Overcoming neglect: true life precedes true love
By Karin Friedemann,
TMO Contributing writer
In nature, animal offspring is occasionally rejected by the mother. This leads to almost certain death. The reasons could vary from the mother’s lack of resources – for example a starving dog might only be willing to nurse the strongest two puppies and let the other ten die – to the rejection of one particular baby for being “different” from the group. The rejected one might need extra care, which would drain the resources of the group. Or the “different” one might attract danger. For example, white baby lions are often abandoned and left to die by their mothers, for fear that the brightness of their color would attract predators and endanger the entire tribe.
In most human societies, abandoning one’s baby to die is a serious crime, so it is not often done, but parents quite frequently emotionally reject their children, abuse or neglect them. This could be due to a lack of the parent’s ability or willingness to care about the child’s needs, or from a desire to punish the child for being “different” from the group expectations. The parents might provide the child with three meals a day and even pay for their college expenses, but there is limited guidance and emotional support. The parent either does not invest much effort to connect emotionally with the child, or else outright crushes the child’s self-esteem in various ways.
Unless the child has another adult caretaker in his life, who compensates for the lack of parental empathy, who helps the child develop trust in an emotionally safe relationship, the child will grow up to be an adult with an underdeveloped sense of self and a handicapped ability to fulfill his or her adult intimacy needs with another adult. Children without an extended family are especially vulnerable, because there is no one to run to when home becomes a hostile environment.
Children will only flourish if the following types of needs are consistently met: 1. Physical needs for affection and protection; 2. Emotional needs for caring, regard and interest; 3. Spiritual needs for recognition of their worth and basic goodness; 4. Verbal needs for welcoming inquiry, positive feedback, and multidimensional conversation.
Relational Therapist Pete Walker MA, MFT writes in “Emotional Neglect and Complex PTSD,” that people neglected as children “never learn that a relationship with a healthy person can become an irreplaceable source of comfort and enrichment… Love coming their way reverberates threateningly on a subliminal level. If, from their perspective, they momentarily ‘trick’ someone into seeing them as loveable, they fear that this forbidden prize will surely be taken away the minute their social perfectionism fails and unmasks some normal flaw or foible.”
Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by childhood abuse or neglect is usually characterized by emotional flashbacks that invade the present and overlap one’s perception of reality. Various personality types will respond in different ways to these flashbacks. Safety is the ultimate goal of each type of reaction.
Walker groups flashback reactions into four categories: Fight, flight, freeze or fawn. Fight reactions generally involve displaced anger. Obsessive compulsions are viewed as a form of flight, or distancing oneself from the traumatic emotions; freezing could include oversleeping or TV watching; and fawning involves pleasing behaviors intended to prevent rejection:
“Servitude, ingratiation, and forfeiture of any needs that might inconvenience and ire the parent become the most important survival strategies available.”
The good news is that healing from C-PTSD is possible. The first step is learning to recognize that an emotional flashback is occurring and to train the mind to stop the thought and redirect focus. Types of emotional flashbacks are feelings of toxic shame, powerlessness, and rejection. These feelings can creep into our day or even into our sleep, disrupting normal functioning. Repetitive refocusing eventually establishes new neural pathways around our habitual pain.
The second step is to learn to recognize and value your “inner child,” and to be the kind of adult that your younger self required. This means learning self-empathy and self-care skills. This requires validating to the inner child that the attacking negative emotion is truly horrible and bad. When an emotional flashback is happening, our adult self needs to step up and defend our child self, creating healthy boundaries by angrily saying “No!”
“How DARE you tell my inner child that no one could ever love her!” we must learn to tell our inner critic when such deeply-ingrained destructive thoughts arise.
Then we need to take our inner child by the hand and make her feel worthy of love by stomping off together to the gym, or the park, making and eating a healthy meal, getting our hair done, improving our home, or whatever makes us feel like we are getting ready for true life.
The third step of healing is learning to develop authentic human relationships. It is often recommended to hire a therapist when first experimenting with raw honesty. The establishment of trust in a “safe enough” relationship is when you can be your whole self with another person, who is not going to leave, even though you exposed yourself. This requires another person to be safe and caring. While an ideal partner is not always readily available, learning to recognize what is NOT an authentic relationship comes first – and with it the ability to free oneself from people who trigger emotional vigilance and other psychic defense mechanisms. We also have to recognize that not everyone can be our best friend. We have to protect our inner child from public rejection by using our adult sense of self to choose wisely about whom we reveal our secrets to, while being open to experiencing many emotions with one who has earned our trust.
Editor’s note: the author’s views are her own.