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3 Ways Early Emotional Neglect Interferes with Happiness

... and 3 key steps to acceptance and even joy.

Key points

  • A 2015 study shows that childhood emotional neglect affects the brain's reward system, but neuroscience shows our brains can adapt and change.
  • Having your emotions walled off can make your world feel gray, whereas others seem to be living in a rich, colorful world.
  • A tendency toward self-blame, shame, and self-directed anger can drain your energy and capacity to experience full happiness.
Иван Зеленин/Adobe Stock
Source: Иван Зеленин/Adobe Stock

When you’re a child, it’s natural to believe that adults know what’s best for you. Yet, when the parent you look up to, rely upon, and trust continually acts as if your deepest feelings don’t matter, it eventually changes your ability to believe in your own emotions. This, of course, undermines your ability to believe in yourself.

Most likely, at the time, you don’t know that. After all, you’re just a child. You are unaware that you’re being robbed of your relationship with your own feelings. And this includes your capacity for feeling joy.

The harm caused by childhood emotional neglect over time is hurtful to your inner self as it settles deep inside. Yet emotional neglect can be sneaky, silent, and especially pernicious. Decades later, it can even be almost impossible to identify for purposes of understanding and recovery.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Dampens Your Capacity For Happiness

1. Your life feels colorless or gray.

To adapt to the messages of your childhood, your brain has walled off your emotions. As an adult, you live under the childhood cloud of knowing your feelings don’t matter. Walling off your feelings got you through childhood, but you’re not a child now and you need your emotions back. Those old messages need to be recognized, acknowledged, and removed so you can feel your feelings again.

Your feelings are the glue to connect you with others, the fuel that motivates you, and the vibrancy and color that you should be seeing in the world. You have an inborn right to feel joy and yet, if you do experience moments of it, you may also find that joy somewhat fleeting. As if it’s right in front of you, but something you just can’t quite grasp and hold onto.

2. Your difficulty understanding, sorting, and using your feelings leaves you vulnerable to self-blame, shame, and especially angermost of it directed right back at yourself.

You may be left believing you are not smart enough, happy enough, or interesting enough to others.

  • “Others can... why can’t I?”
  • “Why did I… I should’ve known better.”
  • “It’s all my fault. What is wrong with me?”

These questions and others stop you in your tracks. You probably blame yourself for your own self-doubt and lack of confidence. Through this entire, unnecessary process, your energy and capacity for happiness are drained.

3. Over time, your brain changes.

Before we talk about how childhood emotional neglect affects the brain, I want to add a very important caveat: Your brain is incredibly adaptable. Brain changes can be reversed by making different choices and developing different habits in your life.

According to a Duke University study conducted by Hanson,, in 2015, young children growing up with emotional neglect showed dulled ventral striatum (the brain’s reward system) activity in adolescence. As teens, these children did not experience the positives in life as intensely or rewardingly as they should. Essentially, their brains’ command post for joy had been dulled.

Recovery, Happiness, and You

Yes, there is a path to recovery from childhood emotional neglect, and that path takes you directly toward your joy. Thousands of those with emotional neglect have experienced that path. It is well-defined and clear: you can work to reverse the effects of emotional neglect by following these steps.

  • Accept your feelings; they matter. Pay attention to your emotions as they arise. All of them are valuable. Do you ignore them? Act as if they don’t exist? Feel like you don’t need them? Those are the old, unhelpful messages of childhood emotional neglect. Paying attention to your feelings and their messages can restore your capacity for experiencing enjoyment and happiness.

  • It’s not your fault. You can now stop blaming yourself. Shame, blame, and self-directed anger have no place in your life. Instead of, “Why can’t I?” you can become the person who says, “I will try.” Instead of, “What is wrong with me?” you can change it to, “Here’s what’s right with me.” Pay attention to your inner voice and how it speaks to you. Some self-compassion can go a long way. Once you acknowledge and accept your inherent worthiness, your life can begin to open up and outwardly change. Above all, be patient with yourself. It takes time to uncover and accept that long-buried joy—feeling your feelings, knowing it’s OK to feel them. You deserve it.
  • Take time to find small instances of joy in your life. As you pay attention to what your feelings are attuned to as you look around with fresh eyes, you see and feel what you’ve missed along the way. Acknowledge the shimmer of sunlight against the bluest of skies; the child’s joy as she runs with her kite flying high; a stranger’s unexpected kindness. Birds chirping good morning as the sun rises. Perhaps a neighbor picks an abundance of flowers and shares them with you—just because. By consciously investing in finding joy, you may begin to realize how the world has been serving you moments of happiness every single day. And when you accept it, you'll see more of it, and feel it too.

The Takeaway

All of this is possible once you open yourself to the moments of happiness that are already present in your life. You can recapture the feelings you couldn't allow yourself to have, find value in knowing yourself much more deeply, and discover those valuable sources of positivity within that have been there all along, waiting for you.

I wish I could scan the brains of emotionally neglected folks who do these three things over an extended period of time. I believe it’s entirely possible that we might find that their ventral striata have woken up and come alive.

What really matters is that you can come alive once you begin to practice these three steps. You may also be healing your childhood emotional neglect.

Your emotions and your joy belong to you. It’s time for you to reclaim them.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

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To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my bio.

Blunted Ventral Striatum Development in Adolescence Reflects Emotional Neglect and Predicts Depressive Symptoms Jamie L. Hanson, Ahmad R. Hariri, and Douglas E. Williamson, Biological Psychiatry November 1, 2015; 78:598–605

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