Psychology, psychiatry, genetics. Neurology, insight, analysis.
For years, I worked as a psychologist, diligently using each and every one of these tools to understand why my clients were depressed, anxious, personality disordered, or suicidal.
And generally, it worked quite well.
Until I had over a decade of experience, and began to realize that, for many clients, these six tools sometimes, in a very important way, fell short.
Something was being missed by me, by these folks’ medical doctors, and by their past therapists. It was also being missed by the clients themselves. It was a hidden factor that was at the very root of what went wrong for so many people.
It was the original core of the client’s reactions to later stressors or traumas. It set the stage for his brain chemicals to go awry, making him susceptible to depression or anxiety. Or it formed the origin of his reactions to the grave parental mistreatment that led to the gradual development of a personality disorder.
Yet we were all missing it. Together, those of us who were trying to help others heal were overlooking the heart of what had gone wrong:
Our clients were disconnected from their own emotions.
Period, it’s that simple.
Surprised? So was I. But recognizing the potency of this core, early, powerful childhood coping mechanism (that’s all it is) has changed the way I practice psychology, and the way I live my life.
How does a child become separated from his own emotions, setting the stage for future disorders and diagnoses? He only needs to grow up in a family that ignores, or fails to respond enough to, his emotions. In other words, he only needs to grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Imagine being a child, and having the intense feelings that all children have. Yet your parents don’t seem to notice. Imagine that your parents seldom ask you what’s bothering you, or why you seem sad, or upset, or angry. Imagine being told, “You’re too sensitive,” when your feelings are hurt. Imagine knowing that your emotions are more than your parents can handle. What would you do?
You would receive the powerful CEN message, “Your feelings don’t matter,” as all CEN children do.
To relieve your parents and yourself, you would push the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are, your emotions, away. You would build an internal “wall” to keep them away, to protect your family and yourself from them. You would experience your own feelings as harmful, not helpful. They may even become your secret shame.
And so you go forward, into adolescence and adulthood, and out into the world on your own, deprived of the richest, most valuable source of connection, guidance, motivation, and meaning that exists.
The stage is set.
Going through your life, things happen. Joys and heartaches and accomplishments and letdowns, so naturally you continue to have strong feelings. But when you grow up with CEN, your automatic act is to banish them. Off they go, to the other side of the wall you have built to block them. When you have a loss, a disappointment, a hurt or something else that makes you feel, the pile of feelings grows and grows. Since you have inadequate access to your pile of emotions, you can’t work through them. You can’t use them to learn and grow, as you are meant to do. Eventually, that pile of feelings weighs you down, coloring your world gray.
Like depression, anxiety also arises from your morass of walled-off emotions. When your naturally arising feelings of fear, concern or alarm are not addressed individually in the moment you have them, they all meld together across the wall, sending you warning signals at times that are not needed, and alarming you excessively at other times. You are anxious.
This happens when your childhood messages go beyond “your feelings don’t matter” to “your feelings are bad.” You are not only forced to push your feelings to the other side of the wall, you also learn to despise them. Since your feelings are the most deeply personal expression of who you are, you are indeed learning to hate yourself. Then, depending on the kind of parenting you are receiving, you are set up to become narcissistic, borderline, or another personality disorder.
SUICIDAL FEELINGS & THOUGHTS
Growing up in your CEN home, you learned not to ask, and not to tell. Don’t ask for help, don’t tell your problems. No one is there to support or help you. This sets you up to not only have your emotions pooling behind the wall, but to also feel very alone. Without your feelings to motivate, inspire and guide you to make decisions that are true to yourself, you can easily end up feeling lost in a big, dark world. Reaching out for connection and help feels like the wrong thing to do. A lack of joy and participation in life may leave you wondering, “What’s the point of living?”
Read more in Robin Williams and Childhood Emotional Neglect
THE GOOD NEWS
Becoming aware of this root cause allowed me to discover a way to target the roots of depression, anxiety, personality disorders and suicidal thoughts. I discovered that you can break down the wall that blocks your emotions. You can begin to welcome your emotions, old and new. You can learn to identify them, listen to them and learn from them. Like lost family members now returned, you can develop a new relationship with your emotions that enriches and informs your life.
Like a healing salve on a blighted tree root, you can repair yourself from the inside out.