Understanding Emotional Deprivation Schema

Emotional deprivation is one of the core primary schemas. As there are few signs, it’s difficult to detect at first, but this schema is one of the most common ones that people have. It’s a vague sensation that something is missing in your life. You can’t say what, but you know something is missing.

It is like a void or a feeling of emptiness. But it’s quite real – it’s the void of unfulfilled emotional needs.

Signs of ED Schema

You may have ED schema if you can identify with six or more of the following statements:

  • I don’t expect my emotional needs to be met in my relationships.
  • I haven’t had anyone to rely on for advice or guidance.
  • I have never really felt emotionally supported.
  • In my childhood, feelings and emotions weren’t acknowledged.
  • I feel like there is a void in my life – something missing but I’m not sure what.
  • I haven’t really felt special to anyone.
  • I don’t really understand my own emotions or needs.
  • For most of my life, people have not been there for me emotionally.
  • I rarely share how I feel with other people.
  • My parents were emotionally distant when I was growing up.

What Causes Emotional Deprivation Schema?

ED schema develops very early on in childhood in people where the main caregiver was not emotionally supportive. This is different from physical deprivation. The child was well-fed, had toys to play with, and their other physical needs were met too, but their emotional needs were ignored. It is actually the case that children are very stressed in these situations and tend to develop ways to try and make sense of them and their reactions.

When a child’s emotional needs are not met, he or she feels invisible, uncared for, and unimportant. Basically, they feel like their existence doesn’t matter. They fail to develop a connection to those around them.

This can lead us either to Approval Seeking schema or Defectiveness schema. With the former, we start behaving in ways that will make us feel better about who we are. We try to get those around us to like us, hence “approval-seeking”. With the latter, we become convinced that we are somehow “defective”. We start to believe we are flawed, that there is something seriously wrong with us. As a result, we begin to experience shame.

How emotional deprivation affects a person

People with ED schema report feeling lonely, bitter, and depressed, but aren’t aware of the reason. As adults, they no longer expect other people to help, protect, or even understand them. They sometimes feel that they do not get enough attention or affection and warmth. They are unable to express themselves emotionally. They have lost hope that there will be someone to provide support and strength – ever. Often, they feel misunderstood and alone. They may feel empty, invisible, or cheated.

Types of emotional deprivation

There are three types of emotional deprivation. The first is deprivation of protection, where people feel that no one is there to guide and protect them. Often, they are the ones offering others protection and guidance (this is frequently related to Self-Sacrifice Schema.)

People who feel deprived of empathy find nobody really listens or tries to understand them and their feelings.

Finally, people with deprivation of nurturance feel that no one is there to pay attention to them or (literally) hold them. For many people, ED schema comes in the form of a combination of all three. They feel alone and detached even when they’re surrounded by other people whom they know, even close people, such as friends and relatives.

They might believe they’re too “strange” to relate to, that they offend others without trying to, and they can never create an emotional attachment or any real connection. On top of this, they’re determined to not let these things show because they’d feel even more vulnerable then.

Typically, people with ED schema don’t ask their loved ones for what they need emotionally. They don’t express wishes for love or comfort. They don’t share much about themselves. Instead, they focus on others. They show great interest in others’ lives. They are inclined to behave like they’re very strong, but it’s a façade. They don’t ask for emotional support because they don’t expect to get it. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. You don’t get something that you neither ask for nor expect.

Why?

The emotionally deprived don’t know HOW to ask for emotional support. That’s understandable as it’s a hard thing to ask for. It feels awkward to express what you feel literally, because you feel weak, and the conviction that you won’t get what you ask for makes you feel even weaker. These people build very high walls around them, afraid of getting close to others out of fear of rejection, betrayal, or loss (“I tore down my walls and let you in only to be reminded of why I built them so high”).

This isn’t to say the emotionally deprived are not strong. They’re actually very strong. It takes great character and dedication to live like this. They’ve spent a lot of time and made great effort to build and fortify their defences. They have learned how to take care of themselves. They just don’t want people to detect their weaknesses out of fear that these points will be attacked.

Logically, the emotionally deprived often end up with ungiving, cold partners. They often choose people who are self-centered and needy, perpetuating their schema. More avoidant people become loners. They don’t want to be in intimate relationships because they do not expect to get anything out of them. They either avoid relationships completely or stay in very distant ones.

Consequences of ED schema: Compensating 

To compensate for emotional deprivation, people can be demanding and get angry when their needs are not met. Sometimes, these people are narcissistic. They have developed strong feelings of entitlement to get their needs met due to the fact that they were both indulged and deprived as children. They believe they need to be very insistent to get anything at all. ED can be expressed in excessive neediness too. These people can appear clingy and helpless. They are often ill and complain about it so they can get people to pay attention to them and take care of them. Most of the time, they are not aware of their secondary gain motive.

Getting Help for ED Schema

The first step to recovery is becoming aware of your emotional needs. Most people with ED truly don’t know what they are anymore because they have gone unmet far too long. Another goal in treatment is to get people to understand that their emotional needs are normal and natural. Just like children, adults need protection, care, and empathy.

One needs to learn to choose the right people and ask for what they need in an appropriate manner. They will get it. Other people are not purposefully or inherently depriving. The problem is that people with ED schema have maladaptive behaviours that discourage people from meeting their needs or lead them to choose people who cannot give.

Example: A person feels lonely and unloved and wants a friend or relative to spend more time with them. They ask them to come over and stay the weekend, “…if you want…but the weather here is really bad and everything is really expensive around here so you’d better have enough money” and a few other potential issues surrounding the trip. So the friend or relative will politely decline the invitation to come and stay the weekend, and the person with ED will feel even lonelier and sadder.

Why do they do this? It’s a form of self-sabotage.  If you’ve been alone for a while, you need someone to come and spend time with you, but you also have very high expectations of the person and the quality of your interaction with them. The more deprived we are, the higher our expectations become – to make up for this. We also start to fear that our expectations might not be met, so we sabotage our own plans out of fear. The cycle perpetuates itself.

Adaptive Strategies

It’s important to find a safe way to express pain and anger at the people who were responsible for the deprivation to begin with. This involves going back to one’s childhood, when one’s emotional needs were not met by the main caregiver. One needs to express what they wish the parent had done to meet their needs.

People with ED schema tend to believe others are acting selfishly or depriving them on purpose, which is rarely the case. In treatment, they learn to see nuance i.e. there are gradations of deprivation, not two extremes (giving vs. not giving). People care about you despite setting limits on what they give. Sometimes, there’s an objective limit to what they can give.

To the emotionally deprived person, it can seem like people don’t care about them if they can’t or won’t give as much in return as the person is willing to give. The truth is that others are busy and cannot focus solely on one single person. Despite this, they care and are willing to give.

It can help to write down what your parents, friends or partners did wrong or failed to do and how you wish things had been, or what you think you really needed at the time. This helps you learn to choose nurturing significant others because you become able to recognise the patterns that are to be avoided.  It becomes possible to accept nurturance from partners and ask them to meet your emotional needs. People learn to stop avoiding intimacy. They stop withdrawing when they feel neglected by others or responding with excessive anger to mild levels of deprivation. It’s crucial to understand that people have limits and to tolerate some degree of deprivation.

Helping patients make a connection between their feelings of sadness, loneliness, or physical symptoms and the lack of empathy, nurturing, and protection is a key goal in therapy. Patients have a hard time accepting that the deprived child inside them needs love and a connection with others. This can be very difficult because they were always told to just “deal with” or “get over” unpleasant feelings and emotions. As a result, they learned to bury them because they’re a source of weakness and negativity.

It’s hard to ask for emotional support when you never have. People who are emotionally deprived believe that if they ask for nurturance, they will be judged, others will think they’re weak, and their self-taught ability to take care of themselves will be undermined. They just don’t know how to ask for support in a way people will find appropriate and will respond to. But it’s something that can be learned both in childhood and in adulthood. ED is a very, very common schema.

“They Should Know, Shouldn’t They?”

The emotionally deprived sometimes think that significant others should know what they need. To them, it’s inexplicable that they should have to ask at all. This conviction works against a person’s ability to ask others to meet their needs or give them support. It is human to have needs and normal to ask others to meet them. Being emotionally vulnerable is human nature. In life, we aim for a balance between strength and weakness, confidence and vulnerability. Sometimes people are strong; other times they are weak. To be strong all the time is the equivalent of not being completely human and denying a core part of who you are, of your essence and uniqueness.

This is a key part of getting over emotional deprivation schema. Everybody wants and needs to be a whole person. It is natural, normal, and healthy. It’s ok to be vulnerable sometimes as long as you are with the right people. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean that you are weak. It makes you a human being – nothing more and nothing less.

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