Why Does Emotional Neglect Make You Feel You Are Running On Empty?
It’s an excellent question.
Not long after my first book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, came out I was interviewed on NPR’s Topical Currents Show. The first thing the interviewer asked me was, “Why the name Running On Empty? Where did that come from?”
To be honest, I was somewhat unprepared for this question, and I stumbled a bit. The only answer I could think of at first was: “Because that’s what Emotional Neglect makes you feel.” It made such intuitive sense to me that I had never even thought about how to explain it.
Since that day I have been asked that question many, many more times. And I have put considerably more thought into how to describe the relationship between Emotional Neglect and emptiness in a way that makes not only intuitive sense but also offers helpful personal understanding to those who grew up emotionally neglected.
First, we’ll define what “Empty” actually feels like. Then we’ll talk about what it means to be running on empty.
Here are some of the ways I have heard it described by many different people.
A hollow feeling in my stomach
A lack of feelings, like I have no emotions
A weird feeling in my throat
A sense of being entirely depleted, and having nothing more to give
Going through life on autopilot
Unfulfilled and lost
As you can probably see from the different expressions above, “empty” can feel different to different people. Yet, for all, it comes down to one common factor: a deep, uncomfortable sense that something important is missing inside of you.
Just as all of our feelings are messages from our bodies, so also is emptiness. Emptiness is a real sense of a real thing that really exists.
When you have Emotional Neglect, you are indeed missing something. Something valuable and dear. Something that’s required for a happy, connected, and fully engaged life.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to notice, validate, and respond to your emotions enough as they raise you.
When you grow up with your parents failing to notice what you are feeling, you are growing up with the most powerful expression of your deepest self (your emotions) ignored. What is a child to do?
Fortunately and unfortunately, children’s brains automatically step in to protect them in these situations. When, as a child, you perceive, on some level, that your emotions are not welcome in your family, your brain automatically walls them off for you. This way, those troublesome feelings won’t burden you and your parents. In many ways, this coping technique is brilliantly adaptive.
But it’s also what makes you feel empty as an adult.
Growing up and moving forward in your life, you are not aware of what your brain has done for you. You are not aware that your feelings are blocked from you. You are not aware that you are living your life without full access to a key life ingredient that everyone else has: your emotions.
You may not be aware of any of this, but your body is. Your body knows that something is missing, and it sends you signals to tell you. It sends you feelings of emptiness in your belly or chest or throat as a way of saying, “Pay attention! Something is wrong here!”
In previous writings, I have compared the experience of running on empty to eating a cake baked without enough sugar, playing the role of “extra” in the movie of your life, and living under cloudy skies.
When you are engaged with your feelings, and you are actively managing them and using them, you gain many important advantages. Your feelings will tell you what to pursue and what to avoid, what and who to care about, and what you want and what you need. And they’ll provide you the motivation and energy for all of those things.
When you are deprived of this natural, rich and connecting resource, you tend to drift, not quite knowing who you are or what to do. You end up giving without receiving enough back and depleting your own resources to your own detriment.
You may even set up a good life for yourself but still wonder why you’re not happier.
Why am I running on empty?
Surprisingly, there is an answer to running on empty. You do not have to live this way for the rest of your life.
The way you become full is to do the opposite of what you learned in childhood. You grew up with your feelings ignored, so now is the time to change that.
It is never too late in your life to alter the way you treat your emotions. Even if you feel numb now, your emotions are there. They are waiting for you on the other side of that wall you built in childhood.
To reach them, you must first begin to see their value. When you invite them into your life, they will come. You can chip down that wall that blocks them off, and learn the skills to manage them.
Then lastly, you can learn how to use them to enrich and deepen and strengthen your relationships.
So why does Emotional Neglect Make you feel you are Running On Empty? As a child, it was because your parents, perhaps unintentionally, discouraged your feelings. But now, it’s because you are continuing to ignore your own feelings.
But you are grown now. You are in charge of your own decisions and your own life. You can make the decision to stop running on empty.
To find out if you are living with the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn how to break down the wall that blocks your feelings and begin to use them, see Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn how to use your emotions to strengthen and enrich your relationships, see Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Why does it matter if you grew up with your feelings ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect)? To you, it may not seem to be all that important. So let’s talk about the 3 most tragic Childhood Emotional Neglect symptoms in adults.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A subtle, often invisible childhood experience that happens when your parents fail to notice or respond to your feelings enough.
In all of my years as a psychologist, I have never seen anything so seemingly innocuous, yet so powerfully damaging as the simple failure of your parents to notice or respond to what you are feeling as they are raising you. It’s a “simple failure” that becomes a part of your everyday life forever.
Growing up with your emotions disregarded automatically communicates a silent, but powerfully effective, message to your deepest self: as a child, you accept, on a very deep level, that in your childhood home, your feelings do not matter. As a child, you must wall off your own feelings so that you will never appear sad, hurt, needy or emotional to your parents.
Going through life ignoring and undervaluing your emotions has some very predictable effects on your life as an adult. I have seen the pattern play out in the lives of countless lovely, otherwise healthy people. Always the same silent struggles, the same unanswered questions, the same deep sense of being different from everyone else.
When you grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, you end up experiencing the worst of two worlds. First, you are disconnected from your feelings, which should be stimulating and guiding you. You are living without enough access to this marvelous, powerful, energizing feedback system: your emotions.
Second, your walled off emotions remain unaddressed and unmanaged. Those blocked emotions just sit there, unattended, roiling and waiting, perhaps emerging at times which seem to make little sense to you. Or maybe seldom emerging at all, but instead causing you to make poor decisions or develop health problems, like headaches or back pains, or worse.
In the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect I identified 10 struggles of the emotionally neglected adult. They are feelings of emptiness, counter-dependence, unrealistic self-appraisal, poor self-compassion, guilt and shame, self-directed anger/self-blame, the Fatal Flaw, difficulty nurturing self and others, poor self-discipline and alexithymia.
If left unaddressed, all these silent struggles work together to cause some powerful effects on your life.
Not knowing what you feel makes it hard to know what you want. That’s because “want” is a feeling, not a thought. I have watched scores of talented, capable people drift in their lives, making decisions that are not quite right for them, or going where the tide takes them. Sometimes they get what they want, but it’s often a matter of chance, not choice.
When you are disconnected from your own feelings, you are blocked from the most deeply personal part of who you are. You are probably good at noticing and attending to other people, but you are not paying attention to yourself.
In fact, you continue to squelch your true self in exactly the way your parents, maybe unintentionally, squelched you as a child. You have hurts and triumphs, loss and accomplishment, pains and love, anger and pleasure, sadness and joy, all inside you. If you would listen, you would learn who you really are.
Of the 3 most tragic Childhood Emotional Neglect symptoms, this is the one that makes me the most sad.
Other people catch glimpses of your light, although you probably have no idea that you have it. You have caught glances of it in the past, when you have surprised yourself by doing something you thought impossible for you to do, faced a fear, felt a warm glow of connection from someone important to you, or been vulnerable in a brave way. If you think deeply about this you will remember.
Your light is special because it is uniquely you. It is a product of your genes, your emotions, and your life experiences. Other people see it, even though you hide it. Putting yourself on the sidelines or trying to stay invisible; avoiding conflict and being afraid to “rock the boat” are all ways to hide your light.
Sadly, as you continue to squelch your light, you are holding yourself back from being your best and true self. What feels “safe” is actually “dark.”
You deserve better. And you can allow yourself to have it.
Just as the cause of all of these struggles seems simple — your parents didn’t respond enough to your emotions as they raised you — so also seems the solution.
You grew up with your feelings ignored, and now you must do the exact opposite. You can start right away simply paying attention to your feelings.
Take the time to notice when you are feeling something, learn how to name what you are feeling, and begin to learn how to use your feelings to inform, direct, motivate and guide you.
When you do the work, you get to reap the rewards. You will gradually start to know yourself, get what you want, and let your light shine.
And all that’s actually happening is that you are becoming more authentically your true self, and that is everything.
To find out if you grew up with Emotional Neglect, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about how Emotional Neglect happens and how to heal it, see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To find out how Childhood Emotional Neglect holds your relationships back and how you can solve it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.