Real belonging requires us to be authentically ourselves.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.
People who grew up with CEN end up feeling on the outside. It’s a sense of being alone, unable to join, separate, different. This feeling is compounded by the fact that the cause of it all, Childhood Emotional Neglect, doesn’t get talked about.
But in the last month I’ve noticed several news stories and articles that touch upon CEN, addressing it indirectly. They are all important and teach us something new. Here they are:
In the article, Dr. Charles Nelson, a Harvard professor, is quoted as saying, “Depriving the brain very early in life has very insidious effects.” Dr. Ann Easterbrooks, a Tufts University professor, is also quoted: “In cases of chronic, severe neglect, you see smaller brains and difficulties in emotion regulation. You might see serious depression, anxiety disorders, and negativity,” including blunted positive emotions and emotional flatness.
The Takeaway: We know, and science has established, that extreme physical neglect in childhood affects the brain’s wiring, and has severe and damaging effects that endure into adulthood. But this article, and the research it cites, focuses upon physical neglect, not Emotional Neglect.
The Question: Let’s study the brains of Emotionally Neglected children. Let’s look at the separate effects of Emotional Neglect from the physical type of neglect.
The Takeaway: Loneliness is a feeling, not a state. It is possible to experience powerful feelings of loneliness while surrounded by people who love you. And beyond that, those feelings of loneliness can have a profound effect upon your physical health. This study validates the importance of the empty, “on the outside” feelings that so often go along with CEN.
The Question: The deeper question is: Why would a person feel lonely while surrounded by people who love him? I believe that often, the answer is CEN. So is it a jump to hope that taking on your CEN and breaking down your walls could improve your physical health? I don’t think so.
The Takeaway: If grown-ups are more affected by being ignored (the adult form of Emotional Neglect) than they are by bullying (the adult form of abuse), imagine what it’s like for a child who is being ignored by his family.
The Question: Could this have implications for the impact of abuse vs. Emotional Neglect upon children? Abuse is a terrible thing for a child to endure. It has lasting effects throughout adulthood which must be addressed. But if you grew up emotionally neglected, you may suffer even more than the abused. You, like the ostracized adult in his work environment, did not feel like an important part of your family. Your suffering is real.
So children’s brain development is effected by physical neglect. It is possible to feel intensely lonely while surrounded by loving people. And being ignored is worse for adults than being bullied.
Yet widespread, subtle Emotional Neglect continues to erode the lives of thousands of children and adults. Unfortunately, since it is not visible, tangible, memorable, or dramatic, it receives no headlines and no research grants of its own.
What is it like to fall between the cracks? What is it like to feel that you don’t belong? Let’s pay attention to the children who know. Let’s ask the adults who can tell us. Let’s put our time and money into research, and give validation and a voice to those who feel on the outside.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, its causes and effects, and how to heal, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Having intense feelings is simply a part of being alive. No one gets a free pass.
But some feelings just keep coming back again and again, like an old nemesis who refuses to leave us alone. They can drive us to do unhealthy things or make poor choices. And they can make us supremely uncomfortable.
Last week’s article, Eight Step Method to Manage Intense Emotion, was about how to sit with, and tolerate, an intense, painful feeling. This week, we’ll talk about how to resolve the feeling so that it actually goes away.
If you find that emotions are extra challenging for you, it may be a sign that you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect. If your parents didn’t know how to handle feelings, they likely were not able to teach you. Now, as an adult, you must learn these skills on your own. The good news is that you can!
Did you know that being able to tolerate a feeling and resolving it in the long-term are closely related? Here’s why:
In order to make an intense feeling go away, you have to be able to sit with it and tolerate it.
Recently I received this request from a reader:
What I have found lacking is books or articles on the process of revealing my feelings, the associated pain and some kind of plan to work through the feelings that would help DURING the healing process. Knowing the common steps of healing would be very encouraging and provide both patience and hope.
When you push your feelings down as a child in order to cope with an environment which cannot tolerate them (Childhood Emotional Neglect), you grow up lacking access to your emotions. A large part of the process of healing involves breaking down the wall between yourself and your feelings, and welcoming them.
But what if many of those old feelings are painful? What if the process is so painful that it’s too hard to let the wall down? What if you lack the skills needed to cope with the pain because no one ever taught you?
Managing painful feelings happens on Two Levels:
Next week’s article will be about Level 2: Long-Term Resolving. So check back!
The fuel of life is feeling. If we are not filled up in childhood, we must fill ourselves as adults. Otherwise we will find ourselves running on empty.
From the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect
What does Empty feel like? What causes some people to feel it? In last week’s article, Not Sad Not Hurt Not Angry: Empty, we talked about how the Empty feeling is a result of having a wall inside of you which essentially blocks your emotions away.
Having a wall like this is functional in some ways. It can get you through your childhood by allowing you to cope with a family who is emotionally unavailable, ignoring, rejecting, devoid of love, or even abusive. But when you grow up and are living as an adult, you need to have access to your emotions.
When your emotions are walled off, you pay a heavy price. You pay the price of deep, meaningful, supportive relationships, a feeling of purpose and direction in your life, and a strong sense of self-worth and confidence.
Are you thinking, “Yes, I want all that!”? If so, there is a way to get it. It involves slowly, purposefully chipping away at your wall until it no longer stands between you and your emotions. It takes commitment, effort and perseverance. And if you have those, your rewards will be great.
Here are Five Steps to Breaking Down Your Wall:
Do these steps sound easy? Probably not. But keep in mind that you are not looking to blast through your wall. You want to chip it down slowly, gradually, bit by bit. Since that wall stands not only between you and your emotions, but also between you and the world, your life will get better and better and better, chip by chip by chip
Each time you open your heart to a chosen person in your life; each time you notice something new about yourself; each time you listen to a feeling that you are having, you are chipping away. You are breaking the childhood bonds that have held you back all these years. You are making the decision to live life your way. You are taking a chance, counting yourself worthy, and filling yourself with the most powerful fuel there is.
Finally, you will no longer live your life running on empty.
To find out if you are living with CEN, and if so, what to do about it, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.
Some of the most powerful words are those of real people sharing their stories. Some of the quotes below were emailed to me (with permission to share), and some were posted as comments on my website. Here is a sampling of the real words of people who grew up with CEN.
The CEN Childhood
The first 16 years of my life that my family lived together, I can’t remember a single meaningful or real communication that occurred between any of us in that time.
My feelings and emotions were the last things on my parents’ minds. The best they could do was provide a home with basic amenities.
I honestly don’t remember my parents much at all, though both are still alive and married today.
I never heard the phrase “I love you.” There was no one to talk to, no one who cared. I brought myself up in every sense of the word.
I remember the intense indescribable pain that I felt as a young child when my mother wouldn’t acknowledge the simple child affection I wanted to give.Continue reading
After Robin Williams’ sad and shocking suicide, friends, family, fellow stars, and even reporters offered multiple explanations for the virtually inexplicable:
Why did he do it?
Some of the many possible factors which have been proposed are depression, alcohol, drugs, and Parkinsons Disease. But I see another potential factor which is never mentioned by anyone. A factor which falls between the cracks just as its sufferers do: Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).Continue reading
“Although many of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think”
— Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Neuroscientist and author of My Stroke of Insight.
What is the most important relationship in your life? Your spouse? Your child? Your mother or father?
If you answered yes to any of those, that’s nice. But you actually have another relationship that is more important than any of them. It’s one you probably never thought about before.
It’s your relationship with your own emotions.
How we treat our own feelings has a tremendous impact on how we treat others. Your relationship with your emotions is the foundation for all other relationships in your life.
Emotions are complex and can be mysterious. Sometimes they do what we tell them. Other times they refuse to obey. We may fall in love with someone we don’t like, or stop liking someone we love. We can lose our tempers unexpectedly, or surprise ourselves by staying calm in a stressful situation.
Just as you have to listen to the people in your life, you also have to listen to your emotions. Your emotions are your body’s way of speaking to you. Indeed your emotions provide an invaluable feedback system that can anchor, inform and direct you through life.Continue reading
Few phrases sum up the idea of narcissism better than:
It’s all about me.
But the most defining feature of a person with narcissism is actually not his self-involvement. It’s his deeply concealed fear of being exposed as inadequate.
Underneath the bluster and arrogance of the narcissist lies a hurt and fragile core. Deep down, narcissists fear others will see that they are not special or superior (they are just human beings after all), so many of their grandiose behaviors are designed to prevent that exposure. Surprisingly, this deeply buried vulnerability is the trait that can do the greatest damage to the narcissist’s child.
What is it like to grow up with a narcissistic parent? Meet Lucy, who was raised by a narcissistic father.
Lucy grew up knowing that she was her father’s favorite. A straight-A student and accomplished athlete, she made sure to never let him down by making a B or dropping a ball in a game, like her brother did. Lucy noticed early that she was special in her father’s eyes. She saw how enraged and embarrassed her father was when her older brother got in trouble at school, and she made sure never to make him feel that way.
Lucy made many decisions in her life that were designed to please her father. She felt that if she let him down he would stop loving her, so she followed in his footsteps to take over his dry cleaning business. Lucy never thought about what she herself wanted as a career because her father made it clear to her from birth that he had already set up her life for her.
At age 23, Lucy was feeling bored behind the counter of the dry-cleaner and yearned to go back to college and get an MBA. It took her months to gather the nerve to tell her father her plan. When she did, he was enraged. “I’ve given you everything, and this is how you repay me? You have no idea what you’re doing. When you’re broke and miserable, don’t come to me for help.”
From that point on, Lucy’s father treated her coldly, as if he no longer loved her. She was no longer the apple of his eye. Her brother finally got his turn as the favorite, and Lucy was on her own.
The narcissistic parent is not able to see his child as a separate person. The child is an extension of himself; an object to deliver admiration, but also capable of bringing shame. These parents often choose one child who they feel most likely to reflect positively upon them and lavish favoritism upon that child, as Lucy’s father did. This leaves the other children jockeying for attention and love.
Since the narcissist’s child is seen as an extension of the parent, any normal failure, struggle, or flaw of a the child poses a threat to the narcissist of being exposed as imperfect. So he keeps a tight rein upon the children, especially the favored one, out of fear of being exposed. When any child, particularly the chosen one, expresses his own wants, feelings or needs, this makes the parent feel vulnerable. The child is likely to meet with harsh rejection.
Throughout childhood, Lucy’s own identity was neglected while she toiled to be the perfect child to protect her father’s vulnerable core from exposure. This is one of the many ways in which Childhood Emotional Neglect can happen. As an adult, Lucy will struggle to define her own wants and needs. In fact she may feel selfish for simply having wants and needs. As an adult, that long ago child will be trapped in her father’s mirror, yearning for his lost love and approval.
Today, for your healing and for yourself, it’s your turn. Right here, right now:
It’s all about you.
CEN can be invisible and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
Alexithymia: Difficulty in experiencing, expressing and describing emotions.
Every day I hear from folks who have just realized that they grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Often they say, “Finally I understand what’s wrong with me!” Many describe a huge weight lifted from their shoulders.
It is a wonderful thing to finally understand yourself in a new and useful way. Unfortunately, however, it is not enough. Step 1 is seeing and understanding the problem. Step 2 is healing the problem.
If you grew up with parents who did not respond enough to your emotional needs (CEN), then as an adult you are probably faced with the particular set of challenges that are unique to CEN. Children who grow up receiving the message that their emotions are not valid naturally adapt by pushing their emotions down and away, so that they won’t burden their parents with their feelings and emotional needs. If you push your emotions away as a child, you will, as an adult, lack access to them. This is why one of the most universal struggles for the CEN adult is alexithymia.
Fortunately, alexithymia is a problem that can be fixed. Emotional awareness and knowledge can be learned. In fact there is a clear and direct process to learn it. Many people have had success doing it on their own, and many with a therapist’s help.
Here is a six-step exercise that, if done regularly, will gradually get you back in touch with your feelings, which is a major part of healing from CEN.
If you take even just five minutes for this exercise three times a day (or as often as you can manage), you are forcing your brain to perform activities that are novel. You are forging new neural networks which get stronger and perform better each time you do it, even when you are not successful in identifying or naming a feeling.
The Identifying and Naming Exercise
Step 1: Sit in a room alone with no distractions. Close your eyes. Picture a blank screen that takes over your mind, banishing all thoughts. Focus all of your attention on the screen, turning your attention inward.
Step 2: Ask yourself the question:
“What am I feeling right now?”
Step 3: Focus in on your internal experience. Be aware of any thoughts that might pop into your head, and erase them quickly. Keep your focus on:
“What am I feeling right now?”
Step 4: Try to identify feeling words to express it. You may need more than one word. Consult a list of feeling words if you need it.
Step 5: If you’re having difficulty identifying any feelings, it is okay. Coming up with a word is less important than going through the process of trying to tune in. As long as you keep doing the exercise as often as possible, you will start to make progress. Be persistent and do not give up!
Step 6: If you do find a feeling word that seems like it may be accurate, you are ready to move on to the next step, which is trying to figure out why you are feeling that.
So now ask yourself:
“Why would I be feeling ____ right now?”
Determining what you are feeling and why can be very difficult for many people, but it is especially so for those with Emotional Neglect. This exercise may seem simple, but it is not easy. Emotionally Neglected people often have great difficulty sitting with themselves, and that is a requirement for this exercise to work. If it seems very hard when you first attempt it, or even impossible, please keep trying.
As you gradually become more able to sit with yourself, focus inward, and tune into your feelings, you will also eventually start to be more aware of your emotions naturally, as they come up in your life. You will find yourself changing: feeling more meaning in your life, more connected to others, more purpose and direction, and more trust in yourself.
Yes, in a few minutes per day, you can overcome alexithymia. In a few minutes a day, you can change your life.
To find out if Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is at work in your life, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.
As a mental health professional, how often have you heard the term Childhood Emotional Neglect used on its own; that is, not followed by the words “and abuse.” I scoured the databases of the APA, and used google and other search methods. I talked with colleagues, and looked through every self-help book that looked promising. Virtually every time the term “emotional neglect” is used, it is either mixed with, or used as a misnomer for, some type of physical neglect or some type of emotional abuse. This was the final factor which drove me to write a book about it. This is the driving force which has had me speaking and writing about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) for the past three years.
During twenty years of practicing psychology, I gradually became aware that CEN, a tremendously powerful childhood factor, is being overlooked. Why? Because CEN hides. It dwells in the sins of parental omission, rather than commission. It’s the white space in the clinical picture, rather than the picture itself. It’s what was not said or observed or remembered from our patients’ childhoods, rather than what was.
We therapists know that emotion is important, and that if it is not handled well by our clients’ parents in childhood, there will be clear and direct results years later, when our clients are adults. When we screen and evaluate our patients, we ask them about everything that they can see, hear, touch and remember about their childhoods: major events, including emotional, physical, verbal abuse, or any type of trauma, for example. We look for all of these types of memories, as we know that any of these experiences, in even subtle forms in childhood, can play out over a lifetime. We also know about emotional neglect and parental failures. But these are so invisible and unmemorable that it’s difficult to grab onto and difficult to talk about. How do we help our clients become aware of the full impact of what didn’t happen for them?
It took me years of encountering patients who were difficult to understand based upon all of the usual factors to realize that, in some cases, I was asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places. Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible, intangible, and unmemorable. It’s not something that a parent does to a child. Instead, it’s something that a parent fails to do for a child. Since it’s not an act, but a parent’s failure to act, it’s not noted or remembered by parent, child or onlooker. Yet it has a profound effect upon how that child will feel and function as an adult.
Some people can be profoundly affected by one incident of extreme Emotional Neglect, and some may experience a childhood filled with mild incidents. Others experience a childhood that is so riddled with CEN that they grow up defined by it. In my own clinical experience, I have found that few, if any, of these people remember or report any of it. In fact, many of them report (and had) loving, caring parents who had no idea that they were failing their child. This is what makes CEN so pernicious, so difficult to see, and so easy to overlook by clients and their therapists.
I have identified a particular pattern of characteristics in adults who experienced CEN as a child. They include, among others, struggles with emotional awareness; self-blame; feelings of emptiness; problems with self-discipline; and a deep-seated feeling that “something is wrong with me,” which I call the Fatal Flaw.
I have found that keeping Emotional Neglect in the forefront of my mind, and talking about it specifically with patients has made me a far more effective therapist. I feel that for years, I was like the proverbial blind man, treating parts of the elephant – unaware that there was a whole elephant to which I should be attending.
Visit my Readers’ Comments Page to see what readers are saying about CEN.
In writing my self-help book, Running on Empty: Overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect, I have two goals which I am passionate about:
1. I want to make Childhood Emotional Neglect a household term. I want to make as many people as possible aware of the power of this largely overlooked, invisible factor. I want people to know how it affects us when our emotions are not validated; first by our parents in childhood, and later by ourselves in adulthood. I want to take a childhood non-event, which typically goes unseen and unnoticed, and give it equal recognition and respect to the events that we talk about with our patients every day. I want to offer a specific, shared language for us all to talk about this parental failure to act with our patients, and a framework to treat it.
2. I want to ask you, my fellow mental health professionals, to help bring this concept to more people. I’m interested in opening up a sharing of thoughts and experiences among mental health professionals. I want to know if it resonates with you in your clinical work. I want to find out if you will have the same feeling of understanding and success in being able to reach more patients, offer them answers, and move them forward.
I hope you will find Running on Empty: Overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect a helpful resource. With a special chapter for parents and another for mental health professionals, I hope it will help you open new doors with stuck patients.
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