I shared one of my poems with a psychiatrist once. She told me that I needed to “grow up”, that I relate to people like I’m a child. This psychiatrist is long gone now. She had no manners and all we’d do is fight. Yet this comment has stuck with me. I realise there is a little girl in me who didn’t get the love and attention she needed. And she haunts me.
Yesterday I discovered the term “Emotional Deprivation Disorder”. Suddenly I had a name for the pain and hunger I live with (which is becoming more and more unbearable). I had heard of the term “Emotional deprivation” when studying schema therapy. In schema therapy, “emotional deprivation” is a core belief, wound or narrative that develops in us when we are not given protection, empathy, or nurturance when growing up (see Cognitive Behavior Therapy Centre for all 18 schemas). We carry this into adulthood, expecting that our desire for a normal degree of emotional support will not be adequately met by others.
This schema can play out in several different ways. I will describe three, which I learnt from Sofiya on YouTube.
First, we may overcompensate. This is like how people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder act like they’re better than everyone else and expect constant admiration. Deep down though they have extremely low self-esteem. People with the emotional deprivation schema who overcompensate become extremely demanding for shows of emotional support in relationships. It is never enough.
The second way this schema can play out is by avoiding people and relationships altogether. I definitely see myself in this and it may be part of the reason why I’ve been single my entire life. In my experience you can even get to the point where you become numb to displays of emotional support. You are so numb you feel nothing when people hug you or tell you they care about you. You form no attachments and you go long bouts without talking to people. You don’t see the point in interacting as it brings no pleasure. Maybe this is more depression I’m talking about, but depression often co-occurs with this schema.
The third way this schema plays out I find very interesting. It is surrendering to the schema. You don’t deny or hide from the schema. You completely embrace the schema and believe that you are destined to never have your emotional needs met. In turn you draw in people who confirm the schema. For example you will seek out people who are distant and unavailable. I have a long history of forming attachments to therapists. I have to pay to see them and they are not available to me in any real life sense, only in their office. They give me tiny crumbs of the emotional support I crave, a mere hour a week. It’s not enough. I long for a hug, a touch on the arm, to be held, ANY kind of physical affection, but they do not allow touch. I email them frequently (last night I was in a terrible way and must have sent at least ten distressing emails to my psychologist) but I don’t hear back. Maybe a part of us finds comfort in being deprived because this is what is familiar, this is what we’re used to. Another example of this is only getting close to people who live on the other side of the world.
“Emotional deprivation” as its own disorder is not currently in the DSM, but some clinicians believe it should be. A list of symptoms of this proposed disorder can be found here. The one which reminded me of my old psychiatrist’s comment is “Feels like a child or infant and expects others to focus their attention on them just as an adult would focus on a young child”. There are some similar conditions out there such as Borderline Personality Disorder and Complex PTSD. There is also the phenomena of “failure to thrive” where children who are not emotionally nourished stop growing. They lose interest in food, withdraw from the world and then one day they don’t wake up. Sadly emotional deprivation is actually quite common in our culture. It is a terrible thing and can even be fatal.