Emotional Ghosts

Shadowy human figure pressing against a glass wall like emotional ghosts

Childhood is the most dangerous hood in the world. The crime rate is astronomical, and literally no one is patrolling those streets. Shit that happens in that hood – from broken promises and stolen dreams to first-degree soul murder – goes largely unaccounted for until the statute of limitations is up. The result is a bewildered populace of emotional ghosts, completely oblivious to their undead condition. They blend into a crowd with prosthetic hearts and play patty-cake with the normies for a chance to feel alive.

But how good are those odds?

Emotional Starvation

Being held down, burned, stabbed, and pissed on as a child is decidedly not enjoyable, but at least it’s something you can point to and say, “That happened to me.” Granted, most people hide these memories under impenetrable layers of shame, but if you wander into a therapist’s office one day, it shouldn’t take long to find a smoking gun.

Childhood emotional neglect is not a gun, nor does it smoke. It’s something that didn’t happen to you, so there’s nothing to cover in layers of shame except yourself. And by far, nothing keeps more people from getting the help they need than the soul-eating emotion of shame.

Like all sad stories, it begins with emotionally immature caregivers. Often preoccupied with their own dysregulated nervous systems, their most generous attempt at “giving you a better life than they had” is ignoring the elephant in the room that once tried to kill them.

Seems like something that should totally work, you know?

There are also many cases where children become emotional cookie jars for the wandering hands of their emotionally malnourished parents. People who didn’t feel loved in their family are often keen to create a family of their own. Surely your own children will love you, right?

You may suspect this is the case when a hug from your parent feels like they’re taking a drag on a cigarette.

Lots of animals eat their young. As gruesome and disgusting as it is, it’s not uncommon. And the emotional incest of dysfunctional families is not far off.


Thank God for agnosticism. If objectivity and subjectivity didn’t play so well in the sandbox, I don’t know how reality would hold itself together. And while we’re at it, bless the saints who invented denial, delusion, and dissociation. I can’t imagine anyone could string together a coherent narrative without the creative license of a highly evolved trauma response.

Humans are nothing if not supremely adaptable. And this, of course, is the blessing and the curse.

We are somehow able to survive in even the most remote locations, like Easter Island, Antarctica, or inside the deeply isolated mental prison of self-abandonment.

Surviving is neat. But it ain’t the same as living.

The Problem with Being an Emotional Ghost

One of my favorite lines from Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect by Dr. Jonice Webb is, “You would need emotional awareness to recognize that you have no emotional awareness.”

This is an obvious corollary to the Dunning-Kruger effect – a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude. It neatly encapsulates the solipsistic hellhole of the emotionally bereft interlopers among us, sifting through the unknown in search of a three-dimensional solution to a spiritual problem.

Emotions arise at the intersection of two human souls. People who learn against their will that relationships are unsafe are forced to abandon authentic human connection for self-preservation. The unmistakable tragedy here is that connection itself is a biological imperative. With that severed, emotions are reduced to just motions.

And so these emotional ghosts must forage for scraps and synthetic substitutes to satiate their soul’s yearning for something their body considers a known threat. I cannot think of a more fucked existential dilemma.

Often, these folks achieve remarkable material success and feel just as hollow as ever. They may be widely respected and highly regarded, but the love they seek requires emotional exposure, and the risk is just too high. So they decorate their comfort zone with all the trappings of a life well lived and play make-believe with people who don’t believe in ghosts.

For many, this is good enough. Others eventually decide they want more from life.


Circling back to the gift of adaptability, it turns out that ghosthood doesn’t have to be permanent. You can learn, heal, grow, and recover from damn near anything, but you’ve gotta want it. You gotta be willing to ask for help and follow suggestions.

Emotional ghosts aren’t born; they are the product of relational trauma, which is something that can only be healed relationally. Find a good therapist, coach, psychologist, or someone you can trust to walk you out of the haunted house of your childhood. You won’t become fully human until you do.

If you have a suspicion that your partner may be the ghost in your home, I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that you can share this article with them, discuss the idea, or suggest therapy. The bad news is that if they don’t want help, there’s not a single thing you can do to change them. Emotional leverage doesn’t work on them, for obvious reasons.

And even if you said, “Until death do us part,” you’re not obliged to live your life with the walking dead.

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Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

4 thoughts on “Emotional Ghosts

  1. Such a sad reality. Beautifully written article.
    I so wish I’d have a magic wand and could just wave it and fix one very complicated human being. But it doesn’t work like that. He’ll probably never be fixed.

    1. Thank you, Julia. Frederick Douglass once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” It is possible to change – I am certain of this – but only if you really want it and have the right resources. And many people are too terrified of change, unfortunately.

  2. Great insights ! I read Dr Webb’s books. Your take on it is wider and touching. I starved recognition and performed endlessly all my life, without the expected emotional response. My mum did not get it until her last cancer hit her, we talked a lot, she was not aware of the neglect … I sorted partly my pain as a starved child while I stood with her until her last days. 10 years later, my cure is still underway… and I get it, it takes time.
    My take on reading is about trauma ? I was a victim of abuse by a psychopath. Reading too much about it made my life a living hell, I tried to understand and justify the unacceptable. I stopped reading and writing too, now I feel the pilot flame starting to turn into a brighter light as it should, given I am a nice human being worthy of that peace I so longed for. Work in progress !

    1. Yes, it’s possible to overdose on information! But recovery is a long and winding road. Glad you continue to make progress, my friend 🙂

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