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Were You Raised in a Passive-Aggressive Family?

Show me a family that has no anger in it, and I’ll dig out their anger and show it to them.

That’s my job. I’m a therapist.

Every family has anger. It’s unavoidable in life and in a family, simply because it is literally wired into our brains. It’s a part of our physiology, just as our eyelashes, elbows, and toes. There are many ways that families can handle anger, depending on their comfort level with it.

They can wield it as a weapon, figuratively hitting each other over the head with it; they can push it underground, or they can ignore it and pretend it does not exist.

Or they can use it the way nature intended; as a way to drive truth, and connect family members in a genuine, real and meaningful way.

3 Types of Anger-Uncomfortable Families

The Anger as a Weapon Family: In this family, anger is used by one or more members as a source of power. Anger may be expressed in a variety of aggressive ways, like yelling, insults or barbed comments; by throwing things, breaking things, or other physical intimidation or threats.

  • The Lesson the Children Learn: The angriest person wins.

The Underground Anger Family: This family views anger as unacceptable, or even bad. Angry feelings are viewed as unloving, uncaring or rebellious and are met with negativity or punishment.

  • The Lesson the Children Learn: Anger is bad. If you feel angry, you are bad. Do not talk about it.

The Ignoring Anger Family: This family treats anger as if it doesn’t exist. When a member of the family shows anger, it receives little response. Anger is invisible.

  • The Lesson the Children Learn: Anger is useless. Don’t bother with it. Do not talk about it.

None of the children growing up in these three types of families has an opportunity to learn much about anger: how to listen to its message, manage it, express it, or use it in a healthy way. By definition, all of these children are growing up in an emotionally neglectful family.

All of these children are receiving this message: Don’t talk – don’t talk – don’t talk. No one wants to know when you are angry.

But let’s focus in particular on The Underground and the Ignoring Families, because they have one very big factor in common. They both are breeding grounds for passive-aggression.

Since anger is wired into the human brain, it happens in every human being, whether they want it or not. When you are in an environment that is chronically intolerant of this particular emotion you naturally, automatically suppress your angry feelings whenever they arise. This causes some major problems for you, and in your family.

Pushing anger down is like pushing water down. It has to go somewhere. So it may seep underground and sit there, or it may go slightly under the surface, and ripple and roil, waiting for a chance to spew.

In these two types of anger-intolerant families, the anger goes underground, but it does not disappear. It stays there. And it has to come out somehow, sometime, in some way.

Enter passive-aggression.

Passive-aggression: The indirect expression of anger and resentment, fueled by feelings that are not addressed and resolved by talking about the issues directly.

The Passive-Aggressive Family

Molly felt anxious and uncomfortable as she sat eating dinner with her family. She was acutely aware that her parents refused to speak to each other or make eye-contact.

Joel’s dad was an hour late to pick him up after soccer practice. As Joel sat on the curb waiting, he found himself wondering if his dad was angry about the argument they had the night before.

Jessica found it excruciating when her mother gave her the silent treatment. So she took great care to appear unaffected by it.

Many research studies have clearly established a link between passive-aggression between parents, and problems in the children.

One 2016 study by Davies, Hentges, et al., showed that children growing up in such an environment of indirectly expressed, unresolved hostility are more insecure, and take less responsibility for their own problems. They are also more prone to depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal.

Another difficult aspect of passive-aggression is that most people are completely unaware of their own passive-aggressive behavior. They are often, also, unaware of their own underground anger and resentment that’s fueling it.

Steps to Become Less Passive-Aggressive

Accept that you have anger. Accept that it’s normal and healthy, it’s valuable, and you can use it to make your relationships better.

Increase your anger awareness. Watch for anger in other people. Watch for it in yourself. When you start trying to feel your anger, you’ll start breaking down the wall that blocks it.

Read everything you can about assertiveness. It’s a skill that allows you to express your anger in a way that the other person can take in your message without becoming defensive. Buy a book on it if you can. Then read it!

When something happens that makes you feel angry, take note of the feeling. Practice sitting with it and tolerating it. Apply what you’ve learned about assertiveness.

And talk talk talk.

To learn how to deal with CEN in your marriage, your parenting and with your emotionally neglectful parents, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the national bestseller Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

4 Essential Ways to Cope With a Narcissistic or Sociopathic Person in Your Life

As a blogger, I pay attention to what readers want to know about. I’ve noticed that articles about three particular types of personality disorders (PDs), narcissistic, borderline and sociopathic, are often the most read.

Since my specialty (and the topics of my books and blogs) is Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I can tell you that adults who grow up with emotional neglect often seem to attract people with personality disorders. That’s because CEN teaches you to take up little space, and those with personality disorders tend to take up a lot. It’s a classic case of opposites attracting.

People who find themselves involved with a personality disordered person may often find themselves getting hurt. I have noticed that the folks who comment on posts about PD’s very often express a mixture of strong emotions like confusion, hurt, anger and helplessness. Clearly, a great many people are hungry for information and guidance on how to handle relationships with these complex people in your lives.

Here are some example questions I’ve received from readers asking for guidance on dealing with a narcissistic or sociopathic person in their lives.

“Such a pity that escape (divorce) seems to be the only viable outcome. I’ve had to divorce my wife, but she still controls the minds of my now young adult daughters, so now I live with the pain of this alienation.”

“Does it serve a purpose to see a narcissistic parent’s condition coming from childhood emotional neglect? Yes. Once I realized that possibility, I looked at myself and realized how I often did to others exactly what my father did to me: because he left me with the same fragile sense of self. Fortunately I did not pass it on to another generation, having decided to end the bucket chain of abuse.”

The world is full of people who struggle with personality disorders. In truth, the numbers are staggering. 6% of the U.S. population has a narcissistic personality disorder. 5.6% has a borderline personality, and 1% has antisocial personality (according to the National Institute of Health).

With these numbers, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ve met, befriended, been related to, or fallen in love with at least one of these personality types.

These three personality disorders are all different. Narcissists are known for being self-centered. Those with borderline personality are known for being unpredictable and highly emotional. And antisocial personalities (or sociopaths) are famous for their brutality. Generally, these three PD’s can best be understood by their ability or inability to feel two very important emotions: guilt and empathy.

                                 Guilt               Empathy             

Narcissistic           Yes                  No

Borderline             Yes                  Yes

Sociopathic            No                   No

Here are the Four Main Questions About PD that I see you, our readers, struggling with:

1.  What causes personality disorders?

We don’t know for sure, but current science tells us that it’s a combination of genetics and childhood experiences, such as emotional abuse and unpredictable parenting characterized by the repeated, sudden withdrawal of love and approval by the parent or love based on false, self-serving, or superficial factors. Neither nature nor nurture alone is probably enough to produce a personality disorder; most research indicates that it takes a combination of both.

2.  Why didn’t I realize sooner that my husband/sister/father/friend, etc. has a personality disorder?

First, I’d like to suggest that you stop asking this question because it sounds like you are blaming yourself. The huge majority of people have no idea what a personality disorder is, or how to recognize it. Folks with narcissistic or borderline personality are not simply all good or all bad. They have very lovable qualities, and very maddening qualities, just like everyone else. This is why even mental health professionals require a good amount of time to make a diagnosis of personality disorder.

Sociopaths, however, fall into a special category of their own. Unlike people with borderline and narcissistic personalities, sociopaths have no capacity for guilt. But that is a very difficult thing to see in someone, especially when that someone is both highly charismatic and skilled at faking guilt and other emotions. Unfortunately, sociopaths, the most emotionally ruthless people among us, are also the most difficult to recognize.

3.  Do people with personality disorders know what they are doing? Is he/she hurting me on purpose?

For sociopaths, the answer is simple: yes. Many sociopaths actually take pleasure in manipulating and hurting others. They view (and treat) the people in their lives like chess pieces.

For narcissists and borderlines, the answer is not so clear, because both of these groups are scrambling to protect their fragile inner core. The narcissist’s greatest fear is that you will see what he/she feels about herself deep down: worthlessness. Whereas the borderline person’s greatest fear is that you will abandon him.

Narcissists appear to not care if they hurt you, but it’s because they are extremely focused on protecting themselves. Borderline folks are at the mercy of their own pain and have little energy left over to offer care for others. They are capable of both guilt and empathy, but often cannot access either.

Most narcissistic and borderline people are not purposely inflicting pain or misery on others. They are more like a bull in a china shop.

4.  I now hate someone I used to love. Is it OK to kick this person out of my life?

It all depends on what he/she has done, and what is your relationship with them. Of course, you must protect yourself and your children above all. And the type of PD you’re dealing with matters. Unfortunately, many people share traits from all three, making it difficult to know.

If this person is a family member, spouse or co-parent, and is not a clear sociopath, I recommend a delicate balance of self-protection and as much empathy as you can muster for the true pain that this person is living with and hiding.

Here are some Suggestions for Managing Your Relationship:

  • NEVER malign your partner in front of your children because it will damage your children.
  • Try not to demonize the person, even in your own head. No one is all bad, and everyone has pain. Work to hold in your mind a realistic picture of both the positives and the negatives of him or her.
  • Keep communication with the person who is causing you pain to a minimum of what is necessary.
  • Always behave politely, predictably, and choose kindness whenever possible.
  • Never compete or try to beat them. It will be a losing battle for all involved, especially you.
  • Always take the high road.
  • Hurt and angry? Let your anger help you protect yourself, but don’t let it propel you to strike out at anyone or seek revenge. Use this as your mantra: The best revenge is living well.
  • Live well.

To learn how to manage your relationship with a narcissistic or borderline parent, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect is different from emotional abuse and how to heal from it, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.

Give Your Kids What You Never Had: 5 Ways to Stop Childhood Emotional Neglect

You can give your kids what you never had.

Few things can make a difference in your parenting as much as healing your emotional neglect.

It’s true! To explain why we must first take a look at your own parents.

Emotional neglect (CEN) happens when your parents, even if they loved and cared about you, failed to validate your emotions enough while they were raising you.

This seemingly small failure seems so simple, and yet its effects on you, the child, were profound. In fact, they still run deep within you to this day.

When your parents did not notice, respond to, or validate your feelings enough, they sent you a powerful, subliminal message:

Your feelings do not matter.

When you received this message over and over again, your adaptive child brain knew just what to do. It walled off your emotions so that they would not burden your parents, or yourself.

This may have worked to cope in your childhood home, but as you grew into an adult, you needed access to your feelings. Now, the emotions that should be energizing, connecting, directing, and informing you are less accessible than you need them to be.

This fundamental disconnection within you affects your life in many important ways. But none of the effects are as great as the ones in your parenting.

Your CEN, invisible, unmemorable, and not your fault, quietly transfers itself from you to your children. Mostly because it’s so very hard to give your child something that you never got yourself.

There are clear ways for you to heal your emotional neglect, and as you do, you will naturally become a better parent.

How CEN Can Affect Your Parenting

  • If your parents didn’t notice, respond to and validate your feelings enough, it’s hard for you to notice, respond to, and validate your child’s feelings enough.
  • Emotion skills are meant to be learned in childhood. Did your parents teach you how to recognize, name, manage and express your feelings? Are you able to teach your child those skills now?
  • Did you feel enough empathy and emotional support from your parents as a child? If not, you are probably quite hard on yourself to this day. How does this treatment of yourself affect your parenting?
  • Did your parents see you clearly as they raised you? Do they now? If your parents have not seen and understood your true nature as a person, you may now struggle to understand yourself. And, by extension, your child.
  • Did you feel fully accepted and loved when you were growing up? Do you truly accept yourself, and love yourself now? It is not your fault at all, but this may make it a struggle to fully accept your child in the way she needs it.

Believe it or not, there is a remarkable thing about childhood emotional neglect (CEN). You can begin to treat yourself in the exact opposite ways that you were treated as a child.

As you give yourself what you never got, you will then have it to give to your children.

5 Ways Healing Your Emotional Neglect Makes You a Better Parent

1. The more you begin to value and attend to your own emotions, the more attuned you will be to your child’s feelings.

When you say, “Are you angry right now?” or “You look sad,” to your child, you are automatically teaching her about her feelings. She will grow up attuned to herself.

2. As you work to learn emotion skills, you will automatically teach them to your child.

Learning to name your feelings, sit with them, manage and express them when needed are all skills your child will see and experience in her relationship with you.

3. As you treat yourself with more compassion, you can help your child have more compassion for himself.

As you learn to accept that you are human and that you, like all humans, make mistakes, you will stop being so hard on yourself.

You’ll be able to show and teach your children how to learn from their missteps, forgive themselves, and move forward, instead of harshly judging themselves.

4. Beginning to pay attention to what you feel, need, like, and dislike will set a great example for your child.

You will be showing him that you are worth paying attention to, and this will make you better able to see him clearly too. You will be teaching him to pay attention to himself, and he will see himself reflected in your eyes.

He will grow up knowing himself and feeling deep down that he matters.

5. Working to accept yourself and love who you are can set your child up to feel this way about herself.

Armed with healthy self-love, and a sense that you are good enough, your child will learn self-love too and will grow up feeling strong, and knowing, deep down, that she is lovable. You did not choose to grow up with emotional neglect. In fact, as a child, you very likely didn’t even realize it was happening to you.

But now, as an adult, you can choose to heal your emotional neglect. And when you do, you are setting yourself on a clear path to being happier and healthier and being a more connected, effective parent to your children.

Making the decision to heal your emotional neglect is like saying to many generations going back in your family line: “The buck stops here. I will not deliver this burden to my children.”

And what could be more important, or more worthwhile, than that?

To learn more about how CEN affects your parenting and other relationships, Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire and see Jonice Webb’s book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

A version of this article first appeared on YourTango.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author.

How to Use the Vertical Questioning Technique to Strengthen and Deepen Your Marriage

“Sometimes I just feel like walking away and never coming back,” Craig finally said haltingly, after a long uncomfortable pause.

When he looked up into his wife Liz’s eyes, he was shocked at what he saw…

As a couple’s therapist, I’ve worked with hundreds of couples over the years. If I had to name the one most ubiquitous challenge that I see couples facing, it’s this:

How to know what you’re feeling, and manage those feelings so you can share them with your partner.

It’s just so much easier to talk about logistics and happy things. The kids, our jobs, finances, vacation plans; these are all important. And they all share one common factor: they mostly happen at the surface.

The real glue that holds two people together in a way that is strong and true does not dwell there on the surface. That glue is made of emotion, feeling, conflict and, yes sometimes pain. These can only be accessed by courageously wading deeper, into the messy world of emotions with your partner.

Literally, all couples struggle with this to some degree. But the ones who I see having the most difficulty with it are couples in which one or both partners grew up with CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect). When you grow up in a household where feelings are ignored or discouraged, you have little opportunity to learn about your emotions: how to manage, express and work with them. This can pose a formidable challenge to any committed relationship.

Here is an easy-to-learn technique that you and your partner can use to access each other’s hearts and emotions, and build that valuable relationship glue. It’s called The Vertical Questioning Technique.

The Vertical Questioning Technique

First, it’s important to understand the opposite of vertical questions: horizontal questions. These are the questions that you ask your partner on a day-to-day basis. Here are some examples:

Why are you home late?

What are the plans this weekend?

How much did you buy?

Where were you?

What do you think we should do?

All of these questions have value, yes. But they are geared toward gathering information, not deepening your relationship.

In contrast, vertical questions are geared toward accessing emotions. They are challenging questions that make your partner look inside, not outside. They challenge him to go deeper by looking more deeply into himself. Here are some examples of vertical questions:

How do you feel about that?

No, really…why did you really say/do that?

Are you angry? Why?

You look sad. Are you?

Do you realize that your expression (or body language) doesn’t match your words?

Yes, it’s true, these questions are not for the faint of heart. They are challenging and can be difficult to give and to receive. But they will take you somewhere real and meaningful.

Now let’s revisit Craig and Liz so that you can find out why Craig was shocked by what he saw in Liz’s eyes. Here is the full story.

Liz had noticed that for weeks, Craig had been coming home from work unusually late. She was worried that he continued to be angry about a disagreement they’d had several weeks ago. Several times she had asked him if anything was wrong. Each time he’d smiled and said, “No, not at all, everything’s fine.” Yet he continued to be distant and disconnected from her. He talked easily about logistics and plans but seemed uninterested in her. Try as she might, she ended up feeling frozen out.

Liz Tries Vertical Questioning With Craig

Liz: You’ve been coming home late, and you seem kind of distant. Is anything wrong?

Craig: (With a smile) Don’t be silly. I’m just tired, everything’s fine. I’m going to bed.

Liz: Wait a second. Do you realize that your words don’t match your body language? Your smile doesn’t look real, and you’re walking away as you tell me that everything’s fine. Could there be something else going on with you?

Craig pauses and looks annoyed for a moment. Then the annoyance passes, and he looks perplexed. Liz waits while she sees his attention turn inward.

Craig: I-I don’t know. What’s the big deal? (but he is clearly flustered by Liz’s questions).

Liz: I’ve been sad lately because you seem so distant and disconnected. Can you please try to figure this out for me? I don’t want to live like this.

Craig: (Looking truly concerned for the first time, as he sees his wife’s sadness) Well, believe me, I’m over it. But I still can’t believe you talked to my mother about my drinking problem behind my back. It was a total violation of my trust. I can’t imagine why you would do that to me. Obviously, you don’t care how I feel.

Liz waits while Craig looks at the floor, tears welling in his eyes.

“Sometimes I just feel like walking away and never coming back,” he finally says.

Craig doesn’t see it, but while he’s talking Liz’s eyes are also filling with tears. She feels a combination of sad because she hurt Craig, angry that it’s taken him so long to say this, but relieved and grateful that he’s finally saying it. When he finally looks up, Craig sees how much Liz truly does care what he needs, feels and thinks.

Believe it or not, it almost doesn’t matter what happens from here. Liz’s Vertical Questioning (and her willingness to be vulnerable by sharing her own sad feelings) has helped Craig access his true feelings. And now they have shared what I call an emotional-meeting-of-the-minds.

It is truly a golden moment. Craig and Liz have both sat with their strong emotions together and felt each other’s pain. This moment forms the glue that will bind them together and keep their love and their passion strong.

So don’t be afraid. Ask those hard questions. Challenge your partner, and challenge yourself. It’s the best way to show, and strengthen your love.

To learn more about Horizontal and Vertical Questioning, Childhood Emotional Neglect, and how to build the emotional skills that are needed for a strong marriage, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children.

A version of this article originally appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.

Group Discussion Questions for the Book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

Since the release of the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships, people all over the world have been forming book groups, forums, family discussions, and Meetups to discuss them.

When you are working through the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) on your adult life, whether you are working with a CEN therapist or on your own, it is incredibly helpful to have support.

When another person talks about their own CEN childhood, their struggles to understand emotions and how they work, or the discomfort of a visit with their emotionally neglectful parents, it is validating and informative.

When you talk about your CEN experiences and struggles with others who share your pain, you learn about yourself, and you realize you are not alone.

After being asked many times to offer discussion questions for each book, I have finally created them.

Recommended Format for Discussion Groups

  1. Some of these questions are deeply personal, and not everyone will be comfortable answering every question. In the first meeting, decide together which questions or sections you might want to skip as a group. 
  2. If there’s no full agreement on which questions to skip, then proceed with all questions with the understanding that any member of the group can choose not to answer any question without any explanation needed.
  3. I recommend you take the sections and the questions in order. Go through and have one person read the question and have each member answer it, one at a time with no interruptions.
  4. After each member has answered a question, take some time for group discussions, questions and reactions.
  5. If your group is live and wishes to be more structured, set a timer to limit discussion time so that you can move to another question. I highly recommend this but it’s not right for every group.
  6. If you feel your group needs a leader, one can be assigned who is approved by all members.

Discussion Questions for the Book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

Parents

  • Compare “The Ordinary Parent in Action” described in Chapter 1 with your parents. How did they compare?
  • Which category of emotionally neglectful parents describes your parents the best?
  • Were your parents neglected themselves when they were growing up? If you are not sure, can you find out?
  • Many people gloss over thinking about their parents and holding them accountable by saying, “They meant well” or “They tried their best.” Can you say this without a doubt, about your parents? Were your parents truly well-meaning?
  • What did your parents teach you about emotions and how they work?

CEN Struggles

  • Of the 10 characteristics described in Chapter 3, “The Neglected Child, All Grown Up,” what would you say are your top 3 CEN struggles?
  • Describe a way that each of these struggles challenges you in your daily life.

Ability to Change

  • Of the 3 Factors That Get in the Way of Successful Change (Chapter 5), which apply to you? How do you foresee these factors getting in your way?

About Emotions

  • How hard is it for you to believe that feelings have value and a purpose?
  • How good are you at identifying and naming your feelings?
  • Do you believe that you can trust your feelings?
  • Do you often feel guilty, ashamed, or rejecting of your own feelings?
  • Which step of the IAAA is the hardest for you?

Relationships

  • Of the 7 False Beliefs About Relationships described in Chapter 6, which have been a part of your life?
  • Describe a way in which these false beliefs have affected your relationships with family, friends and partners.
  • How good are you at vertical questioning? Does it come naturally to you or is it a skill you will need to work on?
  • Do you believe that sharing a problem with the right person could be helpful? Or do you worry that others will use it against you?
  • On a scale of 1-10 how assertive are you?

Self-Care

  • Of the 4 areas of self-care described in Chapter 7, which are your greatest challenges?
  • Are you afraid of becoming guilty if you pay more attention to yourself and your own feelings and needs?
  • Is it possible for a CEN person to become selfish?
  • Do you often find yourself “going along” instead of stating your own wishes?
  • Is it hard for you to even know what you want?
  • How important is it for you to have fun?
  • Do you habitually focus on other people’s needs over your own?

Parenting, Marriage and Your Own Emotionally Neglectful Parents

Fuel Up For Life

If you are interested in joining an ongoing, structured and supportive Childhood Emotional Neglect recovery group online that is created and run by Jonice Webb, Ph.D., CLICK HERE learn more about Fuel Up For Life.

The 5 Elements of Deep and Meaningful Personal Change

People don’t change.

How many times have you heard someone say that?

Several years ago a woman came to my office asking for help with an extramarital affair that she was having. In an attempt to help her sort it out I began talking with her about why, when, how; her own feelings and needs, her marriage, and her family history. We had a number of meetings in which I worked very hard to help her figure out what to do about it, and how she might handle ending the affair and beginning to repair her marriage (which is what she said she wanted).

Over time though, I started to see that our work was not producing any relief or help to her. My questions did not spur further thinking on her part, and my suggestions seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Finally, after about six visits, she said something very telling to me which stopped the treatment cold. She said, “People don’t change.”

Further exploration of her comment revealed that she was extremely entrenched in this notion. She wanted to come to see me only to vent and receive support; she did not see that she had the ability to change herself or her situation.

Since that time I have encountered many people who resist the idea that they can actually change themselves. And I have noticed that the less aware you are of yourself and your feelings, the harder it is to envision yourself changing. Why are you unaware of yourself and your feelings? It’s quite often the result of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, which is growing up in a household that does not address the feelings of its members.

If you experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect, you are likely focused outward, on other people and their needs, leaving you out of touch with yourself, your emotions, and the sense of self-mastery that other people enjoy.

The 5 Key Elements of Change

1. Awareness: seeing the problem. For example, “I have a problem with my temper.”

2. Commitment: making a clear decision that you want to change. For example, “I’m going to improve my temper.”

3. Identifying the Steps: For example, a) become more aware of my anger; b) learn how to control my anger; c) learn how to express anger in a healthy way.

4. Doing the Work: While changing ourselves is definitely possible, it is usually not easy. That’s why awareness, commitment and breaking it down into steps become so vital.

5. Asking for help: from spouse, friend, family or a therapist.

Here is a tiny sampling of the myriad ways that I have seen people change themselves:

  • A woman gets her defenses down and is able to receive feedback from her husband and act upon it, on a regular basis.
  • A teenager vows to stop smoking pot and makes it happen.
  • A man stops himself from yelling at his children by learning new parenting skills and using those instead.
  • A woman who was emotionally neglected in childhood learns how to accept and express her feelings and needs, and starts speaking up for herself with her husband, family, and friends.
  • A man decides he is tired of feeling anxious. He explores its sources in his life and learns new anxiety management techniques. As a result, he becomes more sociable and outgoing and more willing to take risks at work.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. The possibilities are endless. True, some things are more difficult to change than others. And some people have more difficulty changing themselves than others. For example, a personality or temperament issue will be difficult to change in a different way than a habit.

But in my experience from working with many hundreds of people to change many hundreds of issues, I can tell you without a doubt that the two biggest factors in whether you can change are:

Really, really wanting it.

And believing that it’s possible.

To learn if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free. And see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

A version of this article first appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author.

5 Unique Things People With Childhood Emotional Neglect Need From Their Therapists

Consider this brief exchange from Abby’s therapy session:

Abby grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, but neither she nor her therapist is aware of this. Abby has begun therapy with Dr. Simmons because her PCP became concerned that she might be depressed and referred her.

Abby: I don’t know what my problem is, Dr. Simmons. I should be happy to see my parents, but every time I go there all I want to do is leave.

Dr. Simmons: What exactly happened while you were there on Sunday? Something must be happening that makes you want to get out of there.

Abby: We were sitting around the table having roast beef for Sunday dinner. Everyone was talking, and I just suddenly wanted to get the hell out of there for no reason at all.

Dr. Simmons: What were you all talking about? Something about the topic must have upset you.

Abby: We were discussing regular topics, nothing upsetting. The weather, the increased traffic in our area, my parents’ trip to China. Same stuff we usually talk about.

Dr. Simmons: Did anyone say something hurtful to anyone else?

Abby: Not unless “It took me an hour to drive 5 miles yesterday,” could be considered hurtful.

Abby and Dr. Simmons have a good laugh together. Then they go on to talk about Abby’s new boyfriend.

Childhood Emotional Neglect

Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you.

Abby grew up in a family that did not notice, validate, or talk about emotions. Sensing that her feelings were useless and troublesome to her parents she, as a child, walled off her feelings so that she would not have to feel them.

Now, as an adult, Abby lives with a deep emptiness that she does not understand. She senses something missing where her emotions should be. She is living without full access to the font of energy, motivation, direction, and connection that her feelings should be offering her if only she would listen.

And, although Abby does not know it, she has lived through countless family dinners and myriad moments and days of vacuous, surface family interactions where nothing of substance was discussed, and anything that involved feelings was avoided like the plague.

In reality, unbeknownst to both therapist and client in this scenario, Abby is not actually depressed. She only seems depressed because she is not able to feel her feelings. And Abby didn’t “feel like leaving” the family dinner because someone said something hurtful. She actually felt overlooked, invisible, bored, and saddened by what’s missing in her family: emotional awareness, emotional validation, and meaningful conversation.

But she has no words to express this to Dr. Simmons. And Dr. Simmons, unaware of the syndrome of Childhood Emotional Neglect, does not know to ask about it.

Every day, I get messages from CEN people who are disappointed that their therapy is not addressing their Childhood Emotional Neglect. Even if they are pleased with their therapist, and also with many aspects of their therapy, they still feel that, in some important way, they are missing the mark.

Having talked with, or heard from, tens of thousands of CEN people, I would like to share with you exactly what CEN people need from their therapists.

5 Special Things People With Childhood Emotional Neglect Need From Their Therapists

Number 1: To finally be seen.

Growing up in a family that does not respond to your feelings leaves you feeling, on some level, invisible. Since your emotions are the most deeply personal expression of who you are, if your own parents can’t see your sadness, hurt, fear, anger, or grief, you grow up sensing that you are not worth seeing.

Tips For Therapists: Make a special effort to notice what your client is feeling. “You seem sad to me,” for example. Talk about emotions freely, and ask feeling-based questions. Dr. Simmons’ question about the topic of conversation yielded nothing. A fruitful question might have been, “What were you feeling as you sat at the table?” When you notice, name, and inquire about your client’s feelings, you are communicating to your client that her feelings are real and visible, which tells your client that she is real and visible.

Number 2: To be assured that their feelings make sense.

Growing up with your feelings under the radar, you learned to distrust and doubt that your feelings are real. As an adult, it’s hard to believe in your feelings or trust them.

Tips For Therapists: As you notice your client’s feelings, it’s also essential to make sure you understand why he feels what he feels. And then to validate how his feelings make sense to you and why. This will make them feel real to him in a way that they never have before.

Number 3: To learn who they are.

How can you know who you are when you are cut off from your own feelings? CEN adults are often unaware of what they like and dislike, what they need, and their own strengths and weaknesses.

Tips For Therapists: Your CEN client needs lots and lots of feedback. When you notice something about your client, feed it back to him, both positive and negative — with plenty of compassion and in the context of your relationship with them, of course. This might be, “I notice that you are a very loyal person,” “You are honest, almost to a fault,” or “I see that you are very quick to give up on things.” Your CEN client is hungry for this self-knowledge and you are in a unique position to provide it.

Number 4: To be forced to sit with emotions.

Your emotionally neglectful family avoided emotions, perhaps to the point of pretending they didn’t even exist. Therefore, you have had no chance to learn how to become comfortable with your own feelings. When you do feel something, you might find it quite intolerable and immediately try to escape it. Just as your parents, probably inadvertently, taught you.

Tips For Therapists: Be conscious of your CEN client’s natural impulse to avoid feelings (Abby did so by cracking a joke, which worked quite well with Dr. Simmons). Continually call your client on emotional avoidance, and bring her back to feeling. Sit with that feeling with her as much and as often as you can.

Number 5: To be taught emotion skills.

Growing up in your emotionally vacant family, what chance did you have to learn how to know when you’re having a feeling, how to name that feeling, what that feeling means, or how to share it with another person? The answer is simple: Little to none.

Tips For Therapists: As you name your CEN client’s feelings and continually invite her to sit with them together, it’s also very important to teach the other emotion skills she’s missed. Ask her to read your favorite book on how to be assertive, and use role-playing to teach her how to share her feelings with the people in her life. Freely use the Emotions Monitoring Sheet and the Emotions List in the book Running On Empty to increase her emotion vocabulary.

Why We Need More CEN Trained Therapists

As more and more people become aware of their Childhood Emotional Neglect, more are seeking therapists who understand the CEN they have lived through and are now living with. On my Find A CEN Therapist Page, I am referring clients all over the world to CEN therapists near them. 500 therapists are listed so far in locations all over the world. The demand is great and more CEN trained therapists are needed!

As a therapist, once you learn about this way of conceptualizing and treating your clients, your practice will be forever changed.

Therapists, I invite you to join my CEN Newsletter For Therapists and visit my Programs Page (scroll down to see the trainings for therapists) to see how you can learn more about identifying and treating Childhood Emotional Neglect, and also apply to be listed on my Find A CEN Therapist Page.

How to Know the Difference Between Selfishness and Strength

Let’s start with a little test to see where you are on this.

Selfishness Quiz

Read through this list of personal actions, and label each as either “strong” or “selfish.”

  1. Your elderly aunt asks you to take her out to dinner and you say no because you have to get home to your children.
  2. Your elderly aunt asks you to take her out to dinner and you say no because you are really tired, and need to go home and get some rest.
  3. Your elderly aunt asks you to take her out to dinner and you say no because you don’t want to miss the Red Sox game on TV.

If you answered “selfish” to all three:

Chances are, you are highly uncomfortable with saying “no” under any circumstances. You are governed by guilt, and you believe that your own needs are less important than those of others.

If you answered “strong” to:

Number 1: You are able to be strong, at least for the sake of your children. If you are saying no for the sake of your children, you are putting their needs before your elderly aunt’s, and that is a judgment call. Who needs you more right now? If it’s your children, then being able to say “no” to your aunt is a sign of strength.

Number 2: Saying no because you are tired could very well represent strength. If you get enough rest for yourself, you will be in better shape to take care of others. It’s an example of putting your own needs first, which makes it easier for you to contribute to the world in a positive way.

Number 3: You could potentially be crossing the line over to selfish here. Is the Red Sox game truly more important than giving your elderly aunt an outing? Unless there are some mitigating circumstances, you may be making a self-centered choice here. This one may require some careful self-reflection.

In truth, the line between selfish and strong is blurry at best. For example, saying no because of the baseball game may not represent selfishness if you need to be able to talk about it intelligently at a sales meeting the next day, or if your aunt asks you to dinner more often than you can comfortably accommodate in your life. Or saying no because of your children could be selfish if it’s really because you would enjoy being with your children more than dinner with your aunt.

Few people are purely selfish or strong. Most of us struggle with decisions like these all the time. Many people feel selfish and guilty for the simplest personal choices which are actually healthiest and best for them or their families. Sometimes we err too far toward selfish; at other times we give too much because of fear of being so. Often a decision which appears selfish is not, and strong decisions can sometimes come across as selfish to others.

The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect

If you have a tendency to feel guilty or selfish when you put your own needs first, it may be because you were emotionally neglected in childhood. Emotional Neglect happens when parents either purposely or unwittingly give a child the message that his feelings and emotional needs are irrelevant. The unspoken message is: “Your needs don’t matter.”

Children who grow up this way, once they become adults, have great difficulty viewing their own needs as important enough to trump anyone else’s. They feel guilty valuing or emphasizing what they want, feel and need. This is an important quandary since emotional health requires us to take care of ourselves first.

Guidelines for Making Sure You are Strong, Not Selfish

  1. Be thoughtful in your personal decisions.
  2. Take your own health and wellness into consideration with every decision. You are the guardian of your own needs. You have a responsibility to care for yourself physically and emotionally.
  3. Consider others’ needs and feelings and weigh them against your own.

Do you worry that you are selfish? Truly selfish people don’t usually struggle much. They easily make the decision that’s best for themselves. They don’t think too much about it, and they don’t look back.

If you follow the above guidelines, you will be strong. Because, in the end, for each and every decision that you make in your life, your strength comes from the fact that you cared enough to think it through.

Strength comes not from putting another’s needs before your own. Instead, it comes from the simple act of weighing another’s needs against your own.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, and how to place greater value on your own feelings and needs, Take the Emotional Neglect Test and see the book Running on Empty

A version of this article first appeared on Psychcentral.com. It is republished here with the permission of the author.

Childhood Emotional Neglect: A Guide For Therapists & Clients

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to validate and respond to your emotions enough as they raise you.

Growing up this way leaves you with some significant challenges throughout your entire adult life.

As I have said many times before, Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be healed. Even beyond that, therapists and laypeople alike are realizing that taking the steps to heal CEN is a powerful way to change your life from the inside.

One of my greatest goals in writing and speaking and teaching about Childhood Emotional Neglect is to give both mental health professionals and CEN sufferers a common language to talk about what failed to happen, the gaps that are left by that, and what it takes to fill them.

This route to healing is both validating and compelling for those who grew up with Emotional Neglect. And more and more therapists are finding that walking their clients through the 4 CEN Recovery Steps is remarkably rewarding work.

For Clients

Looking For a CEN Trained Therapist?

If you are looking for a therapist who is familiar with the CEN concept and is trained in the recovery process, see my Find A CEN Therapist Page. It lists almost 500 licensed therapists located all over the world who have either read my books or have attended one of my CEN Therapist Continuing Education Trainings. And if there are none located in your area, many of the therapists on the list do Skype treatment.

Want Your Therapist to Learn About CEN?

If you are in treatment with a therapist who is not trained in treating Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can share this article with your therapist as a way to introduce him or her to the CEN concept and the kind of work you would like to do together.

About Childhood Emotional Neglect — For Therapists

  • Your client may have read self-help books, or even seen other therapists in the past. Nevertheless, he/she has found the awareness of Childhood Emotional Neglect deeply validating, and offering answers not found before.
  • If you can join your client in this conceptualization of what is wrong, I believe you will find that the CEN concept also offers you both a meaningful path forward in your work together.
  • The primary problem is this: Your client grew up in a non-emotionally-aware family. Even though you are quite likely already aware of this, it is important to acknowledge it as the center of what’s wrong for your client now.
  • As a child, your client had to wall off their emotions in order to get by in their emotionally empty home.
  • Now, as an adult, your client’s emotions remain walled off. CEN adults do not have enough access to the emotions that should be stimulating, connecting, guiding and enriching them through adulthood. They know that something is not right, but they do not know what it is until they find the explanation of CEN.
  • CEN adults struggle with a particular pattern of symptoms: emptiness or numbness, a feeling of separateness, a deep sense of being fundamentally flawed, lack of self-knowledge, and low emotional intelligence.

Free Resources For Therapists

Become a CEN Specialist: You can find many more Resources and Tools For CEN Therapists on the For Therapists Page.

Fill out this Brief Form to apply to become a CEN Specialist and get listed on the Find A CEN Therapist Page.

The 4 Steps of Childhood Emotional Neglect Treatment

The treatment of Childhood Emotional Neglect is a process of 4 steps, all of which build upon each other. When you are aware of the natural progression of these steps you will be able to guide your client through them in a meaningful way.

  1. Help your client become aware of the exact way that Emotional Neglect happened in her childhood home. The goal is for your client to understand, on a deep level, what she did not get in her childhood (emotional validation, awareness, and skills), and how it has affected her in her adult life.
  2. Break down the wall blocking your client’s emotions so that he can begin to have more feelings. Helping your client break down his wall involves exercises of emotional awareness, plus meditation/mindfulness and monitoring practices that consciously attempt to reach and identify emotions, as well as building the client’s emotional vocabulary.
  3. Teach your client how to name, tolerate, manage, express, and use her feelings. As your client’s wall begins to break down, he will begin to feel more variety, complexity, and depth of emotions. This is your opportunity to begin to fill in the emotion skills that he wasn’t able to learn in his childhood home. If your client has read the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, he will be aware of the special structured exercises to help guide him through this. He will need you to learn about them so you can guide him through this process of learning what to do with feelings.
  4. Help your client start applying her newfound emotions to strengthen and deepen her relationships. Since your client has lived without enough access to her emotions, her friendships and relationships are likely either too few, lacking in depth, or both. You can now guide your client into the process of inserting her feelings into her relationships and beginning to change them into something more meaningful and resilient.

For Therapists & Clients

CEN Resources To Assist Your Work Together

CEN Therapist List: Clients can find a CEN trained therapist near them. If you are a therapist, you can request to be added to the list to receive more referrals of CEN folks, which I am sure you will find to be some of the most rewarding people to work with.

Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect: This book presents the concept of CEN in depth to readers, how it happens, why it can be so unmemorable, and how it affects the child, plus many aspects of the recovery process. It also has a special chapter for therapists.

Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children: This book is all about how to identify and heal the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in couples and families. It also offers lots of specific information for parents on exactly how to emotionally validate and respond to their children. I wrote this book to use as a guide for clients and therapists to go through together. It is especially helpful for Treatment Step 4.

Whether you are a CEN sufferer looking for a therapist who understands you in this deep and meaningful way or a therapist who wants to learn about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how to walk your clients through the 4 Stages of Recovery, there are many answers and resources for you.

One of my biggest goals is to provide a well-trained therapist who is passionate about treating Childhood Emotional Neglect to every man, woman and child everywhere in the world who needs one.

The 6 Step Boundary Building Exercise

What can protect you from toxic people, keep painful memories in their place, keep you safe and strong, and help you manage your feelings?

Boundaries.

Truly, boundaries are amazing. And good ones are a cornerstone of mental health.

When you grow up in a household that has healthy boundaries, you naturally have them yourself as an adult. But unfortunately, many of us don’t start out with that advantage.

If you grew up in a household with Childhood Emotional Neglect (your feelings and emotional needs weren’t met enough), or if you had a parent with a personality disorder, you may be especially challenged in this area.

Without strong but flexible boundaries, you may be overly vulnerable to criticism or insults from others, you may struggle to manage your feelings internally or prone to emotional outbursts, you may find yourself worrying too much, dwelling on the past, or not keeping yourself safe enough.

People with Childhood Emotional Neglect often have an overly rigid Internal Boundary, which blocks off their emotions too completely. So they can come across to others as excessively unflappable, or even emotionally bland.

If one of your parents had a personality disorder, your Internal and External Boundaries may be overly porous, or too flexible, resulting in emotional outbursts and difficulty managing your feelings.

The hallmark of a healthy boundary is strong but flexible.

As adults, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to understand boundaries and work on building them for ourselves.

The Four Types of Essential Boundaries

  • Physical Boundary: This boundary is the easiest to visualize and understand, and has been the most studied. Research indicates that the average American requires about two feet of personal space in front, and 18” behind them to be comfortable. Jerry Seinfeld made this boundary funny when he featured the “close talker” on his show. But actually, the physical boundary is more than just space. It can be violated by people whose touch is unwelcome, or by someone who feels physically threatening to you. Your boundary tells you when to set limits and when to protect yourself, by making you feel uncomfortable.
  • External Boundary: This boundary must be strong but flexible. It serves as a filter that protects you from insults and injuries that come from the outside. When you receive criticism at work; when your spouse tells you she’s angry at you; when a driver calls you an obscene name, or when your sister calls you “selfish,” this boundary kicks in. It talks you through what the other person said or did to you and helps you sort out what’s real feedback that you should take seriously, and what you should reject.
  • Internal Boundary: This is the boundary which protects you (and others) from yourself. It serves as a filter between your feelings, and what you do with them. This boundary helps you sort through your intense anger, hurt and pain, and decide whether, and how, to express it.
  • Temporal Boundary: We all carry our past experiences within us. And we can often tend to dwell on them in a way that is not helpful. On top of that, old feelings often attach themselves to current experiences and emerge when we least expect them. This is why people blow up over burnt toast, for example. It’s also easy to give the future too much power over us. Spending too much time thinking about, imagining, worrying about, or dreading the future can cause anxiety and prevent us from living in the moment. Your temporal boundary senses when you’re going too far back or forward and pulls you back.

I know what you’re thinking: “OK, that’s great. Mine are not so good. How do I make them better?”

Here’s an exercise to help you create and strengthen your boundaries. First, choose one of the above four types that you’re going to build. Then follow these steps:

The 6 Step Boundary Building Exercise

  1. Close your eyes, and count to ten in your head, while breathing deeply and calmly.
  2. Imagine yourself surrounded by a circle. You are in the exact center, surrounded by the exact amount of space that you feel most comfortable with.
  3. Turn the circle into a visible wall. That wall can be made out of anything you like: clear or opaque plastic, bricks, smooth cement or something else. It can be anything you want, as long as it’s strong.
  4. Although the wall is strong, you and only you have the power to flex it when you want. You can remove a brick or soften the plastic to allow things inside the wall or out of the wall whenever you need to. You hold all the power. You are safe.
  5. Stay inside the wall for a minute. Enjoy the feeling of being in control of your world.
  6. Repeat this exercise once-a-day.

Now there’s one more important key to using your new boundary.

Eventually, your boundary will operate naturally. But in the beginning, you will have to consciously use it. It helps, especially in the beginning, to try to anticipate situations in which you will need, and can practice using your boundary.

Let’s say you’re going to visit your parents and you know that, at some point during the visit, your father will make an offhand comment implying that you have disappointed him (because he always does).

For this challenge, you’ll need primarily your External Boundary, to filter out your father’s comment and disempower it. You may also need your Internal Boundary if you want to manage your own response to his comment. So right before you go, sit down and follow the above steps to get your External and/or Internal Boundary firmly in place.

At your parents’ house, wait for your dad’s comment to come. If it does, immediately picture your boundary around you, filtering for you. The filter asks,

What part of this is valuable feedback that I should take in, and what part of it says more about the speaker?

Your boundary tells you this:

None of this is valuable. Your father’s comment is all about him, not you.

And there you are. You hold all the power. You are safe.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and invisible, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free! And to learn much more about CEN see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

A version of this article was originally posted on psychcentral.com. It is republished here with the permission of the author.

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