The expression “benign neglect” means that neglect, or lack of attention, was intentional and done supposedly to help someone or something. That may work well for a cactus, but not another human being, and what if that person is a child? Neglect is hurtful and abusive in many circumstances, especially when concerning children.
Neglect is overwhelmingly the most common form of child maltreatment. According to a 2019 report on child maltreatment prepared by the Children’s Bureau at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, 61 percent of victims suffered from neglect.
When you have been seriously neglected as a child, it becomes very hard to see the world and the people in it as friendly. There is almost always the feeling of a perceived threat coming from somewhere at some time. You can try to push it away, you can try with all your heart, but it never stays gone for very long.
Unlike a full-blown panic attack, the anxiety is much more subtle and usually just beneath the surface of our daily lives. A harsh word or an unexpected change, even positive ones, can be triggers for feeling like you are no one and you have no one, no matter how much you are loved.
Self-confidence is something you don’t think about, because you know you’re just faking it. At any moment, someone is going to find out that your parents didn’t love you and you don’t get to play with the other children. That’s how it feels, and that horrible fog of worthlessness wraps around you like a smelly wet towel that you can’t discard.
No matter how successful you become, no matter how sure you are of the love of your life, when you grow up neglected, you always worry that it will all go away because you are not worthy of being loved. If love was withheld from you before, and you were traumatized by that, letting it back in is very scary.
If you are an adult and are feeling neglected in your relationship, please re-evaluate your situation and the emotional price you may be paying by staying with someone who is treating you poorly. Consider what your life is really like versus how you’d like it to be. If you need to leave for a better life, do it.
You may also benefit from good, supportive therapy. What many therapists do with their clients is metaphorically love them until they can learn to love themselves. This process of “reparenting” works. You can heal some of the pain this way, without your parents being in the room, but even more important is the healing you can do within yourself.
If you weren’t taught to love yourself, then you must develop it for yourself, no matter what your current circumstances. There is no reason to let these feelings of not being enough make your life a living hell. You can rid yourself of this pain by doing some serious personal growth work, realizing that this less-than idea of yourself is incorrect and allowing (or forcing) your pain to leave.
I know it sounds complicated and painful. But you need to let out the pain of the past, cry the tears that will cleanse you, and let in a little self-love. Ask yourself, if others believe in you and think you are worth their love and attention, aren’t you worth your own? You don’t have to carry your feelings of worthiness with you wherever you go.
Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D., is an award-winning therapist and humanitarian. He is also a columnist, the author of seven books, and a blogger for PsychologyToday.com with nearly 27 million readers. He practices in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles and is available for video sessions. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Sundays and Tuesdays in the News-Press.