I live in Minnesota. I overheard someone say once that we work for our seasons. That’s an oddly funny thing to say, but, if you live here, then you’ll understand the meaning in that sentiment.
As a seasonal change approaches, the current weather patterns seem to want to hold on almost as if they have a personality. Summer just won’t leave! It’s sticking around in October like a bad guest! And yet the warm temperatures seem to loiter in the atmosphere in spite of midnight frosts. We all begin to assume that this year Old Man Winter will stay in his cave. This will be the year that Minnesota tricks winter. Halloween approaches and the kids are wearing short sleeves! We’ve done it!
And then it happens. The cold suddenly appears and refuses to go. Just like that. Where did all the lovely warmth go? No transition? No warning shot across the bow? Darkness at 5:30 and frigid mornings? I guess winter didn’t forget us after all. Shoot..
This is how I’ve experienced relational changes as well. Everything seems to be fine. It’s all going along smoothly, and then suddenly it’s not. One person becomes emotionally distant or cold or angry or withdrawn, and there was no warning; or if there was, then the warning was missed. You’re left wandering around in the desert of abandonment wondering what happened? Where did all that lovely relational warmth go? Why is it suddenly cold?
The only conclusion? I must have done something wrong.
But what happens when the other person has left the relationship be it through the Silent Treatment, functional dissociation, emotional neglect, or actual physical abandonment? What does one do then?
That’s a damn good question.
I am in this situation at present. In my marriage. My husband has severed the emotional and physical connections between us by way of what looks like functional dissociation, emotional neglect, and certain passive aggressive behaviors. At this point, he hardly speaks to me.
I have no control over his behavior. What can I control? Myself. What has become fascinating to me is my internal world and thought life during this very uncomfortable and painful season. Initially, I felt adrift and confused. I felt like everything was my fault although I couldn’t figure out what I’d done wrong. I found myself saying, “This feels so familiar. I don’t like this.” I observed latent PTSD responses quicken and come to the surface. I began startling easily again. I was very anxious and edgy. I was not sleeping well. I started having nightmares. I would retreat into the bathroom to cry.
Clearly, what was happening in this relationship reminded me of something I had experienced prior. Something traumatic. I hated to admit it to myself, but I knew exactly what felt familiar. My husband was reminding me of my father. I could scarcely accept it.
What I am describing here is called an emotional flashback. A few days ago, I went looking for any shred of information to help me understand the machinations of an emotional flashback in the context of PTSD, and I discovered a treasure trove. A therapist specializing in treating PTSD and C+PTSD has written numerous articles on this dynamic as well as other aspects of C+PTSD. I have spent that last few days reading through them, and I want to refer you to them.
According to Mr. Walker in his article Emotional Neglect and Complex PTSD, emotional neglect is the core wound of C+PTSD:
Minimization about the debilitating consequences of a childhood
rife with emotional neglect is at the core of the PTSD denial onion. Our recovery efforts are impeded until we understand how much of our suffering constellates around early emotional abandonment around the great emptiness that springs from the dearth of parental loving interest and engagement, and around the harrowing experience of being small and powerless while growing up in a world where there is no-one who’s got your back. Many survivors never get to discover and work through the wounds that correlate with this level, because they over-assign their suffering to overt abuse and never get to the core issue of emotional abandonment. As stated above, this is especially true when they dismissively compare their trauma to those who were abused more noticeably and more dramatically. [This is particularly ironic in light of the fact that some individuals can suffer a modicum of active abuse without developing PTSD, if there is one caretaker who does not emotionally neglect them]. (Walker, Emotional Neglect and Complex PTSD)
If his thesis is true, then repeated exposure to emotional neglect could trigger emotional flashbacks. I have seen this in other people. Why have I not seen this in myself as it pertains to one of my core relationships?
It is this statement that I want to share almost more than any other:
Emotional neglect, alone, causes children to abandon themselves, and to give up on the formation of a self. They do so to preserve an illusion of connection with the parent and to protect themselves from the danger of losing that tenuous connection. This typically requires a great deal of self-abdication, i.e., the forfeiture of self- esteem, self-confidence, self-care, self-interest, self-protection. (Walker, Emotional Neglect and Complex PTSD)
This is a stunning statement because it doesn’t just apply to children. This applies to adults as well. I sent this article to a friend last night who has worked with survivors of myriad forms of abuse. I asked her, “How many survivors do you know who can’t spend money on themselves? How many don’t take care of themselves? How many have poor boundaries? How many don’t make decisions in their best interest? How many have little to no self-esteem?” Her answer? “Almost all.” And, of course, how many were abused as children in some way even through emotional neglect which is perhaps the weightiest of all forms of abuse albeit covert.
I was once listening to two survivors talk about how they never spend money on themselves. They feel terribly guilty about it. Everyone else came first. They were laughing about it and declaring this as if it were a badge of pride.
“I don’t spend a dime on myself!”
“Oh, well, neither do I!”
“Well, I only go to Goodwill to get my clothes!”
“Oh, well, I just patch mine up!”
The idea that self-esteem, self-protection, self-care, self-interest, and self-confidence as values that are relevant and appropriate because they cultivate dignity were foreign and even dismissed. Perhaps even shunned! Why? Because you can’t have a developed sense of self if you believe that your identity has to be sacrificed for a relationship to succeed. That is exactly what happens when you live in an abusive relationship, and emotional neglect is abuse as is longterm exposure to passive aggressive behavior because that is another form of emotional neglect. So what is done in an attempt to stay in and preserve such a relationship? The self is abandoned.
The result of this self-abandonment?
Emotional intelligence and its cohort, relational intelligence, never get to develop, and children never learn that a relationship with a healthy person can become an irreplaceable source of comfort and enrichment. Moreover, the appropriate management of the normal emotions that recurrently arise in significant relationships is never modeled for them. Emotional intelligence about the healthy and functional aspects of anger, sadness, and fear lies fallow.
Moreover the receptor sites for receiving love and caring from others often lay dormant and undeveloped. Emotionally abandoned children often devolve into experiencing all people as dangerous, no matter how benign or generous they may in fact be. Anyone can automatically trigger the grown-up child into the deeply grooved patterns of perfectionism and endangerment engendered by their parents. Love coming their way reverberates threateningly on a subliminal level. If, from their perspective, they momentarily “trick” someone into seeing them as loveable, they fear that this forbidden prize will surely be taken away the minute their social perfectionism fails and unmasks some normal flaw or foible. (Walker, Emotional Neglect and Complex PTSD)
What is to be done about it?
It is important to emphasize here that real intimacy, and the healing comfort it alone can bestow, depends on showing up in times of vulnerability –and eventually, and most especially, in the flashbacked-times of feeling trapped in the fear, shame and depression of the abandonment melange. In this vein, I had to painstakingly practice for years showing up in my pain and abstaining from my childhood default positions of running or hiding or camouflaging with substances whenever I was in the grips of the fear, shame or depression of the abandonment melange. How else would I ever have learned that I was loveable and acceptable in all aspects of my experience, not just in the social perfectionism of my people-pleasing codependence?
And of course, like most survivors, I was ignorant at first that I was experiencing the emotional pain of the abandonment melange; how could I help but conceal it? Yet, even after considerable de-minimization of my childhood abuse/neglect picture, I still remained convinced for a long time that everyone but my therapist [who in deep flashbacks, I also recurrently distrusted] would find me abhorrent if I presented myself authentically in such condition…Effective recovery does typically involve working at various levels at the same time. De-minimization is a lifetime process, and remembering a crucial instance of being abused or neglected may occasionally impact us even more deeply on subsequent remembering as we more fully apprehend the hurt of particularly destructive parental betrayals. (Walker, Emotional Neglect and Complex PTSD)
There is a phrase for this in DBT–distress tolerance. We have to dedicate ourselves to learning to tolerate emotional distress so that we can consistently show up in our lives while feeling our pain without, as Walker said, defaulting to maladaptive coping strategies. Personally, I like to use functional dissociation. It works, but it is a form of resisting the pain which only leads to prolonged suffering. We need to follow the breadcrumbs of pain in order to find the source so that we can ultimately deal with it.
Ultimately, Walker asserts that it is possible to recover from Complex PTSD:
There is also growing evidence that recovery from Complex PTSD is reflected in the narrative a person tells about her life. The degree of recovery matches the degree to which a survivor’s story is complete, coherent , emotionally congruent and told from a self- sympathetic perspective. In my experience, deep level recovery is often reflected in a narrative that places emotional neglect at the core of the understanding of what one has suffered and what one continues to deal with. It is a very empowering accomplishment to really get the profound significance of childhood emotional neglect – to realize in the moment how a flashback into bewilderment, panic, toxic shame, helplessness, and hopelessness is an emotional reliving of the dominant emotional tone of one’s childhood reality. Like nothing else, this can generate self-compassion for one’s child-self and one’s present-time self, kick-starting the process of resolving any given flashback. This also assuages emotional neglect by providing the self with the essential missed childhood experience of receiving empathy in painful emotional states instead of contempt or abandonment. This, in turn, proves that there has been significant deconstruction of the learned, unconscious habit of pervasive self-abandonment. (Walker, Emotional Neglect and Complex PTSD)
Validation, validation, validation with a huge dose of self-validation. In this context, it is vital that we begin to see where we are living with crazymaking, accusations, denial, and manipulation. It is very hard to construct a proper narrative of events when the people closest to you are questioning your perceptions and gaslighting you. This is where a skilled therapist can be invaluable. We aren’t born knowing how to act or what to do in the context of relationships. We aren’t even born knowing what is best for us or what our goals should be. So much of how we react in the present is informed by unresolved past events.
It becomes a chicken/egg problem. Am I upset now because of what this person is doing to me, or am I upset now because this event reminds me of something that was done to me in the past? Everything is now amplified, and I’ve lost my perspective. Would I be this upset if this simply felt like an isolated incident rather than an incident attached to a series of familiar events happening to me all over again?
Learning to stay present by cultivating a mindfulness practice, developing curiosity around behaviors and choices so that we can ask questions like the aforementioned, and building a safe and supportive community even if it’s only a therapist are steps that we can take so that we can engage in a dynamic and active recovery process.