Why Understanding What Makes You Feel Emotionally Numb Is The First Step To Feeling Again

Way back in 2008, an amazing thing happened that changed everything. It changed the way I saw myself and parented my children. Ultimately, it changed the way I practice psychology.  Here’s what happened.

I was busy seeing clients in my psychology practice. I was working with couples, individuals, and families. I was treating problems like depression, marriage and family conflict, anxiety, communication problems, anger and more. Some of my clients had traumatic or abusive childhoods, and some did not. My clients were a varied mix: plumbers, doctors, salespeople, secretaries, scientists, stay-at-home parents, and more.

Many of my clients had very little in common with each other, yet I began to see a pattern among them that appeared over and over again.

A remarkable number of very different people tried to express a particular burden to me — a burden they had carried through their lives and felt deeply, but never had the words to express. They all said it differently:

I am not like other people.

I’m missing something.

I feel empty.

I’m not alone, but I feel alone.

I am numb.

These folks were not damaged, traumatized, or mentally ill. There was no diagnosis to capture their struggle. They weren’t actually different, or empty, or alone, but they felt this way for a reason. It took me two years of delving into the question and researching to find the answer, and when I did I was very surprised.

The answer was deceptively simple, and not at all what I had expected. The cause of this burdensome feeling was the one life experience all these varied people shared. They had all grown up with their feelings ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN).

As children, they all had learned that their emotions were not accepted in their childhood homes. As children, they all had, out of necessity, walled their emotions off. Now, as adults, they were emotionally numb.

Becoming aware that you are emotionally numb is painful, for sure. But understanding the reason why can be surprisingly hard to do. Yet it is the first step to stopping the pain of numb.

How Do I Take The First Step?

  1. Think back and try to remember the times and ways that your parents failed you emotionally. Did they fail to notice when you were sad, hurt, angry or anxious? Did they fail to ask you what you wanted and needed? Did they not get to know you in the most deeply personal way — emotionally?
  2. Understand that your parents probably did come through for you in some important ways. The problem is they did not come through for you emotionally enough, and you are now left with the results.
  3. Accept that your brain did what it needed to protect you. It walled off your emotions to protect your parents (and you) from them in your childhood home.
  4. Realize that numbness is a feeling that comes and goes. Like every other feeling, it is your body talking to you. It is saying, “Wake up. Pay attention. Something is not right.”

The Amazing Shift That Happens When You Finally Understand

Since I wrote Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More, I now work almost exclusively with folks who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). As a therapist, it is the most rewarding work that I have ever done. Walking my clients through the steps of understanding is like walking them inward, toward their true selves.

Understanding that you are numb because your emotions are blocked off frees you up in a truly amazing way. Suddenly you realize that you are not damaged after all, and also that you did not ask for this. Suddenly you realize that your lifelong struggle is there for a reason and that it’s not your fault. You see that what you thought was missing, your emotions, are still there after all.

This is the vital first step to feeling again.

The Choice You Have To Make Now

Once you cross the line from being baffled and numb to understanding, you will have a big decision to make. You will need to answer this question:

Do you want your feelings back, or do you want to stay numb?

If you wish to stay numb, you can go on with your life. Just like always, you will sometimes feel glimmers of emotions, but probably not when you need them the most, and not with the depth and richness they should have. Sometimes you’ll be aware of the numbness, and sometimes you will not.

In contrast, if you want your feelings back you have some work ahead of you. But I assure you that, albeit scary at times, it will be the most rewarding work you will ever do.

It All Comes Down To Your  Wall

Are you making the choice to feel? If not, I understand that you may not be ready yet. It’s okay because it’s never too late to come back when you are ready.

If you are making the decision to feel, I am proud of you. You have chosen to challenge yourself in a way that can change your life. And you can take comfort in the fact that there are answers for you.

Your path is well-defined, and you are in the comforting company of the many thousands of CEN people who have walked this path before you.

Bit by bit, you can follow the steps to CEN recovery. You can take down the wall that protected you as a child but is now in your way, holding you back, blocking you off, and keeping you emotionally numb.

Piece by piece, you can tear down that wall, and fill your empty space. Step by step you can learn the emotion skills you missed. 

Inch by inch, you can move forward, reaping the rewards of finally accepting, and learning to love, your deepest, truest self.

To learn all about the steps of CEN recovery and how to take them, see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

To learn how CEN is interfering with your key relationships, and how to fix it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

Jonice

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Ellen - September 26, 2018 Reply

I’m a woman in my 50s and have just come out of a long period of complicated grief, after having lost my elder brother and my spouse within a year of each other. It’s been 3 years now, but I seem unable to shake a lingering serious depression, sense of isolation, and feelings of emptiness about my my life now and my potential for the future.

Researching and finding the CEN connection seemed to open my eyes to what lies behind my lifelong dysthymia, substance abuse (now recovered from) and perpetual avoidance of others. I scored nearly 100% on the CEN “quiz”.

And so I shared it with my younger brother, also in his 50s and his response was that he thinks almost everybody would score high on this survey. I think maybe it’s because our “everybody” includes a circle of friends who share a similar psychology and thus is why we’re attracted to them. (I know that almost all my relationships with men over the years, including a 17 year marriage, have been with narcissists, my husband being one of the most severe, so I know that the attraction factor is an important one.)

But is my brother correct? How common is CEN?

I’m so sad that I didn’t make this connection earlier in my life before I likely damaged my own beautiful children.)

    Jonice - September 27, 2018 Reply

    Dear Ellen, people with CEN often assume everyone feels as they do. I think CEN is very common but there are many people who answer NO to most of those questions. My goal is to make it far more. Take care!

Sandy - September 13, 2018 Reply

Not only do I feel numb, I feel indifferent. I don’t care about anything any more. I don’t care how I look or what others think of me. Nothing matters. I have nothing to grab onto. I’m in a very slow free fall.

    Jonice - September 13, 2018 Reply

    Dear Sandy, please find a CEN therapist near you on the Find A cEN Therapist page of this website. You deserve to be happier, and only you can make that happen. I’m sorry you are suffering like this.

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