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Adverse Childhood Experiences

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Prevents Self-Acceptance

... and 4 steps to find it, starting with attention to yourself.

Key points

  • Happiness is what most people want more than anything else.
  • Research has shown that of the factors that make people happy, self-acceptance is the one least practiced.
  • By undermining how well you know yourself, childhood emotional neglect makes self-acceptance elusive for many.

Countless people have one wish: to be happy.

Below are everyday habits that have been found by research to be effective in making that wish come true for many:

  • Appreciation: Have gratitude for the world around you.
  • Goal-setting: Create goals that drive you.
  • Feeling: Feel all emotions so joy is possible.
  • Exercise: Take care of your body.
  • Serving: Do good deeds for others.
  • Belonging: Feel like a part of something bigger.
  • Relationships: Connect with people.
  • Strength: Find ways to overcome obstacles and bounce back.
  • Accepting: Be comfortable with who you are.
  • Risk-taking: Learn new things, and go outside of your comfort zone.

A 5,000-person survey conducted by the charity Action for Happiness along with the organization Do Something Different set out to find how many people practice these everyday habits.

They found that one habit, in particular, was connected the most to happiness but was practiced by people the least: self-acceptance.

Accepting Yourself

Self-acceptance happens when you embrace each and every part of what makes up who you are. In order to have self-acceptance, you have to have compassion for yourself, especially when you make mistakes. You know important things about yourself: what you like, what you don’t like, what you love, what your talents and shortcomings are, and feel as though you are enough just as you are.

I’ve learned some crucial things about self-acceptance in my 20-plus-year career as a psychologist. Time and time again, folks I work with routinely struggle with self-acceptance and self-love. They want to be happy, but they also have barriers that get in the way. And time and time again, once they address and break down these barriers, they end up living a happier, more fulfilled life. Self-acceptance is a requirement for happiness.

I’ve also learned that folks who need help with self-acceptance also need help knowing themselves. You can’t have self-acceptance without self-knowledge because you can’t fully accept someone you don’t truly know.

Why do so many people have trouble knowing who they are? I attribute this, for many, to childhood emotional neglect.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Can Impede Self-Acceptance

You start to learn information about yourself very early on in life. Childhood is when your self-knowledge starts, especially with the help of your parents. They are the ones who are there to notice your personality, your character, and your essence as a person. When they see your preferences, your emotions, your needs, your strengths, and your weaknesses, you can see them, too. Children see who they are reflected in their parents’ eyes. When your parents have an accurate and deep insight and awareness of who you are, you are more likely to grow up having a realistic view of yourself.

Unfortunately, not all parents are so attuned. Childhood emotional neglect happens when parents miss the feelings and emotional needs of their children. Many parents are busy, overwhelmed, addicted, anxious, depressed, or too image-conscious or achievement-focused to notice their children’s feelings and personalities in a deep, meaningful way.

So many parents didn’t have parents of their own to see and notice integral parts of themselves, setting them up to repeat the pattern of childhood emotional neglect through generations. This is often no one’s fault. If your parents didn’t have emotional awareness of their own, how can they have it for you? They can’t give you something they don’t have.

Just because you didn’t receive the emotional attentiveness you needed growing up doesn’t mean you can’t get it today. Just like so many other emotionally neglected adults, the view you have of yourself might be distorted. You may very well be missing the full picture of who you are. It’s not too late to see yourself… and fill the gaps with what’s been missing for so long.

3 Questions To Assess Your Level of Self-Acceptance

  1. Do you feel like you truly know and understand yourself?
  2. Do you like the person that you are?
  3. Do you love the person that you are?

If it’s difficult to answer these questions, or if you answered “no,” you’re not alone. And there is hope for change. It is possible to one day answer “yes” to all of these questions with a little bit of work.

4 Steps to Reach Self-Acceptance

1. Pay attention to yourself.

  • What do you value?
  • What are your talents and strengths?
  • In what areas do you struggle?
  • What are your likes and dislikes?
  • What bothers you?
  • What makes you angry?
  • What brings you joy?
  • How would you describe your personality?
  • How would someone you love describe who you are?

2. Explore the things you don't like. Having self-acceptance doesn’t mean you can’t improve and take strides toward becoming a better version of yourself. Set goals in areas you want to improve. The process of attempting to make positive changes is enough.

3. Practice self-compassion. Each and every human has imperfections. How harshly do you judge yours? Get curious about the mistakes you make, see if you can learn from them, and give yourself grace when you make them.

4. Turn your attention to your feelings. In order to have self-acceptance, you need to access your internal, emotional world. Your emotions are at the core of who you are. They hold the answers to the questions in step one. Take responsibility for your feelings, validate them, manage them appropriately, and express them openly.

Lacking self-knowledge holds you back from achieving self-acceptance and happiness. Here is my wish for you: Work on the four steps above. In order to grow yourself, you have to know yourself. With some time, self-compassion, and willingness to focus on your feelings, your wish to be happy can soon become a reality.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

Facebook image: Yurii_Yarema/Shutterstock

LinkedIn image: Josep Suria/Shutterstock


University of Hertfordshire. "Self-acceptance could be the key to a happier life, yet it's the happy habit many people practice the least." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 March 2014. <;

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