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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Let’s start with a little test to see where you are on this.
Read through this list of personal actions, and label each as either “strong” or “selfish.”
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.
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.
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.
A version of this article first appeared on Psychcentral.com. It is republished here with the permission of the author.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What can protect you from toxic people, keep painful memories in their place, keep you safe and strong, and help you manage your feelings?
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.
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:
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.
Accountability and blame are not the same.
Imagine this scenario:
Your good friend Trish calls you upset. “I’m such an idiot,” she says. “I was in a huge hurry to get to a meeting at work, so I backed out of the driveway really fast. I wasn’t paying attention, and I ran right over the mailbox. It destroyed the mailbox and put a huge dent in the back bumper of my car. I’m such a moron!”
Take a moment to think about how you would respond. What might you say to Trish? Would you say:
“Trish, you’ve lived in that house for ten years. Had you not noticed where the mailbox is? What a dolt!”
Or would you be more likely to say:
“Trish, don’t talk like that. Everybody makes mistakes. Don’t be so hard on yourself!”
I’m willing to bet that you would say the second option. Because you would never be as hard on your friend as she is on herself.
Now imagine yourself in Trish’s place. How angry would you be at yourself for making this mistake? What would you say to yourself?
How could I be such a fool?
I’m more trouble than I am good.
I’m a bad person.
Why can’t I learn?
These are comments that many fine people say to themselves when they make mistakes. These kind and caring people would never say anything like that to a friend, a child, a spouse, or anyone for that matter. Let’s see how the above comments come across when directed outward at another person, rather at oneself. Imagine saying these sentences to a friend.
How could you be such a fool?
You’re more trouble than you are good.
You’re a bad person.
Why can’t you learn?
Imagine the damage these comments would do to your friend or spouse, and to your relationship with him or her. That is the damage that you are doing to yourself when you say these things to yourself.
There’s a particular group of people who are more prone to treating themselves so harshly: those who were raised with Childhood Emotional Neglect.
If you were raised by a parent who ignored you and/or your mistakes (an aspect of Childhood Emotional Neglect), you didn’t get to internalize a parent’s voice of Compassionate Accountability.
Compassionate Accountability: holding yourself accountable for your misstep while also having compassion for yourself. Keep in mind that accountability is not the same as blame.
Here’s what parent says to her child during a moment of Compassionate Accountability: “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Let’s figure out what you did wrong here and how to prevent this mistake in the future. Let’s learn from this mistake. Then we’ll let go of it and move on.”
From these few short sentences, this fortunate child is learning the vital life lessons that make up Compassionate Accountability. She is learning how to keep her own mistakes in perspective; that they are not the end of the world and that everyone makes them. She is learning that it is possible to learn from her mistakes and that there is no point in dwelling on them. Beyond that, she is internalizing her mother’s (or father’s) voice. Over time, it will become her own. Then it will talk her through all of the mistakes which she will make throughout her life. You can see that there is no blame involved here.
If you were raised by a parent who, for whatever reason, was not able to provide you with this even, reasonable, accountable yet forgiving voice, you may have to develop it for yourself as an adult. Here are some tips to help you:
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and difficult to remember so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.
A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reposted here with the permission of the author.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): When your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs.
This small, seemingly insignificant non-event seems like nothing to most people. Indeed it happens in every household, every family, every childhood that ever happened throughout the world. It’s true.
Every parent fails his child emotionally many times, and usually it’s not a big problem at all. This is where the word “enough” becomes important. When these small failures of the parent happen often enough and/or in situations that are serious or intense enough, this non-event, leaves it’s invisible yet impactful footprint on the child’s life.
Just like the sprinkles of pepper over food change the experience of the food itself, the life of the Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) child becomes flavored by the sprinkle of CEN incidents over her childhood. But the effects are so difficult to see and remember that the CEN child has no idea that her life should feel any different than it does.
“Doesn’t everyone feel this way?” she’ll probably someday wonder. Because she has no idea that the answer is no. They most surely do not.
When parents fail to notice their child’s emotions and respond to them they are, by definition, emotionally neglecting her. Children who grow up with their feelings ignored receive a strong subliminal message from their parents:
Your feelings do not matter.
What does a child do when she receives this message over and over again? What does she do with her emotions, the most deeply personal, biological expression of her true self? Fortunately, her child brain takes care of it for her. It pushes her emotions away. Away from her mom and dad and anyone they might burden or bother. And that, unfortunately, includes herself.
Parents who are unaware of the importance of their child’s emotions always fail their child’s feelings in other important ways. Consider the parents above who let the school teach their child not to skip class. They missed an incredible opportunity to learn more about her and her feelings, to talk her through a bad choice, and to teach her how her feelings and behavior work together.
So now our CEN child is growing up with her feelings pushed away, a lack of awareness and understanding of her own feelings and behavior, and likely also a sense that her parents don’t really know or understand her. This will drive an invisible wedge that will divide her from her parents emotionally forever, causing her to feel inexplicably alone and uncomfortable when she’s around them.
When our girl grows up, she will feel a deep discomfort within herself and a deep feeling that something is missing – (it’s her emotions). Lacking the emotion skills that her parents failed to teach her, her marriage may tend to be distant and lacking in intimacy, and her ability to recognize and respond to others’ emotional needs may be as difficult as recognizing and responding to her own.
Behind the gray cloud that hangs over our CEN girl, a silver lining glows. Since we know what caused her gray cloud, we also know how to get rid of it.
Since her parents ignored her feelings, she can begin to pay attention to what she feels and accept that her feelings not only matter but are essential to her health and well-being.
Since her parents failed to teach her how to name, tolerate, listen to, manage and share her emotions, she can now learn those emotion skills for herself. And she can begin to use them.
Since she’s been blaming herself for her deep feelings of emptiness and discontent, she can now realize that it’s not her fault. She didn’t ask for it or cause it. This will free her up to attack the problem and correct it.
As soon as our girl looks carefully enough she will see that her emotions are a reflection of her deepest self. She will see that her emotions are her friends, and will fill her, direct her and connect her. She will find the answers to the questions that she never knew to ask. And she will realize that the answers were inside her all along.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is invisible, so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about how CEN affects your relationships and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
This post was originally posted on YourTango.com. It is republished here with the permission of the author.
At 34 years old, Garrett is doing well in life. He has a good job and a girlfriend he hopes to marry. So Garrett is confused about why, each time he is alone, a sad feeling sneaks up on him. To prevent this from happening, Garrett stays as busy as he possibly can. He avoids being home alone, driving alone, or being unoccupied. When he is forced to be, he always cranks up his music or has a TV show playing on a screen to distract him.
Jolene is very intelligent and has loads of potential. But she lives alone in a dingy apartment and struggles to earn a living as the office manager of a failing business. Jolene is frustrated by her circumstances, yet she is held back from trying for more. She will do anything to avoid a painful feeling that overcomes her each time she thinks about taking a risk such as starting college, applying for a better job, or going on a date. So she never thinks about it.
Lizzy is a 48-year-old Executive Chef at a thriving, popular restaurant. She runs the restaurant with clean efficiency, and kindness toward all who work for her. People see Lizzy as competent, confident and happy. But inside, she struggles. When something goes wrong (as it often does) in her large, busy kitchen, Lizzy immediately gets a very unpleasant feeling which stays the whole day. Lizzy works long and hard to prevent errors and oversights so that she won’t have to experience that bad feeling.
At first glimpse Garrett, Jolene and Lizzy might seem to have little in common. But they are exactly alike in one very key way: They all have a Core Feeling that has power over them, and it affects how they are living their lives. And none of them is consciously aware that this is happening.
In truth, Core Feelings dwell all around you. They are in the people you know and among your family and friends. Everywhere. But no one talks about Core Feelings. Only therapists use this term, and yet becoming aware of your Core Feelings can change how you live your life.
A Core Feeling is a powerful emotion that’s based in your childhood and which comes and goes throughout your lifespan.
Children are like little computers whose brains are being programmed by their parents. The “software” for their lives is being set up by their parents and their families; the rules, expectations, feelings, and values that surround children are absorbed into their little brains. This all gets wired into them. It becomes a part of who they are. It defines a big part of who they will become as adults. It becomes a part of what they will feel as adults.
The folks most vulnerable to being ruled by their Core Feelings are the ones who grew up in families that did not teach them how emotions work. These are usually families who rarely discuss or address the feelings of their members. These are families that are, by definition, raising the children with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
If your parents fail to respond to your emotions as they raise you, they fail to teach you how to recognize, tolerate, manage, or express your feelings. This leaves you sitting with old feelings and, unfortunately, old, unprocessed emotions do not go away.
A Core Feeling is the one emotion that you experienced the most often, or intensely, growing up. It becomes embedded in the software of your brain. As an adult, this feeling is very real, and can at times be very strong.
Throughout the decades of your life, you are not always feeling it. But it dogs you. It hangs around on the sidelines waiting to break through to you. It tends to come, unbidden when you’re alone, undistracted, or otherwise vulnerable to it. Or it gets touched off by specific current events that activate it.
Not everyone has a Core Feeling, but many people do. Therapists know about Core Feelings and often identify them in their patients. Typically, though, they are viewed as an unpleasant burden. Most folks hope that if they avoid and ignore their core feeling, it will eventually go away.
Unfortunately, however, nothing could be further from the truth:
To understand how a Core Feeling develops, check back for my future blog which will describe exactly how Garrett, Jolene, and Lizzy got their Core Feeling, and how each of them processes it.
But now I’d like to focus on what to do with your Core Feeling if you have one.
Welcoming, accepting and sorting through your Core Feeling is a way to manage it. Essentially, you are stopping it from controlling you. You’re turning the tables and are taking control of it.
By listening to its message, you are building your resilience in three ways. You are increasing your tolerance for pain; you are building your self-knowledge by understanding yourself better, and you are improving your emotional health by working through an unresolved issue.
In other words, when you are tired of running, turn around and face it.
To learn more about your emotions, how they work, and how they may be affecting you, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
This article was first published on psychcentral.com. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
One day, you’re going through your life just fine. Going to work, seeing your friends, and all of the normal everyday things. Then, without warning, your world turns dark.
Suddenly you feel a need to protect yourself from those you trusted yesterday, and you feel a sense of anger, hurt, and rejection in relationships that made you happy before. Suddenly, you feel lost, alone, and bereft.
Why the change? Did a random mood come over you? Did depression set in? Maybe, but probably not. What probably happened was that you encountered a surprise trigger; one you didn’t expect or see.
Someone or something triggered your abandonment issues. And your feelings about yourself, your life, and someone you love have all been cast in a different light.
Such is the power of abandonment issues.
Abandonment issues come from being wounded by an important person in your life unexpectedly leaving you. For example, in childhood a parent suddenly becomes less available (or leaves or passes away); or, in adulthood, your spouse or partner unexpectedly walks away. A significant abandonment at any time in your life can leave you with an abandonment wound.
Your abandonment wound must be acknowledged and addressed, or it will sit under the surface of your life, waiting to be triggered. Years later, someone important to you may say or do something that feels to you like they no longer care or may leave – maybe they are only going on vacation, or cancel a lunch date – but that feeling of being walked away from, or left, gets touched off. And suddenly, your world turns dark.
Not everyone who is abandoned ends up being vulnerable to abandonment triggers. Some people are more vulnerable than others. And what makes you more vulnerable is this: being unaware of the full importance and impact of your abandonment wound.
If you are someone who pays little attention to your own feelings in general, you are likely to minimize the emotional impact of painful events, such as your original abandonment. And being unaware of an event’s true effect on you (the wound) leaves that effect, and all its power, in its place as you move forward in your life.
Your buried, unacknowledged wound sits under the surface of your life, roiling with unaddressed feelings. Like the lava sitting in an inactive volcano, your wound waits to be touched off by any large or small thing that may happen in your current life to trigger it.
As a child, did your parents notice and respond to what you were feeling? Were emotion words used very often? Were you supported when you felt hurt, sad, or angry?
Any answer less than “all of the above” means that you did not receive enough emotional attention and support when you were growing up. You were raised with some amount of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
By not responding to your feelings enough, your parents, probably without realizing it, sent you a powerful, subliminal message each and every day:
Your feelings don’t matter.
As you grew into adulthood, you were set up to overlook your own emotions. You were set up to under-attend to your emotional wound.
Since our feelings, even very old ones, do not go away until they are at least accepted and acknowledged, still dwell there, under the surface, waiting for a trigger….
When you accept your pain and treat it as if it matters, you are doing an amazing thing. You are healing your abandonment wound, making yourself less vulnerable to what triggers your abandonment issues. But you are also doing much more. You are treating the most deeply personal, biological part of who you are (your emotions), as if they matter, and you are treating yourself as if you matter.
You are taking strides in healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect by making yourself emotionally aware. You are taking your power back and moving forward, gradually leaving your abandonment issues behind you.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be invisible, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, and to learn more about how CEN happens and how to heal, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, why it’s so invisible, and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs as they raise you.
You can see from this definition that Childhood Emotional Neglect is not something that your parent does to you. Instead, it is something that your parents fail to do for you.
For example, your parents fail to notice enough when you are upset, hurt, or in need of help. Or they fail to ask you enough what you feel, what you need or what you want. So it’s not an actual event, it is quite the opposite. It is, in fact, an event that fails to happen.
This is why I have so often said that most Childhood Emotional Neglect is typically invisible and unmemorable. It weaves itself into the fabric of the family, and endures quietly in the everyday drumbeat of family life, with emotions in the family falling under the radar day after day after day after day.
No one talks about feelings or names them, no one teaches the children about feelings, and no one validates what anyone else is feeling enough. Which is not to say that none of it ever happens at all; but simply that it does not happen as much as the child needs.
But there was a 2009 experiment by Dr. Edward Tronick, a psychology professor at UMASS Boston, that shows a sudden, active, visible, and memorable version of Childhood Emotional Neglect as it happens.
After you watch the video, I have more to say. But please do not read further until you’ve watched the video.
So go to the link below and watch it. Then come right back here so that I can help you process it. Even if you have seen this video before, it is vital that you watch it now. We need it to be fresh in your mind as we use it to process your CEN.
(If you have problems with the link below, just go to Youtube and type into the search bar “Edward Tronick Still Faced Experiment.”)
Watch the Still Faced Parent Video. Then come right back!
OK, so now you’ve watched the video. And I have some questions for you.
I would like for you to take some time with each question, really thinking about it. Writing your answers is helpful instead of just thinking them.
I ask you to consider how the child responded in the video, what you thought the child was feeling, and how intense her feelings were.
Then think about how it might affect an infant to grow up with a parent who is not necessarily as dramatically ON or OFF as the Still Faced Parent but is nevertheless blind to her child’s feelings.
Unlike the extremes of the still faced parent, the emotionally neglectful parent’s emotional inattention may be quite consistent and predictable. Imagine that the child continually goes to his parent for soothing or support, and can generally count on having his physical needs met. But his emotional needs fall by the wayside.
What does this child learn? She learns that when she needs to be soothed, comforted, or understood, she should keep those needs to herself. She learns that, unlike her physical needs for food, water, clothing, and shelter are important, but that her emotional needs are not. She learns that the deepest, most biological expression of who she is, her emotions, do not matter.
She learns that she does not matter.
Yet the emotionally neglected child will likely have no memory of his parent’s failure to act. Unlike the child of a more extreme or unpredictable parent who suddenly withdraws attention, rejects or abandons the child, or emotionally abuses him, he will likely be unable to see or recall the more subtle, everyday lack of action.
This is what happens in the life of the child who is growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect.
In my five-part Fuel Up For Life Recovery Program to heal Childhood Emotional Neglect, the first step is the foundation for the other four. Step one is becoming aware, and truly accepting, the reality of your Childhood Emotional Neglect: that it happened to you, how it affected you as a child, and how it’s affecting you now.
Now that you have watched the video and thought about how it pertains to you, I invite you to go back and watch it again. This time, pay attention to what you are feeling as you watch it. Watch the Still Faced Parent Video Again.
Then, keep in mind this: the feelings you have while you watch this video are likely the ones you had as a child, probably in a less intense but more chronic way, over and over throughout your childhood. These are probably also the feelings that reside in your body, now walled off but still there, in your adult life too.
Over the next few weeks, when you have a few minutes to yourself, keep picturing yourself in the place of the child in the Still Faced Parent Video. Try picturing yourself as a child, with the parents you had and in the home you grew up in.
What CEN lessons did you learn? What CEN messages did you get? How are you continuing to follow those lessons and messages now? Consider these questions for some time, and think deeply into it. Your answers form the foundation upon which your healing will be built. The deeper your understanding, the more thorough your awareness, the more ready you will be for the next step in your recovery.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable. To find out if you grew up with it, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn how to feel your feelings and express them in your relationships plus parent your children in an emotionally responsive way, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
There is one powerful aspect of all of our lives which refuses to conform to the laws of nature. This part of your life has the ability to make or break your marriage, direct your career choices, drive your friends away, or keep them connected to you through thick and thin. It is rooted in your physiology, defines your humanness, and yet makes you a human unique from every other.
Despite its incredible power, it is nevertheless largely ignored and suppressed by many people. I am talking, of course, about emotion.
Not surprisingly, these two reasons perpetuate each other. The less attention we pay to our feelings, the less we learn how they work and how to use them. That only serves to make them more confusing.
Then the problem is perpetuated in another, even more, enduring way. If your parents were confused by your feelings and ignored them (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), then they inadvertently taught you to do the same. Growing up blind to your own feelings, you will also be blind to your children’s feelings, and you will raise them as you were raised.
On and on it goes, with one generation after another learning little about how their own feelings work and what to do with them. One generation after another, expecting feelings to be logical, make sense, and conform to the laws of nature. Causing more and more people to become frustrated and baffled and, lacking a way to cope, choose to ignore them.
Think Newton’s Laws of Gravity, the Laws of Motion, or the Relativity Principle. These laws of physics allow us to understand, define and predict our complicated world. They’re all based on formulas and can be demonstrated by mathematics. They make sense. They’re logical.
As complex as those principles may be to thoroughly understand, basic knowledge of them at least provides us with guidelines. We know what to expect when we drop an apple or push a chair, and generally why it happens.
But many bright people have sat in my therapy office completely befuddled by their own or their spouse’s feelings. And they are confused for a very good reason. It’s usually because they’re trying to apply the logic of nature to something that does not follow them:
It’s wrong for me to be angry about this.
How can she possibly feel that way?
That’s a dumb way to feel.
You just said you’re happy, and now you’re not. Which is it?
I need to stop feeling this way.
Feelings cannot be true or false, right or wrong, smart or stupid. You cannot choose them. Your body chooses them for you. They just are what they are, period.
Your feelings are your greatest motivators and guides. They are messages from your body, that’s all. They may hurt, but they can’t hurt you. Listen to your feelings, but don’t give them too much power. It’s your responsibility to manage them, share them with care, and try to understand them on their terms.
It’s your responsibility to learn how your emotions work so that you’ll understand how your children’s emotions work. Then, instead of teaching them to ignore their feelings, you can teach them how to feel, name, manage and share their feelings: the exact opposite of Childhood Emotional Neglect.
That’s you, stopping the cycle of confusion and avoidance. That’s you, defying the laws of human nature. And creating a different future for us all.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn more about emotions, how they work, and what happens when you ignore them, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn how to use your feelings in relationships and teach your kids about emotions, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Some parts of this article originally appeared on PsychCentral.com and have been republished here with the permission of the author.