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Adverse Childhood Experiences

Why Survivors of Emotional Neglect Can Be So Hard on Themselves

Their self-criticism can be a defense mechanism.

Key points

  • Childhood trauma often refers to traumas experienced in the family of origin–including abuse and neglect.
  • Although abuse results from something that happened, neglect is an absence of something a child needs.
  • Survivors can be hard on themselves because they did not have emotional support and validation.
Image by Pexels from Pixabay
Source: Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Craig was excited to turn in the paper he had worked on all night. He was in his second year of college, having just climbed out of a freshman-year funk and promised himself that "this year will be better." He stayed up late into the night, finding sources to add the perfect quote, adding a bit of humor and personality, and making his writing "relatable."

He was going to wait to hand it in at the end of class but felt so good about it that he proudly walked up to the professor and handed it in at the start of class. He felt good about the paper and thus good about himself. He noticed an improved attention span throughout the class, more confidence in answering questions, and a lighter step as he followed his classmates out at the top of the hour.

He was still feeling good the next week when the class filed in. Their graded papers were stacked neatly on the professor's desk. He floated through class, confident in his writing and academic abilities. It finally came time to get the papers handed back.

The class was dismissed. The professor handed the papers back as the students filed out. Craig saw his and smiled, knowing that he did well. He opened it up and saw the familiar red ink. He had gotten a C.

Craig beat himself up about this emotionally for the next several days. Going through every critique and suggestion, he was embarrassed and felt that this made him a bad student. He was unable to let it go. His thoughts consumed him. He was worried the professor wouldn't want him in his class that he would fail the class, or even fail out of college.

"I just don't belong in college," he said aloud as he returned to this class the following week. "Maybe I should just drop out."

Craig was experiencing the shame and lack of self-confidence that often came in whenever he felt like he failed at something. These negative feelings were a result of his emotional neglect in childhood. He did not know how to self-soothe when faced with a difficult or distressing situation and instead turned that negative energy inward- creating self-blame. Because his childhood was void of opportunities for emotional reflection and growth, he only knew two extremes–good and bad. He was either good or bad, and his recent grade in class "proved" that he was bad.

Most people, especially those with a healthy foundation for developing self-esteem, could receive a bad grade, take the feedback, work on improving, and otherwise go on with their day. But Craig struggled with his self-esteem like many others who experienced childhood emotional neglect. This experience was a blow to his self-esteem and confirmed his inner fears that he was secretly not smart and not as gifted academically as his peers. He worried others would find out his truth, and his cover would be blown.

Survivors of emotional neglect are very hard on themselves and frequently have an internal worry that others will "find out" that they are somehow defective or not good enough. Because they did not have many opportunities for emotional support and validation, they did not learn how to handle and cope with negative feelings. This is usually a defense mechanism developed due to a lack of support and a lack of development of healthy self-esteem.

In adulthood, survivors struggle to shake that feeling of not being "good enough" and not being seen and valued. They are often more likely to be high achievers. Their success drives an attempt to overcompensate for never feeling like they would be loved just for being them: they had to earn it.

If you struggle with low self-worth or are very hard on yourself, childhood emotional neglect might be to blame. Because emotional neglect is less understood than other forms of maltreatment, many do not even know they had this experience until faced with its aftermath in adulthood. Many of my clients were neglected through circumstances that were simply misfortunate–not malicious–such as being in foster care, growing up in poverty, or other difficult circumstances. Healing is less about blaming and more about understanding the whys and hows surrounding the neglectful experiences and how they shaped who you are now.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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