When you feel emotionally numb, what can you do? Is there anything that can make you feel better?
There are many feelings that can make us human beings uncomfortable. Anger, sadness, hurt, anxiety, fear, loss or grief, for example. Most of us would not choose to feel any of these. In fact, we will often go to great lengths to escape and avoid feeling them.
But there is one feeling that can be more intolerable than any of those. It’s in its own category because it is not like the others.
I have seen this feeling drive people to do extreme things to escape it, like take risks, harm themselves, put themselves in dangerous situations, or even consider suicide. Many people feel this feeling, but few have words to describe it.
I call this feeling the “unfeeling feeling.” The best way to describe it is a deep sense of emptiness or emotional numbness.
Here are some important facts to know about emotional numbness.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to notice, respond to, and validate your emotions enough as they raise you.
When you grow up with your feelings ignored or unwelcome, your young brain builds a wall to block them off. It’s an effective coping mechanism that helps you avoid being a “problem” in your childhood home.
But this effective coping mechanism backfires when you grow up. As you move into adulthood, you need your emotions. If you were a boat, your emotions would be your engine, anchor, and rudder. They should be not only grounding and rooting you but also motivating, directing and guiding you.
When your emotions are blocked off, your body feels it. Something vital is missing. You sense this deeply, and it does not feel good. Just as your body knows when you are hungry or thirsty, it also knows when your feelings are blocked. You are emotionally numb.
And now for the good news. If you feel emotionally numb, there is plenty of hope for you. I am going to give you answers.
There are two ways to address your emotional numbness. One is short-term coping, and the other is long-term solving. To truly address the problem it makes sense to do both. But in this article, we are going to talk about short-term coping. How do you manage the unfeeling feeling when you get it?
Trying to avoid or escape the unfeeling feeling will not work. It’s natural, when you feel numb, to try to escape it by using external or physical stimulation. That’s why so many people might go shopping, sky-dive, drink, use drugs, gamble or even harm themselves. When you’re feeling this, it seems like something extreme will solve it by making you feel something…anything seems better than nothing at that moment.
But when you take any action like this to escape numbness, you are only setting yourself up for more numbness in the future. Plus the numbness can drive you too far, so you are at risk for overspending, over-drinking, or excessive risk that might harm you.
There are, however, a few far healthier and more effective things you can do. First, it’s very important to take note that you are feeling emotionally numb or empty. Second, you must do the opposite of escape or avoidance. The key to dealing with numbness in the moment is to go straight at it.
In other words, the best way to cope with numbness is to try to reach your blocked-off emotions. To do this, you must focus inward, not outward. You must reach out to your emotions.
When you feel emotionally numb, choose an option above and do it to feel more alive.
But overall, the best way to not only manage but extinguish, emotional numbness from your life is to heal the Childhood Emotional Neglect you’ve been living with all these years.
To find out how to remove Emotional Neglect from your relationships, and banish numbness from your life by replacing it with connections to others, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
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.
How do you prevent Emotional Neglect in your marriage? Fortunately, it’s quite easy.
But unfortunately, it’s also easy for Emotional Neglect to take over your marriage, leaving one or both partners feeling empty and alone. All it takes is for one or both of you to grow up with it in your family.
When Emotional Neglect happens in a marriage, it doesn’t look the same as other relationship problems, like conflict or fighting. Instead, it’s more likely to look like nothing.
Failing to notice when your partner is upset.
Failing to ask, “What’s wrong?”
Refusing to answer when your partner asks, “What’s wrong?”
Ignoring the problems between you in hopes they will go away on their own.
Keeping your festering anger to yourself.
Failing to notice or respond to your partner’s emotional needs.
Emotional Neglect in a marriage is like a quiet monster hiding under the rug. It’s not a “problem” so much as an empty space; an absence of some essential ingredient that no one knows about, but everybody misses.
If you or your partner grew up in a family that was blind to the feelings of its members, there’s a good chance that one or both of you didn’t have the chance to learn what true emotional intimacy is.
Emotional intimacy requires emotional work; like paying attention to your own feelings and the feelings of the other person, being willing to fight things out even when it hurts, and being vulnerable to the other person: all things that are NOT done in an emotionally neglectful family. All things that are NOT learned by the child growing up in it.
As a specialist in marriage therapy, I have worked with hundreds of couples, many of them experiencing Emotional Neglect in their relationships.
In these ways, the emotionally neglectful marriage gradually emotionally starves its members. Some husbands and wives feel it happening to them, while others seem to go through their days blissfully unaware.
One thing is clear: if the Emotional Neglect goes unchecked, it will eat away at the heart of the couple’s love and passion, eroding that magnetic chemistry that brought them together in the first place. They are likely, after decades of living like this, to end up feeling more like roommates than love mates.
Strive to notice when your partner is upset.
Be sure to ask, “What’s wrong?”
Always give an answer when your partner asks, “What’s wrong?”
Address the problems between you in a direct and honest, but caring and compassionate way.
Accept that conflict is a healthy part of every strong relationship.
Voice your anger to your partner so it will not have a chance to fester.
Do your best to notice and respond to your partner’s emotional needs.
Usually invisible in your childhood and in your marriage, Emotional Neglect has the power to drain your energy, dampen your joy, and make you feel disconnected, lost and alone.
But this means that you have the power to make the invisible visible and the unspeakable speakable. Drag the Emotional Neglect in your marriage out from under the rug, shine a light on it and say:
“ I love you and I want to be closer to you. Can we please work on this together?”
How do you prevent Emotional Neglect in your marriage? Ask your partner for help. That is what true love is all about.
To learn much more about Emotional Neglect in marriage, how it looks and how to heal it, see Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
“Emotional Neglect is the silent killer of a child’s spirit.”
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when the parent fails to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs.
The truth is that parents fail to notice their children’s emotions in every family in every household in the world every single day. And that is A-Okay. No parent can, or should, be 100% aware of his child’s feelings all the time, and that is not a requirement to be a good parent.
Childhood Emotional Neglect only happens when the parent fails to notice the child’s emotions enough.
Every child is born with a certain threshold of need for emotional connection, validation, and responsiveness from his or her parents. As a child, your parents may meet your needs sometimes, in some ways. But they may fail you in small, everyday ways that add up over time. And this may leave the footprint of Childhood Emotional Neglect upon you.
First, let’s take a painful peek at Emotional Neglect in action, actually happening to a child.
Althea, Age 4
Happily skipping to her mother’s car, Althea gets distracted by the neighbor’s dog Bruno, who she loves, and in whom she takes great delight. Seeing that her mom is looking for her keys in her purse, she runs over to Bruno and says in a voice she usually uses only for dolls and dogs, “Hi Cutie, what are you gonna do today, huh Boy?” Bruno responds with licks and kisses and love, and Althea is instantly absorbed in the delight of Bruno. But this warm moment is disrupted suddenly by Althea’s mom.
“Althea!” she yells in a frustrated and impatient voice. “What are you doing? I told you it’s time to go! Get in the back seat right now. I’m tired of waiting for your distractions!”
Startled and taken from joy to hurt in the period of 2 seconds, Althea withdraws her hand from the licks and runs rapidly to the car, feeling ashamed. Strapped into the back seat, she tries to catch a glimpse of her mom’s face in the rearview mirror as they’re driving to see if she’s still angry. All she sees is a blank expression in the reflection, making it impossible to tell.
Althea, Age 11
Althea lies on her bed trying to do her homework but it’s impossible for her to focus. Her brain keeps replaying an incident that happened earlier that day in which her teacher singled her out in science class, calling her a “slow learner” in front of her friends and classmates. Althea knew she had an A average in the class, and her dream was to become a doctor. She was having a great deal of trouble swallowing the humiliation, disappointment, and unfairness of it all.
Through the walls of her room came the sounds of her father and sister laughing and talking. Everyone else in the world seemed happy and fine to Althea at that moment.
“I don’t understand. What did I do wrong? What should I do? What does this mean?” These questions kept replaying over and over and over in Althea’s head. Deep down she knew there were no answers.
Emotional Neglect is seldom dramatic. Instead, it is usually small and subtle and dwells in everyday events like those we just saw in Althea’s life. As you can see, Althea is not experiencing abuse or attacks. An outsider would see a typical mom in a hurry in the first scenario, and a typical “moody teen” in the second. But for Althea, there is far more going on.
The problem for Althea is that scenes like the two above do not punctuate her growing up years, they define her growing up years. Althea’s mom is usually irritable and almost always in a hurry, breaking up Althea’s joy as if there is something selfish or indulgent about being happy.
Initially a bright, happy child, Althea has learned that she should keep her joy under wraps, and her needs minimal. At age 11 she has already learned that she is on her own.
Emotional Neglect can happen in an infinite variety of different ways. But no matter how it happens in your household, Emotional Neglect is the silent killer of a child’s spirit. Althea’s well-meaning parents worked hard and provided their children with all they needed materially. They took care of everything externally, but they could not give their children what they did not have themselves: emotional awareness, emotional validation, and true emotional nurturance.
To learn if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Few things have the power to hold you back in your adult life as much as abandonment. Legions of people are wondering how to overcome abandonment issues from childhood.
Sadly, there are many different ways that parents can fail their children. Thanks to research and awareness, there are many resources available to people who grew up with any form of abuse from their parents. But there are two other types of parental failure that are far less noticed or discussed: parental abandonment and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Children are born literally “pre-wired” with some very specific emotional needs. Thanks to loads of scientific research, we now know, without a doubt, that in order to grow and thrive as an adult, children must feel loved and emotionally attached to their parents.
Childrens’ emotional needs are, in fact, so crucial that even well-meaning, physically present parents can inadvertently harm their children by not responding enough to their children’s emotions. This subtle parental failure happens far and wide, and I have given it the name Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
Though CEN happens under the radar in most emotionally neglectful homes, it nevertheless leaves lasting effects upon the child: disconnection, lack of fulfillment, and feelings of being empty and alone, among others.
If physically present, well-meaning parents can fail their children in such a subtle way that harms them, you can imagine the powerful impact of parental abandonment.
Parents leave their children in many different ways, and for many different reasons. Whether your parent left you because of divorce, death, or choice, the reason matters far less than the fact that he or she left you.
It is very difficult for a child’s brain to absorb the enormity of abandonment. Children often suffer problems with anger or grief after the loss of a parent. Most children have difficulty believing that it is permanent, even if their parent has passed away. But if your parent walked away by choice, you will also likely struggle with your very natural question of, “Why?”
Many thousands of children grow up with parents who are physically present, yet emotionally absent — Childhood Emotional Neglect. These children grow up to feel less important than others, and deeply alone.
Many thousands more children experience the deep trauma of a parent physically abandoning them. If you had this experience as a child, you have probably grown up to struggle with trust, shame, and low self-worth.
Even if you are physically abandoned, if you have one parent who remains present and is emotionally attuned to you, this can greatly soften the impact of the other parent’s abandonment.
Emotional attunement from a parent is the balm that soothes all childhood hurts, and the antidote that prevents depression, anxiety, and low self-worth. If you grew up in a family that offered a shortage of this balm, you may be struggling to this day.
Whether you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, abandonment, or a combination of the two, it’s not too late for you to repair those childhood hurts. Now, as an adult, you can make up for what you didn’t get in childhood.
By beginning to tune in to yourself to pay attention to your feelings, by making a concerted effort to take care of your own needs, and by learning emotion management skills, you can begin the process of accepting your own true value as a human being.
If your parents failed you emotionally or abandoned you, you can become your own present, loving and attuned parent now.
It’s never too late to begin to accept that you matter.
To learn much more about the emotional needs of children, the effects of having emotionally or physically absent parents and how you can heal yourself, see Running On Empty or Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free!
Growing up with your feelings ignored, Childhood Emotional Neglect or (CEN), takes its toll on you. It’s true. In fact, it takes such a lasting toll that I can see its lingering effects decades later in my adult patients.
Children who grow up with their feelings ignored take a very powerful step to get by in their childhood home. They wall off the deepest, most biological part of who they are: their emotions. That way they can stop burdening others with their feelings. What a brilliant and powerful tool for your child’s brain to make for you.
But as an adult, your life is affected greatly.
The lingering effects above are important parts of the toll of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). When your feelings are walled off, you are missing some life ingredients that will have a profound effect on your quality of life.
I know this because I see it in my office every single day.
Whether you realize it or not, this particular group of struggles affects you in many areas of your life. You are living without access to some vital life ingredient that everyone else enjoys. For example, it can make it hard to ask for a promotion or a raise at work, or to trust yourself to try new things or take risks.
But I have also seen that there is one area of life that’s affected far more than any other. It’s your relationships. As you read the 5 Important Ways below, be sure to keep in mind that none of these 5 are permanent. They are only effects from your childhood. You can fix every single one!
Never fear! I know these 5 challenges might seem practically insurmountable. But I have watched many people transform their relationships by working in 3 key areas.
You can learn far more about how to become more emotionally aware and skilled and how to communicate on an emotional level in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. Take The CEN Test. It’s free!
Consider this. Would you rather live a life filled with ups and downs, joy and sadness, frustrations and pride and surprise? Or a life that goes along, one day after another, with few disruptions or changes or shake-ups?
Choice 1 might seem scary; a little like a roller-coaster ride. On the other hand, Choice 2 might seem a little disappointing.
Don’t get me wrong, they are both mixed bags. The roller-coaster can deliver some shocks to the system, and it can be hard to sometimes feel that you are not in control of everything in your life. If you are living without the emotional disruptions and shake-ups, you may feel “safer” and more in control of things, but you may also find yourself feeling bored and unstimulated.
As a psychologist, I have come to realize that people living in the Choice 1 scenario are typically overall happier. That’s because if you are on the roller coaster, you are living life in a more powerful way. You are more connected with your emotions, and so you are probably far more fulfilled.
Choice 2 is a sign that you are disconnected from your feelings. Probably you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family. Probably you learned at an early age that your emotions were irrelevant or burdensome. Probably you have walled off your feelings as a coping mechanism.
No doubt, though, the way you are living seems normal to you. After all, it’s the way you have always lived. It’s probably the way you were raised to be. So how do you know if you’re emotionally numb?
If you see yourself in any of these 10 signs, do not despair! There are answers. Your feelings are not gone. They are still there, inside you, waiting for you to reclaim them.
You can break down the wall that blocks them, and welcome them back into your life. Bit by bit, slowly but surely, in a way that feels safe and healthy, you can reverse your numbness, and fill your life with color and energy.
Growing up with CEN you were taught to ignore and marginalize your own feelings. But now that you’re an adult, you don’t have to continue that. You can welcome your feelings back into your life and learn the skills to manage and use them.
You CAN overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect. For help, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. When you sign up for the free test you will also receive my free newsletter which is chockfull of helpful information. I’ll let you know when my free CEN Recovery Videos start.
For even more help into and through the CEN recovery process see my two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
About 10 years into my psychology career, I noticed a curious pattern beginning to emerge among my patients.
I began to realize that many, most of whom seemed to have little in common with each other, were reporting the same group of ambiguous struggles: feelings of emptiness or numbness, a sense of being disconnected and alone, a secret feeling of being deeply flawed in some way, and a general lack of fulfillment.
I saw this pattern in so many people that I began to wonder what was causing it. Could it be that they were all abused in the same way, or shared a common type of childhood trauma? Could it be something in their current lives that was making them feel this way? In searching to understand this intriguing pattern, I finally was able to identify the one thing these patients all shared in common, and I was surprised. It wasn’t abuse or trauma, or anything that had happened to them.
The single thing these folks all shared in common was a childhood characterized by a lack of response to, and validation of, their emotions.
It was nothing their parents had done to them. It was instead what their parents had failed to do for them. It wasn’t their parents’ act, but their failure to act. Not abuse, not mistreatment. Just nothing.
When these folks were sad, hurt, scared or angry as children, no one noticed. No one asked them what was wrong, or stepped in to validate what they were feeling, reassure them, guide them, or teach them about emotions. Their parents may have responded sometimes, in certain situations, but it simply was not enough.
The one factor these folks had in common was the fact that they had all grown up in an emotional wasteland, surrounded by people who perhaps loved and cared about them, but who failed to notice or respond enough to their emotional needs. As adults, they were all running on empty.
I gave this childhood experience the name Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
It took me several years to begin to understand the breadth and depth of this problem. The more aware I became of CEN, the more I saw it, not only among my patients, but everywhere. I also gradually became aware that in my growing realization of Childhood Emotional Neglect, I was alone.
This made me even more curious. Why didn’t I hear other therapists talking specifically about what had failed to happen for their clients in childhood? Why hadn’t I seen this concept in research studies or articles? I began to search the vast databases of the American Psychological Association. Journals, books, articles and research studies alike; and what I found was very interesting.
When the term “emotional neglect” was used in the professional literature (which was remarkably seldom), it was invariably used in this way: “emotional abuse and neglect.” By lumping these two very different childhood experiences together, these articles were virtually always talking about emotional abuse, which is active mistreatment of a child — a very different thing from the form of emotional neglect that I was so concerned about. Indeed, emotional neglect was falling through the cracks. Just like the children who lived with it, it resided under the radar.
Thus began my 7-year odyssey, trying to call attention to this under-recognized, under-talked-about, under-studied, yet powerful childhood experience. I began to write, and talk. And write and talk some more.
In 2012, I published my first book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. In this book, I introduced the acronym CEN, and outlined my observations of why it’s so unmemorable and invisible, as well as walked readers through the steps needed for recovery.
In 2014, I began the Childhood Emotional Neglect blog on Psychcentral. As people read about this concept, they resonated deeply with it. Thousands who had lived their entire lives feeling deeply, inexplicably un-validated finally felt validated when they took the CEN Questionnaire, or read about CEN.
As I reached more and more people with the CEN message, requests flowed in for referrals to therapists worldwide who knew how to help people through the steps of CEN recovery. There was a terrible shortage, and I knew then that I needed to do more. So I did two things.
In 2015, after fine-tuning the powerful steps to heal CEN by treating a myriad of CEN clients in my office, I created the first online Childhood Emotional Neglect Recovery Program, Fuel Up For Life. The program is designed to walk participants through the 4 stages of CEN recovery with guidance, homework, videos, and plenty of support. The response has been tremendous, and the demand for slots in the program continues to grow and grow.
In 2016, I did a Continuing Education training for therapists about how to identify and treat CEN in their patients, and began to create an international list of CEN-savvy therapists on my website. That list has grown to 200 strong, and continues to build.
On Nov. 7, 2017 my second book was released. In response to the thousands of people asking how to manage and heal CEN in their relationships, I wrote Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Now, at the end of 2017, I see many other writers, therapists and authors using the words “Emotional Neglect” and talking about empty feelings, validation, the importance of getting in touch with your emotions. I am so very pleased that the word is spreading, and that people are finally talking and thinking and writing about this long-overlooked cloud that has been coloring so many lives gray.
What will 2018 hold? I want to continue to give answers to the thousands, or millions, of people who are secretly feeling flawed. I want to train more therapists and reach more and more people with this valuable message. I want parents to realize the awesome power that lies in emotionally attending to and responding to their children’s emotions.
In 2018 and beyond I will relentlessly continue this work. I will not stop until most therapists are familiar with this concept, and know how to treat it.
I will not stop until “Childhood Emotional Neglect” is a household term.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and invisible when it happens, so it may be difficult to know if you have it. I invite you to Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
Most people, even mental health professionals, do not think about emotional deprivation and emotional neglect as two separate things. And I understand why. In some ways, these two childhood experiences are very much the same. But in some very important ways they are very, very different.
And I’m on a mission to make sure everyone knows just that.
Childhood Emotional Deprivation: Happens when there is an extreme absence of emotional attention and/or response given to an infant or child by her primary caretakers. Has been documented in orphanages, and in families where there are extreme physical absence of caretakers, abuse and trauma.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when a child’s primary caretakers (usually his parents) fail to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs. Happens often in normal homes all over the world, even when the parents are physically present, and all the child’s material needs are met.
So both emotional neglect and emotional deprivation involve a shortage of emotional attention and response from caregivers, but they tend to happen in different types of situations, and can play out very differently in the children’s lives as they grow into adulthood.
If you think about it, almost everything is most noticeable in its more extreme forms, right? It makes sense that emotional deprivation would be noted and studied long before emotional neglect is identified as a true issue.
Emotional Deprivation was first identified as a problem in Romanian orphanages, in 1952 by Dr. Rene Spitz. His heartbreaking video taken inside an orphanage, shows the devastating effects of emotional deprivation upon infants.
Since that time, multiple studies have found negative effects of emotional deprivation upon the infant brain. They include reduced brain volume, changes in the prefrontal cortex, and high, disregulated levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in their brains.
In 1999, Megan Gunnar studied the effect of emotional deprivation upon post-institutionalized kids. She found that they tend to have difficulty with executive functions such as cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control and working memory. They are often impaired in their ability to understand the mental states of others and regulate their own emotions. She found that many of the children suffered from high anxiety.
Happily, studies have also found that many of these neurological and social effects are reversed over time for emotionally deprived children when they are adopted by loving, emotionally attentive parents.
During ten years of working in my private practice, talking with client after client, I began to see a specific pattern of struggles emerge. I saw the pattern in clients who had grown up wealthy or poor, who were married or single, successful or struggling, men and women alike, and regardless of age.
Here is the pattern I noticed: A deep feeling of disconnection from self and others, feelings of emptiness, extreme independence, low self-knowledge, low self-compassion, excessive self-blame and shame, low emotional awareness, and struggles with self-discipline.
The clients in whom I saw this pattern seemed to have little in common other than this special group of symptoms. After seeking answers in my clients’ childhoods to no avail, I realized I was looking in the right place, but for the wrong thing.
I had been asking what had happened to them in all of these people’s childhoods to lead them to feel this way in adulthood. But what I actually found was that something had failed to happen for them in childhood.
Each of these folks had grown up in households that somehow, for whatever reason, were not attentive or responsive to their feelings enough.
It’s hard to believe that a non-experience like this can lead to such significant effects, but believe me, I and many others have now seen that it does.
In the last 5 years, since I became aware of Childhood Emotional Neglect, I have helped scores of people recover from it. I have seen, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you can fill the gaps left by your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
I have watched lovely people work themselves from a place of living their lives in a CEN bubble, feeling isolated, disconnected, alone, and in some indescribable way, deeply flawed, to a place of feeling alive, feeling their feelings, feeling the warmth of connection, and seeing the bright colors in their world.
In my opinion, the primary difference between these two childhood experiences is that one is more extreme than the other. Emotional deprivation happens when a child is literally deprived of emotional nurturance during his formative years. This has happened in institutions where children are left on their own. But sadly, it can also happen in families. Real homes, real parents, completely ignoring their children and their needs for comfort and happiness and love.
Emotional Neglect, on the other hand, is a milder version of being emotionally deprived. It happens in homes all across the world, often inadvertently delivered by otherwise loving, caring parents. It can be subtle when it happens, but it usually leaves the child feeling, in some indescribable way, deeply inconsequential, and deeply alone in the world.
Is the emotional dis-regulation, impaired ability to understand the mental states of others, and difficulty regulating their own emotions that Megan Gunnar saw in the severely emotionally deprived children simply a more extreme version of the lack of emotional awareness and low emotional intelligence of those who grew up with Emotional Neglect? It’s a question that I hope will, one day soon, be answered with research.
I do strongly believe, based on the research combined with my own experience as a psychologist, that in one important way, Emotional Deprivation and Emotional Neglect are alike. Just as the effects of emotional deprivation can be reversed by a loving adopted family, the effects of emotional neglect can be reversed by purposely making a decision to treat yourself as if you matter. By listening to your own inner voice, caring about your own feelings, and attending to your own needs, you become your own emotionally attuned, and emotionally attentive parent.
Since emotional deprivation and emotional neglect are not the same, affecting different people in different ways, my goal is to make more therapists aware of the far more subtle, far more widespread effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), how to identify it in their clients, and how to heal it.
One thing that I can say with confidence true and clear is that if your brain can recover from emotional deprivation in childhood, you can reverse the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in your adulthood.
The most important uniting quality of these two painful childhood experiences is that they both can be healed.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.