaphoned party line: that our parents are to be loved, respected, and given authority over our lives, no matter what.
As a therapist, I have stood by helplessly and watched scores of wonderful people allow their parents to hurt them over and over emotionally — and sometimes even physically. I have watched many strong people put their parents’ needs and wishes ahead of their own, to their own great detriment.
I have realized that we humans’ parents are literally wired into our brains. The deep connection that forms from being created and reared, regardless of the quality of that rearing, keeps us feeling a deep sense of obligation and responsibility toward these two people for a lifetime.
The deep bond of our brains with our parents is, I am certain, a function of evolution. Just as parents’ brains are wired to nurture their young, their children’s brains are likewise wired to respect and follow their parents. When you think about it, this “wiring” is part of the brilliance of nature, as it contributes to the survival of the species. But unfortunately, it can also have the reverse effect upon many undeserving folks.
When this happens, nature’s mechanism that’s meant to help us survive physically as a species ends up making it very difficult for you to thrive emotionally as an individual.
This is a set-up for guilt and disappointment in your relationship with your parents. You end up caught between a deep, abiding hope that your parents will one day finally give you what you need (not because you’re weak but because you are human and that need is wired into your brain) and consistent disappointment when they fail to do so.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you.
In my experience, the group of people who struggle the most with the hope/guilt/disappointment cycle is the group who grew up emotionally neglected. Since a parent’s failure to respond emotionally (CEN) can be difficult to see when it happens and very hard to recall as an adult, the emotionally neglected tend to hold only themselves accountable for their adult struggles. Many defend their parents vehemently.
I had a great childhood.
My parents did their very best.
My parents are wonderful people.
It’s not my parents, it’s me. Something is wrong with me.
But these kernels of truth are only kernels. In reality, none of this is as it seems.
After all, your childhood may have been fine in many ways. Your parents may have indeed done the best they could based upon how their parents raised them. They may be wonderful people. And there is indeed something wrong for you now. But the fact remains that your parents failed you emotionally, and now you are left to struggle with the effects of that.
No matter how great your parents are, and no matter how hard they tried, if they failed to notice what you were feeling enough, then you ended up emotionally shortchanged. Some part of you feels unseen, unknown, or under-cared for by your parents. And since emotionally neglectful parents are blind to emotions in general, that will, sadly, be unlikely to change without some effort on your part.
Many emotionally neglectful parents (not all) can and will make efforts to change once they are called to action by their child. Many other types of parents will change in response to boundaries and limits as well.
Every day that you fail to accept that your parents failed you; every day that you blame yourself instead of holding your parents accountable, you are paying a heavy price in three important ways. First, you are keeping your hope alive that someday your parents will see and embrace the real you. Second, you are eroding your self-worth with misplaced blame; and third, you are sentencing yourself to a lifetime of feeling unseeable, unknowable, and perhaps unlovable.
If you grew up abused in any way by your parents; if you were left alone a lot — regardless of the reason; if you were emotionally ignored or suppressed (Childhood Emotional Neglect); if you were treated like an outsider, unfairly blamed, abandoned, over-controlled, misguided or unguided, walked on, misunderstood, pushed aside or hurt, I want you to know that it is not your fault. In fact, it is, by definition of the parent/child relationship, never the child’s fault.
The sooner you realize that you didn’t choose your childhood, and that what you did and didn’t get while you were growing up defined what you are struggling with today, the sooner you can turn the corner. The sooner you can begin to say, “No more,” to those you raised you, and put yourself first instead of them; the sooner you will realize that you can heal, and grow, and change.
When you turn that corner, you will see that you are finally free of the chains that have been holding you back. You will see that you are able to step into your own shoes, look down and see your own feet moving.
Suddenly you will realize that you are going somewhere.
To learn much more about how to talk with your parents and/or set limits with them, see my new book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.