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Why Am I Numb? The Effects of Emotional Neglect

You fall off your bike. You cry. You bleed. Your parent hears you, patches you up, and sends you back out into the world.

But the next day you're feeling a bit nervous about getting on the bike. You start to cry, but this time, there's no visible blood. You parent says, "You're fine! Get back out there! You're a big kid! There's no reason to be afraid!" And this weird thing happens—you begin to Jedi-mind-trick yourself into believing you're not scared anymore. You get back on the bike and you ride. So proud! Except… it's not quite as fun this time. You have a hard time enjoying it and there's this nagging little thought in the back of your mind… "What if I fall again?" You tell that thought to shut up. And keep riding.

Until one day you wake up and realize all you hear in your head is that voice that tells you to suck it up. You're not afraid. You're not sad. But you're also not happy. The volume has been turned down on your life. You can't feel anything anymore.

As I've been doing trauma work over the past six months, one of the most common themes I am hearing is, "My pain doesn't matter." Clients and friends report childhoods where parents were either not available or not interested in the emotional experience of their child.

I hate to spend much time blaming parents, when most of the time they themselves didn't have the care they needed to be emotionally available. Emotional neglect is often a generational cycle.

Emotional neglect is hard to prove, even to yourself, because there's no physical evidence. No bruises or cuts. Sometimes there is even powerful evidence on the contrary! A high performing, functional human can still be severely emotionally disabled, but you wouldn't know it looking at their CV.

But emotional neglect is just as damaging as physical neglect, with some studies showing it is even more damaging. Emotional neglect disables children from recognizing their emotions and caring for them. This, in turn, prevents them from successfully communicating with future attachment figures, meaning it's hard for them to connect with others, including romantic partners and their own children. They remain emotionally isolated, unable to share what they're experiencing and unable to ask for what they want. They often feel numb.

If you have experienced emotional neglect, your pain DOES matter. Your heart is precious and you are valuable to your community. And there is help! Professional counselors are trained to help your emotional self come back to life and continue to develop! It is possible for you to connect and to thrive emotionally, if you are ready to do the work.

Unsplash: Wolfgang Hasselmann

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