By Jonice Webb PhD
Legions of people walk through decades of their lives completely unaware that they are missing something. They may look around, and they may see others living more fully, or with more color or vitality. They may have a vague sense that something is not quite right.
But they are intelligent and competent and likable, and so they do okay. They put one foot in front of the other, and take life step by step; doing what is expected, and providing what is needed, with no idea that they’re more vulnerable to life’s challenges than other people are.
Until unexpectedly their job changes, or their child has a significant problem, or someone they love moves away or passes away. Maybe it’s a problem in their marriage, or a rejection or a hurtful action directed at them, but something happens to throw them off their game.
Then they struggle mightily, and they sense that their struggle may be going too far, and they find that they are depressed. “Why is this so hard for me?” they wonder. “How did I end up here? Shouldn’t I be more resilient?”
For many of these fine people, the answer is, “Perhaps.”
Perhaps if you had received enough emotional attention in childhood you would now have access to your emotions in a more vibrant and helpful way. Perhaps if your parents had noticed what you were feeling as a child, you would be noticing that now, yourself. Perhaps if you had been filled with self-knowledge and self-care and and self-love as a child, you would have them to rely on now, in your time of need.
Growing up in a household where feelings are not addressed enough (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN) takes a remarkable toll on a developing child. Not the least of which is this: It sets the child up to be more prone to depression throughout her lifetime, and to forever blame it on herself.
If you grew up without enough emotional validation and response from your parents (CEN), you probably did what most good children do: you automatically pushed your emotions away and walled them off. This may have worked fairly well through your childhood, but now, in your adulthood, you need full and healthy access to your emotions.
5 Ways CEN Sets You Up For Depression in Adulthood
- Your emotions are pushed away: As a child you walled off your emotions because they were not relevant or welcome in your childhood home. Now you lack enough access to your feelings, which you need. Your feelings are a vital, enriching feedback system that tells you what you want, what you need, what soothes you and what hurts you. Living life without this system makes it much harder to keep or regain your footing when you are thrown off base by a stressor or a loss. You are more vulnerable to becoming depressed.
- You didn’t get to learn some vital coping skills in your childhood: When your childhood home is an Emotion-Free Zone, you don’t get the natural emotion training course that other children receive. Then as an adult, not knowing how to feel, manage or express your emotions makes coping more difficult for you. When you are deeply challenged by life events, you find yourself lost, wondering how to help yourself. You are more likely to become depressed.
- CEN makes you feel alone in the world: When no one notices what you’re feeling enough as a child, and no one tries to meet your emotional needs, you receive a powerful, unspoken message. “Nobody cares what you feel.” You become very competent at taking care of yourself, but you do not learn how to reach out, how to ask for help or how to accept it. Living without the option of reaching out to your support system keeps you isolated. You are more vulnerable in times of great challenge. You are more likely to become depressed.
- You are prone to directing your anger inward: When life deals us a blow, or when someone hurts us, anger swoops in as a natural, protective mechanism. When you grow up in a household where anger is squelched or handled poorly, you don’t learn how to be comfortable with your anger or how to use it in a healthy way. CEN people are predisposed to turn their anger inward. “It’s my fault this happened to me,” you may say to yourself. “I never should have…” Instead of empowering you, your anger is making you weaker. And anger, turned inward, becomes depression.
- You are inclined to the feel shame: Your emotions are literally built into your biological make-up. They are the most deeply personal part of who you are. Growing up with CEN, the powerful message that your emotions either don’t matter or are bad can easily make you feel ashamed for having them. It’s as if the people most important to you can’t see, or even are reviled by, your left arm. If this happens enough, you will begin to feel ashamed of that arm and try to hide it. When it shows, you will feel ashamed. The same thing happens with your emotions. Instead of sharing and working through your feelings at times of stress, you are apt to hide them. This pushes you in the direction of depression.
And now, after all that bad news, I have some very good news for you. You can make yourself less depressed, and less depression prone.
3 Ways to Reduce CEN-Induced Depression
- Start attacking your CEN. The best thing about CEN is that it can be healed. You can break through that wall that you built to block off your feelings in childhood. You can begin to feel more varied emotions. You can learn how to use your anger in a healthy, protective way. You can learn the emotion skills that you missed.
- Accept that your feelings are your friend, not your enemy. All of the feelings inside of you are a source of vitality and richness. Some might be negative and hurt, but that’s okay. Feelings don’t have to be permanent, and if you listen to them and feel them, they will help direct and guide you. You can start treating your emotions differently and you will start to feel differently.
- Reach out. CEN taught you to circle your wagons, but that does not work very well now. Open your boundaries, and talk more. Ask for help, and start letting more people know what you feel and need. With more people on your side of the wall, you will no longer feel so alone.