Childhood emotional neglect – the hidden root of my pain
I just had my second EMDR therapy session. In EMDR we focus on a particular memory from our life – usually a traumatic one. I was working with an image of me when I was a child and my mother who was particularly unresponsive to my needs. Just to remind you, at the beginning of therapy my therapist confirmed that I was emotionally deprived/neglected as a child. Since then I read the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect by Dr Jonice Webb which further helped me understand my “diagnosis”.
The book very well explains what emotional neglect is – it’s not about what happened but about what didn’t happen in our childhood. To neglect means to fail to notice, respond; to fail to recognise. It’s the act of omission rather than commission on one’s side and that’s why it’s so hard to detect and pin down. As the author writes, “it’s the white space in the family picture”.
Back to my EMDR session, I was working with a memory of an “act” of emotional neglect from my mother. In that memory, she completely failed to recognise my emotional needs at the moment and failed to meet them. She was pretty oblivious to what I was going through, to say the least. This brought up many feelings to the surface. With my recently acquired understanding of CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect), I could see how I grew up to believe what I believe about myself.
The feelings ranged from sadness and regret over missed opportunities to lack and loss to disgust and anger to emptiness and numbness. I could see my mother failing to tune in to my needs and to see me as the person I am. I could see that she did not see ME. In other words, I did not exist for her, my needs did not matter to her – at least that was the message I have internalised.
As this internalised message turns into a belief over the years, it can cause terrible pain and suffering in one’s life. And I want to make clear that what we talk about here are many and multiple “acts” of emotional neglect and examples and memories like this. It’s important to note that every parent makes similar mistakes and sometimes misses to read correctly the emotional needs of the child. But we can speak of Emotional Neglect when this parental behaviour is the norm rather than an occasional event.
In EMDR the goal is to process the emotion/s related to that particular memory so that it can lose its potency and power over you. The purpose is to neutralise the memory and turn it into just a memory from the past. The thing about emotional trauma is that when it’s not processed it gets stuck into your emotional body and can cause many symptoms, including mental, psychological and physical.
As we were working with the memory from my childhood, eventually we “stumbled” upon something big. I felt the feelings mentioned above but I also felt that there was something much bigger, deeper and hidden away. Every time I “touched” it, it ran away, it fled. I felt that it was something that I have neatly packed and carefully tucked away, a long time ago. It was masterfully hidden from my conscious mind.
Then we changed tactics and instead of “chasing” the big deep thing in terms of feelings and emotions, we focused on visualising it and sensing it in the body. And that’s when it revealed itself. At first, it showed up like a ball of knots stuck in my chest area. Then it was more like a grey heavy rock weighing on me still in the same area of my body. Eventually, I saw it as a sort of a tumour. It wouldn’t be far off to suggest the connection with the fact that both my mother and sister died from breast cancer. In my case, the real physical cancer has not yet manifested in my body but the “emotional cancer” was there.
And it’s true that this cancer has been eating me away for most of my life, on an emotional level. It’s been like a disease sucking away the joy and spontaneity from my life, distorting reality and compromising relationships. For most of what I remember, I’ve been an observer of life, not an active participant in it. This is what Emotional Neglect does to a person.
As I continued to visualise the “tumour” in my chest, I focused on just breathing through it. I let my breath pass through it and open space in my ribcage. Slowly, the heavy grey rock turned into a porous, sponge-like orange one. It started to lose some of its weight and presence.
For now, it’s still there and we’ll definitely need to work more on it. An emotional trauma stuck in our bodies since the beginning of our lives doesn’t go away easily. But what’s important is that the door has been opened. For many years I’ve been afraid to open that door because I didn’t know what might come through and that I won’t be able to deal with it. But after five years on this healing journey, now I have knowledge, strength, tools and support which can help me heal the root of my pain.1