There is no such thing as the final ‘Aha!’ moment, or the final lesson to be learned – though many of us convince ourselves otherwise and are privately certain that we reach our final bout of wisdom at a certain age and are then finished.
So, I write this with no expectation that it will be my final word, thought or insight into the subject, for such a claim would be arrogant; all I can say is that it may turn out to be the final piece in one minuscule jigsaw of the thousands that make up the overall picture of my life – but, there again, it may not!
I rarely read long articles on Facebook, so it must have been a pretty exceptional piece to have grabbed my interest in the first place – or so I thought. Actually, and having now read it, I know exactly why it appealed to me: It flagged up something I have long known, albeit at a subliminal level, about myself.
I experienced emotional neglect as a child – and, because of the nature of the scars this leaves, continue to invite it as an adult.
There. I’ve said it.
The article set out the signs to look for very clearly and succinctly, and I read with dawning horror, though not (and you’ll see the relevance of this in a minute) anger.
Emotionally neglected children have real problems accessing, and expressing, let alone emoting, their strong feelings. They learn early that such things will be ignored or harshly punished; that the primary caregiver doesn’t have the time, the energy, the inclination to listen, to soothe, to allow tears and screams and other healthy outlets.
Emotionally neglected children can become overly forgiving and motherly: Listening to everyone else first; diverting the conversation back to the other; genuinely believing that they are bottom of the need pile. They are so used to being ignored and left till last and not answered that, in later life, any silence will have two contrary, but powerful, effects: Absolute soul-wrenching panic and distress, and complete inability to access the anger which such neglect actually deserves.
Children who have been neglected or abused often act out inappropriately while finding it almost impossible to ask for help – and, on those occasions when others notice their unhappiness, to express the deep emotion it brings in its train. Ironically, many neglected children become excellent listeners, and carers, from an early age because they have been taught to put others first and themselves very definitely last. In the frantic time-limited world of their childhood homes, they are trained to respond to ‘I’m too busy’ without sulking or crying or showing any sign other than acceptance. Any attention becomes incredibly valuable and sought after – even, sad to relate, that of a negative kind.
Very often these children are withdrawn at school, or find it difficult to make and keep close friends – mainly because they find it so hard to open up and share and turn most conversations onto the other which, after a while, is unnerving and like conversing with a characterless ghost. Because they learn to close their own faces and turn expressions off, other children often mistake them for aloof, remote, snobbish, superior types – or plain weird – and give them a wide berth. Because they find it so difficult to join in, they are often left out. Because they are quiet, they get ignored.
The bottom line, however, and the most worrying effect of years of neglect, is that these young people accept abuse from almost anyone from childhood onwards. They have a distressing habit of picking emotionally mean friends, lovers, partners. They often marry emotional neglectors – and feel profoundly uneasy when around the emotionally generous because, sadly, such people seem too rich a mixture, too bountiful in the emotional desert that is the child’s inner world.
When I read this article, I was transfixed and appalled. I could identify with every symptom laid out in it. It explained much about my behaviour that I had always found troubling and mysterious, wondering (silently) if I were, in fact, a sociopath or a psychopath because of my inability to cry or feel much in public.
But I also knew that I had been neglected emotionally by my parents; that, as the oldest, I was expected to attain a maturity beyond my years and to accept small portions of hurried affection and listening only when nothing more pressing came up. I learned early to hide my emotions and express them only in the journal.
My first relationship was with a man who had his own insecurities, it is true, but who was not emotionally neglectful; in fact, so generous was he that I felt overwhelmed and flooded after so many years of emotional wasteland. I could not respond and this, I suspect, was part of the reason why we split up in the end.
Since then, I have chosen, and attracted, emotionally neglectful men into my life, where intimate relationships are concerned at any rate. I have dated, slept with and married my parents in other words. The numbness in the face of cruelty and neglect; the extremes of gratitude (almost grovelling) when given any attention and warmth; the absolute terror of being thought cold, even insane, because of my poker face and dry eyes – all of this stems from early childhood.
I put off motherhood for a very long time because I was afraid, afraid I did not have the emotional warmth and depth to care for a child. I was, at a deep level, terrified that I would neglect any child, or children, that I did bear; that something cold in my nature (as I saw it) would wound a growing human being.
When I did get pregnant, at thirty-nine, these thoughts pre-occupied me. I was also scared that I would not be able to bond with my child when he was born; that he would grow up feeling unloved, unwanted, fatally flawed, the way I had.
I can see now that I went the opposite way with my son. I was stifling at times, over-protective, terrified of letting him out of my sight. But out of the barrenness came something unexpected, a green shoot in a sandy landscape: The ability to love unconditionally. It was, perhaps, then that I realised I was not cold and remote or unfeeling.
But I have problems to this day which can be traced back to emotional neglect, one of them being my tendency to allow others to ignore me for long periods of time without my getting angry or demanding attention – and then to be so grateful when the period of isolation has passed that I would sell my very soul for those precious nuggets of time and affection (no matter how shallow). This was one of my ex-husband’s chief means of controlling me, and I fell for it every time, too insecure to rage at him and tell him to stop.
It also means that I do not expect anyone to answer my emails and letters, whilst longing for them to do so; that I am unable to find appropriate fury at being ignored by people; that I have very weak boundaries when it comes to other people’s treatment of me. Recent example: Nearly a year ago, I wrote a letter to certain people explaining why I was divorcing my ex. Most of them still have not written back. Did I write again more aggressively? No, of course not: That would be infringing upon their precious time and interrupting more important parts of their lives. It hurt, terribly, but that kind of pain is all-too-familiar and in no way special or deserving of different behaviour from, or towards, me.
Six weeks ago, I sent out another letter, an update on my life in Glastonbury. No one responded. Others would, I am sure, have taken a more pro-active stance in the wake of this kind of neglect and said, ‘Hey, did you get my letter?’ or similar; I have not because, to me, that is like unacceptable hassling and insensitive wasting of other people’s time.
It is the inability to tell others off, to get angry, to assert my rights that so distresses me. It is this level of allowing others to neglect me, to make me wait, that triggers the childhood silence and fear. I was powerless as a child. We all are at some point. But the neglected part of my character has remained powerless and afraid, tip-toeing around others in this fearful way, terrified of giving offence, allowing all sorts rather than risk annoying the all-powerful parent figure.
I am very glad that I read the article, though it hurt to do so. It and the recent fox sighting have become symbols of regrowth, of new boundaries and recognition in my mind and heart. I understand that I have given myself other people’s negative labels and incorporated them within in a damaging way: That I have believed I was cold, insane, difficult and so on because other, more dominant, people told me I was. I understand that such labels can actively prevent us from opening up, being overtly emotional and trusting others. But I also see that these labels are neither binding not absolute truths.
Not expressing my every emotion outwardly does not make me a cold and harsh person; in fact, I am coming to see that I am both warm and loving. Chosen eccentricity (partly as a shield) does not imply actual insanity. Being difficult is, sometimes, necessary in order to keep that firm line drawn in the sand. Gaps in communication are not always sinister – and I am learning to recognise those who are deliberately ignoring me from those who simply have a great deal on their plates.
My final point: Neglected children often find it very hard to push abusive people away. They become co-dependant within the relationship. The constant abuse and neglect followed by charm and affection confuses the inner child so much that he/she does not know how to react. This is why I have kept toxic people in my life far longer than was healthy. Such people are highly adept when it comes to giving just enough apparent kindness and positive attention to make leaving very difficult, whilst continuing to abuse and neglect as and when it suits them.
I am not alone in this. Understanding it helps. I may never become the epitome of emotional expressiveness, but at least I can now discount, and start to offload, many of the more unhelpful earlier labels.
Neglect from others can so easily turn into self-neglect. This has been very true of me for much of my life. But I am determined that I will not neglect myself in this latest phase of my journey; that I will continue to nurture the small inner me and to invite positive and loving people into my life; that I will choose radiators and abstain from contact with drains!