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Why Emotional Neglect Was More Damaging to Me Than Overt Abuse Growing Up

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I grew up in an extremely dysfunctional home with a raging, alcoholic and narcissistic father. I still carry a lot of pain over the traumatic memories of his irrational outbursts and propensity to punish me for imagined slights. I struggle with an overbearing sense of responsibility and need to be blameless as a result of his abuse. But recognizing the ways he abused me and my subsequent hangups are pretty easy to identify. Though painful, my father’s overt behavior is not as difficult to process as the other forms of abuse I experienced. The hardest is emotional neglect.

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The constant baseline in my home was not angry outbursts, it was neglect. It was the chronic, constant expectation that I would not cause any trouble by having needs of any kind. If I did attempt to be seen or heard, I would be punished. My parents were experts in emotional neglect and covert abuse. As a young child, I was expected to require minimal upkeep. My physical need for food, clothing and shelter were met (minimally), and in a way, that made the covert abuse much worse. It was not the kind of neglect that would go on some social worker’s report. We were expected to keep up appearances and resemble a normal, middle class family at all times. My mother put on a good face in public and knew all the social cues to act like a loving, supportive parent. Ironically, she worked in a helping profession and especially knew all the buzz words to sound like she cared. But at home, when the mask came off, there was nothing behind it. My mother was faceless, emotionless, and reactionless robot. The only life advice she ever offered me in the face of being physically and sexually assaulted was to “just ignore it.”

Growing up, there was no one to mirror healthy reactions or emotions. Anything that made noise or caused a disturbance was “bad.” Anger (besides my father’s) and grief were especially off-limits. This emotional shut-down was the breeding ground for severe problems. Not only was I not allowed to be myself, I was not allowed to be a person. I was not allowed to have basic needs or desires. I was not allowed to be seen or heard. There were major consequences for breaking the rules of my non-existence.

Subsequently, the only encouragement I received was to be “good.” Being good in my family meant to live a life in submissive service to my parents’ egos. Any success on my part was only valid if it made my parents look good to others. Whether or not those successes were important to my own formation were inconsequential.  If I misspoke about what I might like to do, or what talents I might like to discover about myself, it was met with silence.

Emotional neglect in the form of silence is deadly. I have come a long way in reprogramming my internal “tapes,” but so much of my internal struggle is a result of having nothing but dead air playing back at me. When someone tells you outright you’re a terrible, worthless person and you’ll never amount to anything, it can sound so outrageous that it loses its power. When the same thing is said through subtext and silent treatment, its effects are much more difficult to uproot. It’s an invisible weed planted in the subconscious mind, and its extremely difficult to find its source. Emotional neglect in the form of silence is often minimized because on the surface it doesn’t look that bad. It runs, unnoticed,  in the background of everything we say and do. And that’s exactly why it’s worse. It’s as invisible as air, and as destructive as a tornado.

My parents didn’t tell me what they liked about me, and they didn’t tell me what they didn’t like. You know the saying, “Silence speaks louder than words”? It’s true. What my parents’ silence told me is that not only am I not worthy of praise, I am not even worthy of critique. It doesn’t matter what I say or do. It can never be enough, because I don’t really exist. Physical abuse implies there is a physical body to abuse. Therefore, there is a possibility for physical evidence and consequences. Covert abuse through emotional neglect denies one’s very existence.

Getty Images photo via Grandfailure

Originally published: November 3, 2018
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