By: Imi Lo, Specialist Psychotherapist, Art Therapist
Childhood wounding does not always take a physical form. Our society typically recognizes the horror of physical child neglect, but not the emotional pain that comes from toxic relationships. Psychological damage can happen in invisible ways, from a parent’s lack of emotional awareness, subtle put-downs, allowing dysfunctional sibling rivalries, or over-control. Children who are emotionally gifted, either due to their innate wiring or necessary adaptation, are more likely to fall into certain roles and dynamics, such as becoming enmeshed or parentified. Their emotional trauma may not be a result of conscious or malicious acts but remain unspoken of and unnoticed for years.
No matter how gifted and empathic, all children have particular needs that must be met. They have the right to safety, to be protected from harm, to receive love and attention, to be spontaneous and playful, to have their needs heard and recognized, and to have appropriate supervision, boundaries, and guidance. On top of these fundamentals, emotionally intense children face unique challenges, for example with sensory sensitivity and emotional regulation. They are acutely aware of and have intense responses to what happens to them and around them, which may exacerbate the impact of any childhood difficulties.
From the outside, the emotionally deprived child may seem fine, for all their basic physical needs such as clothing and schooling are provided, but the lack of outside corroboration makes the invisible wounds more damaging. In some homes, there is even the pressure to maintain the illusion of a happy family to ‘save face.’ If their parents and society told the child that they were loved, yet they did not feel it, this discrepancy could create immense confusion and guilt.
Parenting a sensitive and gifted child can be incredibly rewarding, but it requires a high level of maturity and awareness. Unfortunately, not all parents are equipped; They may not be intentionally abusive or exploitative, but limited by their vulnerabilities.
The following might be a difficult read, but it will help us to understand the impact of not having our emotional needs met. It is critical that we do not fall into the trap of simplistic or linear thinking, of blaming or victimizing. Instead, let’s see this as an opportunity to come closer to ourselves and our inner truth, and to make room for new insights that will help us heal and grow.
“Dissociation is the common response of children to repetitive, overwhelming trauma and holds the untenable knowledge out of awareness. As the child gets older, he will turn the rage in upon himself or act it out on others, else it all will turn into madness.”
― Judith Spencer
TOXIC FAMILY DYNAMICS AND DEPRIVED NEEDS
THE EMOTIONALLY BLANK ADULTS AND THE UNSEEN CHILD
Either due to limited psychological capacity, mental illness, undiagnosed neuro-typical traits (such as autistic- spectrum, Asperger’s or ADHD), extreme work or health demands, some caregivers are unable to be emotionally responsive to their children, and leave them feeling abandoned, or invisible.
For children to develop a sense of self-worth – a feeling that they matter in this world – they must first have their parents validate their fundamental worthiness through a process called ‘mirroring.’ They need to be shown by their parents, both explicitly and implicitly, that they are unique, wanted and welcome. Mirroring can be achieved by explicitly praising, applauding, acknowledging and valuing the child, but it is the more subtle clues – gestures, expression, or a tone of voice.
No parents can be the perfect mirror all the time – there will be times when they are not able to be there for their child. This too is natural, and not a problem if mis-attunement does not happen often. With enough good mirroring experiences, the emotionally healthy child can draw on their memories and will no longer need excessive reassurance. As adults, they have a firm sense of self-esteem and a belief that they are fundamentally good. If, however, the parents’ emotional distress or insecurities meant that the child did not get enough mirroring, the development of their sense of self would be disrupted.
Both the process and the necessity of mirroring are vividly demonstrated in the Still Face Experiment, conducted in 1975 by Edward Tronick (On Youtube, Under “Still Face Experiment” you can watch a short but provocative video clip). In this experiment, the mother was asked to keep a blank face and not respond to her child’s attempts to engage with her. When the baby received no emotional responses, he “rapidly sobered and grew wary,” he made repeated attempts to get the interactions with his mother, and when these attempts fail, he withdrew and turned away with a hopeless facial expression. These series of events happened so fast that they were almost undetectable. This experiment shows that mirroring is also the way via which we learn to regulate emotions; Babies are not born with the ability to manage their feelings and need to learn such skill by having another person as a mirror.
While all children must learn to emotionally self- regulate, this skill is critically important for the empathic child. They have an active mirror neuron system, so they are more susceptible to emotional contagion— the tendency to absorb, ‘catch,’ or be influenced by other people’s feelings (more on Emotional Contagion here). Without adequate mirroring, they are easily overwhelmed by other people’s energies and emotions. Feeling bombarded, they may eventually learn to shut down, numb themselves, or even dissociate from reality.
In some families, the adults may react contemptuously to their call for connection. Emotional dismissal and neglect are crippling for sensitive children, who from a young age, strongly need a deep and authentic connection. Given their heightened perceptive abilities, they are also highly aware of their surroundings and would not easily bypass the messages of contempt or dismissal coming from those around them.
In a nutshell, we are not born with solid boundaries, a sense of self and emotional regulation skills. As children, we need someone to validate our experience and help us to wind down from distresses. Unfortunately, not all parents have the capacity to hold the needs of an intense child.
“…the child cries because they need something. If the child had the ability to take care of the problem themselves, they wouldn’t cry. …Failing to meet a crying child’s needs also teaches the child that their needs and feelings are unimportant and even dangerous and that they are bad and unworthy of love.”
― Darius Cikanavicius
THE CONTROLLING PARENTS AND THE ENMESHED FAMILY
According to the separation-individual theory (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975), at birth, all infants naturally have a symbiotic relationship with their mothers. However, as part of healthy development, they ought to recognize their parents as separate from them and develop a sense of self. In some situations, however, the parents are not able to let go and would limit their child’s independence and autonomy by depriving their children of the opportunities to explore, to risks, to make the necessary mistakes, and to gain resilience in the world.
Anxious parents may — subtly, through their emotions outpouring and behaviours— convey: “Don’t go”, “You can’t go”, “I cannot survive with you” “Don’t grow up”, “The world is a dangerous place”, or “You cannot make it on your own”. These unconscious messages not only violate the child’s emotional boundaries at the time, but it also set them up for guilt and shame in future relationships.
Behind these parents’ need to control is often their fear of not being needed. They may be dissatisfied with their own lives or marriage, and use their children as a way of filling the inner void. Alice Miller has famously described this situation in her seminal work ”The Drama of the Gifted Child”: The parent, upon having a child, may feel that finally she has someone to love her unconditionally, and use the child to fill her own unmet needs (In old psychoanalytic texts, a female pronoun is often used. When drawing on these theories we ought to be mindful of not perpetuating the mother-blaming culture). We can see how this can easily happen with the empathic child: When the parent feels down, the child can quickly sense it and would show their genuine concern. Their intuition, insightful questions, and profound love makethem the most available and loving ally.
The result of this dynamic is enmeshment- a relationship in which two or more people are overly involved with and reactive to one another. In an enmeshed family, the boundaries between family members are blurred, or too permeable. There is a kind of ‘spill-over’ happening, where an emotional change in one person would quickly reverberate and escalate throughout the entire household. Research shows that growing up in an enmeshed household often leads to difficulty in identifying and regulating one’s emotions.
When parents let their needs override the child’s needs to separate and individuate, the child would have to manufacture an identity tailored to the parents’ demands, out of the fear of losing love and approval. Thus, the child growing up in enmeshment often have a blurred sense of identity and have trouble with boundaries. They are used to being intensely affected by, to the point of feeling responsible for other people’s feelings. As adults, they may struggle to tell the difference between their own emotions and those they care about or feel compelled to rescue someone from their difficulties. They may find it difficult, therefore, to have balanced friendships and relationships, or they may find being around people’s emotions so overwhelming that they have to cut off from others.
What makes enmeshment insidious is that it is often shielded under the name of unity, family love, filial piety, or loyalty. In truth, however, enmeshment comes from fear rather than love. A genuinely supportive family is one that empowers the young person to forge their life paths. The child should not be bound to a conditional love at the expense of their sense of agency. They should not be their parents’ only source of happiness and wellbeing, nor should they have to absorb the emotional pain that was passed down through generations.
Rather than it being a malicious maneuver on the parents’ part, enmeshment is often a result of family patterns being passed down trans-generationally. They usually are not consciously aware of what they are doing but just repeating the cycle that had played out in their childhood.
“One of the most common corruptions of childrearing remains the controlling caregiver’s propensity to shape the child into an object aligned with the caregiver’s own unprocessed trauma. “― Darius Cikanavicius
THE UNDER-RESOURCED ADULTS AND THE PARENTIFIED CHILD
Parental guidance and protection are needed to provide the foundation for the child’s sense of safety. Due to a limitation of their emotional resources and capacity, however, some parents are unable to be a solid role model. In these cases, the roles are reversed: the child has to not only become their own parents but even a parent to their parents.
Parentification is the word used to describe a role reversal within the family system. The parentified child is expected to fulfill the emotional needs of one or both parents (emotional parentification) or take care of the physical needs such as housework and babysitting siblings (instrumental parentification) that are not age-appropriate. This can happen in various ways, and the toxic impact may not be immediately apparent. For instance, the parent might behave in a child-like manner, or they relate to the child as a peer, confidante, or friend. The child then believes they must step up to such roles to secure their parent’s love.
The parentified child may also have to step up as their siblings’ confidantes, comforters, advisers, and supporters. While there is a large body of literature that focuses on the neglect children experience from their parents, there’s less examination of how this neglect puts kids in the roles of parenting each other. Some who had grown up this way report experiencing tremendous guilt when they had to leave the family— for as they leave their younger siblings, they felt like they were the parents who were abandoning their own children.
With no one to look up to, to lean on, or to receive guidance from, they are weighed down by responsibilities, forced to grow up too fast, too soon, and deprived of a carefree childhood. Although learning to be empathic to others’ needs is a healthy part of development, parentification is a boundary violation.
Children who are caught up in emotional role reversals live with a chronic feeling that they are falling short. Because they are by default not able to achieve the impossible mission of curing their parents of their original pain or marital dissatisfactions, they start to believe it was their fault. Even as an adult, they have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility in relationships. They may develop compensatory emotional and behavioral patterns such as over-giving in friendships, not being able to say no, always wanting to rescue others from their pain, or attracting partners that take more than give. In a long run, these patterns could lead to physical and emotional fatigue, and the desire to shut down completely.
What makes the situation even more challenging is that it is very difficult for the empathically gifted child to be angry at their parents. Often the parents do not set out to be abusive or neglectful but are held back by trauma and difficulties in their own lives. The intense child, with heightened sensitivity, compassion, and maturity beyond their years, feels compelled to help their vulnerable caregivers. Their protective instinct, however, holds them back from acknowledging the truth of what was lacking in their childhood. As grown-ups, they jump to defend their parents’ inadequacies, ‘they did not mean it,’ ‘they did the best they could.’ Though this might be true, to achieve true forgiveness, one ought not emotionally or spiritually bypass the step of acknowledging the actual hurt from the perspective of the inner child.
“A child needs to feel safe and protected, which means that their body, psyche, and belongings are safe and secure from violation. Because a child is helpless and dependent on their caregiver, they need a guardian in this predominantly unknown and sometimes scary and dangerous world. “
― Darius Cikanavicius
THE COMPETITIVE PARENTS AND THE OPPRESSED CHILD
Parenthood is a roller coaster ride that comes with a myriad of emotions; from pride, joy, anger to grief. Although it is a taboo subject in society, it is not uncommon to feel jealous of one’s children. For the aging parents, seeing their children’s youth, energy, and open possibilities also mean being confronted with what they have lost. Jealousy can be a natural, even healthy human reactions to life changes. Healthy parents can acknowledge their complicated feelings; and understand that in parenting one can feel both loving and shaky, proud and jealous, and be wholeheartedly giving and inwardly insecure all at the same time. They can celebrate their children’s exuberance, beauty, talents, and competence in the world without having their insecurities get in the way.
For parents with limited emotional capacity, however, seeing a child’s growth become intimidating. Both men and women might feel threatened by their chronological timeline and bereave over their un-lived lives. Facing an empty nest, their childhood wounds and unmet needs are stirred up, and they psychologically regress to a point where they see their children as a competitor.
These parents are stuck in a paradox: In one way, they wish their children would thrive so they could reaffirm their identity as a good caregiver, yet they feel threatened by their child’s being more successful, beautiful, or competent than they are. If they felt resentful towards the time and energy they had sacrificed, they might feel betrayed as the child moves towards independence. Parents who are not self-aware act out their toxic envy in dysfunctional ways, such as back-handed compliments, subtle put-down, or the more explicit contempt and scorn.
Children look up to their parents, especially the same-sex parent. If who they see as a role-model put them down, or punish them for their accomplishments, they would eventually internalize the disdain as self- hatred and low self-esteem.
The messages of oppression might be buried deep in the unconscious, but whenever adult children of competitive parents do well in life, they feel unexplainable guilt or shame. They might even sabotage their success, intentionally play small, to stay safe; Underachieving and the imposter syndrome are common.
While this does not excuse their behaviors, competitive parents are also victims of deprivation in their childhood. For they have not experienced unconditional positive regards for their own flourishing, they are unable to give it freely. As Carl Jung puts, nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment, and especially on their children than the unlived lives of the parents.
“The past is a place of reference, not a place of residence; the past is a place of learning, not a place of living.”
― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
THE SCAPEGOATING DYNAMIC AND THE BLACK SHEEP
Challenges arise when an emotionally intense child is born into a neuro-typical family who does not understand them; they were like apples that have fallen far from the trees.
These families are presented with a fork in the road; They can reject their child for their strangeness, or they rise to the occasion and allow themselves to be changed by their experience. Andrew Solomon, who conducted over 4000 interviews with families, observed that having exceptional children exaggerates parental tendencies; those who would be bad parents become awful parents, but those who would be good parents often become extraordinary.
It takes strengths and maturity to learn to work with differences. Unfortunately, as a result of a myriad of factors from emotional incapacity to cultural confines, not all families can accept their child’s idiosyncrasies or celebrate their gifts.
In a healthy family, there should be enough room for each family member to express themselves as individuals. However, in some family, there is little tolerance for differences. This set up is unfortunate for the intense child.
Being scapegoated may not mean that your family members do not love you, or that they are intentionally trying to harm you. Their need to label you often comes from their vulnerabilities and the fear of their inadequacies. Theorists of Systemic Family Therapy use the term ‘Identified Patient’ (Minuchin et al., 1975) to describe the scapegoated person. Often, pointing the finger at one person as the cause of all evil is an unconscious strategy used by some family members to evade their own emotional pain.
Once the pattern is set, the family typically goes to great lengths to keep the dynamic that way – the scapegoat must remain the scapegoat – otherwise, the others would be forced to face their vulnerabilities. What this means is that when the scapegoat tries to walk away from this toxic dynamic, they may be met with subtle or not-so-subtle emotional revenge, manipulation or blackmail.
If your family life from childhood leading up to today were being put on stage, would there be a kind of ‘fixed role’ assigned to you? For example, were you ‘the emotional one,’ ‘the strange one’ or ‘the sick one’? Here are some of the signs that you have been scapegoated in the family:
You are criticized for your natural attributes, such as your sensitive nature.
Name calling – you are always ‘the weird one,’ the ‘wild card,’ or ‘the trouble.’
Your parents treat you differently from your siblings.
Your mistakes are blown out of proportion or punished disproportionately.
Your siblings bully you, or they ‘jokingly’ mock you for your idiosyncrasies.
No one intervenes or takes notice when others are bullying you.
Your family does not know who you truly are beyond the superficial, and have shown little interest in knowing.
When you thrive, get stronger and more independent, you sense that your family members are intent on bringing you down or dismissing your achievements.
Children find their identity in what is reflected to them by their parents. Being treated as ‘the bad apple’ all your life, you might find it hard to shake off this identity. Even when you move away from this them, you may still carry with you mental or emotional repercussions from the past.
To heal from being scapegoated, you may zig-zag your way from denial to anger, and eventually freedom and release. You may intellectually understand that you are not the cause of problems in your family, but to shift the internalized shame requires more profound emotional healing. You must realize that the cause of chaos is not you, but your family’s repressed baggage, and it should never have been your responsibility as a child to resolve anything. Once you can let go of this, and reacquaint yourself with people who see and cherish you for who you are, you are on your way to reclaiming your own authentic life.
“When she tries to talk about her pain, she is told that she must be crazy. “Nothing bad has happened to you;’ her family tells her Each day she begins to feel more and more like she doesn’t know what is real. She stops trusting her feelings because no one else acknowledges them or hears her agony. Soon the pain becomes too great. She learns not to feel at all. This strong, lonely, desperate child learns to give up the senses that make all people feel alive. She begins to feel dead.
― Margaret Smith
If the above information rings true, it probably has stirred up discomfort. We do not want to bypass any feelings of hurt, but it is equally important not to be stuck in a disempowering position of blame or shame.
Perhaps you feel as if you had hoped, and was disappointed, but you keep on hoping.
You were loved and was betrayed, but you still believe in love.
Perhaps you were confused by the stream of changeable feelings towards the family that has never understood you.
Many of us suppress our natural feelings because it was silenced by our culture or upbringing.
To free ourselves from the burden of past trauma, let’s take a few moments to review what we think about anger, blame, and love.
First; your feelings, especially anger and resentment, do not need justifications.
No matter what it is, I would like you to know that your feelings need no justifications.
It is a part of the human design that we suppress any anger directed at those we trust and depend on.
From childhood, our mind is designed to do this without us even knowing. This is because, from an evolutionary perspective, the bond with our caregivers is a life-or-death matter. The idea that those we so rely on can ‘fail,’ or that we would do something to upset them, is unfathomably frightening.
Despite growing into adulthood, many of us remain stuck with an estranged relationship with anger.
When anger comes, it is ladened with guilt and shame, so we suppress it before we even notice it.
We binge eat, we numb ourselves, we get depressed, or we turn aggression towards ourselves and feel like a bad person. Then, sometimes our anger erupts in the unexpected ways, impeding the relationships with those we love now.
Because we feel threatened by our rage, we often find ways to justify, or rationalize it away: “They did the best they could.” – Yes, this is true, in fact, everyone is always trying the best they can, with the knowledge, capacity, and resources they have. AND inevitably there will still be unmet needs and disappointment.
Most of us do not feel safe enough to touch anger. But by spending so much energy to hide from ourselves, we are taking a smaller slice of life and ended up feeling half-human.
We could see anger as a kind of universal energy that goes around, and when it enters our system, it needs to be allowed to go through, and then released.
Your feelings do not need reasons to be legitimate.
Second; understand that anger does not equate blame.
When anger surges, our mind has a hidden belief: “Someone must have done something wrong.” Following that, it goes: “If it is not others’ fault, then it must be mine.” However, this is not true. Our world is not perfect, it is not supposed to be, and it is the most natural that we have an anger response— it is a healthy and necessary part of nature.
While we do not excuse emotional abuse; caregivers who mistreat their children are likely traumatized as a child. Trans-generational trauma is the notion of unhealed issues can be passed down. According to Fromm (2012), the author of Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations, what human beings cannot contain their experience— what has been traumatically overwhelming and unbearable — often get passed onto the next generation. Physically, unhealed patterns may be passed on through epigenetic. Psychologically, the parents or grandparents can pass down trauma through maintaining toxic silence about specific issues, or, on the flip side, over disclosing their past traumas to their children and reinforcing the idea that the world is a dangerous place.
From a wider, spiritual perspective, we might consider separating our parents’ toxic behaviors from the people they are. Their dysfunctions stem from a pain that has been passed down. Perhaps we could see our parents not as ’our parents’, but ill-equipped, under-resourced fellow human, affected a universal body of pain, and none of us are ultimately immune from it.
When we feel pain, we could also remember that though it feels personal to us, we are entirely innocent and independent from it. We might have inherited trauma through our family, and are carrying a share of the collective human suffering. The trauma does not define us; it is a separate entity that has been attached to us. As it could enter our psyche, so could it leave our spirit.
Yeah, where you say, “Oh, but wait a minute, someone lived in this house before me,” in essence. “And some of that stuff is not mine. Actually, this is not mine. That’s my mom’s. This is not mine.”
― Rev Kyodo Williams
Ultimately, we ought to remember this:
Anger does not negate love.
Relationships are complex. It is rarely just one thing. Love and hate, anger and intimacy, closeness and distance are not mutually exclusive. We both love and hate, hope and despair. We desire both closeness and distance.
Anger is a part of love.
To truly love someone, including ourselves, we must also integrate anger as a part of our whole.
If we could go through the painful process of lucidly embracing what the child in us was/ is furious about, we will inevitably get to the next steps of the psychological and spiritual maturation process— grieving and accepting.
Accepting does not mean surrendering to defeat or allowing abuse, it just means seeing what it. And ‘seeing what is’ is the first step to ‘loving what is.’
If we could accept reality, we are no longer in denial. When the disappointment is digested through, we will have to grieve what we had needed but did not get, and then be released from the tyranny of false expectations.
Through this process, our capacity to love others is deepened. We will find ourselves triggered less often in our daily life because we have stopped projecting an idealized version of others onto the ‘real’ people that they are.
Our love is now based on the truth of who people really are— both ‘glory and terror,’ both their most delightful qualities and their infuriating limitations. Our relationship is no longer so clouded by an illusion, and not tainted by endless cycles of false expectations and disappointment.
Temporarily, it may feel as if anger diminishes love, but in the long run being able to have anger in our emotional repertoire will only enhance our capacity for true love— for everything— ourselves, those who have hurt us, and those who love us, the wider community.
Allowing anger to go through and pass us is alchemy.
It is the opposite of evil, but the doorway to vaster love.
By releasing condemnation and resentment, we free ourselves. This does not mean we do not set boundaries, or have to be in a relationship with those who harm and manipulate us. It does not excuse or condone any abuse, but it is only by letting ourselves off the hook, could we free energy up into writing our authentic life script.
If we could accept our own anger, of our parents’ limitations, and of the trauma embedded in our collective humanity across history— we are liberating not just ourselves, but we are also doing something of transpersonal meaning. Like a ripple that will evolve into a wave, you could be contributing to a universal healing force in the world.
Our history is a part of us, but it does not represent or define us.
At any given moment, we could give ourselves the permission to be a free, autonomous being, not weighed down by our past or baggage we have carried for our family of origin.
It is never too late to give yourselves the freedom that you deserve.
“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
Imi Lo, Mental Health Professional
Imi Lo is a consultant for emotionally intense and highly sensitive people. She is the author of Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity, available in multiple languages; and The Gift of Intensity. Imi focuses on working with emotional intensity, high sensitivity and giftedness.
Imi has trained in mental health, psychotherapy, art therapy, philosophical counselling, and mindfulness-based modalities. She has lived in different countries and has worked in hospitals, schools, and community mental health teams. As a coach, she works holistically, combining Eastern and Western philosophies with psychological and spiritual healing modalities such as Buddhism. Imi’s credentials include a Master in Mental Health, Graduate Diploma in Psychology, Bachelor of Social Science in Social Work, Certificate in Logic-based Therapy, and an Advanced Diploma in Contemporary Psychotherapy. Imi is the recipient of multiple scholarships and awards including the Endeavour Award by the Australian Government. She has been consulted by and appeared in publications such as The Psychologies Magazine, The Telegraph, Marie Claire, and The Daily Mail. She is the founder of Eggshell Consulting, working with intense people from around the world.