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Written by Janene Baadsgaard, author of When Those We Love Don't Love Us - Healing from Neglect.
We have two common responses to neglect. One, we become chronically self-absorbed and selfish in an effort to fill the needs our caregiver or partner did not fill. Or, two, we become so self-effacing and self-abandoning that we lose the ability to properly care for ourselves while caring for those around us. It is possible to care for ourselves without becoming selfish and self-centered. It is possible to fill our own needs without abandoning the needs of those around us. If we choose to care for both ourselves and others, we have the opportunity to develop mature loving relationships.
Results of Self-Neglect
Self-neglect often begins in childhood when we adapted or repressed our needs to fit the circumstances we lived in. We didn’t understand why we were not important to our caregivers, so we assumed that we were the problem. Neglected children often become their own worst critics. This pattern repeats in adulthood. When a child is not loved, he is driven to seek attention and acceptance by becoming an overachiever, perfectionist, or a rebel. These patterns also repeat in adulthood.
One man expressed his confusion about his relationship with his mother this way:
When I was growing up, I never remember my mother telling me she loved me, hugging me, or kissing me. I knew she was angry with my father for getting her pregnant, and the result of that was me. She always let me know how much I had ruined her life and talked about all the wonderful things she could have done if I’d never been born.
I remember being left alone to fend for myself most of the day. Mom spent most of the time in bed. I look back now and realize she was depressed, but as a small child, I just thought she was sleepy. My job was to make sure I didn’t wake her or make her mad. If I did she’d fly into a rage. I learned to take care of myself.
My dad was never home. He traveled a lot with his work. I look back now and understand why. Mom was hard to live with: wide mood swings, volatile temper. Why he left me alone with her when he knew what she was like, I’ll never know.
They eventually got divorced, and I never saw or heard from him again. My mom blamed me for the divorce. She blamed me for everything.
School was the only place I felt noticed. I got perfect grades, but nothing seemed to impress my mom. I got a fullride scholarship to college, and then I started my own business.
Now I’m a self-made millionaire, but nothing I do is enough for her. Mom lives with me now. She doesn’t have anywhere else to go. I’m starting to avoid home because she is always on my case about something I’m doing wrong. I know how she treats me affects how my wife and children see me. It is easier to be a workaholic. I’ve been waiting my whole life for her to tell me she loves me and she’s proud of me. My wife wants her out of our home. I don’t want to throw her out. I feel trapped.
If we never received parental or partner approval, we often struggle to feel that anything we do is good enough. We become perfectionists who constantly feel like frauds because perfection is not possible. We don’t understand that perfectionism is a form of self-abuse and that our negative labels are never accurate. Then we continue the destructive relationship patterns we have known by seeking attention in negative behavior or by withholding approval from ourselves and others. Eventually we become more and more closed off from life and struggle with depression and anxiety. Just because our parent or partner did not love us in the past doesn’t mean we can’t learn to love ourselves and others today.
Everyone needs acknowledgment, positive attention, affirmation, and affection. Without those elements of an abundant life, we are like flowers that whither on the vine for lack of rain and sunshine. For example, touch is absolutely necessary for a healthy, happy life. When we are touched, the amount of hemoglobin in our blood increases. Hemoglobin is the part of the blood that carries important supplies of oxygen to all the organs such as the brain and the heart. An increase of hemoglobin can also prevent disease and speed recovery from illness. The simple act of giving or receiving a hug can lift our spirits and improve our physical and mental health.
Learning to fill our basic nurturing needs while assisting others to fill their needs helps us to develop into mature and compassionate human beings. Saying a kind word, affirming someone’s importance, or offering a pat on the back may seem like small gestures, but when they are missing from a relationship, both people are starving for love. Struggling year after year to receive love from someone who is not capable of loving us in return is an empty search that leaves us hungry for something we’ll never receive. We forget there is a banquet of love within; we need only to reach out in love to those who are willing to practice the art of love with us.
Sometimes we unintentionally refuse to see the consequences of the destructive relationships in our lives. We choose to hang on to people who harm us at the cost of personal honesty, respect, and dignity. We gauge our decisions by how our abuser will respond. We sport a mask, play a false role, and hide or deny our true feelings. We say we’re fine when we are not.
We say we’re not hurt when we are. We carefully ponder how our abuser will react before we say or do anything. It is time to stop allowing people who harm us to control our behavior, emotions, thoughts, and feelings—that includes members of our family. It is time to step out of the fog of this negative and dishonest way of living.
If we stay in destructive relationships long enough, our personalities never flower. Our personal likes and dislikes become irrelevant. We no longer see or our strengths and weaknesses. We become invisible. We behave only in ways that will keep the status quo. We exist only to appease the demands of our abuser. We feel successful only if we avoid an abusive episode by cowering and demeaning ourselves. We talk ourselves out of holding our abuser accountable because we are afraid to be alone or we don’t want to lose our financial stability. Eventually we choose to face and leave the destructive relationship, or we choose to continue tolerating abuse and neglect. With the latter we choose a life of emptiness, fearfulness, self-blame, and shame.
Personal change is hard, but it is possible with even a seed of hope and an ounce of courage. Because we have no control over anyone but ourselves, all change starts with us. If we want to respect and trust ourselves, we need to change our response to those who harm us. We might inwardly tremble in the presence of an abuser, but we don’t have to let that fear stop us from doing the right thing. We need to understand that roller coaster relationships are toxic and cruel. Then we can finally quit blaming ourselves, hand the guilt and shame back to our abusers, and expect them to take full responsibility for their choice to mistreat us.
On the other hand, perhaps we have become the kind of person who harmed us. We care only for our own needs. We control others with angry outbursts. We manipulate with threats and corrosion. We neglect those who depend on us and are unable to care for themselves. We consider only our own likes and dislikes. Those around us are merely puppets to control or force to our will. Or perhaps we don’t want to face the pain of being unloved in our childhood, so we hold back our heart, never allowing others to get too close. This is also a form of self neglect.
We neglect to love and rescue the child who was us, the child who was abused and neglected. We soon discover we have no lasting power over others and feel empty and soulless. Too often this self-neglect happens over and over. Our childhood experience of parental abandonment or neglect evolves into adult self-neglect. We lose the ability to be our own internal support system. Our mental and emotional health suffers.
We don’t see reality. Our inner world of thoughts and beliefs becomes a place to disassociate from the stark truth we don’t know how to face. Not everything we face can be changed, but certainly nothing can be changed until it is faced.
What we don’t want to face is this: The person I love doesn’t love me.
It is devastating to love someone and not be loved in return, especially if that person is our parent or our partner. Consider the damage done to tender minds and hearts. Being neglected is particularly damaging to an innocent child. Because a child will die without his parents’ care, he knows that he must give up his needs to conform to what his parents want. If our parent requires that we take care of him, we do it. If our parent is addicted, we cover for him. If our parent is irresponsible, we take on his responsibilities. If our parent is lazy, we become a responsible mini-adult. The child’s needs are never addressed by the parent or the child.
Our parent’s or partner’s inability to love us affects us in profound ways. We soon learn to forget who we are and don’t even know what we want. We lose the ability to act in our own best interests. We feel responsible to save our parents’ dysfunctional marriage, or we are desperate to keep the family together at all costs. That is why those who are neglected and abused in childhood often have a difficult time breaking away from destructive family relationships even when they become adults. We feel responsibility to repair something we didn’t cause and can’t fix. It helps to understand that relationships in destructive families don’t get better over time when abuse and neglect are tolerated.
Although we always take rejection personally, it is vital to understand that our parent’s or partner’s inability to love us has nothing to do with us. Their inability to love is not about us at all; it is about them. When we have been mistreated, we seldom recognize that the person who rejects us has a problem and we can’t solve it. Even if we choose to leave our neglectful parent or partner, we often continue the abuse and neglect through the way we treat ourselves.
What we need to understand is that everyone is worthy of love. Love doesn’t have to be earned. We all deserve to be loved. Just because the person we love doesn’t love us back doesn’t mean we’re not worthy of love. On the other hand, trust is earned. It is better to be trusted than to be loved. An abuser can’t be trusted. Confusing trust and love gets us all in a lot of trouble. One woman told me this story:
I was sexually abused by my father from the time I was a little girl to the time I left home. My mother was addicted to pain medication and basically ignored me. She had this twisted image of men, and she taught me that they only want one thing from women. I guess this included my father because when I told her what was happening, she told me to never tell anyone or daddy would go to jail.
Somehow I thought if I got fat, Daddy would stop wanting me that way because my mom was obese. So I overate until I looked just like her. The abuse didn’t stop until I moved out and found my own apartment. Eventually I married a man a lot like my father. He wasn’t faithful to me. We got divorced when I found out he was abusing my daughters. At least I stood up for them. My mother never stood up for me. I’m over 300 pounds now. I guess my plan is working. No man has looked at me for years. Frankly I’m glad. I believe what my mother taught me. Men only want one thing from women.
I’m so exhausted when I get home from work, I turn on the TV and get out the snacks and plop down on the couch. Now both of my children are overweight too. Their father is out of the picture, and good riddance, but they need some positive male attention, and they aren’t getting it. I don’t want any more men in my life. My kids are acting out at school, and I don’t know what to do any more. I feel like I’m lost inside this enormous body, a sad little girl just crying to be loved. But I know it will never happen.
One of the results of self-neglect is a sense of hopelessness and depression. It’s important to learn to distinguish between depressed thinking and depressed feeling. Depressed thinking can be lessened or eliminated with time and practice. Depressed feeling, on the other hand, often must be experienced before we can move forward. That is why depression might be thought of as a gift or an invitation to help us to grow. We may have been preprogrammed to think that feeling depressed is just another proof that we are less able to cope than others, defective, not good enough, unworthy, and unlovable. Feeling depressed can be a great gift if we use this inner oil gauge as a signal that our soul needs some maintenance.
One of the causes of depressed thinking is the obsessive perfectionist voice inside our head. This inner critic grows rampantly in abused and neglected children. Continuous mistreatment encourages the child to overdevelop hypervigilance and perfectionism to defend against perceived danger, win approval, and create safe attachment. But safety and attachment are not experienced even after these overzealous efforts. Hypervigilance evolves into intense performance anxiety. Perfectionism becomes a harsh inner voice that grows into selfhate, self-disgust, and self-abandonment at every mistake or imperfection.
Facing Our Fears
When a neglected or abused child becomes the adult, he or she is dominated by feelings of danger, shame, and abandonment. Most of us are unaware of the many community resources to help those who have been abused and neglected. Often we don’t know that there are healthy people in the world who are capable of offering us love and acceptance. We live in a constant state of fear. We listen to the internalized voice of the toxic parent or partner in our heads. Catastrophic thinking and perfectionistic demands can be managed as we learn to manage our thoughts.
We can take back our power by changing the way we see ourselves. When we learn to see ourselves accurately, we will finally feel safe. Often we see others as a threat because we believe they can still hurt or demean us. Our subconscious mind thinks that our abuser’s opinion of us really means something or that the negative things they told us must be true. Though it is difficult, when we finally acknowledge that these subconscious assumptions are false, we will finally feel safe.
Other people can think whatever they want. They can tell us that we are selfish, sinful, ugly, and rotten human beings. What others say does not change who we are. We are the same no matter what anyone says about us. We won’t feel threatened by anyone when we realize that they can’t really hurt us. What others think should never influence what we feel about ourselves.
When we know that we are wonderful, good enough, and amazing human beings, then the constant fear that we aren’t good enough will go away. Our value is never on the line no matter what others do or say. Our lives are not a final exam but a continuous classroom for learning and growing. We are irreplaceable. Our soul is on a journey toward love. No one can diminish us, hurt us, or make us feel small without our permission.
When someone “makes” us feel something negative about ourselves, it is because on some level we are afraid they are right. We believe we really aren’t good enough. We see ourselves in a negative way. We lose our fear and others lose their control over us when we see ourselves as strong, valuable, and irreplaceable. We must know the worth of our own souls so deeply that no person or circumstance can take that reality away from us. As we let go of fear, we can see our abuser more accurately.
People who hurt other people are scared, deeply scared. They are just struggling to make their way in this world. Their behavior is driven by the fear that they aren’t good enough. Their words and actions are about them, not us. When those we love abuse us, we can take a step back and choose to see the situation from their perspective. Abusers always make us out to be the bad guy so they can feel better about themselves. Just because abusers think they are right, it doesn’t mean they are. Just because they say horrible things about us, it doesn’t make it true.
We all cope with destructive relationships to some degree. Yet those who have been harmed by those who should love them most, like their partners and parents, are dealing with issues that are better addressed when they are acknowledged and understood.
As we heal from fear and depression, we become who we really are—the precious souls we were before we were harmed by those who might have loved us. We feel our own value and learn to be as generous and kind to ourselves as we are with others.