Just re reading through key chapters in Jonice Webb’s book on Childhood Emotional Neglect, Running on Empty : Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect is reminding me of this question and how hard it can be to answer fully and honestly if we were not fully allowed to express ourselves or unfold ourselves and our feelings in our family of origin.
In the chapter Cognitive Secrets : The Special Problem of Suicidal Feelings, Jonice outlines the story of Robyn who becomes suicidal after what seems to be a ‘fun’ night with friends. What is not seen by her friends though or expressed by Robyn is her real and true self. As Jonice describes Robyn’s childhood she describes a loving family who did not allow any displays of so called ‘negative’ emotions :
Robyn’s parents seldom argued and they had very low tolerance for negativity of any kind When a conflict would break out between the children, as they do with all siblings, the parents would crack down by sending all parties to their rooms immediately (no matter what the fight was about).. their motto was “Zero Tolerance”. They also applied this role to complaining or any expression of unhappiness, sadness or frustration. The result was a quiet household. The children learned early on that if they had something negative on their minds, they had better keep it to themselves. Mom and Dad refused to be burdened by nonsense.. they didn’t have the time or energy to put into solving crises, assuaging tears and soothing frustrations The Zero Tolerance policy allowed them to stay in charge of the household and they felt, keep a positive outlook on life.
Outside the house the siblings did fight and argue, however. The older siblings could work with this conflict, contain the emotions and felt freed by it, but Robyn who was a sensitive child did not. She was labelled a ‘Frequent Crier ‘ by the family, due to her tendency to burst into tears and was of course teased about being like this and if the tears continued too long she was,( of course), sent to her room (alone!). Great solution, Mum and Dad!!!
Throughout all of this Robyn learned a powerful lesson. She learned that negative emotion was bad and would not be tolerated. She learned that any feelings she had that were not upbeat, fun or positive must be kept to herself and carefully hidden. She felt ashamed that she had such feelings, and silently vowed never to let them be seen. (to such an extent that she even hid them from herself!)
Robyn learned to withdraw, to stay busy and diverted, watch too much television or over work and to fight off any ‘negative’ feelings.
Robyn didn’t just fight this battle. She lived it. Her life was organised around making sure that she did not reveal, see, know or feel anything negative from herself. It took a tremendous amount of energy. She was bent on hiding the negative shameful part of herself (Robyn’s version of the Fatal Flaw most neglected kid hide deep inside)…..she couldn’t let anyone get to know her too well.
Robyn learned to live alone, to not invite friends around. She hid even her intense loneliness about this from herself and struggled because she knew her parents loved her, so why would she be struggling so much if she was not fatally flawed?
Since adolescence, Robyn had an outside looking in feeling. At age 13, she had started wondering what was wrong with her. She’d had a great childhood, so there was no explanation for how flawed she felt. There was something missing something sick inside of her, a secret void. The only way she could soothe herself was to imagine being dead. Being dead would be such a relief She did not have any intention to kill herself, but she reserved the possibility as a safety net…..Robyn used fantasies of being dead and her secret knowledge of her safety net as her chief method of soothing herself from age 13, all through her adulthood, but she had not breathed a word of it to a single soul.
Jonice goes on to describe how this fantasy and desire was, however, triggered after the night in question Robyn had shared with friends…. how feelings of numbness, emptiness and gloom suddenly began to over take and consume Robyn…As her desperation increased after failed attempts to distract herself with television comedy failed, Robyn reached for the bottle of pills and swallowed them compulsively.
Robyn’s suicide attempt and feelings would most likely make so sense to anyone who knew her because as Jonice explains “the Robyn that everyone else knew and loved was not the real Robyn… She was essentially a time bomb, set to explode periodically”.
Robyn was luckily found by her sister who happened to drop by that day…but many who feel and suffer the way that Robyn did are not so lucky….”they don’t get to share or understand their pain, and they don’t get to explain their final moments to anyone.” They also never really get to know, love or understand their real feelings or true self.
When I first read this chapter in Webb’s book last year I identified with it so strongly. I have not ever committed suicide though often I had cherished that fantasy too. Luckily I got a sense years into sobriety that more was going on underneath my addiction that just ‘defects of character’. Soul sadness, soul loneliness as therapist Tara Brach points out in her book True Refuge are primary feelings that drive us when we come to mistakenly believe “there is something wrong with me”, the fatal flaw which is symptom seven in Jonice Webb’s list of effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect.
So many of us who suffer urgently need to understand it’s roots if we really are ever to recover our true sense of self which contains all kinds of feelings in response to a life which we didn’t choose and is so often influenced by all kinds of toxic, negating and restrictive influences beyond our control.
(For a full list of all 10 symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect please see the following post or read Jonice Webb’s book.)