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The 3 Main Issues Of The Abandoned Child In Adulthood

Few things have the power to hold you back in your adult life as much as abandonment issues from childhood.

Sadly, there are many different ways that parents can fail their children. Thanks to research and awareness, there are many resources available to people who grew up with any form of abuse from their parents. But there are two other types of parental failure that are far less noticed or discussed: parental abandonment and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

Children are born literally “pre-wired” with some very specific emotional needs. Thanks to loads of scientific research, we now know, without a doubt, that in order to grow and thrive as an adult, children must feel loved and emotionally attached to their parents.

Childrens’ emotional needs are, in fact, so crucial that even well-meaning, physically present parents can inadvertently harm their children by not responding enough to their children’s emotions. This subtle parental failure happens far and wide, and I have given it the name Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN. 

Though CEN happens under the radar in most emotionally neglectful homes, it nevertheless leaves lasting effects upon the child: disconnection, lack of fulfillment, and feelings of being empty and alone, among others.

If physically present, well-meaning parents can fail their children in such a subtle way that harms them, you can imagine the powerful impact of parental abandonment.

Parental Abandonment

Parents leave their children in many different ways, and for many different reasons. Whether your parent left you because of divorce, death, or choice, the reason matters far less than the fact that he or she left you.

It is very difficult for a child’s brain to absorb the enormity of abandonment. Children often suffer problems with anger or grief after the loss of a parent. Most children have difficulty believing that it is permanent, even if their parent has passed away. But if your parent walked away by choice, you will also likely struggle with your very natural question of, “Why?”

The 3 Main Issues Of The Abandoned Child

  1. Trusting others: When your parent abandons you, he or she is violating your most basic human need, which is to have parents who value and enjoy you. If the one who is meant to love and care for you the most in this world leaves you, it becomes very difficult to believe that anyone and everyone who becomes important to you will not do the same. You may end up living your life constantly on-guard for the possibility of being abandoned again. It’s hard to trust that your partner, friend or loved one has your best interests in mind. This holds you back from forming rich, deep, trusting relationships.
  2. Guilt and shame: All abandoned children are deeply mystified about why their parents left them. Many struggle with the fact that there is no good explanation because, lets face it, apart from death there is no good reason for a parent to leave a child. In absence from a logical explanation, the child naturally tends to blame herself. This sets up a pattern of feeling deeply responsible for her parent’s choice to leave her. The abandoned child often grows up to struggle with guilt and shame.
  3. Self-worth: “How could my own parent leave me?” the abandoned child wonders. Being left by the one who brought you into this world naturally makes you wonder what is wrong with you. The abandoned child is set up to never feel good enough. Deeply, painfully, he feels unworthy of true love and commitment.

Many thousands of children grow up with parents who are physically present, yet emotionally absent — Childhood Emotional Neglect. These children grow up to feel less important than others, and deeply alone.

Many thousands more children experience the deep trauma of a parent physically abandoning them. If you had this experience as a child, you have probably grown up to struggle with trust, shame, and low self-worth.

Even if you are physically abandoned, if you have one parent who remains present and is emotionally attuned to you, this can greatly soften the impact of the other parent’s abandonment.

Emotional attunement from a parent is the balm that soothes all childhood hurts, and the antidote that prevents depression, anxiety, and low self-worth. If you grew up in a family that offered a shortage of this balm, you may be struggling to this day.

The Good News

Whether you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, abandonment, or a combination of the two, it’s not too late for you to repair those childhood hurts. Now, as an adult, you can make up for what you didn’t get in childhood.

By beginning to tune in to yourself to pay attention to your feelings, by making a concerted effort to take care of your own needs, and by learning emotion management skills, you can begin the process of accepting your own true value as a human being.

If your parents failed you emotionally or abandoned you, you can become your own present, loving and attuned parent now.

It’s never too late to begin to accept that you matter.

To learn much more about the emotional needs of children, the effects of having emotionally or physically absent parents and how you can heal yourself, see Running On Empty or Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free!

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Affects Your Relationships

Growing up with your feelings ignored, Childhood Emotional Neglect or (CEN), takes its toll on you. It’s true. In fact, it takes such a lasting toll that I can see its lingering effects decades later in my adult patients.

The Lingering Effects Of CEN

  • A lack of awareness of your own feelings, wishes, and needs.
  • A feeling that you are less important than everyone else.
  • A massive struggle to talk about and share your own feelings.
  • Difficulty asking for help and accepting help from others.
  • A lack of understanding of how feelings work in yourself and others.

Children who grow up with their feelings ignored take a very powerful step to get by in their childhood home. They wall off the deepest, most biological part of who they are: their emotions. That way they can stop burdening others with their feelings. What a brilliant and powerful tool for your child’s brain to make for you.

But as an adult, your life is affected greatly.

The lingering effects above are important parts of the toll of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). When your feelings are walled off, you are missing some life ingredients that will have a profound effect on your quality of life.

I know this because I see it in my office every single day.

Whether you realize it or not, this particular group of struggles affects you in many areas of your life. You are living without access to some vital life ingredient that everyone else enjoys. For example, it can make it hard to ask for a promotion or a raise at work, or to trust yourself to try new things or take risks.

But I have also seen that there is one area of life that’s affected far more than any other. It’s your relationships. As you read the 5 Important Ways below, be sure to keep in mind that none of these 5 are permanent. They are only effects from your childhood. You can fix every single one!

5 Important Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Challenges Your Relationships

  1. It makes them one-sided. Generally, CEN people are not able to be fully present in their relationships. The first two Lingering Effects of CEN all contribute to this result. When you’re not aware of your own feelings, wishes and needs enough, how can you share them with your husband, wife, partner or friend? How can you take up your fair share of space in your relationships when you view other people and their needs as more important than your own? Many of your relationships become too much about the other person, and not enough about you.
  2. Your relationships seem fewer and feel less rewarding than other people seem to have. This is partly because they’re one-sided, just as we discussed above. Since you’re not fully emotionally present in your relationships, they are naturally limited in depth and resilience. They may break apart more easily, and may not reach their full potential. You offer up so very much in your relationships, but you’re holding back the most valuable gift you can give someone: your emotional vulnerability.
  3. It makes social time more tiring than it should be. Spending time with people you care about should be rewarding, energizing and enriching. But you often find it draining instead. That’s because your relationships are one-sided (you give too much and don’t take enough for yourself), and also because you spend so much energy trying to be the person you think others want or expect you to be — instead of just being yourself. That takes a lot of energy.
  4. You feel alone, even with people who love you. All of us humans share a common bond, and that bond is largely based on our feelings. When your emotions are too blocked off, you may not have enough access to your own deep font of warm emotional energy; the source of relationship “glue” that should be connecting you. Since you are unaware of the problem, you’re left feeling, on some level, emotionally isolated at key times. Even though you are actually not!
  5. It holds your relationships back from becoming as rich and deep as they should be. Just as emotion is the glue that binds you to others, it’s also the fire that lights your passion, and the stick that should be poking you saying, “Speak up!” Without full access to this vital resource, your relationships are missing an important vital ingredient: You.

Never fear! I know these 5 challenges might seem practically insurmountable. But I have watched many people transform their relationships by working in 3 key areas.

3 Answers Taken From Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children

  1. Your Emotional Awareness: This involves being aware of what you are feeling and what the other person is feeling. It’s being able to observe your own behaviors and responses to things and understand the emotions involved.
  2. Emotion Skills: Learning to identify what you feel, accept your feelings, tolerate your feelings, manage them, and put them into words. You can learn all of them!
  3. Communication Skills: How do you tell someone they hurt your feelings? Or that you are angry at them? How do you ask someone for what you need or want? Once you get better at emotional awareness and emotion skills, you’ll have the foundation to learn how to communicate far more effectively.

You can learn far more about how to become more emotionally aware and skilled and how to communicate on an emotional level in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. Take The CEN Test. It’s free!

10 Telltale Signs That You Are Emotionally Numb

Consider this. Would you rather live a life filled with ups and downs, joy and sadness, frustrations and pride and surprise? Or a life that goes along, one day after another, with few disruptions or changes or shake-ups?

Choice 1 might seem scary; a little like a roller-coaster ride. On the other hand, Choice 2 might seem a little disappointing.

Don’t get me wrong, they are both mixed bags. The roller-coaster can deliver some shocks to the system, and it can be hard to sometimes feel that you are not in control of everything in your life. If you are living without the emotional disruptions and shake-ups, you may feel “safer” and more in control of things, but you may also find yourself feeling bored and unstimulated.

As a psychologist, I have come to realize that people living in the Choice 1 scenario are typically overall happier. That’s because if you are on the roller coaster, you are living life in a more powerful way. You are more connected with your emotions, and so you are probably far more fulfilled.

Choice 2 is a sign that you are disconnected from your feelings. Probably you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family. Probably you learned at an early age that your emotions were irrelevant or burdensome. Probably you have walled off your feelings as a coping mechanism.

No doubt, though, the way you are living seems normal to you. After all, it’s the way you have always lived. It’s probably the way you were raised to be. So how do you know if you’re emotionally numb?

10 Signs That You Are Emotionally Numb

  1. You can go through happy life events without feeling as happy as other people seem to be when they have similar happy events. I have had countless patients in my psychology practice describe their joyful life experiences as bland. Some have gone through weddings, vacations, graduations or award ceremonies feeling as if they are watching themselves from afar, disconnected from the experience, or even waiting for it to be over. They feel numb.
  2. You sometimes wonder why you don’t feel sadder when faced with loss. Similar to above, it’s possible to go through a funeral of a loved one or a job layoff and feel little. Your brain knows you should be sad, but your body does not feel it. You are numb.
  3. Your primary emotion is anger or irritability. Unfelt feelings, or walled off ones, have a tendency to all pool together into one big soup. Denied and pushed down or away, the individual ingredients (your emotions) blend to make one big one. This big one is likely to be anger. Anger is powerful and can break through your wall more easily, so it becomes the primary feeling you feel. So you essentially have two emotional states: angry or numb.
  4. It’s hard for you to identify any particular feelings. One of the effects of walling off your emotions is that you lose touch with them. When you’re disconnected from your feelings, you’re not thinking about them or noticing them. If you ever need to explain how you feel, you stammer or clam up. You go numb.
  5. You can observe yourself in certain situations, and wonder why you’re not feeling something more. Others around you are crying tears of joy or sadness. You look at them and wonder, “Why don’t I feel that? What is wrong with me?” You realize that you are numb.
  6. You are often uncomfortable when other people have strong emotions. When you find yourself in a situation where others are having feelings, you may have one yourself: uncomfortable. All you want to do is get away from this situation that seems awkward and unnatural. Unlike them, you feel numb.
  7. You are sometimes envious when other people have strong emotions. Unfortunately, you can’t give up your negative feelings without also giving up your positive ones. When pain, anger, and sadness go out the window, they tend to take your love, warmth, and joy with them. You see others experiencing those wonderful emotions, and you may wish you could too. Sadly, you cannot. Instead, you are numb.
  8. You sometimes feel like you’re going through life on autopilot. One foot after another, you march along, doing what you are supposed to do, and probably doing it well. Like a toy soldier or an energizer bunny, you just keep on going. But you also find yourself wondering what it’s all for. Shouldn’t you be something more, you ask? The answer is yes. There should be highs and lows, pride, joy, and sadness, but you are missing it because you are numb.
  9. You feel more when watching a movie, TV show or commercial or reading a book than you do in real life. For those whose feelings are tamped down, it can be easier to access them when it’s safe; when it’s not personal; when it’s not you. You can feel the emotions of a fictional character or someone in the news, but you can’t feel your own. When it comes to your own life, you are numb.
  10. You occasionally feel empty inside. This is the ultimate sign. Your “empty” feeling may reside in your belly or your throat, or it may be just an uncomfortable sense that something is missing in you. That sense is your body telling you that what should be filling you, connecting and energizing you — your emotions — is not there. This is your body telling you that you are emotionally numb.

If you see yourself in any of these 10 signs, do not despair! There are answers. Your feelings are not gone. They are still there, inside you, waiting for you to reclaim them.

You can break down the wall that blocks them, and welcome them back into your life. Bit by bit, slowly but surely, in a way that feels safe and healthy, you can reverse your numbness, and fill your life with color and energy.

Growing up with CEN you were taught to ignore and marginalize your own feelings. But now that you’re an adult, you don’t have to continue that. You can welcome your feelings back into your life and learn the skills to manage and use them.

You CAN overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect. For help, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. When you sign up for the free test you will also receive my free newsletter which is chockfull of helpful information. I’ll let you know when my free CEN Recovery Videos start.

For even more help into and through the CEN recovery process see my two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children

The Story of CEN: Childhood Emotional Neglect

About 10 years into my psychology career, I noticed a curious pattern beginning to emerge among my patients.

I began to realize that many, most of whom seemed to have little in common with each other, were reporting the same group of ambiguous struggles: feelings of emptiness or numbness, a sense of being disconnected and alone, a secret feeling of being deeply flawed in some way, and a general lack of fulfillment.

I saw this pattern in so many people that I began to wonder what was causing it. Could it be that they were all abused in the same way, or shared a common type of childhood trauma? Could it be something in their current lives that was making them feel this way? In searching to understand this intriguing pattern, I finally was able to identify the one thing these patients all shared in common, and I was surprised. It wasn’t abuse or trauma, or anything that had happened to them. 

The single thing these folks all shared in common was a childhood characterized by a lack of response to, and validation of, their emotions.

It was nothing their parents had done to them. It was instead what their parents had failed to do for them. It wasn’t their parents’ act, but their failure to act. Not abuse, not mistreatment. Just nothing.

When these folks were sad, hurt, scared or angry as children, no one noticed. No one asked them what was wrong, or stepped in to validate what they were feeling, reassure them, guide them, or teach them about emotions. Their parents may have responded sometimes, in certain situations, but it simply was not enough.

The one factor these folks had in common was the fact that they had all grown up in an emotional wasteland, surrounded by people who perhaps loved and cared about them, but who failed to notice or respond enough to their emotional needs. As adults, they were all running on empty.

I gave this childhood experience the name Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.

It took me several years to begin to understand the breadth and depth of this problem. The more aware I became of CEN, the more I saw it, not only among my patients, but everywhere. I also gradually became aware that in my growing realization of Childhood Emotional Neglect, I was alone.

This made me even more curious. Why didn’t I hear other therapists talking specifically about what had failed to happen for their clients in childhood? Why hadn’t I seen this concept in research studies or articles? I began to search the vast databases of the American Psychological Association. Journals, books, articles and research studies alike; and what I found was very interesting.

When the term “emotional neglect” was used in the professional literature (which was remarkably seldom), it was invariably used in this way: “emotional abuse and neglect.” By lumping these two very different childhood experiences together, these articles were virtually always talking about emotional abuse, which is active mistreatment of a child — a very different thing from the form of emotional neglect that I was so concerned about. Indeed, emotional neglect was falling through the cracks. Just like the children who lived with it, it resided under the radar.

Thus began my 7-year odyssey, trying to call attention to this under-recognized, under-talked-about, under-studied, yet powerful childhood experience. I began to write, and talk. And write and talk some more.

In 2012, I published my first book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. In this book, I introduced the acronym CEN, and outlined my observations of why it’s so unmemorable and invisible, as well as walked readers through the steps needed for recovery.

In 2014, I began the Childhood Emotional Neglect blog on Psychcentral. As people read about this concept, they resonated deeply with it. Thousands who had lived their entire lives feeling deeply, inexplicably un-validated finally felt validated when they took the CEN Questionnaire, or read about CEN.

As I reached more and more people with the CEN message, requests flowed in for referrals to therapists worldwide who knew how to help people through the steps of CEN recovery. There was a terrible shortage, and I knew then that I needed to do more. So I did two things.

In 2015, after fine-tuning the powerful steps to heal CEN by treating a myriad of CEN clients in my office, I created the first online Childhood Emotional Neglect Recovery Program, Fuel Up For Life. The program is designed to walk participants through the 4 stages of CEN recovery with guidance, homework, videos, and plenty of support. The response has been tremendous, and the demand for slots in the program continues to grow and grow.

In 2016, I did a Continuing Education training for therapists about how to identify and treat CEN in their patients, and began to create an international list of CEN-savvy therapists on my website. That list has grown to 200 strong, and continues to build.

On Nov. 7, 2017 my second book was released. In response to the thousands of people asking how to manage and heal CEN in their relationships, I wrote Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

Now, at the end of 2017, I see many other writers, therapists and authors using the words “Emotional Neglect” and talking about empty feelings, validation, the importance of getting in touch with your emotions. I am so very pleased that the word is spreading, and that people are finally talking and thinking and writing about this long-overlooked cloud that has been coloring so many lives gray.

What will 2018 hold? I want to continue to give answers to the thousands, or millions, of people who are secretly feeling flawed. I want to train more therapists and reach more and more people with this valuable message. I want parents to realize the awesome power that lies in emotionally attending to and responding to their children’s emotions.

In 2018 and beyond I will relentlessly continue this work. I will not stop until most therapists are familiar with this concept, and know how to treat it.

I will not stop until “Childhood Emotional Neglect” is a household term.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and invisible when it happens, so it may be difficult to know if you have it. I invite you to Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

Emotional Neglect and Emotional Deprivation are Not the Same

Most people, even mental health professionals, do not think about emotional deprivation and emotional neglect as two separate things. And I understand why. In some ways, these two childhood experiences are very much the same. But in some very important ways they are very, very different.

And I’m on a mission to make sure everyone knows just that.

Childhood Emotional Deprivation: Happens when there is an extreme absence of emotional attention and/or response given to an infant or child by her primary caretakers. Has been documented in orphanages, and in families where there are extreme physical absence of caretakers, abuse and trauma.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when a child’s primary caretakers (usually his parents) fail to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs. Happens often in normal homes all over the world, even when the parents are physically present, and all the child’s material needs are met.

So both emotional neglect and emotional deprivation involve a shortage of emotional attention and response from caregivers, but they tend to happen in different types of situations, and can play out very differently in the children’s lives as they grow into adulthood.

If you think about it, almost everything is most noticeable in its more extreme forms, right? It makes sense that emotional deprivation would be noted and studied long before emotional neglect is identified as a true issue.

Emotional Deprivation

Emotional Deprivation was first identified as a problem in Romanian orphanages, in 1952 by Dr. Rene Spitz. His heartbreaking video taken inside an orphanage, shows the devastating effects of emotional deprivation upon infants. 

The Symptoms

Since that time, multiple studies have found negative effects of emotional deprivation upon the infant brain. They include reduced brain volume, changes in the prefrontal cortex, and high, disregulated levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in their brains.

In 1999, Megan Gunnar studied the effect of emotional deprivation upon post-institutionalized kids. She found that they tend to have difficulty with executive functions such as cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control and working memory. They are often impaired in their ability to understand the mental states of others and regulate their own emotions. She found that many of the children suffered from high anxiety.

The Great News

Happily, studies have also found that many of these neurological and social effects are reversed over time for emotionally deprived children when they are adopted by loving, emotionally attentive parents.

Emotional Neglect

During ten years of working in my private practice, talking with client after client, I began to see a specific pattern of struggles emerge. I saw the pattern in clients who had grown up wealthy or poor, who were married or single, successful or struggling, men and women alike, and regardless of age.

The Symptoms

Here is the pattern I noticed: A deep feeling of disconnection from self and others, feelings of emptiness, extreme independence, low self-knowledge, low self-compassion, excessive self-blame and shame, low emotional awareness, and struggles with self-discipline.

The clients in whom I saw this pattern seemed to have little in common other than this special group of symptoms. After seeking answers in my clients’ childhoods to no avail, I realized I was looking in the right place, but for the wrong thing.

I had been asking what had happened to them in all of these people’s childhoods to lead them to feel this way in adulthood. But what I actually found was that something had failed to happen for them in childhood.

Each of these folks had grown up in households that somehow, for whatever reason, were not attentive or responsive to their feelings enough.

It’s hard to believe that a non-experience like this can lead to such significant effects, but believe me, I and many others have now seen that it does.

The Great News

In the last 5 years, since I became aware of Childhood Emotional Neglect, I have helped scores of people recover from it. I have seen, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you can fill the gaps left by your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

I have watched lovely people work themselves from a place of living their lives in a CEN bubble, feeling isolated, disconnected, alone, and in some indescribable way, deeply flawed, to a place of feeling alive, feeling their feelings, feeling the warmth of connection, and seeing the bright colors in their world.

Emotional Deprivation vs. Emotional Neglect

In my opinion, the primary difference between these two childhood experiences is that one is more extreme than the other. Emotional deprivation happens when a child is literally deprived of emotional nurturance during his formative years. This has happened in institutions where children are left on their own. But sadly, it can also happen in families. Real homes, real parents, completely ignoring their children and their needs for comfort and happiness and love.

Emotional Neglect, on the other hand, is a milder version of being emotionally deprived. It happens in homes all across the world, often inadvertently delivered by otherwise loving, caring parents. It can be subtle when it happens, but it usually leaves the child feeling, in some indescribable way, deeply inconsequential, and deeply alone in the world.

Is the emotional dis-regulation, impaired ability to understand the mental states of others, and difficulty regulating their own emotions that Megan Gunnar saw in the severely emotionally deprived children simply a more extreme version of the lack of emotional awareness and low emotional intelligence of those who grew up with Emotional Neglect? It’s a question that I hope will, one day soon, be answered with research.

I do strongly believe, based on the research combined with my own experience as a psychologist, that in one important way, Emotional Deprivation and Emotional Neglect are alike. Just as the effects of emotional deprivation can be reversed by a loving adopted family, the effects of emotional neglect can be reversed by purposely making a decision to treat yourself as if you matter. By listening to your own inner voice, caring about your own feelings, and attending to your own needs, you become your own emotionally attuned, and emotionally attentive parent.

Since emotional deprivation and emotional neglect are not the same, affecting different people in different ways, my goal is to make more therapists aware of the far more subtle, far more widespread effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), how to identify it in their clients, and how to heal it.

One thing that I can say with confidence true and clear is that if your brain can recover from emotional deprivation in childhood, you can reverse the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in your adulthood.

The most important uniting quality of these two painful childhood experiences is that they both can be healed.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

Validation Validation Validation

For the realtor, the world revolves around Location Location Location. But psychologists, psychiatrists, and social scientists everywhere know that what really matters is validation.

And the absence of it.

Validation 1

A friend of mine woke up one morning and literally felt a bomb go off in her head. There was a sense of an explosion, cymbals, fireworks all in one split-second cacophony. Then, suddenly, it was over.

Needless to say, my friend was worried on the verge of panic. What was this? What does it mean? “Is this the start of some kind of neurological degenerative disorder?” she wondered. So she did what any of us would do in this situation. She typed it into google.

She only typed a few words, and the answer appeared under the search bar. Exploding Head Syndrome. Yes, it’s a thing. It’s unexplained and rare, but harmless. My friend read postings by dozens of people who have had the same experience. She felt immediately relieved, and never worried about it again.

Because she felt validated.

When my friend told me this story months later, it made me think about validation, and how powerful it is. It’s possible to go from panic to calm by simply being validated. Validation has the ability to save marriages, cement friendships, and decrease depression. It’s scientifically proven.

Validation 2

I recently came across a study by Marigold et al., 2014, which looked at how people with low self-esteem experience different kinds of support, compared with people who have healthy self-esteem.

The researchers found that both groups of people responded well to validation of their negative feelings. That’s these kinds of statements:

I would feel that way too.

Anyone who went through that would be sad.

Your feelings are normal.

Of course you’re angry.

But only the folks with healthy self-esteem also responded well to the kind of support that did not validate their feelings. That’s statements like:

At least you’re learning something from this.

I know someone who went through the same thing, and he’s fine now.

You’ll beat this.

Everything will be okay.

So the only kind of supportive statements that are helpful for people with all levels of self-esteem is the kind that validates their negative feelings. Across the board, we all need to know that the feelings we have are normal and reasonable in the situation.

We all feel better when we’re validated.

Validation 3

I’m sitting in my office in a therapy session with a couple who is on the verge of divorce. Karen and Tom are both lovely people, but they hate each other. Our work together over the past two months has been trying to figure out why.

On this day, one powerful reason emerges. Here’s the story Karen told me:

I was on the phone with my mother, and she told me that her doctor’s appointment didn’t go well. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. I was so upset! I hung up the phone, and I was in shock. Tom was in the other room. I walked in and told him what I had just heard.

Tom stopped typing on his laptop and came over to me. He gave me a huge hug, which was just what I needed. Then he said, “OK, let’s stop with the tears and talk about this rationally. It’s not like anyone has died.”

Tom did several things exactly right in this moment. He gave Karen his full attention and a big hug. And he thought he said the right thing. Clearly, Tom’s intentions were loving.

But sadly, Tom missed the boat. His statement was intended to calm Karen, but instead it contributed to the pool of anger and rage that she already had toward him. What Karen heard in his statement was, “You’re wrong to be so upset. You’re over-reacting. You are irrational.”

Karen’s anger toward Tom had built up over many years of such responses from him. Incidents big and small ended the same, with Karen getting MORE upset and walking out of the room, leaving Tom baffled and angry himself in return.

“She’s impossible. I can’t do anything right for her. It’s never enough,” Tom lamented in our session.

Fortunately, there was an answer for Karen and Tom, and the answer was fairly straightforward. In fact, Tom learned quickly and easily. He learned to say instead, in a situation like this, “Oh no, that’s terrible, Honey. I’m so sorry. I’m here for you.”

When Tom handled Karen’s feelings by responding to them instead of trying to minimize or banish them, Karen felt validated.

The Unvalidated Child

Imagine a little child growing up without the kind of validation that my friend got from google; without the kind of validation that the subjects got in the self-esteem study. Without the kind of validation that Karen was finally able to get from Tom.

Imagine this little child trying to understand himself, his world, and all the other people in it. Imagine that he doesn’t feel he can ask questions when he needs help. No one notices his feelings or emotional needs. No one says, “Let me explain this to you.” No one says, “Your feelings are normal.” No one says, “I’m here for you,” or “I see your emotions,” either by words or actions. 

This child is being sentenced to an entire life of seeking answers. An entire life of feeling like a non-person. An entire life of feeling less-than. An entire life of feeling angry or baffled or untethered, or all three.

An entire lifetime of feeling invalid.

To learn more about validation, how it affects people who live without it, and how to heal, see the book Running on Empty

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral

Are You A WMBNT Parent?

I know why you’re reading this article.

Two reasons, actually: First, because you are curious to know what a WMBNT parent is. Second, because you’re a caring parent. How do I know this? It’s simple. Only parents who care about their children and their parenting would be curious.

To understand the WMBNT Parent, meet Edward and Libby, both caring parents.

Edward the Child: Edward grew up in an abusive family. His alcoholic mother was mean, angry and physically abusive or threatening half the time, and ignored him the rest. Edward’s father loved his children. He worked 70 hours-a-week to support the family. In the few hours that he was home, he tried his hardest to appease his wife, and to smooth over and hide her bad behavior. Edward and his siblings grew up fending off their mother, and fending for themselves. Continue reading

3 New Psychology Research Findings You Should Know About

Lets face it. For us human beings, often the most difficult struggles in our lives come from inside of us.

We are all essentially walking, talking bundles of emotions and issues. We can’t sleep, we’re in conflict, we get obsessed or we suffer from anxiety. We’re angry, sad or grief-stricken. We are in pain.

Fortunately, science comes to the rescue. Psychologists, psychiatrists and neurologists are busy giving us answers. What makes us happy? What coping techniques work best? How do our emotions work, and what do we do with them?

Here are three new studies that offer important and helpful information about how we can all live our lives happier and healthier.

Study 1:

A huge study in the UK by Kinderman et al., 2013 surveyed over 32,000 adults about their levels of anxiety and depression, and the potential causes. They found that traumatic life events were the largest factor in creating both.

But here’s the surprise. They also found that people’s coping styles contributed to anxiety and depression almost as much as the traumatic events themselves.

Here are the three coping flaws that were identified as major contributors:Continue reading

20 Questions to Raise Your Resilience

Will has no idea how he ended up in his career. In hindsight, he has some regrets….

Jonathan continually dates the wrong women, and then is completely shocked and devastated when they break up with him.

At the first sign of a problem in her pre-med program, Bella decided she wasn’t cut out for medicine, and switched to a different major.

“I don’t care, whatever you’d like,” is Sandy’s standard answer whenever someone asks what she prefers.

If only Will knew that his true passion is helping others, he would never have become a computer coder.

If only Jonathan knew that he is actually very attractive and smart, he would choose different women to date, and be less vulnerable in his relationships.

If only Bella knew that her abilities in science far outweigh the small weakness she has in memorizing anatomy, she could have worked harder, hired a tutor, and continued on to become the thoracic surgeon she was meant to be.

If only Sandy knew what she likes, she wouldn’t be living in a house she doesn’t like, married to a man she doesn’t like, feeling trapped and depressed.

If only Will, Jonathan, Bella and Sandy knew themselves, they would be less damaged by the challenges they encounter. They would have made better choices for themselves. They would be more resilient.

One of the most important qualities for resilience is self-awareness, or in other words, knowing who you are. What you like, what you feel, your strengths and weaknesses. Your preferences, needs, wishes and proclivities. All of the positives and negatives, talents and faults, when all held in your own mind together, add up to a full and realistic, gut-held sense of who you are. That self-knowledge gives you strength and resilience, guides and informs you, and gets you through challenges, failures and mistakes.

Sadly, a huge segment of the population lacks this level of knowledge about themselves. A huge segment of the population struggles through life mystified by why they do things, how they feel, and what they want. They give up on pursuits as soon as they hit a snag, make the wrong choices for themselves, and end up doing what everyone else wants.

How did these masses of people get this way? Why don’t they know themselves? Because as children, when they looked into their father’s or mother’s eyes, they did not see their true selves reflected there.

Their parents weren’t looking at all, or were seeing only what they wanted to see, or saw a distorted picture of who their child really was. So all of these children grew up without the emotional attention and responses from their parents that would have told them so much about themselves. All of them grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

Can Will, Bella, Jonathan and Sandy, as adults, gain the self-knowledge that they need to be resilient? The answer is yes. But they may need a little extra help and guidance along the way.

So I have compiled this list of 20 questions. Write down four answers for each one. If you can’t think of four on a particular item, skip it and keep it in mind until more answers occur to you. It may take days or weeks to search inside yourself for your truths. Be sure to honor the process and do not write down glib answers that you do not feel or cannot fully own. All of your answers must be real and true.

20 Questions to Improve Your Resilience

List Four Answers to Each Question:

  1. Things people do that make you angry
  2. Things in your life that you find the most tedious
  3. Life events that have helped to define you
  4. Things that you struggle with the most in your life
  5. Words that described you in high school
  6. Words that describe you now
  7. Things you feel passionate about
  8. People you love and care about the most and why, for each
  9. Things you must have in your life to be happy
  10. People you like the least
  11. Things people like about you
  12. Things you are insecure about
  13. Jobs you think you could do well at and like
  14. Jobs you would not like or would not do well at
  15. Skills or qualities that you definitely have
  16. Things you truly believe in
  17. Things you’re most afraid of
  18. Qualities you like about yourself
  19. Things you’re naturally good at
  20. Things you’re naturally bad at

Will, Bella, Jonathan and Sandy, and all of you who cannot see yourselves, here is my message to you:

No, your parents were not looking. No, they did not see you. But that doesn’t mean that you are not worth seeing, or that you are not worth knowing. You are.

You deserve to be known, and loved for who you really are. You deserve to look inside yourself and know, deep down, that all of your qualities and struggles add up to something real and good.

You deserve to look in the mirror and know that you are looking at someone who is strong, someone who will thrive, someone who is lovable, someone who you love.

To learn more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, how it leaves you less resilient, and how to heal from it, see the book, Running on Empty.

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral

Raised By Parents With Low Emotional Intelligence

Ten-year-old Jasmine lies alone on her bed, glad to be sequestered behind the closed doors of her room.  “It could happen,” she whispers quietly to herself. In her mind she’s reliving the fantasy that’s helped her to get her through her life so far: her father answers the doorbell and a kind, well-dressed couple explains to him that Jasmine was accidentally sent home with the wrong family at birth, and that she actually belongs to them. They then take her back to their home, where she feels loved, nurtured and cared for…

Jasmine doesn’t know it, but this is only the beginning of her struggle. She will spend the next twenty years wishing that she had different parents, and feeling guilty about it.

After all, her parents are basically good people. They work hard, and Jasmine has a house, food, clothing and toys. She goes to school every day, and does her homework every afternoon. She has friends at school, and plays soccer. By all accounts, she is a very lucky child.

But despite Jasmine’s luck, and even though her parents love her, even at age ten she knows, deep down, that she is alone in this world.

How could a ten-year old know this? Why would she feel this way? The answer is as simple as it is complicated:Continue reading

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