“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.
People who grew up in households with low tolerance for emotion tend to carry particular beliefs about emotions in relationships into their adulthoods. Below is a good, but not exhaustive, sampling of beliefs that I’ve heard many emotionally neglected people say. Please read through these seven beliefs, and put a mental check-mark next to the ones that you feel are true.
1. Sharing your feelings or troubles with others will make them feel burdened.
2. Sharing your feelings or troubles with others will chase them away.
3. If you let other people see how you feel, they will use it against you.
4. Sharing your feelings with others will make you look weak.
5. Letting others see your weaknesses puts you at a disadvantage.
6. It’s best not to fight if you want to have a good relationship.
7. Talking about a problem isn’t helpful. Only action solves a problem.
When you grow up receiving consistent direct or indirect messages, no matter how subtle, that you should keep your feelings to yourself (Childhood Emotional Neglect), it is natural to assume that your feelings are burdensome and undesirable to others. But the reality is that feelings and emotions are the glue that binds people together. Sharing feelings or troubles with a friend draws them closer and makes you seem stronger. Fighting out a conflict with someone you care about, when done right, is the best way to get through to the other side of that conflict. And talking about a problem has been proven to help people feel better.
Fortunately, not one of the above Seven Beliefs is true. In fact, they are each and every one dead wrong. Subscribing to any one of these false beliefs can set you at a disadvantage in friendships and relationships of all kinds. They will each and every one hold you back from making healthy, solid and meaningful connections with people; whether it be girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, sibling, family or friend.
If you put a mental checkmark next to any one of the Seven Beliefs, it may mean that you were emotionally neglected, in some way, in childhood. If that is the case, it will be vital for you to figure out how you were emotionally neglected so that you can overcome it. Read more about Emotional Neglect: what it is, how it works, how it affects people and how to overcome it throughout this website. Much more information on Emotional Neglect can be found in my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, at Amazon, or your local bookstore. The Kindle version is also available Here.
If you feel you need more help in dealing with this, I hope you will contact a qualified psychologist or psychotherapist to help you attack your false beliefs. If you don’t they may hold you back in every area of your life, but especially in your relationships with the people you care about the most.
“What the heck is wrong with you?”
“You are an idiot.”
“How could you make such a stupid mistake?”
These may sound like nasty, abusive comments that someone might say to his spouse during a major fight.
Actually, they are typical, everyday comments that many people say to themselves on a regular basis. Many of these people would NEVER say anything that hurtful to their spouse or anyone else. These are thoughtful, caring people who would not want to hurt another person that way, because they feel compassion for others. The problem is that they do not have that same amount of compassion for themselves.
Why would a person “talk” to herself this way? I have often found the roots of it to lie in Childhood Emotional Neglect. When our parents don’t teach us in childhood the process of: 1) acknowledging a mistake; 2) figuring out what we can learn from it; and 3) forgiving ourselves and putting it behind us, we have no choice but to become our own internal “parent,” which we then carry forward through our adulthood.
In the absence of a balanced, forgiving parent who holds us accountable, we become our own internal parent. A child-like parent who is excessively harsh.
Attacking putdowns like these can become almost a habit. When you do not treat yourself with the same compassion you have for others, you gradually break down your own self-esteem and self-confidence without even realizing it. You are doing as much damage to yourself as you would if you were living with someone who put you down and attacked you constantly.
If you were emotionally neglected in this way, and find yourself with that harsh internal voice, the good news is that it can be fixed.
Here’s the Reverse Golden Rule: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone you love and care about.
Start paying attention, and catch yourself in your “automatic putdowns.” Consciously put in the effort to challenge those destructive comments, and counter them with more productive one. This does take work, but it is well worth it. And please don’t hesitate to find a good therapist near you.
“The Definition of Emotional Neglect: When a parent fails to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.”
As a mental health professional, you may be wondering why Jonice Webb is making such a big fuss about Emotional Neglect. After all, you probably have it in the back of your mind often as you work with clients. We therapists know that emotion is important, and that if it isn’t handled well by our clients’ parents in childhood, there will be clear and direct results years later, when our clients are adults.
As you have no doubt noticed over and over in your work, this clear, apparent observation on our parts, supported by the work of Attachment Theorists like John Bowlby in the 1950s and Donald Winnicott in the 1960s, is not so easily communicated to, or believed by, the population at large. I have found that people in general have great difficulty accepting that subtle emotional experiences in childhood have any effect whatsoever upon them as adults.
In writing my self-help book, Running on Empty: Overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect (available 10/1/12), I have two goals which I am very passionate about:
1. I want to make Emotional Neglect a household term.
I want to make as many people as possible aware of the power of emotion, and how it affects us when our emotions are invalidated, ignored or suppressed; 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 give you the words to talk about this parental failure to act with your patients, and a framework to treat it.
2. I want to make as much of the general population as possible more familiar with, and aware of, Attachment Theory.
Every day I see lovely people blaming themselves for having an issue. They blame themselves because they do not see the connection between their childhood experiences and their adult functioning. I hope you will look at my blog called Stop Blaming Yourself for more explanation of why I feel this is so important.
I have found that keeping Emotional Neglect in the forefront of my mind while conducting psychotherapy over the past several years 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.
I hope you will find Running on Empty: Overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect a helpful resource in your work with patients. With a special chapter for parents and another for mental health professionals, it will perhaps help you open new doors with stuck patients.
But above all, I hope you will join me in my efforts to make Emotional Neglect a household word.
Several months ago I was at a dinner party. It was late in the evening, after dinner, and we were all sitting around the table talking. I mentioned to the group that writing my book, Running on Empty, has been surprisingly demanding. At times when I would typically be relaxing, reading, or watching TV, I am now brainstorming, planning, or writing. But I explained that I am driven to do this anyway because I feel driven about my message: making people aware of the invisible effects of Emotional Neglect. As my brother-in-law, Rich, was listening to me talk, he said, “I’m going to send you something in the mail that you have to read.”
I didn’t give this another thought until I received an envelope from him a few days later. In it was, “The Common Denominator of Success,” by Albert E.N. Gray. It is a copy of a speech made my Mr. Gray at the National Association of Life Underwriters in 1940. Mr. Gray has now passed away, but his message is timeless. His speech, while geared toward helping insurance salesmen, applies to any human being who wants to be successful.
Here is Mr. Gray’s discovery of “the common denominator of success,” in his own words:
“The common denominator of success–the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful–lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.”
In my role as psychologist and therapist, I have had the honor of working with many very bright, capable people who struggle with self-discipline. It is painful when a person who has tremendous potential is held back by their own ability to realize it. I have found that the very thing that gets in many such people’s way in fulfilling the potential that they clearly know they have, is an inability to make themselves do what they don’t want to do. Often these folks call themselves lazy. They get angry at themselves for not carrying through the promises they make themselves to do important things. The anger at themselves drains them and eats away at their self-esteem. Gradually, slowly, they start to give up because they are being taken down by a negative cycle of anger at themselves, frustration, and feelings of failure.
I have been quietly treating these people for years. I often can see early on what the patient herself cannot: that her struggles with self-discipline are rooted in her Emotional Neglect. Most people don’t realize that we humans are not born with the ability to structure ourselves. Nor are we born with a natural ability to make ourselves do what we don’t want to do. In fact, quite the opposite. We learn this skill from our parents. As a child, each time your parents called you in to dinner, interrupting your play with the neighbor kids, made you take a bath, clear the table, clean your room, brush your teeth, hang up your clothes, weed the garden or empty the dishwasher, they were teaching you the two most vital aspects of self-discipline: how to make yourself do what you don’t want to do; and how to stop yourself from doing what you do want to do.
Mr. Gray has helped me to recognize that these two most basic skills of self-discipline are not solely a function of childhood parental training. A sense of purpose is also an essential ingredient. Mr. Gray maintains that it is an individual’s personal purpose that drives him or her to make the choice to do things that are unpleasant, boring, or scary. That purpose has to be driven by feeling, not logic, or it will not be strong enough to do the trick. Logic is not a great motivator, whereas emotion is.
Now I realize that beyond helping people stop the self-blame and learn how to make themselves do what they don’t want to do, I also have to help them find their purpose. What do you feel passionate about? What do you really care about. Because once you find what you truly want and desire, your passion will motivate you far beyond what you think you need. And then you will be better able to make yourself do things that you don’t want to do.
I highly recommend reading Mr. Gray’s speech. It is beautiful prose, written in 1940’s (i.e., sexist) style. I suggest that you ignore that part, read, enjoy and learn.
Oh, yes, thanks Rich!