So if you grow up holey, you have what therapists call unfinished business.
Of which unmet emotional needs are just one sort.
Unexpressed feelings. We love to believe that the pain, fear, anger and grief we experience in childhood go away when we grow up. Yeah, no. They go into storage, lie waiting to be triggered, and resurface (usually in inconvenient ways) during moments of stress.
Unresolved conflicts. Didn’t get along with dad? You may feel unsafe around male authority figures. Butted heads with mom? Older women may make you uneasy or irritated. Bullied or betrayed by siblings or extended family or friends? You may find it difficult to really trust adult partners or coworkers. Again, we want to believe we’ve put all that behind us. Then we’re surprised to find someone who makes us feel exactly like we did around Aunt Sally.
Unanswered questions. Are feelings safe or dangerous? Is it safe to be honest? Can I really get my needs met in relationships? Did my parents really love me? Am I lovable? Am I adequate? Hell, who am I anyway? What do I really want?
Ungrieved losses. Maybe someone died, or moved away, or you had to move yourself and leave friends behind. Maybe you were sick or injured or had a learning disability or were abused. Maybe you struggled in school and came out feeling stupid or inadequate. Maybe bad things happened to your family and you lost your sense of security or safety or normalcy early on. And maybe you believed, for whatever reason, that it wasn’t okay to talk about any of these things, or express your feelings without getting judged or shamed for them.
Unrelieved guilt. Two sources for this. One is the common run of mistakes, failures, stupidities and humiliations that all flesh is heir to. (I may never get over getting myself kicked off the soccer team by talking back to the coach.) The other source is internalized feelings. If you carry anger at a parent, for example, that anger is nearly impossible to discharge safely while you’re still a kid. (Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.) So you bury it, carry it around inside, and it comes to feel — surprise — like guilt. You feel like a bad son or daughter (Look at all they’ve done for me) when in fact you’re just angrily constipated.
Unhealed trauma. Traumas don’t always come in obvious packages. Besides experiences we all recognize as traumatic — loss of a loved ones, car accidents, serious illness, or abuse — there are common occurrences that shock our systems so badly we are affected in long-lasting ways. These range from natural disasters to dental procedures, physical injuries to public humiliation, academic failure to being the victim of bias, hospitalization to being painfully teased.
Think of all these sorts of unfinished business as unhealed emotional wounds.
Such wounds usually lie at the root of the symptoms that bring most people into therapy: anxiety, depression, addiction, communication problems and unhappy relationships.
I call them the Big Five.
Everybody I know has at least one of them.
Put another way:
Everyone has unfinished business.
Unfinished business is the inevitable price of having once been a child.
Part 6 of a series on monkeytraps and adult children.
Read part 1 here.