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6 Signs of Emotional Deprivation Schema

Do you sulk too much? Understanding what's driving it could help you cope.

Key points

  • With emotional deprivation schema, your childhood caregivers were not up to hearing, validating, mirroring, and responding to your needs. 
  • When we become adults, our brain may keep reacting to life rules that actually no longer apply. 
  • The key element to overcoming this is connecting with your past and developing empathy for the child you were and what you needed.
Sulking can be a problem!
Source: Photo by Polina Zimmerman: Pexels

This article is one part of the schemas: an introduction series of 18 posts, covering each of the 18 schemas outlined originally by schema therapist Jeffrey Young. Based on my own clinical experience and style, I’m presenting my own take on these concepts in addition to Young’s original definitions. You can check out this post for more background on the definition of schemas, which I call the "DNA” of your personality. These posts describe what it’s like to have each schema, how to notice it, and how to manage it.

Have you ever felt your emotional needs are usually neglected by people you love? And so you feel like sulking, and you say to yourself, “What’s the point of saying anything? They won’t get it anyway.” Now imagine that this experience comes up a lot for you in relationships and seems consistent throughout your life. You could have what's known as an emotional deprivation schema.

This schema says there’s something about relationships that repeatedly brings out this reaction for you, even when you aren’t being neglected.

Schemas come out of childhood experience and are our brain’s way of trying to understand what the “rules” of relationships are so that we can anticipate and react as needed. The problem is that these rules are based on what’s going on within our family, with all its unique qualities. And often the rules don’t apply outside the family. So, when we become adults, our brain keeps reacting to life rules that actually no longer apply.

Emotional deprivation tends to come out of a scenario in which your caregivers were not up to hearing, validating, mirroring, and responding to your needs. But you knew you had needs, and you were left angry about it.

The emotional deprivation schema has your brain saying, “You have real, legitimate needs, and you’re being ignored! This sucks! You should be angry! But, hey, you’ve gotten this far in life, and it still keeps happening, so you might as well just be resentful and not say anything.”

Now imagine your brain saying this kind of thing to you even when you’ve grown up and can now be around people who are more emotionally giving than your family was. This schema can have you closing yourself off and feeling disconnected, like others are cold, or you treat others coldly in reaction.

What Are the Signs of Emotional Deprivation Schema?

  • Assuming neglect where there isn’t any
  • Sulking a lot
  • Feeling lonely and misunderstood
  • Frequently resentful and angry
  • Often behaving passive-aggressively
  • Being cold to others when they try to get close, like you’re “giving them their own medicine”

If you feel this might be you, what can you do to cope with this schema and move on?

How to Cope with Emotional Deprivation Schema

  • Understand your past. Think about the context of your family when you were growing up. What was the tone of the household emotionally? How was it that you may have felt emotionally neglected over time? What was going on? This isn’t about bashing family members, but rather understanding what was happening and why you reacted the way you did.
  • Learn about your emotional needs. Think about what you needed as a kid. Just spend some time empathizing with your child self. Maybe you needed a parent who sat down with you after school and really wanted to know how you were doing. Or maybe the neglect was substantial, and you could have used an adult from outside the family to offer support.
  • Consider whether you get in your own way now. Be watchful for times when you overreact to others, get unreasonable about your emotional expectations, and are overly judgmental. Give people a chance.
  • Speak up. Think of ways to express your needs that are not angry or resentful. It’s OK to tell people what you need without causing trouble.
  • Consider whether you put yourself with people who don’t get it. Sometimes people with emotional deprivation are drawn to a cold partner because it feels familiar. Take that into consideration. It may be a challenge for your partner to be warmer. Communicate about that.
  • Consult a therapist for additional help. This is a tough schema and can be deeply ingrained. A trained psychotherapist can help you identify the blind spots that come up as you’re working your way out of this.

The key element to overcoming this schema is making that connection with your past and developing real empathy for the child you were and what you needed. You’ll need that same understanding and empathy for yourself now. Consider how to advocate for yourself and your emotional needs in nonconflictual ways. You deserve it!

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