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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
Luke prepares himself to walk into the office party. Despite his reputation as the most helpful and productive salesperson in the company, his self-confidence flies out the window when he has to face people socially. “I never fit in anywhere,” he thinks to himself.
Often they are referred to as, “the strong, silent type.” They are giving, reliable, stand-up guys. They may be excessively driven, but that drive is mostly to provide for their families. They are there for others but ask for little in return. They are baffled by other people’s emotions, and typically just want to escape when anyone cries, yells or shows intense feelings of any kind. They live in dread of the moment when their wife says, “I need to talk with you about something.”
Feeling numb, isolated, empty and alone, these men mistake their intense individuality for strength. But since they are out of touch with their own feelings, they sense that they lack some vital ingredient that other people have; and deep down, they feel overlooked and unseen.Continue reading
Recently at a dinner party, talk turned to the current news story about Bill Cosby. As the only psychologist at the table, everyone looked at me as one person asked with intense curiosity, “How could anyone victimize women all those years, and still live with himself? How could you sleep at night?”
Since I don’t know Bill Cosby, I can’t speak for him; nor do I know if he is guilty of the accusations against him or not. But generally, in an actual situation like this, there is an answer to the question. The answer is one word: narcissism.
In many ways, it seems like it would be fun to be narcissistic. Wouldn’t it be great to go through life feeling superior to other people, and with unwavering self-confidence? Yes!
But as we all know, there is a dark side to narcissism. That unwavering self-confidence is as brittle as an eggshell. Narcissists don’t move back and forth on a continuum of self-esteem as the rest of us do. Instead, they run on full-tilt until something taps that protective shell of self-importance hard enough. Then, they fall into a million pieces. Under that fragile, brittle cover lies a hidden pool of insecurity and pain. Deep down, the narcissist’s deepest and most powerful fear is that he is a nothing.Continue reading
Do boys and girls respond differently to the same childhood experiences? How do those differences play out as the boy becomes a man, and the girl grows into a woman?
In my work as a psychologist, I have seen remarkable gender differences in the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). First, a quick review.
CEN in a nutshell:
When children’s emotions are not validated enough by their parents, they minimize and push down their feelings in order to get along in their family. As adults, they lack enough access to their own emotions. Since emotions are a primary source of connection and richness in life, these folks end up going through their lives feeling vaguely empty or numb, disconnected, and confused about what is wrong with them. You can see other results of CEN in the table below. (To learn more about CEN, visit EmotionalNeglect.com).
When boys and girls grow up this way, are they affected differently? Does a CEN man feel differently than a CEN woman? The answer is yes.
First, two caveats: The masculine effects often appear in women and vice-versa, so please do not take these differences as absolute. Second, these observations are based upon my own clinical experience and have not been specifically researched.Continue reading
It’s fun being a psychologist. Just as an engineer is fascinated by the true mechanics of electrical circuitry, we mental health professionals are intensely curious about the human brain.
What people feel and what those feelings mean; why people do what they do; it’s all of interest to us. In the process of doing our job day after day, we can often pick up on patterns and connections that give us flashes of a bigger picture. We see causes and effects and develop insights, understandings and intuitions that tell us basic human truths.
Sometimes new research studies come out that make us say, “Aha! I knew it!” Below are four such psychological principles. All four are the common knowledge of most mental health professionals. All are currently being studied and proven, and all are immensely useful information that everyone should have.Continue reading
Here is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of Integrity: The quality of being honest and fair; the state of being complete or whole; incorruptibility; soundness.
What, then, is Emotional Integrity? It’s knowing what you feel and why, and being able and willing to share it with others, even when it’s painful for you.
So general integrity involves being honest with others. Emotional Integrity involves being honest with yourself: facing uncomfortable or painful truths inside yourself so that they don’t harm the people you love. It’s more about your internal choices than your external ones. It’s the opposite of what we think of as denial. It’s the opposite of avoidance.
It is entirely possible to be a person of good integrity while also lacking Emotional Integrity. We human beings have a natural tendency to avoid difficult things, like painful feelings, conflict, problems, or our own weaknesses. It’s somewhat built into us to take the easier route. It’s not always clear to us that the easier route carries its own threat; a threat to our Emotional Integrity.Continue reading
My husband says he loves me, but I don’t feel love from him.
My wife gets confused, overwhelmed or frustrated every time I try to talk to her about a problem.
My marriage feels flat. Some vital ingredient is missing.
These are complaints which I have heard many times. Almost always from folks who are in a relationship with someone who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
CEN happens when your parents communicate this subtle but powerful message:
Your feelings don’t matter.
Children who live in such households naturally adapt by walling off their emotions so that they won’t bother their parents or themselves. Since these children’s emotions are squelched, they miss out on the opportunity to learn some vital life skills: how to identify, understand, tolerate, and express emotions.
If your spouse grew up with CEN, he may have difficulty tolerating conflict, expressing his needs, and emotionally connecting with you. No matter how much you love each other, you may feel a great chasm lies between you. No matter how long you’ve been together, you may feel inexplicably alone.Continue reading
Let’s face it, relationships are complicated. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me, “Is this normal?” about their relationship.
One of the most confusing gray areas is the difference between emotional abuse and Emotional Neglect. Since neither is physical, both are difficult to perceive at all. Even more difficult is telling them apart. Even mental health professionals sometimes struggle to define the difference. And sometimes Emotional Neglect can be so severe that it crosses over the line, and becomes abuse.
How good are you at differentiating between them? Read about this interaction between Marcy and Jeremy below. Identify each option as emotional abuse, Emotional Neglect, or neither. Then read on to see if you got them right.
Marcy sits in the car outside Jeremy’s office, waiting for him. She is fighting off panicky feelings about attending her high school reunion. Marcy was bullied in high school, and is anxious about facing the people from her past. “Why couldn’t he be on time just this once? He knows how upset I am about this reunion,” she says aloud to herself. Finally, after 45 minutes of anxious agony, Jeremy appears:
“Hi, Hon,” he says perkily, kissing her on the cheek. He hops behind the wheel, and starts to drive as he talks about his day.
“Where were you?!” Marcy demands. “You know how nervous I am about this.” Jeremy explains that his boss kept a meeting going late. “We’ll drive fast,” he offers.
Jeremy sees the angry look on Marcy’s face before she says a word. “What’s your problem?” he says defensively.
First, let’s talk about Option 3. Whether Jeremy intends it or not, his behavior here is emotionally abusive. He is not only drastically out of touch with Marcy’s feelings and her need to be emotionally supported, he fails to take responsibility for the fact that he kept her waiting, and how it affected her. In addition, he turns it back upon her by starting out defensive and stating that the “problem” is hers. That is abuse.
Option 1: Here, Jeremy is not abusive, but he is emotionally neglectful. By acting perky and failing to notice Marcy’s feelings, considering the situation, he is showing a profound lack of emotional attunement and care for Marcy. A lack of consideration this profound can approach (even cross) the border, and become emotional abuse.
Option 2: This one is probably the most difficult to identify. In this scenario Jeremy is not abusive. And he explains why he was late, which shows that he recognizes that he left Marcy in an uncomfortable situation. However, he is still emotionally neglectful. The Emotional Neglect is subtle, but it is there. It’s because Jeremy fails to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Marcy isn’t panicky about being late, so “I’ll drive fast” is not soothing or helpful. She’s panicky about her high school bullying and facing the people.
If you got all three correct, good for you!
If you missed one or more, it does not mean that there is something wrong with you. But it could be a sign that you grew up with some elements of emotional abuse or Emotional Neglect.
Now here is Option 4: Emotionally Attuned
Jeremy gets in the car, looks into Marcy’s eyes and takes her hand firmly, immediately steadying her. “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. It must have been hell for you. Are you okay?” he says. He listens to her response and lets her vent. Then he says, “Don’t worry, we’re going to have a good time tonight. And if anyone’s mean to you, I’ll give them an atomic wedgie they will never forget.” They both laugh, and Marcy feels reassured, and ready to face her past.
Here Jeremy practiced all Five Components of Emotional Attunement:
Sometimes the lines between emotional attunement, emotional abuse and Emotional Neglect can be blurry. Many relationships contain all three, showing themselves at different times. But that doesn’t mean that it is okay.
Watch for signs of emotional abuse or neglect. When you see one, tell your partner. Take responsibility, and talk about what went wrong. Strive to follow the Five Components.
Make a decision together that the emotional abuse or neglect stops here. And you can rest assured that you will not deliver either to the person you love.
To learn more about emotions, emotional needs, and Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.
Abigail needs to tell her adult son Mark that she thinks he has a drinking problem.
Simon needs to tell his wife Lisa that he’s afraid he doesn’t love her anymore.
From time to time, we all find ourselves in a tough spot. Something looks wrong or feels wrong, and we need to say something difficult. Something painful that may hurt someone we care about, but which nevertheless must be said.
Abigail and Simon have some tough decisions to make. Do they speak up and risk hurting their loved ones? How do they say it? Would it be better to just keep it to themselves? At least then they wouldn’t cause anyone pain.
Many people in these situations choose the last option. Sometimes it feels easier and kinder. Unfortunately, that is typically the worst choice. Uncomfortable truths seldom disappear on their own. And they have far more power to hurt when they remain unspoken.
If you grew up in a family that discouraged frank discussion, emotional expression, or honest discourse (this is Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), having a conversation like this may feel simply wrong to you. And even if you do decide to speak your truth, you may not have been able to learn the emotion skills you need to do it right.
Abigail and Simon could easily do this wrong. Abigail could blurt out her message when Mark has been drinking. Simon could pick a fight with Lisa, and leave the house angrily, never explaining why and leaving Lisa baffled and unresolved.
Or each could go about speaking his truth in a caring and compassionate way.
Don’t shy away from speaking your truth. That is not loving, and it will not help.
Make yourself uncomfortable. Do the background work. Take the time, put in the effort, and sit together through the pain. Wait for the seed to sprout, and then revisit the topic with care.
That is what true love and care looks like.
To learn more about emotions, emotional needs, and Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.