“I’m just messed up. I know it in every single bone in my body. I don’t have any trauma and I wasn’t molested when I was younger. It’s called “messed up”, they should just add it to the DSM so I can finally have a clinical term to make myself feel better.

Alexandra has a vivacious energy, is wearing funky purple earrings and the coolest boots in NYC. She is engaging and easy to connect with, and at the same time is in an exhaustive amount of pain.

“ I came to you because I heard you do “depth work”. I’m not sure what that means but I hope it means you won’t just tell me to change my thinking, but rather help me dig in to what’s beneath all of this hurt”.

As she speaks, I see the sadness in her eyes. Her forehead, which carries with joy and passion she presents to the world, softens, her brows gently droop, as she slowly looks around the room. I look at her with warmth in my eyes, compassion for her pain and respect for her commitment to living a better life. I catch a glimpse of her fierce strength and hold a snapshot of it in my mind. I have no doubt her incredible resilience will take her far.

Alexandra, I’m listening and I hear you. I’m sorry for your pain. I’m also happy that you’re here to help yourself heal, as I think that, together, we can help you feel better. I’m going to need your help though, with understanding the “messed-up diagnosis you mention”.

She laughs.

You’re funny. I didn’t know therapists can be funny and smart. If I’m gonna be crying in here, I'm happy there's space for giggles too.”

I find it important to connect over some laughter and sprinkle lighter moments in the therapy office. It helps invigorate the room and keep us energized for the the deep, focused work.

At first, the sessions were about her job as a high-end designer in the fashion industry. She’s promoted clothing, bags and other products and has seen continued growth in the business. There’s a glisten when she talks about her plans for up-leveling her business, but as the conversation peaks, there’s a sudden lull. A lessening of joy. A darkness that overtakes her eyes, her face and her whole body energy. It’s as if something else more important needs to share its piece.

I’ve noticed this shift happen whenever she discusses a dynamic between her friends, a boy she’s dating or something about her chaotic family life.

Ugh, remember, I told you, messed up”.

She says as she references an interaction she had with her family over thanksgiving.

We slow down and begin unfolding what “messed up” means to her, what it feels like and looks like in this specific instance.

As a therapist, I’ve begun picking up that her “messed up” terminology is referencing the emotional neglect she’s experienced.

Raised in a home with dad as a cardiologist and mom, a radiologist, Alexandra was essentially "raised" by a nanny. Well, not one nanny. Being an only child, she wanted constant companionship and physical touch and seemed “clingy, needy and emotionally exhausting” to an outsider. Over time, every nanny would leave because they found her to be “too much”. Incredibly talented and socially suave, Alexandra used her outspoken personality at school, made friends easily and impressed her teachers with her wisdom and creativity. Though she was well liked, and wore a smile on her face, she felt empty on the inside.

It’s the isolation that hurts deepest. Pain is pain, but if I broke my arm and so did someone else, at least they can understand the pain. I have this pain of a “cold feeling”; I once tried explaining it to my friends, but they looked at me like I spoke a different language. I felt stupid, so I just shut down and put my energy into working.

“What is it”? I ask one morning, as she shifted suddenly, her body tensing up and her forehead tightly crunched.

Alexandra had been gaining awareness and insight into how her body and the external shifts were most often expressing and communicating something from the inside.

“I know. I know. I think its something about disconnect. I’m so successful at work but am a failure at love and relationships.

I’m dating this guy and I like him but every time I try to speak or express my real feelings, everything comes out wrong. I know how to operate in the business, world, but when it comes to people, how I feel or who I am, I hit a road block. It’s like all things suddenly black out.

It’s like I’m a stranger in a world of normal people. I don’t have a heart that beats like other peoples. Mine is numb, almost frozen. I just didn’t get the script on how to love others”.

What Alexandra is describing is a wound related to emotional neglect from her younger developing years. Adults sometimes don’t know they have neglected to learn some life + relationship skills until things start getting confusing. Here, as an adult, Alexandra is struggling with love, intimacy and a true sense of self esteem.

What is emotional abandonment?

Emotional abandonment is experienced when you feel dismissed, disregarded, unacknowledged and unseen. The injury here isn’t in being hit, violated or controlled by someone else; rather the wound is in the invisible injury; the receiving of little or nothing.

When you were hungry for attention for love, for physical touch or connection, your mets went ignored, or misunderstood. When you acted out, yelled, pushed or shoved, you were yelled at, ignored or punished instead of having the space to express, understand and make sense of what was happening.

Why does emotional neglect happen?

This can happen because your parents were busy working, had their own traumas or mental health issues, or were disconnected from their own minds + bodies. Or, if there was a family stressor, they were chronically distracted and overwhelmed which impacted their ability to show up for you + get curious about your needs and help you develop emotionally. Regardless of what it was, if you reached and you did not get a response, or got a blank, cold or “shutting down” response, that was experienced as let down, a disappointment and the message that emotions are not important.

when the hunger for emotional connection goes ignored, it creates a wound that cuts deep on a psyche + soul level.

Often the recipient doesn’t feel much, rather they feel invisible, empty, cold or numb. There’s no bruising, scarring or “abuser” to identify. As human beings, we all have a deep desire to matter, to make a difference and to be connected to others.

The absence of this meaningful connection carves a deep hurt in the developing heart.

If you were emotionally abandoned as a child, you many do not have understand what you experienced, as it is difficult to put words to an “absent” emotional experience. As your brain develops, the discomfort sparks a desire for clarity, understanding and relief from the symptoms. This is also why many adults come into my office seeming confused, and as we work together, the simple clarity takes a big weight off of the empty hole of confusion.

10 Silent Signs of Emotional Neglect

These are common adult symptoms of childhood emotional neglect:

  1. Difficulties with emotions

    You struggle with identifying, feeling, expressing and managing all the “feels” of emotions. You use the same few words “I’m sad, I’m happy, I’m ok, I’m not ok” and have a limited emotional vocabulary to explain what you’re experiencing. You feel confused about why you feel the way you do. You seem perplexed by the emotions others express to you, and respond with a blank stare, often feeling out of your element. When you’re upset you feel like you’re tangled in a web and can’t find a way to express whats going on, and how to release the pent up tension.

  2. Difficulty with Self Compassion

    You’re the go-to person for others to come to, and you offer understanding and care, but you’re Queen Critic and impatient when it comes to offering compassion or forgiveness to yourself.

  3. Feeling Numb or “Empty”

    You may notice an empty sensation in your chest, throat, belly, back or overall body. Instead of feeling emotions, you might notice a feeling of void.

  4. Difficulty trusting + relying on others.

    You’ve learned to become self dependent to take care of yourself. You find that you avoid asking others for help or relying on others, as you’re terrified you’ll be disappointed. The fear is that if you reach out for support, care or love and are ignored or disappointed, you’ll feel as helpless and unimportant as you were when you were younger, and that thought terrifies you.

  5. Unrealistic View of Self.

    Do you have a hard time seeing yourself, knowing yourself and trusting in your vision for your future? Can you comfortably identify your strengths and capabilities? Do you know areas of limitations and weaknesses? If you have a hard time appraising yourself, who you are, and what matters to you, you may not have had the space to define yourself, needs, wishes and hopes.

  6. Overreacting to conflict.

    When you get into a disagreement with a friend, your partner, or at work, your body starts flooding, sending you danger signals. Instead of riding through the experience + trusting it will pass and you will be ok, you shut down and walk away. Or you may “overheat“ and have outbursts that seem disproportionate to the disagreement or conflict. If you were not appropriately modeled how to survive a conflict, and navigate confusing dynamics, your body might feel in danger when there is no actual danger. Since it is foreign territory, your mind + body are seeking “perceived safety” and try to get out of the discomfort as quickly as possible.

  7. Chronic Self Blame

    When negative events or situations happen, do you slide directly into shame, blame, anger or feeling guilty? If you notice you jump to self scrutiny and beating yourself up for making (human) mistakes, experiencing (human) feelings and feeling shamed for something that happened, you may not have learned that emotions are healthy to experience. Big ones, little ones, happy ones and sad or mad ones, you can survive and ride through them. They can be held, expressed and managed. Life is an array of sparkles and messes; the clear + the murky, and there’s nothing shameful about the learning process of life.

  8. Feeling different.

    You feel like something is wrong, like you’re different than others but you just don’t know what it is. You feel flawed, and have a deep sense of being “different” than others.

  9. Self-Doubt and Unhealthy relationships.

    You stay in unhealthy relationships where boundaries are blurry. You may stay engaged in relationships where are not respected; and in severe instances, you withstand abuse, because you don’t trust yourself, your value and your feelings of what is right or wrong. Self-doubt, insecurity, and lack of self-worth feel like they surround you when you wish you can reach for confidence, stability, self trust and emotional stamina.

  10. Easily Triggered

    You feel like your skin has the thinnest layer of protection when it comes to emotional situations. You’re functional during the hum drum of daily life but suddenly feel weak in the face of change, newfound stress or when you experience a loss. You tear up easily, and when triggered, you feel like feather in the wind when you’d like to feel strongly anchored. You want to feel more capable in navigating the disappointments of life, love and responsibilities. Right now, you cope by numbing out, getting hyper-activated, or having thoughts of “worst case scenarios” on a daily basis.

What this means for you + loved ones

If your caregivers or parents didn’t notice, value or respond to your emotions, you got the message that your feelings don’t matter. As an adult, you keep your feelings at bay, which was what you did as a child to avoid being a “problem” child.

The issue is that when you don’t have access to your emotions as an adult, you are missing out on the methods of communication that are meant to guide you.

Our feelings, insights and emotional cues guide us to what matters, what is important, what to get close to and what to avoid.

As well, they help us connect and relate to others in relationships; with our loved ones, partners, family, friends and children. Resonate with some of this? It’s a lot to digest, and at the same time, clarity is half of the solution. It’s never to late to improve and heal. You can begin taking steps today to creating a healthier emotional pipeline, and ensure healthier patterns.

A tip for today: Create your dream home.

We know that what we think about sends messages to our brain and impacts our moods and how we show up. This is a visualization exercise is meant to open your doors of creativity, an important step in healing.

Imagine you got to create your dream home. What would it look like? This can be a home you wish you had growing up, for your “inner child”, parts of self that were hurt or an image for your adult self in your home today.

Your dream home

Who would you want to be surrounded by, what kind of home decor, food, and social gatherings? More of what you had, or less? What would the outside look like, lots of greenery, a water stream, flowers, bushes? What kind of people would you invite it? What would the house smell like, what pictures would you have on the wall, and what would it feel like walking in or waking up in the morning?

According to neuroscience, what you think about, and feel on a body sense level, leaves an imprint on the brain.

We also know that visualizations and art work help in creating what is is that you want. Take out a piece of paper and color pencils and draw a home. See what you draw first. It may inform you about what you’d like to add today to make your home more inviting.

Want more tips on beginning your healing journey? Click here for 10 Skills to practice for healing emotional neglect and abandonment wounds.

Want to begin the deeper work? I encourage you to reach out to a local therapist who specializes in treating anxiety, relationship issues and abandonment loss.

*writings are based off of common themes, however, are in no way specific to client stories to protect confidentiality. 
*originally posted on integrativepsych.co




Esther Goldstein LCSW is psychotherapist and trauma specialist who runs a private practice called Integrative Psychotherapist in Cedarhurst, NY. At Integrative Psychotherapy we are passionate about helping adults reduce anxiety and find a richer way of living, loving and "being" that promotes joy and connection. Our therapists use science based methods and modalities such as psychodynamic psychotherapy, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (somatic), Expressive Arts and Parts work (Ego State Work) to help clients feel relief that last way beyond their time on the therapy couch.

Specialties include treating anxiety, trauma survivors, relationships issues, family-of-origin work, Inner-Child work, Attachment focused Therapies, Healing for Complex PTSD And Dissociative Disorder Treatment.

We also offer Trauma Informed Consultation To Therapists Committed To Improving Their Trauma-Informed Practice And Attachment Focused EMDR Consultation To Therapist Attaining Hours Towards EMDRIA Certification.

Website: Integrativepsych.Co