“What do you feel when you’ve been hit by a car?”
This question was posed to my Developmental Psychology class (years ago) by the professor, a short and stout man with salt and pepper hair and a white beard.
The class had various responses. “Pain.” “A thud.” “Pissed off.”
The professor said, “Anger, right? Your heart races and you want to beat the pulp out of whoever drove into you.”
He probed the class with more questions. “Why do you feel angry?”
Again, the class had answers ranging from ‘Because it’s expensive’ to ‘Because it’s not fair’.
“Yes, those are right, but also because it invades your space, right? You’re driving along, and WHAM! Someone who isn’t supposed to be there crashes into you. It betrays your sense of space. It betrays your sense of security. ”
We know anger, the brain’s response to threat. The heat turns up, our heart rate increases, voices grow louder or shakier, veins bulge. We sense that our security is at risk. As with a car wreck, we experience the same response when emotional events leave us feeling angry, shaken, and often times, distraught, but the betrayal is personal when we feel unworthy of a significant person’s consideration or empathy.
Lack of emotional validation, a component of emotional neglect, comes in many forms: stonewalling, trivializing, avoidance, and, table-turning, such as, “You’re too sensitive.” For behavior to be abusive, it repeats itself over and over, a pattern in daily life. Our security is stolen by words.
As far as the brain is concerned, emotional abuse has the same impact as physical abuse. Over time, it damages developing brains, destroys trust, corrodes self-esteem. Ego is at the core of every abuse, and between abuser and victim it is either empowered or denied, entitled or diminished. The danger of emotional neglect is its invisibility, allowing it to continue for years and years undetected, worsening the impact over time.
My life is made meaningful by bringing awareness to the invisible epidemic that shattered me. It was a series of car wrecks, small, but frequent, that went on for years before I was able to recognize its manifestation as a huge barrier on my self-worth and well-being. Over 10% of adults claim to have been emotionally abused as children, but this number only represents reported cases.* No child should ever feel insignificant, unworthy of love, or inferior in their own home. If you have been feeling alone and ashamed for years, told that your emotional ‘choices’ are wrong, or uncertain about who to trust, you aren’t alone.
The roadmap to how we perceive the world, emotions are the core of our identities, and everyone deserves emotional agency without shame or guilt. Emotions are never wrong, in fact, they are unique to our experience and guide us to the person we are meant to be. When we recognize behavior that removes us from the center of our experience and makes it about somebody else, we can begin to correct the contributions that perpetuate the unhealthy relationship. Invisible abuses thrive in complacency. There is redemption in the fact that compassion is free—emotional validation costs nothing to give.
When we enact on goodness, we mirror the good of the world. Each of us is allowed to be the driver of our life and it is never too early, or too late, to expect kindness. There is plenty of space to be yourself. It’s a good idea to ask, “Who validates me?”
*Statistic from Child Help. For more information, see childhelp.org