One thing never ceases to surprise me. It’s the number of good, caring people who feel some kind of inexplicable guilt in their relationships with their parents.
In fact, as a psychologist, I have seen this so often that it’s prompted me to do considerable thinking and research on the causes of these guilty feelings. And my concerns about this were an important part of my decision to write my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
In today’s article, I am sharing an excerpt from that book, somewhat abbreviated and slightly altered. I hope it helps you understand the sources of your own guilt, whether your guilt is healthy for you, and also what you can do about it.
Your Relationship With Your Parents
Built into our human brains from birth is an inborn need for attention and understanding from our parents. Like the essential vitamins and minerals our bodies need, we must receive enough of these basic emotional ingredients to grow up strong, self-assured and emotionally capable.
We do not choose to have these needs, and we cannot choose to get rid of them. They are powerful and real, and they drive us throughout our lives, whether we realize it or not.
Yet legions of children grow up receiving, at best, a watered down version of attention, understanding, and approval from their parents. I call this lack of fulfillment of the child’s basic emotional needs Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
I have noticed that many people try to downplay these essential requirements by viewing them as a weakness, or by declaring themselves somehow free of them.
I don’t care what my parents think about me.
I’m sick and tired of trying to please them.
They just don’t matter to me anymore.
I fully understand why you may convince yourself that your basic emotional needs are not real. After all, it’s very painful to have your most deeply personal, biological needs thwarted throughout your childhood. It’s a natural coping strategy to try to minimize that frustration, hurt and sadness, or eradicate it altogether.
But the reality is, no one, and I mean NO ONE escapes this need. You can push it down, you can deny it, and you can deceive yourself, but it does not go away. That’s why growing up without being seen, known, understood and approved by your parents leaves its mark on you.
Once grown, in addition to the effects of the Emotional Neglect itself, (see previous posts to learn about them) certain contradictory feelings end up plaguing CEN children in their relationship with their parents.
Many emotionally neglected children grew up in homes that seemed, from the outside, normal. They may have had good enough houses, adequate schools, and all of their basic needs met. Yet their most deeply important emotional needs are invisibly and subtly thwarted.
As adults, CEN folks remember all the physical things their parents gave them, but they are often unaware of the importance of how their parents failed them emotionally. That’s why CEN children grow up with very complex and confusing feelings about their parents.
Typically, love alternates with anger, appreciation with deprivation, and tenderness with impatience or boredom. Wondering why you don’t feel more positive and loving feelings toward your parents leaves you feeling guilty. Guilt pops up seemingly out of nowhere, or for confusing reasons. And none of these feelings make sense to you.
But with all that said, growing up thwarted in this way is not a sentence to being damaged. In fact, it is very possible if, instead of disavowing it, you accept that your needs are natural and real. Then you can purposely manage not only your own emotional needs but also your feelings. In this way, you can heal the pain of growing up unseen, unknown or misunderstood.
Do you get inexplicably angry at your parents when you interact with them, and then feel guilty about it later? Do you feel obligated to go to family gatherings, simply because you always have, and because your parents expect it? Would you feel terribly guilty if you decided to do something different that’s healthier and better for you? I’m betting there’s a good chance your answer to one or more of those questions is yes.
However, it’s important to realize that guilt is not useful in situations such as these. Guilt is meant to stop us from unnecessarily harming or violating others. It is not meant to stop us from protecting ourselves. You, who are only needing to take care of yourself and stop yourself from being repeatedly hurt or ignored (or both), are the last person who should be experiencing guilt.
Your guilt may pop up and get in your way of making healthy changes and/or protecting yourself better. Your guilt is draining, and it makes you vulnerable to being hurt more. And this is why it must be battled back. I designed the technique below to help you do just that. You can also use it for any other situation in which unhelpful guilt plagues or weighs on you.
The 4 Step Guilt Management Technique
1. Rate your guilt intensity from 1-10, with 1 representing barely noticeable guilt, and 10 the maximum amount.
2. Attribute your guilt to its true sources. To do this, ask yourself these helpful questions, and write down your answers.
- What exactly do I feel guilty about?
- What percentage of my guilt is about an action I took or am considering taking, and how much is about a feeling I’m having, like anger, resentment, irritation or repulsion?
- Is my guilt giving me a helpful message of any kind? For example, is it telling me to change my behavior?
- Are my parents (or siblings or spouse) trying to make me feel this guilt?
3. Make some decisions based on your guilt rating and attributions. If your guilt is offering you no useful message, try to actively manage it so that it doesn’t affect your ability to set limits with your parents. This will be easy if your rating is low. If it’s medium, you may need to often pause, remind yourself that your guilt is not useful, and actively put it aside. If it’s high, I encourage you to talk with someone about it. You may benefit from the support of a trained professional. I have seen guilt cripple many strong people, holding them back from making necessary changes in their relationships with their parents.
4. Use these reminders to manage your guilt. Reread this list as often as necessary.
- Your negative, mixed and painful feelings toward your parents do make sense. You have them for a reason.
- You can’t choose your feelings.
- Feelings themselves are not bad or wrong. Only actions can be judged this way.
- No matter how much your parents gave you, it does not erase the damage done by their failure to validate you emotionally.
- It’s your responsibility to set the limits with your parents that will protect you, your spouse and your children from emotional depletion and damage, even if it feels bad or wrong to do so.
Guilt has an uncanny way of distracting you from your more useful feelings, like your anger for example. Your feelings of anger at your parents are there for a reason. They are your body’s way of telling you that you must take action to protect yourself.
Is your anger telling you to distance from your parents a bit? To protect yourself better? To talk to your parents about CEN? To set limits with your parents? To say, “No” to a family obligation? To challenge your parents more when they emotionally neglect you today? All these messages are of great value to you, and they are lost when guilt intervenes.
The bottom line is this: Your feelings are your feelings and you have them for a reason. But, for you, guilt is not helpful. It is your responsibility to manage your guilt so that you can own and listen to and manage all of your other feelings. Then your relationship with your parents will finally make sense to you.
To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect affects you throughout your adulthood in your most important relationships; and for help to decide whether and how to protect yourself or talk about CEN with your parents, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
CEN can be hard to see or remember so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.