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3 New Year’s Resolutions to Help Heal Emotional Neglect

These three goals can change how you treat yourself and your emotions.

Key points

  • Those who grew up with emotional neglect can struggle with setting goals and keeping them.
  • You can teach yourself how to set goals and stick to them by looking for joy in everyday life and changing your words to express emotion.
  • To practice discipline three times each day, make yourself do something you don’t want to or stop doing something you should not.
missmimimina/Adobe Stock Images
Source: missmimimina/Adobe Stock Images

Even though research shows that every year most people lose the struggle to keep their resolutions past February, as a psychologist and specialist in emotional neglect, I have seen that keeping New Year’s resolutions is especially difficult for those who grew up with emotional neglect in their families. And for some very good reasons.

Childhood emotional neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions while raising you. This subtle, often invisible parental failure leaves its mark on you.

By under-responding to the feelings of its members, the emotionally neglectful family inadvertently communicates the unspoken message, "Your feelings don't matter," to the children, setting them up for a lifetime of treating their own emotions, which are the deepest, most personal expression of who they are, as unimportant, useless, or invalid.

Kids who grow up this way end up feeling, on some deep level, like they are less important or less valid than others.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Makes Keeping Resolutions More Difficult

  • Many emotionally neglected kids don't fully learn the foundations of self-discipline. Kids learn self-discipline from their parents. Many emotionally neglectful parents don't teach their children how to make themselves do things they should or stop doing something they shouldn't. These two skills form the cornerstones of self-discipline.
  • You grow up to under-value your own needs. Resolutions to eat healthily or go to the gym, for example, require you to pay attention to your own needs. If you grew up with your emotional needs under-attended, you might now struggle to take them seriously. This can hamper your success.
  • On some deep level, you may question whether you are worth the effort. A deep feeling of not being as valid as everyone else undermines your efforts to treat yourself as if you matter.

If some of this is ringing true for you, I want you to know that you can have success this coming year. There is a way to set resolutions that will be immediately rewarding and bring you quick and positive results. That way, you will set up a positive cycle that will feed itself, becoming more potent every day of the year.

Three Powerful Healing Resolutions for Emotional Neglect

A 2020 study by Oscarsson found that resolutions that add a positive behavior are more successful than resolutions intended to stop or reduce unwanted behavior. The three resolutions below add a positive and are behaviors that can directly heal the effects of childhood emotional neglect.

By Mangostar/Adobe stock images
Finding joy
Source: By Mangostar/Adobe stock images

1. Purposely Look For Joy in Your Everyday Life.

A 2015 study at Duke University found that Emotional Neglect in childhood slows the development of the brain's reward center, the ventral striatum, making it harder to feel happiness and joy in your adult life.

But here's a remarkable thing. I have asked many emotionally neglected clients to start purposely looking for moments of happiness or enjoyment and watched it make a significant difference for them. You may find it in a small, rewarding task that you never gave much thought, a small child who smiles at you for no reason, or a beautiful orange leaf falling from a tree. At other times you may need to make something happen to bring yourself joy: call a friend, see a movie, schedule a trip, or take a day away. The more you choose joy, the more it will choose you.

Your 2022 Resolution: I will find at least one moment of enjoyment in every day of this year.

2. Use More Feeling Words.

This small change can make a big difference. Instead of just saying, "I'm tired," or "I'm stressed," use more complex and subtle emotion words like dismayed, despondent, incensed, blissful, morose, bland, raw, depleted, wary, strained, deflated, perky, free, quiet, devoted, or feisty. These words add dimension and realness to your life. Making a change in the way you speak on the outside can change how you think and feel on the inside and carries the added bonus of improving the quality and depth of your relationships.

Your 2022 Resolution: I will use one new feeling word every day of this year.

3. Do the Three Things Exercise.

I designed The Three Things Exercise to help people who grew up with emotional neglect learn to discipline their brains. It is a way to learn how to make yourself do things you should and stop doing something you shouldn’t, the two skills that form the foundation for all self-discipline.

Overriding what you want to do or not three times a day, in some small way, trains your brain to be able to overrule your desires in situations when needed. The overrides do not need to be big. They can be very small and still train your brain.

Your 2022 Resolution: Three times each day I will make myself do something I don’t want to or stop doing something I should not.

No matter where you go, and no matter what you do in 2022, you can re-train your brain and start changing how you treat yourself. Keep it simple, take control, and find your joy. Take your needs seriously, and let yourself feel.

This will be your way to treat yourself to a less emotionally neglectful, more positive life through 2022. It will allow you to finally realize and believe that you are worth the effort. And you matter.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

References

Oscarsson M, Carlbring P, Andersson G, Rozental A (2020) A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS ONE 15(12): e0234097. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234097Download a free, extensive list of emotion words at my website, linked below in my bio. You can learn more about the Three Things Exercise in my first book, Running On Empty.

Hanson JL, Hariri AR, & Williamson DE. (2015). Blunted ventral striatum development in adolescence reflects emotional neglect and predicts depressive symptoms. Biological Psychiatry, 78(9), 598-605.

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