I just read a very well expressed post on the legacy of trauma of being left with an empty space of unmet need from childhood posted by Courage Coaching.
It occurred to me how deeply and painfully this empty space affects so many of us well into adulthood. And it is so hard to recognise what needs you did not get met until the true ache and emptiness of this begins to make itself felt and for so many of us that does not occur until we are a long way down the road of addiction and possible addiction recovery or deep depression, mental illness or psychosis.
Getting into recovery and being told you have ‘defects of character’ does not help with the self blame that also so often accompanies being a child who suffered emotional neglect or from narcissist parents who were so busy living out of their own wounds they had no time to care about yours. The defects are really deficiencies of nurturance that we suffer which draw us towards unhealthy behaviours and relationships and we may go a long way down the road in those before we come to truly understand the deep legacy of the empty space we carry around so deep down inside.
For me reading about childhood emotional neglect in the book Running on Empty by Jonice Webb last year was a turning point. In that book she clearly outlines both the consequences of unmet needs as well as the degree of self blame as a sufferer of this we end up carrying deep within. In short if we suffered from unmet needs we tend to feel there is something wrong with us and this something is our own fault, when really it relates back to our own emotional trauma history. In addition if our parents didn’t do their own healing work we carry similar wounds but as they pass along the generations they become more severe. That has most definitely been the case in my own family.
In the course of our recovery we need help in identifying exactly what our unmet needs were. I know in my own case I learned to dismiss my own unmet needs, telling myself I did not have them and they were not a problem most particularly my need for attention. I see how my own mother coped with a childhood in which not one person was emotionally present. She coped by denying her own feelings and needs a lot while at the same time feeling she had to meet them alone. In a way she was lucky when she met my father as together they got to meet some of their unmet needs but they also passed a lot of unmet ones down, most particularly to their youngest child: me.
Even now I find one thing I really struggle with is allowing myself to have my needs and feel that I deserve to have them met. I was just reading a post on dissociation before reading Athina’s post mentioned above and in that Annie addressed the problem of how one huge legacy of childhood trauma is dissociating or disconnecting from our deep feelings and needs and of how we can then have a delayed reaction when a trigger occurs that mirrors what we suffered in childhood. Instead of affirming and validating ourselves for how we felt we tend not to do this. Instead we may judge ourselves critically for having the impulses or feelings that we do.
Just before going out today I was going to post the following quote as a post of its own. In it the author addresses how hurtful and unproductive judging ourselves for our negative feelings is.
Judging creates emotion. In addition, any emotion you feel in response to an external event will be intensified if you judge yourself for that event. For example, if you’re getting divorced and you judge yourself as unlovable or as someone who always messes up the pain of divorce will become worse. If you then judge yourself for being upset, that will add more pain. Increasing your awareness of your self judgements and better understanding the way you learn to judge yourself in a particular way can help you reduce this behaviour.
If our valid childhood need to have our true emotions and feelings valued and validated is not met we do tend to lack this ability. We suffer a lot of shaming and inwardly critical self talk that does not lead us to truth or understanding. Learning what our true needs and feelings are and seeking those who will validate them (such as a therapist or recovery friend) and learning to value and validate them from within is deeply important work.
As Athina points out grieving our unmet needs and losses from childhood is also important, even if deeply painful inner work and if we bypass or skip it by reaching for philosophical or so called ‘spiritual’ platitudes or insights instead we do tend to by pass a most critical stage of our emotional healing. Recognising and dealing with emotional invalidation is so important. It is critical to our recovery. Knowing accurately our needs and feelings enable us to set boundaries and is essential for both emotional and mental health. There may be much grief work to do for many of us before we begin to be able to do that and recognise how important it is.