How much neglect have you suffered in your life?

12 Mar 2019

Have you suffered with neglect in your life?  Before you even answer that, take a moment to think about what you understand by neglect. How does neglect relate to your narrative about your own experience?  You may never have considered yourself a poster girl for neglect, yet neglect may have impacted your life, from childhood on, more than you had considered.

What makes emotional neglect important

What makes neglect worthy of your consideration?

First off, because neglect is a kind of emotional abuse.

Second, if neglect does play in the painful feelings and responses to situations that you experience, then    recognizing it will help you to address your own distress more effectively.

The more you understand your wounds the more you can minimize them rather than have them undermine you.

How do you know if you have suffered emotional neglect?

But how would you even know if you had suffered neglect in childhood?  The simple answer is that you may well not know.  Obviously, if you suffered a significant degree of physical neglect you could not help but be aware of it.  To some degree, at least. But how likely would you be to recognize emotional neglect?

Emotional neglect is subtle.  Lack of care, support, availability love and acknowledgement are all the hallmarks of emotional neglect.  But these are not things that you can see.

The void of emotional neglect

Emotional neglect is the least visible form of emotional abuse. It can be, quite literally, wordless.  If you have been emotionally neglected, the most you will likely be aware of is a void, either inside you or around you.

My whole childhood went by in a bubble of emotional neglect.  Key decisions were made for me without any consideration of my feelings.  My parents changed my school – 3 times – without ever consulting me.  My opinion – on my own life – was considered irrelevant.  My parents never suggested to my older siblings and me that it might be a nice idea for us to get along.  (We never have.)  I sensed that there was something wrong, that other people’s siblings cared about them as mine, manifestly, did not. But that was as far as it went.

What “It could have been worse” really indicates

The other side of the coin was that my childhood was not all bad.  In point of fact, it was one of those,

“it-could-have-been-worse” childhoods, characterized by consistent neglect.   Financially, we were secure – even privileged .  My parents had a stable marriage stayed together (and fought each other and the world together).   They were not physically violent.  I received a good education.   For all of that, I have always been truly grateful. 

So, what could I possibly have had to complain about? 

In reality, the sufferer’s stoicism is one key indication of emotional neglect.  You have an awareness  of how things could have been worse. But you cannot identify exactly what would have need to be to be different for things to be better.

Over the years, I have worked with many clients whose experiences from childhood on have made mine look like a walk in the park.  I have learned two key things about neglect from them.

Minimization and compassion

1)  Neglect sufferers tend to underplay the sheer awfulness of what they have been through.  In part, this was a necessary mechanism if they were to survive that awfulness. In part, they just did not know what support and validation would have looked and felt like in the context of their environment.

2) They don’t make comparisons.   They are compassionate towards the sufferings of others.  They feel the pain of others who have suffered  without ever saying – or even dreaming of saying – “You think you had it bad.  Let me tell you what I’ve been through.”

The uncompassionate “I had it so much harder than you” approach is, of course, the (proud) claim of abusers and Narcissists.

Whether or not there is any truth in the assertion is, of course, irrelevant.   Narcissists and abusers know that you, empathetic soul that you are, will get so caught up in compassion for their suffering that you will disregard your own.

How Narcissists and abusers cover their tracks

Abusers have a great talent for covering their tracks by levelling accusations against you.  No matter if those accusations are completely unfounded.

Narcissists and abusers use blame and false accusations to blind you to all kinds of abuse – especially emotional neglect.

Theoretically, childhood should be a safe haven where children get their emotional and physical needs met. In a toxic family that does not happen.  Instead the problem is turned back on you.

So, they will label you variously,

  • “difficult”,
  • “demanding”,
  • “dishonest”,
  • “disturbed”,
  • “too sensitive” ,
  • “crazy”,
  • “selfish”
  • “thoughtless”
  • “stupid”
  • “disgusting”

together with any other hurtful label that serves to shift attention away from  their failure to meet your needs.  

The shadow side of self-reliance 

Children start out asking for what they need.   However, in families where children’s needs meet with neglect and abuse, children soon learn to become unnaturally self-reliant.

When  you know that no help and support will be forthcoming, you stop asking for it. You soon become emotionally self-reliant once you realise that your options are to

  1. a) Soldier through a difficult situation alone or
  2. b) Ask for help and then add the neglectful person’s vilification to the problems you are already struggling with.

Sadly, when you only have yourself to rely on, you feel horribly alone, hopeless and powerless.  Emotional neglect teaches you that the odds are always stacked against you.

When the going gets tough

When the going gets tough, you learn to get on with things the best way you can.  You learn to get by, alone, knowing that the kind of help that you need will not be forthcoming.

Unfortunately, that exaggerated self-reliance plays out i in the divorce process.  Women who divorce a Narcissistic abuser most commonly do not get the help and support that they need from their lawyer.  Often, they do not even get the ear of their lawyer when they need it.  In such a scenario, a past history of neglect makes the woman more tolerant of being ill-served by her lawyer than she should be.

The entire script that neglectful “loved ones” use is designed to leave you carrying an enormous, paralyzing burden of shame – for who you are and how you are. In reality, you have NOTHING to be ashamed of.

How emotional neglect creates sitting ducks

By way of conclusion, let’s reverse engineer the whole issue of neglect.  Those of us who grew up with neglect were sitting ducks for an abusive – neglectful – partner.  We could not see them coming.  We could not understand the enormity of their behavior towards us.

Neglect teaches you to shoulder all the blame that people level at you as if that blame were justified.  It teaches you to try and hide the shame that neglect engenders by hiding yourself and your feelings. It teaches you to struggle through monstrous difficulties unsupported – and then label yourself “pathetic” because you cannot do more. Neglect teaches you to live your life like a non-swimmer trying desperately to keep yourself afloat in waters where there is no lifeguard .

Neglect was never your fault.  Nor does it have to be your burden any longer.  You can heal those wounds.  But you will have to start by reaching out and asking for support from someone who is willing and able to help you.


Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

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