“CEN people, both men and women, are exceptionally likable folk. This is part of the tragedy of CEN. These are some of the most lovable people in the world, and yet they feel the most alone.”
I often get asked whether Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) affects men and women differently. My answer is, “yes, it does.” Although the essential effects are the same, some of those effects tend to play out differently in men than in women.
In Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect I tried to represent both genders in my descriptions, examples and vignettes. Before I talk about this more, I need to mention one large caveat. The differences that I’ve seen between CEN men and women are general descriptions that do not apply across-the-board. I often see the masculine effects in women and vice-versa. Since there is significant crossover, please don’t take these differences too firmly or stringently. And definitely do not think there is something wrong with you if you fit more neatly into the opposite gender. It does not indicate a problem of any kind.
As you look over the table below, you may notice that the differences are not very surprising. In recent years, neuroscientists have found that men have more connections in their brains from front to back and within each hemisphere than women, making them more suited to perception and coordinated actions. Women, on the other hand, have more connections between the hemispheres. This gives women an advantage in the areas of intuition and interpersonal processing. You can see the abstract of the study HERE.
TABLE OF CEN GENDER DIFFERENCES
|Adult CEN Characteristic||Women||Men|
|Emptiness or numbness||Attempt to fill selves with other people and their needs||Seek adventure to feel something or isolate themselves|
|Counter-Dependence||Seek to fill others’ needs in place of their own||Fervently embrace and pride themselves on independence & competence|
|Little Compassion For Self||Harsh judgments drive down self-esteem||Harsh judgments become pressure to be “the best,” often at work. May become driven.|
|Fatal Flaw||Feel unlikeable or unlovable||Feel invisible and overlooked|
|Struggles With Self-Discipline||Self-care suffers: eating, exercise, sleep and rest||May become overly or compulsively self-disciplined at times|
|Alexithymia||May learn the language of emotion but it’s hard to apply it to themselves||Emotions go underground and come out as irritability|
|Self-Directed Anger and Blame||Anger is directed at themselves and may turn into depression||Anger is more likely to also be turned outward at others|
Generally, men and women suffer equally when it comes to CEN. But women tend to be harder on themselves and to become excessive caretakers and givers, ignoring their own needs and feelings. They can end up feeling drained and exhausted because they are not taking care of themselves and have difficulty saying “no” to others.
Men, on the other hand, are more inclined to embrace and value the feelings of isolation and disconnection that go along with CEN. Men with CEN may misperceive their isolation as a sign of masculine strength. Yet these men are also pained by the feeling that they are not connected when they are with other people. They struggle with feeling ignored and overlooked by others, but lack the words to express it.
One thing that I have seen over and over in CEN men is an acute discomfort (often anxiety) in large groups of people, especially when they are expected to socialize. In these situations, their intensive individuality combines with the feeling of being ignored to create a special type of misery.
The other primary difference I see between women and men’s CEN is what they do with their feelings. Women feel ashamed for having emotions. They turn their anger against themselves. Men are more likely to be totally unaware that they have feelings at all.
Anger is more accepted from men than from women in today’s world. So men don’t suppress their anger as much as women. Instead, they may alternate between suppressing it and then feeling it unexpectedly, sometimes directing it towards others and sometimes toward themselves.
What happens when two people with CEN form a relationship or marry? I can tell you that it makes for some very interesting challenges. Check back to see a future blog on this topic.
Some of the most remarkable characteristics of people with CEN deserve mention here. CEN people, both men and women, are exceptionally likeable folk. This is part of the tragedy of CEN. These are some of the most lovable people in the world, and yet they feel the most alone. They are typically excessively competent, stand-up folks; yet they feel invisible. They suffer because some vital ingredient is missing from their lives. Yet that missing ingredient is their own emotions, which are not missing; just suppressed.
If I could gather all of the CEN men and women in the world together in one huge room, here is what I would say to them:
“You are not invisible, and you are not to blame. You have no reason to be ashamed. Ask yourself what you feel and why, and you will find your true self there. Your emotions will become your compass, your comfort and your connection to life. And then you will realize how very much you matter.”
If you would like to learn more about CEN, you can purchase a copy of Running on Empty at a special discount via the right sidebar of this website. Or click on the link below to get it in paperback, Kindle or hardcover from Amazon.
Now that I see what my parents didn’t give me, how do I continue to interact with them?
Should I tell my parents how they failed me?
If I talk to my parents about CEN, won’t it make them feel bad?
How do I handle the pain that I feel now, as an adult, each time my parents treat me as if I don’t matter?
If you were raised by parents who were not tuned in enough to your emotional needs, you have probably experienced the results of this parental failure over and over throughout the years and into your adulthood. Once you realize how deeply you have been affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), it can become quite difficult to interact with the parents who neglected you.
One of the most frequent questions that I am asked by people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect is, “Should I talk to my parents about CEN?”
It’s actually quite difficult to answer the questions above. Every single living human being had a childhood, and no two stories are the same. Indeed, the number of possible answers to the questions is as infinite as the variety of different ways that CEN can happen. But generally, it can be extremely healing when adult child and parents are able to come to a mutual understanding of how an emotional failure happened and why, and how it affected everyone involved. This, however, can be a complicated business; difficult, and even risky.
It’s important to keep in mind that it is not at all necessary to include your parents in your recovery from CEN. As an adult, you can identify what you didn’t get, and you can give it to yourself. I have seen many people go through this process with great success without ever including their parents.
That said, you may certainly feel a wish or need to reach some understanding about CEN with your parents. If so, it is very understandable that you might feel this way. If you are wondering about whether to talk to them, one extremely important factor to consider is the type of CEN parents that you have. Here are the three main categories:
Parents who are in the last two categories, Struggling or WMBNT stand a better chance of being able to get past their initial hurt, guilt or defensiveness to have a fruitful talk with their adult children about CEN. If your parents were in the Self-centered category, were abusive, or failed you in many other ways as well, see the section below called Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents.
First let’s look at some general suggestions to consider. Then we’ll talk about how to apply them to the different types of parents.
Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents
If you have parents who fall into one of these categories, then you are faced with a situation that is even more complex than those above. Unless your parents have changed and grown since your childhood, I am sorry to say that most likely they will not be able to grasp the CEN concept or to respond to you in any positive way.
For you, I offer one guiding principle that may be difficult for you to accept. But I stand by it, after having treated scores of CEN people with parents like this. Here it is:
Make the decision about whether to talk to your parents about CEN based solely upon your own needs. If you think it may strengthen you or make you feel better to talk with them, then do it. If not, then do not. You are not obligated to take your parent’s needs and preferences into account. On this, it’s all about you.
In other words, if you had an abusive or multiple-failure parent, you have carte blanche permission to do whatever you feel will benefit you in your life. You, your children and your spouse come first. You do not need to protect your parents from the knowledge that they failed you.
Parents who were abusive to you as a child, either verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually, are also, by definition, emotionally neglectful. If they had been emotionally attuned to you enough, they would not have been able to treat you this way. Also, if your parents were / are abusive in any way, then it may be of more value to talk with them about the abuse than about the neglect, since abuse is far more visible and tangible than CEN. Because CEN can be so imperceptible, and hides beneath abuse, it will be very difficult and unlikely for abusive parents to ever grasp the concept.
Unless your parents have been to therapy, have confronted their own issues and abusive ways and actively changed, (for example, an alcoholic or addicted parent who gets sober and goes to AA such that his/her personality becomes truly different) they will probably be no more able to hear you now than they could when you were a child.
So ask yourself, “If I talk to my parents about CEN, what are the possible outcomes?” Will they tell you that you are too sensitive, and that you are blowing things out of proportion? Will they blow up in anger? Will they likely say something abusive? Will they twist around what you are saying, and use it against you somehow?
If any of these are likely, I suggest that you put your energy toward healing yourself, and leave your parents out of it. It is extremely important, if you do decide to talk with them, that you do it with the understanding that you may need to protect yourself emotionally. Also it is vital that you be strong enough to not be emotionally damaged by their words or reactions. This is a tall order for anyone, but is especially so when you were raised by self-centered or abusive parents.
IN SUMMARY: It is certainly not necessary to talk to your parents about CEN. You can heal from it without ever doing so. Learning more about your parents’ childhoods and having compassion for them may help make their emotionally neglectful ways less painful to you now. However, sharing the concept of CEN with them can be helpful in some families, and may be a way for you to improve your relationship with them. Be sure to take into account the type of CEN parents that you have when making the decision to talk with them. Your path to healing is unique to you. There are no right or wrong answers. If you decide to talk with your parents about CEN, follow the tips and guidelines above, and proceed with care.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it’s different from emotional abuse, how it happens, and how to heal from it, see my book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Above all else, remember that your feelings are important and your needs are important. Yes, you matter.
“What do you think?”
“How do you feel?”
“What do you need?”
“What do you have to say?”
Imagine a child, let’s call him Zachary, growing up in a household in which he is seldom asked the above questions (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). Perhaps his parents are emotionally neglecting him because they have five children and are overwhelmed with getting them all dressed in the morning, much less what they think or feel. Perhaps his father died, and his mother is so enveloped in her own grief that she is barely functioning. Perhaps he has an older sibling who is autistic and who takes up the huge majority of his parents’ attention and resources. Or perhaps his parents are self-centered, and pay attention mostly only to what they think and feel.
The reason for Zachary’s parents’ apparent lack of interest is almost irrelevant. Because whatever the reason, the impact upon Zachary is the same. Since his parents are NOT asking him these questions, he is NOT receiving this vital message in his childhood: Your thoughts and feelings matter.
Think of childhood as the “programming phase” of life. The way our parents treat us in childhood sets up all of the “programs” for how we will treat ourselves throughout our lifetime. If our parents don’t ask us these questions when we are children, we will not naturally ask ourselves these questions as adults. Zachary will grow into a man whose natural default setting is to undervalue and under-attend to his own feelings, needs and thoughts. Zachary will be out of tune with himself. He will have difficulty asking for things, expressing his feelings, and perhaps even knowing his own needs.
In a sense, Zachary is growing up receiving the classic, invisible and subtly conveyed message of CEN: Don’t value or express your feelings and needs. This message is the complete opposite of assertiveness, which calls upon us to do just that. In order to be assertive, you have to:
Having been raised with the wrong message, Zachary will naturally follow his default setting – unassertive. If he is troubled by his difficulty standing up for himself, he will have to make a conscious decision to override the default. He will have to make changes in his basic views of himself and his own importance.
If you identify with Zachary, good news! It is entirely possible to do this. Once you understand what’s wrong and why, you can make a decision to change how you view yourself, and you can learn the skills involved in assertiveness.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how it might be affecting you, see my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
The Definition of Empty: “Not Filled”
Everyone knows what the word “empty” means. It’s a simple word, easily understood. But what does “empty” mean in terms of human feelings and emotions? Here, it is not so simply defined.
A few months ago I was interviewed about my book, “Running on Empty,” on a radio show. I was waiting on the line to go on-air when the Producer said to me behind the scenes, “We have a great audience today; looks like about 23,000 people are listening.” Since I’m not often in situations where I’m speaking to 23,000 people, that made me pretty nervous. Immediately, the host came on, introduced me, and asked a question I was not expecting. He said, “Where did you come up with this title? Can you explain it to our audience?” If I hadn’t been nervous, I could have articulated it more clearly. As it was, I somewhat stammered through a fairly vague but somewhat adequate answer.
Since that day, I have given this question some thought, and have been called upon to explain it a number of times. Let me start by describing–
My definition of emptiness as a human emotion: the feeling that’s caused by the absence of feeling; a general sense that something is missing inside of oneself; a feeling of disconnection from oneself and others; numbness; sometimes experienced physically as an empty space in the belly, chest, throat or other part of the body.
Emptiness is not a clinical term among mental health professionals. It’s not a common term among the general public. It’s not something that people generally talk about. Yet in my 25 years of practicing psychology, I have encountered many people who have tried to express it to me in some way. Few of them have had the words to describe it. Mostly I had to intuit what was going on for them and give them the words. Each time, it brought the person great relief. It is incredibly healing and connecting to put a label on a plaguing, undefined feeling that has dogged one for years. A label offers understanding and hope, and a path somewhere.
I have a theory about why emptiness has gone so unnoticed, unknown and ill-defined. It’s because emptiness is not actually a feeling; it’s an absence of feeling. We human beings are not wired to notice, define or discuss the absence of things. We have a hard enough time talking about feelings. But the absence of feelings seems almost too vague, unimaginable, invisible; too difficult to grab hold of.
This is why so many people live with this feeling on and off throughout a lifetime. Many people don’t even know they have it, much less what it is. They just know that they feel “off”; like something just isn’t right with them. They feel different from other people in some inexplicable way. One person said to me, “I feel like a bit player in the movie of my own life.” Another said, “I feel like I’m on the outside, looking in at other people who are truly living.”
I also have a theory about–
What causes emptiness:
Children who grow up in a household where feelings are not acknowledged, validated or responded to enough, receive a powerful message. They learn that their emotions are not valid, do not matter, or are unacceptable to others. They learn that they must ignore, neutralize, devalue or push away their emotions. For some children, this message permeates every aspect of their emotional lives; for others, it may only affect certain parts. Either way, the child disconnects from his own feelings. He pushes them down and away (because after all, they are useless, negative or unacceptable to others). It’s adaptive for the child to do this, as it will help her to be more comfortable in her family environment. But she is unknowingly sacrificing the most deeply personal, biological part of who she is: her emotions. Years later, as an adult, she will feel the absence of this vital part of herself. She will feel the empty space which her feelings are meant to fill. She will feel disconnected, unfulfilled, empty.
I have noticed, over years of working with people who have emptiness, that they are usually thoroughly stand-up folks. They are folks who care for others better than they care for themselves; who put a smile on their faces and soldier on, never giving away that something’s just not right for them. They literally run on empty.
I‘ve given a name to this process of developing emptiness. I call it Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). I’m trying to educate people about CEN. I’m trying to reach the scores of people who are living their lives under its influence, with little awareness or ability to describe it. I’m trying to offer them the words to talk about it, and the opportunity to heal.
To learn more about emptiness and Childhood Emotional Neglect, read more throughout this website, www.EmotionalNeglect.com, or pick up a copy of my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s available on this website under THE BOOK tab, via Amazon (Kindle or paperback), or through your local bookstore.