Recognising when you are Running on Empty
Updated: Apr 27
Have you ever found yourself saying, “I don’t know who I am, what I like or what I want”, “I feel empty but don’t know why” or “I had a good childhood, I have a good life, yet it feels like something is missing, why am I still not happy?”
If any of these sounds familiar, you are not alone. These thoughts along with others, can be signs of what psychologist and researcher Jonice Webb, Ph.D., has called “emotional neglect” in her well-written and insightful book Running on Empty.
Now the use of this term I recognise can be pretty triggering. When we think of the word ‘neglect’ we think of social services, a child who is given nothing, who has none of their physical needs met or is caused physical injury and pain by their caregivers. This is abuse. This is not what emotional neglect is referring to. Let me try to explain this truly powerful concept.
When a child grows up in a nurturing home, in which their emotional needs are recognised and met, where the caregiver:
· Feels emotionally connected to the child,
· Pays attention to the child and see them as a separate and unique person, rather than an extension of themselves or a possession and,
· Uses that emotional connection and attention to respond competently to the child’s emotional needs
This bond is the source of emotional health where feelings are accepted and explored and strategies for managing these feelings are learnt. It creates a lifelong template for the child’s perceptions of the value and reliability of relationships. It lets the child know that there will always be someone there for them and this ‘knowing’ allows them to form meaningful relationships with others throughout their life. Under these conditions, children are mentally and emotionally able to learn about life through their experiences. They learn that they are lovable, worthy, have innate value, and that they matter.
“Emotional neglect is the absence of emotional nurturing, empathy, and verbal or non-verbal expressions of love.”
Now, let’s get real, there is not one single parent who has fulfilled the above three bullet points 100% of the time. Nobody is perfect – no parent and no child. Parenthood is often a struggle to juggle everything and keep those plates spinning. Sometimes plates fall, and in most cases, they can be picked right back up and no damage is done. Winnicott describes the concept of the ‘good enough parent’ – the parent who allows their child to feel safe enough to have a go, fail and manage their emotions so they can strategise and try again. Anticipating and meeting your child’s every need doesn’t help them – they grow up without self-discipline, unable to problem-solve or to accept failure, similarly never meeting your child’s needs is not good – this is abuse. The best we can hope for, according to Winnicott, is to be ‘good enough’ getting it roughly right whilst not getting it too badly wrong.
Emotional neglect occurs when a parent fails to see, know, or understand their child as they really are, instead viewing them through the lens of what the parent thinks they are or wants them to be. It sometimes means a lack of attention and care, for others, it is a lack of boundaries, rules, and structure. Sometimes it is a lack of encouragement and a failure to provide the tools and lessons needed to navigate the world. Other times it is parents who are overly busy and distracted and simply fail to SEE their child in the way the child needs to be seen. It becomes a problem when this occurs often enough that the child’s metaphorical emotional fuel tank becomes ‘empty’. Emotional neglect can be present even when the parent is providing for all of the child’s physical needs. It can be present in otherwise loving, caring, and well-meaning parents. Emotional neglect is not the same as emotional abuse, hence it is often not as apparent as abuse. It is hard to notice because how do you remember something that never happened? Something you never got? And it is this ability to camouflage which belies its most long-lasting impact. Because of you are unaware of the cause of your problematic feelings or ways of relating, then who are you going to blame? Yep, you guessed it, You. Bring on the shame and guilt.
Dr. Webb describes the wound of emotional neglect in childhood as attempting to build a house with a cracked foundation. “But if the foundation is cracked, crooked or weak, it will not be an important source of strength and security. It’s not a noticeable flaw, but it could place the structure of the house itself at risk: one strong wind, and it comes tumbling down.”
As the quote above shows us, emotional neglect is often not a noticeable flaw, but it can result in our carrying an unrealistic self-image or exhibiting a lack of self-compassion. We can also experience guilt and shame, self-directed anger, or poor self-discipline.
Now to be clear, the concept of emotionally neglect is not about parent-shaming, and this blog would certainly not condone such views. There are various different reasons why a parent may be emotionally neglectful, ranging from simply not having a better model from their own childhood to not having enough emotional resources due to being overworked or otherwise overloaded, to struggling with their own depression and/or grief, or a variety of other scenarios. In Running on Empty, Dr Webb outlines twelve parenting styles and characteristics that can lend themselves to emotional neglect, some of which include:
The Narcissistic Parent – these are the parents who feel the world revolves around them and so their parenting style is all about meeting their own needs rather than their child’s. Their child is therefore an extension of them – the child’s success is their success, subsequently when a child makes a mistake, they fear people will apply this failure to them. Narcissistic parents are often experienced as demanding, hurtful and difficult to please which can result in the child growing up to have difficulty identifying and meeting their own needs and can feel unable to trust close relationships as they have learnt that attention or affection only comes at a high cost.
The Authoritarian Parent – these are the parents who are focussed on rules and tend to be inflexible in their approach. They are highly demanding expecting their standards to be met, the punishment for falling short can be harsh. They have little time (or inclination) for listening to their child’s feelings or needs, prioritising their standards over knowing their child. As a result, the growing child may either rebel against authority or become overly submissive from fear of repercussion, shame or abandonment.
The Permissive Parent – this parent rarely, if ever, imposes rules and limitations on their children. Often perceived as “cool” for their fun and liberating approach, ultimately these parents fail to see that children need some structure, some rules and some boundaries by which to define themselves. Children of permissive parents therefore struggle to set their own boundaries, they struggle with self-discipline, and have few coping mechanisms in which to cope with the requirements of the real world. Furthermore, because they were not given clear and objective feedback from their parents growing up, they have difficulty seeing themselves clearly and so struggle to identify their strengths, weaknesses and goals.
The bereaved Parent (divorced or widowed) – when the number of caregivers to a child reduces, due to death, illness, divorce or even longer working hours, this can put pressures on the remaining caregiver. They may have limited financial resources which requires them to work longer hours themselves, they may be overrun with their own grief or emotionally and physically depleted themselves. As a result, their child(ren) may end up raising themselves to a large extent. They learn not to talk about things they find difficult or painful for fear of hurting or stressing their parent out more. These children become ‘little adults’ who are overly responsible, overburdened with worry and anxiety about their family. They become good care-takers for friends, family and at work, however, this is at the cost of their own self-care.
The achievement/perfection-focussed parent – are primarily focussed on achievement and perfection. Similar to the narcissistic parent, they experience their children as reflections of themselves and so the child’s experiences become a reflection of them. They push their child to do better, work harder and perform to their potential (or beyond). This leads to the child growing up to believe their worth is in their achievements and to become perfectionists themselves who struggle with feelings of insecurity, anxiety and inadequacy.
If you see yourself in any of these descriptions, Dr. Webb has some encouraging words: we are not limited to our current experience, once we are aware of experiencing emotional neglect we can learn to ‘fill up our own tank’, learn and grow, and as we do, the effects of emotional neglect can be reversed and the great thing about Dr Webb’s book is it tells you ways to do that too!
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