One of the single most validating things I've ever heard in my life is that parental emotional neglect is more damaging than physical abuse.
When you are raised by a chronically uninterested and/or rejecting parent, it actually affects your brain - specifically the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for things like emotional regulation, optimism, perseverance, self-control, resiliency, curiosity and the ability to handle change.
It is also the part of the brain that helps regulate social and emotional interactions, avoid self-defeating behavior and engage in healthy relationships. This means that parents who are unable to provide enough positive interactions, affection or adequate attention, may (inadvertently) set their children up for a tumultuous adulthood.
Is there hope? Yes and no.
Healing is found in establishing a 'secure base' (a relationship with an emotionally available and stable person) and, in effect, rewiring the brain to expect something different and better, as the relational affection, acceptance and emotional safety are internalized.
Sadly, individuals with a damaged prefrontal cortex are attracted to the very people who cannot be a secure base, as they most likely suffer from the same condition themselves. The rocky relationship then sends a message confirming previous faulty negative perceptions (You are not safe; You are not good enough). Or, the previously neglected now-adult finds a nice, stable person and then runs them off with their intense emotions or inappropriate levels of self-control.
So, the problem perpetuates itself.
So how can one find a secure base and rewire the brain in adulthood?
There are a few options for adults who are prone to unhealthy relationships and/or strong emotional reactions that sabotage healing.
- A therapist. A therapeutic relationship can provide the much needed secure base for a time. The healthy interactions and unconditional positive regard experienced with the professional can then be internalized and taken out into the 'real world' of human interaction.
- A support group. The emotional acceptance and "I'm in the same boat" connection found in a support group can provide a similar type of secure base healing as that of the therapeutic relationship. In both cases, the regularly scheduled intervals add an extra level of environmental consistency, a quality of a secure base.
- A mentor/friend. A grounded friend who understands where you've been and their role as a secure base can be a life-saver (in some cases, quite literally). Just be sure to have an honest conversation (or many of them) with the person so they know they are this important in your healing. This kind of person might be a Sponsor if you are in a recovery program.
- A healthy relative. Sometimes, even though we didn't get the best parents ever, we have other relatives (aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.) who can act as pseudo-parents. We may have been distanced from them in childhood due to geography or parental jealousy, but as an adult, we can re-establish the family ties. Again, make sure the person knows how important they are to your rewiring journey.
- A Significant Other or Spouse. As previously mentioned, our judgment regarding intimate relationships can be clouded. If you, however, have found an emotionally stable, trustworthy long-term partner, then he/she can serve as your secure base (and probably already has been doing so!).
- Your own adult self. Sometimes, we just need to get in touch with our inner nurturing parent, that part of our self that knows how to offer friendship, love and compassion to others. We can learn to be our own friend and secure base to facilitate healing.
- God. (I only put this last so the atheists would keep reading.) Those who know the Lord will find the consistency in His Truth and Righteousness. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. I don't think a base can get more secure than that!
If you have survived childhood only to struggle with being an adult due to an uninterested/ unavailable/ absent parent, don't lose hope. It is hard work, but it is doable and well worth the struggle. I mean, you're struggling anyway right? Might as well struggle in the right direction.
Much love to my co-humans in this sometimes difficult journey of life, - M
Subscribe to my therapy vlog at Can We Talk? or find me @TweetmentPlan.
PS- The brain will sometimes lie to us and tell us that we would be better off dead or that death is the only way to escape the pain. If you are thinking of suicide please call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room. They will have the resources to get you started on your healing journey. Or, call The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Shout out to Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby for their attachment work and to Paul Tough, Bessel van der Kolk, Dan Siegel and the other chronic trauma researchers who are confirming through science what some of us already knew through experience.
Photo credit: pixabay
Watch the videos... Why Do I Always Attract Losers / Cheaters / The Wrong One? here and I Don't Want to Be Like My Parents here. And subscribe to the healing tribe here.
The Motley Ms.
Hi! My name is Melinda. I'm a saved-by-grace-er, lifelong learner, INFJ, health & fitness trynabe, Mom, #vanlifer, mental health vlogger, and Director & Clinical Supervisor at a Child & Family Therapy Practice in Northern California.
The Motley Ms
The Therapist's Therapy Blog