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Do you feel anxious and experience dark moments? You know the ones I’m talking about – those moments when you feel hopelessly alone and believe that there is something inherently wrong with you. Do you have a sensation in your body of being hollow at your core? Are you confused about why you have these feelings? It may be due to childhood trauma.
Although physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse are visible forms of childhood trauma, there is one type of childhood trauma that is invisible. It’s called emotional neglect. There are many painful symptoms associated with emotional neglect, but before I get to those, let me tell you a little about what emotional neglect is.
What is emotional neglect?
Kids need their moms. An infant comes into this world entirely dependent on their mother (or primary caregiver). The mother must tend to the baby’s physical needs and emotional needs. The way your mother responds to your emotional needs becomes the way you respond to your own needs and the way you nurture relationships with others in your life. If your emotional needs are not met in childhood, it’s known as emotional neglect. When you’ve been emotionally neglected, your emotional life becomes confusing. You’re left on your own to figure out who you are, what you’re feeling, how to express yourself and how to relate to others in a safe and meaningful way*.
So, what can you do if the relational template handed to you was defective?
Don’t worry, you’re not doomed, but it will take work to get it right. I know you’re suffering, and I want you to know that it’s not hopeless. Things can change. But because forewarned is forearmed, I want to tell you that it’s going to take some work. Hard work. Why is it important for me to tell you this now? Because in those moments when the work feels painful and too hard, you’ll think about quitting. If you remember what I’ve told you now, then you won’t give up. It will be hard but it will be worth it.
What does childhood trauma feel like?
Which painful feelings am I talking about? If you’ve experienced emotional neglect, you know what they are: living with a relentless inner critic that doesn’t ever cut you a break, believing that you can’t rely on anyone but yourself when you need something done, feeling like there is this wall around you that keeps you from getting close to others. You have other strong feelings like anger, sadness, and fear that you wish would just go away.
Other times, you have no feelings at all and are totally numb. You believe you are damaged and are convinced that you don’t matter. The most painful one by far is that hollow feeling – it feels like there is a space in your body that is empty and that empty space, that ache, makes you double over in pain. Do I get you? I do, right? So, keep reading because I have more truths to share with you.
It’s not your fault. There is nothing wrong with you. You can experience life differently. This feeling that you have, that you are all alone, is not a life sentence.
You can get out of solitary confinement. There’s a reason you are in that cell, but it’s not because you’ve done anything wrong or that ‘being you’ is wrong. You’re there because someone put you there. I’m here to tell you how to get out. I’m going to give you the key. Take it – because no one else is going to come and let you out. It’s something you have to do for yourself, but you don’t have to do it alone. I’m not going to ask if you’re ready to leave, because I know you are. The thought of one more day in solitary confinement is more than you can bear. Let’s go!
The process of overcoming childhood trauma:
The first thing you need is a therapist. And not just any therapist. You need a therapist that you can build a relationship with. Yes, a relationship. All the research shows that the quality of the relationship between the client and therapist is the strongest indicator of successful treatment and, as I will explain later, this is especially true for you. People like to poke fun at us, therapists, by saying that we blame mothers for everything, but I don’t want to focus on mothers right now. I want to focus on you. This is about you and your unmet emotional needs**.
What relationship should you have with your therapist? You need to find a therapist who you can form a secure attachment to. Your treatment has to include feeling attached to your therapist. If you hate the idea of getting attached to your therapist, stop and be curious about the response you’re having. Why would you have an aversion to feeling attached to or dependent on your therapist?
You hate this idea because you were hurt in your first and most important attachment relationship.
The most important person in your early life failed to meet your needs, so it makes perfect sense to distrust any relationship where you feel attached or dependent. That’s the template I mentioned earlier – the one that needs to be replaced.
You also hate this idea because you believe you need to do everything by yourself, right? That is a faulty belief. You do not need to do everything yourself, nor is it possible for anyone to do the important things in life by themselves.
We need others from the womb to the tomb. There is nothing wrong with that and there is everything right with that.
Finding the right therapist to overcome childhood trauma:
Finding the right therapist is not like choosing other professionals. If you need an electrician, you look for one who is licensed, insured and experienced. These are important qualifications and once you’ve established their credentials, you feel confident that they can do the work.
Your relationship with the electrician is purely transactional – an exchange of money for services. Your relationship with your therapist is professional, but also personal. This feels confusing at times, and when this happens it’s best to bring it up in the session. This is one of the most beautiful and healing elements of therapy. You can say everything to your therapist, especially the feelings you have about the therapy and the therapist. This relationship will be one of the most important you’ll ever have in your life because it can and will change your life.
There are many qualified, competent and experienced therapists, but which is the right one for you? Here’s how to answer that question for yourself.
Schedule a consultation, sit with them and talk. You don’t have to share more than you are comfortable with or dive into the depths of your childhood trauma on the first day, but you can give them a general idea of what you need help with.
Focus on the way the consultation feels. What do you notice while you’re in the room with them? Do you feel comfortable? Does the therapist elicit a feeling of trustworthiness? Do you feel heard and understood? Can you imagine confiding in them?
These are the questions you need to ask yourself. You don’t have to commit to working with a therapist after one session and taking the time to think it through is entirely appropriate. Many people need to meet more than once before knowing whether the fit is right. If it’s not the right fit, move on. Meet with another therapist. Choosing a therapist to work with is an important decision, so choosing carefully is worth the time and effort.
Making progress is all about having the right mindset.
Once you’ve committed to the treatment, be prepared to feel worse before you feel better. Does this sound fatalistic? I can see how you might hear it that way, but I want you to understand the process. If you are doing good work together, there will be times when you will feel worse than you did before starting and you will want to leave treatment.
Why would you feel like leaving treatment if you’re doing good work? Because good work means you are touching parts of yourself that hurt and by leaving you can avoid that pain. But isn’t that why you started therapy in the first place, because those unexamined, or unknown parts of yourself are hurting? I get it, you want to feel better, not worse. But avoiding pain is impossible when you are in the process of examining your life. Touching the painful parts of your life in ways you’ve never done before means you’re tending to your wounds***.
What might this pain feel like? It feels like birth pains. You will be giving birth to yourself. It’s okay if that sounds strange to you. It’s a new idea, a different way of looking at things, and it certainly is a feeling unlike any you’ve had before. Once you’ve given birth to yourself, you’ll be able to reparent yourself and give yourself the emotional support you’ve never gotten.
Give yourself credit for taking care of yourself and starting therapy.
Coping mechanisms are ways we manage our feelings. One way you’ve learned to cope was by suppressing feelings that were too painful to acknowledge. This coping mechanism got you through some tough times, but you’re ready to face those feelings now. You’re ready to bring those feelings down from the attic where you’ve kept them stored and unpack them. Your therapist will be there with you as you take each one out and hold it in your hand and examine it. When they’re too heavy, your therapist will be there to hold it with you. You’ll do it at a pace that feels right.
Therapy takes time. Lots of people want to get in and out of therapy quickly. What’s your objection to taking the time you need?
I know, therapy is costly, but to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “Man knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”. Therapy is an investment in yourself. You are worth it.
It’s way too hard to keep living with the insufferable symptoms of childhood trauma, or any other type of suffering which needs therapeutic intervention.
I know reaching out for help is scary. It’s probably one of the scariest things you’ll ever do in your life. It will also be one of the smartest.
*When a child has another adult in their life i.e. a dad, relative, or other adults who does provide the child with emotional support and love, the effects of the mother’s neglect are mitigated but not entirely extinguished.
**This is not a blame game. Mothers who were unable to meet their children’s emotional needs often suffered from neglect themselves or had other influences in their life that made it impossible for them to be attuned to their children.
***However, if you sense that the therapist is doing something that is damaging i.e. doesn’t maintain appropriate boundaries, listen to your gut.
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Michelle Halle, LCSW, is a therapist with a practice in Lakewood, NJ. She works with adults who have experienced complex trauma and helps them find a way through their pain to live a life filled with meaning. Connect with Michelle Halle and learn more at MichelleHalle.com.