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Why is it so hard to ask for what you want?
Why is it so hard to ask for what you want?

Why is it so hard to ask for what you want?

Does it seem almost impossible for you to state a preference, describe yourself to others, or accept help from people? Read on to find out why and what to do about it.

Do any of these ring true for you?
  • You’re visiting family and they ask what you’d like to watch on TV. You say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. Whatever you want.” You don’t like what they pick, but you don’t say anything. You play a game on your phone instead of watching the show with them.
  • A friend does something that bothers you but you don’t say anything about it. You think to yourself, “I don’t want to upset them. And maybe I’m being unreasonable?”
  • You buy a heavy piece of furniture and bring it home. Instead of asking your friendly neighbor to help you carry it inside, you struggle to do it yourself and strain your back. You didn’t want to trouble anyone.

Sometimes it’s good to go with the flow or do challenging tasks by yourself. However, if you consistently feel unable to tell people what you want, rely on other people, or stand up for yourself, something deeper may be holding you back.

Illustration of child experiencing childhood emotional neglect by clueless father

There are different reasons you might struggle to assert yourself in relationships and get your needs met. A common yet often overlooked reason is childhood emotional neglect. In fact, while about 18% of adults report childhood emotional neglect, some experts suspect the actual number may be significantly higher [1].

If your parents were emotionally neglectful, you might have sensed something was missing but felt unable to put your finger on it. Emotionally neglectful parents can be difficult to spot because they’re often “good enough” in the most visible ways. They may have provided you with a nice home, good food, and all the toys, clothes, ballet classes and other extracurricular opportunities you could have wanted.

Sadly, what these parents don’t provide can carve deep emotional scars.

What is childhood emotional neglect?

Emotional neglect occurs when a child’s parents fail to adequately respond to the child’s emotional needs. These parents don’t provide enough emotional awareness, compassion, or validation for the child.

If your parents were emotionally neglectful, they probably tried to shove your “difficult” feelings under the rug instead of helping you notice, name, and manage them. They probably didn’t soothe you enough when friends hurt your feelings and they likely avoided having frank conversations about problems you were facing.

Tragically, this neglect is often unintentional and parents may not even realize they’re doing it. They can love you fiercely yet not be able to support your emotional needs. This can have long-term consequences for your emotional health, your sense of self, and your ability to function in relationships [2, 3].

Signs of emotional neglect
Signs In Childhood

When you were a child and you felt upset, what was it like to go to your parents for help? Did they listen calmly, take you seriously, and offer compassion and support? Or, did they tend to invalidate or ignore your feelings, either because they didn’t take them seriously or because they felt too overwhelmed to deal with them effectively?

Did your parents say things like:

  • “It wasn’t that bad.” or “Lots of kids have it worse.”
  • “Don’t be so dramatic!”
  •  “You don’t really feel that way.”
  • “It’s not worth getting upset about.”
  • “Just forget about it.”

These common phrases may sound relatively harmless, however, they conveyed that your feelings were wrong or unimportant.

Signs In Adulthood

When you go to a family event, do you experience the following?

  • You feel bored or unsatisfied by the “superficial” topics they discuss. They rarely talk about things that are meaningful, emotional or painful.
  • You feel unknown to them or misunderstood.
  • Your family expresses affection by doing things for each other rather than by using words.
  • Expressing emotion, especially negative emotion, seems taboo.
  • You go to these events hoping to enjoy yourself but leave feeling disappointed or empty.

If so, your parents may struggle to support you emotionally.

Consequences of Emotional Neglect

When your parents brushed off your feelings or ignored them, you learned that your emotional needs weren’t important. You might have even internalized your parents’ behavior to mean that you aren’t important. You may have stopped seeking support since it doesn’t seem to do any good. To cope, you might bury your feelings or transform “unacceptable” feelings like anger into “acceptable” ones like anxiety.

In adulthood, you may experience [2, 4]:

  • Emptiness: “I don’t know who I am or why I’m here.”
  • Fear of Dependence: “I will be rejected or let down if I ask for help or accept it when it’s offered.”
  • Shame and Guilt: “I don’t want to burden other people.”
  • Not knowing how to deal with negative emotions: “My emotions are wrong and I must hide them.”
  • Self-Blame: “I mess things up. I’ll never succeed.”
  • Trouble nurturing yourself or letting others nurture you: “I don’t deserve nice things. Other people shouldn’t go out of their way for me.”
  • Feeling Fatally Flawed: “There’s something terribly wrong with me. If people really knew me, they’d dislike me.”
  • Trouble standing up for yourself: “My needs and wants aren’t as important as those of other people.”
What you can do now

You can’t go back and fix your family, but you can work on yourself.

  1. Learn to notice, label and manage your emotions.
    Start by asking yourself:
    -What am I feeling right now? Write down as many feeling words as you can think of that describe your emotional state.
    -What emotion is most prominent?
    -When did you first start feeling this emotion?
    -What might have triggered this feeling?
    -What thoughts are you having about the event that triggered this feeling? For example, imagine that you felt sad after a friend no-showed for your coffee date. Behind your sadness, you might have a thought like, “No one really likes me.”
  2. Recognize your needs and ask others to meet them.
    You deserve to have your needs met just like the rest of us do. Start small by asking for things that others can easily give. For example, ask for a hug from your partner or a friend when you’ve had a tough day.
  3. State your preferences. Notice when you say things like, “I don’t care,” “It doesn’t matter,” or “I don’t know.” Practice telling people what you want, even in situations where it hardly matters. When a friend asks where you want to go to lunch, pick something instead of saying, “Whatever you want.”
  4. Seek professional help.
    While a therapist can’t fix the mistakes your parents made, they can help you build the emotional tools you need to thrive as an adult. A qualified therapist can help you recognize and manage your emotions, learn to trust other people, build self-esteem, handle rejection, ask for what you need, and work on other important skills.
Next Steps

If you’re struggling to assert yourself in relationships and get your needs met, you might benefit from talking to a professional.

If you need mental health care, call your doctor or contact Athena Care, for comprehensive mental health care in Tennessee.

One of our Care Coordinators will help you get the care you need.

Photo of Rachel Swan
Rachel Swan, MS

Rachel has a Masters of Science in Clinical Psychology from Vanderbilt University, where she spent 16 years as a Research Analyst in the Psychology and Human Development Department.