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How Childhood Emotional Neglect Undermines the Highly Sensitive Person’s 3 Greatest Strengths

Lucy — The Highly Sensitive Person

Lucy sits on the edge of her bed, relieved to be behind the closed doors of her bedroom. Slowly, she climbs under the covers, pulling them over her head. In complete darkness, she finally is able to relax.

Lucy — The Highly Sensitive Person With Childhood Emotional Neglect

With her covers over her head, finally, in complete darkness, Lucy wonders why she still does not feel better. Being alone feels better in one way but worse in another. The dark, safe quiet soothes her, but it also unsettles her. Somehow, it seems to intensify that uncomfortable feeling she always has somewhere in her belly: the feeling of being deeply and thoroughly alone in the world. “What is wrong with me?” she wonders.

The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

In the late 1990s, it was discovered that some people are born with much greater sensitivity to sound, sight, texture, and other forms of external stimulation than others. Aron & Aron (1997) named people who are “wired” in this special way the Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP.

If you are an HSP, you tend to be a deep thinker who develops meaningful relationships. You may be more easily rattled or stressed than most people, but it’s only because you feel things deeply. You may seem shy, but you have a rich and complex inner life, and you are probably creative.

HSP children like Lucy are far more affected by events in their family than their parents and siblings might be. Yelling seems louder, anger seems scarier, and transitions loom larger. And because the HSP tends to feel others’ feelings, everyone else’s sadness, pain or anxiety becomes her own.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when you grow up in a family that does not address the feelings of its members. The emotionally neglected child may feel sad, distressed, hurt, angry or anxious. And when no one notices, names, inquires about, or helps him manage those feelings, he receives a message that, though unspoken, rings loudly in his ears: your emotions do not matter.

As an adult, the CEN person, following the belief that her feelings are irrelevant, continually tries not to deal with them. She pushes them down, hides and minimizes them, and may view them as a weakness.

This is why the emotionally neglected child grows up to feel that something vital is missing. He may appear perfectly fine on the outside, but inside, without full access to his emotions, which should be stimulating, motivating, energizing and connecting him, he goes through his life with a sense of being different, flawed, empty and disconnected for which he has no words to explain.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Undermines the Highly Sensitive Person’s 3 Greatest Strengths

  • Strength #1: You feel things deeply and powerfully. If you have ever doubted that this is a strength, I want to assure you that it is. Our feelings are built into us for a reason. When we allow ourselves to feel them, they guide us. They tell us what we need and what we want. They motivate us, and they connect us to others. But when you grow up emotionally neglected, you learn that your emotions are useless and should be ignored and hidden. This takes your powerful force from within, disempowers it, and perhaps even shames you for having it.
  • Strength #2: You are a deep thinker who needs to have meaning and purpose in your life. You are not one to skim across the surface of life. You need to feel that what you are doing matters. This important strength helps you invest more deeply in your own decisions, and helps you to live your life in a more real way. But when you grow up with the CEN message that your feelings don’t matter, you internalize an even more painful message. Since your emotions are the most deeply personal expression of who you are, it’s natural for you as a child to internalize the message as, “I don’t matter,” and to take it forward with you as a deeply held, unconscious “truth.” Going through your adult life, you tend to feel less important than other people, and this undermines your ability to experience yourself, and your life, as meaningful and important.
  • Strength #3: Your intense feelings and your need to have meaning and purpose in your life both make your relationships heartfelt and genuine. But when you grow up with your feelings ignored (CEN), you miss out on the opportunity to learn how to understand and manage your emotions and the emotions of others. This can leave you somewhat at-sea when it comes to handling your most important relationships: for example, your marriage, your children, and your closest friends. You are held back from your tremendous capacity to enjoy wonderful, whole-hearted relationships by your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Many HSPs question their 3 greatest strengths or do not even recognize them until they read about them. Even then, it can be difficult to believe or own them.

Since Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up to question your essential validity as a person, you are uprooted from your inalienable strengths, dragged away from what should be grounding you and driving you and connecting you.

Minus enough emotion skills, you are not sure what to do with the powerful force from within, your feelings. Sadly, instead of harnessing it and using it, Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up for a lifelong battle with your greatest resource.

How To Reclaim Your Greatest Strengths

  1. Once you see that Childhood Emotional Neglect is at work in your life, you are immediately on a new path. Seize the moment by learning everything you can about CEN. How it happens, why it’s so invisible and unmemorable, how it affects your relationships, and the steps to healing.
  2. Start treating your emotions differently. Instead of trying to escape, avoid or minimize your feelings, begin to pay attention to them. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, and think about each emotion and what it’s telling you.
  3. Walk through the steps of CEN healing. They are clearly outlined, and thousands of people have walked the walk before you. Take one step after another, and you will begin to heal and change.

You will see how beginning to treat your most valuable resource with the regard and significance it deserves, you will be moving forward to a much more empowered future.

The future you were born to have.

To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens and how to heal it in yourself and your relationships, see the books Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More.

Emotional Neglect can be subtle so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

How To Know If Your Marriage is Affected By Childhood Emotional Neglect

Please enjoy this free excerpt from the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

How do you know if your marriage is affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?

As you know, Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible, and the huge majority of people who have it are completely unaware. That means that legions of relationships are weighed down by this unseen force. So how do you know if this applies to yours?

If you or your partner has already done some Childhood Emotional Neglect work, then you already know that your relationship is affected. When one partner is out of touch with his or her emotions, meaning he or she lacks emotional awareness and emotion skills, there is no way for the relationship to continue unaffected.

Even if you know that Childhood Emotional Neglect has affected your relationship, it’s important to know the specific effects. On the other hand, if you’re reading this book because you suspect your partner has CEN, then it might help to know some signs to look for.

Here are the markers I use to spot Childhood Emotional Neglect when I meet a couple for the first time for therapy. These are the main ways that it often plays out over time or can be observed in a given moment. As you read through the markers, think about whether each item is true of you, your partner, or both.

The Main Markers of CEN in a Relationship

Conflict Avoidance

Conflict avoidance is essentially an unwillingness to clash or fight and is one of the most classic signs of CEN in a couple. It’s also one of the most damaging.

Believe it or not, fighting is healthy in a relationship. There is no way for two people to closely intertwine their lives for decades without facing some important differences of opinion hundreds, or more likely thousands, of times.

Conflict avoidance has the power to severely undermine a relationship. Not only are you and your partner unable to solve problems by avoiding them; in addition, the anger, frustration and hurt from unsolved issues goes underground and festers and grows, eating away at the warmth and love that you should be enjoying with each other.

Look For:

  • You try not to bring up hurtful topics or issues that you’re angry about.
  • You are so uncomfortable with clashes or arguments that you sweep problems under the rug instead of talking about them.
  • Bringing up something negative feels like unnecessarily opening Pandora’s Box.
  • You or your spouse uses the silent treatment when unhappy or angry.

Feeling Lonely or Empty in the Relationship

Being in a long-term committed relationship is supposed to prevent loneliness. Indeed, when a relationship is going well, there is a comfort that comes from knowing that someone always has your back. You are not facing the world alone. You are not one, you are two.

But it’s entirely possible to feel deeply lonely, even when you are surrounded by people. And when emotional intimacy is not fully developed in your relationship, it can lead to an emptiness and loneliness that is far more painful than you would feel if you were actually alone.

Look For:

  • Even when you’re with your spouse, you sometimes feel a deep sense that you are all alone.
  • You lack the feeling that you and your spouse are, or that you work together as a team.

Conversation Is Mostly about Surface Topics

Every couple must talk about something. Emotionally connected couples discuss their feelings and emotional needs with relative ease. Not so with the emotionally neglected. When you have CEN, you stick with “safe” topics. Current events, logistics or the children, for example. You can plan together. You can talk about the kids. You can talk about what’s happening, but not about what you’re feeling. You seldom discuss anything that has depth or emotion involved. And when you do, it may feel awkward or difficult, and the words may be few.

A willingness to open up, to explore problems and to have an exchange about feelings, motivations, needs, and problems is essential to the health of a relationship.

Look For:

  • Talking about a topic that involves emotion is a huge struggle for one or both of you. Emotional intimacy requires vulnerability on both sides. When you have no choice but to talk about something emotional, it’s a challenge of epic proportions. Trying to put feelings into words seems impossible. You typically, as a couple, end up blowing up and/or abandoning the topic altogether.
  • It’s difficult to find things to talk about. You go out to dinner for your anniversary, and you expect it to feel warm and romantic. But instead, the table between you feels like a barrier that divides you. In general, the conversation can feel stilted or awkward, especially when it “should” be the opposite.
  • One or both of you have a limited vocabulary of emotion words.

Emotional Intimacy Is Lacking

Few couples know the term “emotional intimacy,” what it means and how to cultivate it. Yet emotional intimacy is the glue that holds a relationship together and the spice that keeps it interesting. It’s essential, but it’s also hard to tell whether you have it or not. It’s also the biggest relationship challenge of all for those who grew up with Emotional Neglect. How do you know if your relationship lacks this very important ingredient?

Look For:

  • You are uncomfortable showing emotion in each other’s presence. When you’re feeling sad, angry, anxious or upset, or hurt, lost, vulnerable or overwhelmed, you try to hide it from your partner. Maybe you don’t want to burden her, or perhaps you don’t want to appear weak. Maybe you prefer to keep things positive.
  • You are often surprised by how poorly your partner seems to understand or know you. You’ve been together long enough that you should be able to predict each other’s actions and decisions. Yet your partner frequently misinterprets what you mean, or incorrectly predicts what you will do.
  • One or both of you frequently misreads or misrepresents what he is feeling; for example, he insists, “I’m not angry,” when he is clearly, visibly angry.
  • One partner claims to be perfectly happy, even when the other expresses deep dissatisfaction in the relationship. (When a couple is emotionally connected, one cannot be happy with the relationship unless the other is also happy.)
  • It feels like something important is missing, even though you like and love your partner. Holding back your feelings in any of the ways described above leads to an absence of the very stuff that makes a relationship rich and meaningful. It’s hard to put it into words, but something key is missing, and some part of you knows it.
  • You are living very separate lives, even though you like and love each other. You are two planets revolving around each other, and only sometimes do your orbits meet. Lack of teamwork and lack of connection leaves you each pursuing paths that work for you, regardless of whether those paths bring you together or not.

Lack of Passion

If you’ve been together a long time, I know what you’re thinking: “Come on now, Dr. Webb. What long-married couple has passion?”

My answer is PLENTY. Passion changes over the years, for sure. But in an emotionally connected relationship, it does not go away. It simply mellows and becomes more complex over time. Passion goes from the desperate drive to be constantly together and having sex early in the relationship, to a feeling of comfort knowing that your partner is nearby. You look forward to seeing her after an absence. You have a desire to be physically close, a deep understanding of each other’s sexual needs, and a motivation to please each other sexually.

Passion is also most deeply felt during and after a conflict. Conflicts stir intense feelings, a form of passion. And working through them together fosters a feeling of trust and connection that also is passion.

Many couples don’t know that they can and should have passion, or what to look for to answer whether they have it or not. Here are some signs that can tell you that it’s lacking in your relationship.

Look For:

  • Very little fighting takes place in the relationship
  • Lack of physical affection on a casual or daily basis
  • Inadequate sex and/or desire for sex
  • Lack of need or desire to see each other

I hope you found this chapter from Running On Empty No More helpful. If you see some of these markers in your own marriage, please do not despair. The silver lining of Emotional Neglect in your marriage is that the cause of the problems is also a powerful path to change. See the book for much more in-depth information about what it means to have Emotional Neglect in your marriage, how to talk about it with your spouse, and exactly what to do.

How Being Raised By A Narcissist Can Make You Feel You’ve Been Neglected Your Whole Life

Can Being Raised By A Narcissist Make You Feel You’ve Been Neglected Your Whole Life?

Narcissism could best be described as an excessive focus on one’s own wants, needs, happiness and feelings over the wants, needs, happiness, and feelings of others.

When you are dealing with a true narcissist, you can bet that even when they are kind, they are being kind for a reason that serves them.

Generally, it’s not a good idea to trust a true narcissist. They will have their own interests in the front of minds and may be willing to hurt you in various ways if they deem it necessary in order to meet their own needs.

It is very important to keep in mind, though, that there are many different levels of narcissism. Some narcissists are so self-absorbed that they do not care about anyone else’s health, happiness or safety. Others can have milder versions of varying degrees, where they may act moderately narcissistically in some situations, and much less so in others.

There’s a lot of talk about narcissism these days. At last, the general population is becoming knowledgeable about what narcissism is, what it looks like, and how it forms.

But in some ways, the more you know about narcissism the more questions you may have. It can stir up a lot of doubt about the people in your life, whether one or more is a narcissist, and what you can, or should, do about it.

No one has more reason, or more right, to have such questions than the child of a narcissist. Being raised by a narcissistic parent is a very hard thing to understand and cope with. This is made even more complicated because the child of the narcissistic parent can be fooled into believing or feeling the narcissistic parents’ attention, which is actually mirroring, is love.

Raised By a Narcissist

The child of a narcissist has a life that appears one way but is actually another. This is, in many ways, a process of growing up deceived.

All children begin from a place of trust at birth. Babies are born with their brains already primed to experience love and care from their parents, and so they naturally interpret their parents’ actions through that lens.

All parents must make decisions for their child. But most parents make decisions, as best they can, based on what they feel is best for their child. In stark contrast, the narcissist makes decisions based on what’s best for herself. But children, of course, know nothing about selfishness or narcissism, so they will naturally believe that their parents’ selfish decisions arise from love and care.

Narcissistic parents are unable to see or hear their child or connect with her inner self. Because they experience their child as an extension and reflection of themselves, they are only tuned in to whether the child makes them feel bad or good. When you make your narcissistic parent feel very, very pleased, you will bask in the warm glow of her “love.” But it’s not an honest love of your true inner self; it’s simply a matter of feeling pleased with the positive mirror image you have provided for her.

This is how the child of a narcissist ends up in a school he would not choose, or practicing an instrument he does not enjoy. It is how the child of a narcissist ends up home alone, feeling unloved and poorly cared for. It is how the child of a narcissist ends up feeling like her parents’ prized possession one day, and their deepest shame the next. It is how the child of a narcissist ends up feeling unknown, unseen and unheard, but confused about why that is. And this is how the child of a narcissist grows up to feel alone, empty and lost as an adult. And despite the periodic warm glow of the Narcissists’ false love, it’s how the child ends up feeling neglected all of her life

Unaware, you are constantly a victim of your parents’ whims and needs. But inconsistent, false or absent love takes its toll, leaving you, the child, wondering, “Am I an acceptable person who is deserving of love?”

How Being Raised By A Narcissist Can Make You Feel You’ve Been Neglected Your Whole Life

The short and simple answer to this question is this: You end up feeling neglected because you truly have been. Yes, you are a victim of Emotional Neglect. This can be fairly obvious if your parents were absent, abusive, or, out of selfishness, did not provide for your essential physical, educational or physical needs.

But many lovely victims of their narcissistic parents struggle to understand or accept that they are a victim at all. Because what if your parent was not particularly abusive, appeared loving, and met at least some of your essential needs described above? This can make it very difficult to accept that you were neglected.

But you were. You were emotionally neglected. You grew up with what I call Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs. And no parent fails more on that than the narcissist.

You grew up with the deepest biological expression of your truest self, your feelings/emotions, ignored. Your narcissistic parent, if he saw your feelings at all, experienced them as an inconvenience or a burden. This conveys to you a powerful Life Rule that you will likely follow your entire life: “Your feelings are a useless burden.”

What your parents gave you in childhood will be continued through your whole life. You have grown up with Childhood Emotional Neglect. And you have learned how to neglect yourself. But the good news is this: Now that you’re an adult, the ball is in your court. You can reverse the harm your narcissistic parent did to you by treating yourself in the exact opposite way.

To learn how to reverse the harm of your narcissistic parent, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

To learn how to deal with your narcissistic parent now in a way that allows you to become stronger and healthier, see the book 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.

Above all, never doubt this fact for one more minute: Being raised by a narcissist does make you feel you’ve been neglected your whole life.

Why Legions of People Wonder: Do You Feel Like I Do?

Do you feel like I do?

On The Outside

There’s a deep, draining feeling that many people carry through every single day of their adult lives. But few are consciously aware of this feeling, or ever actually put into words. So please allow me to do it for you, using the words I have heard many people use to describe it.

It’s a feeling of:

Deeply different from everyone else; somehow flawed

Alone and disconnected

On the outside looking in

Unfulfilled

Empty or numb

This is a feeling that saps your energy and your joy. It lurks in the background, making it hard for you to believe that you fit in anywhere, or that you are okay.

This feeling colors your world gray and holds you back from many of the most rewarding parts of life.

When you live with this feeling you are most likely not fully aware that you have it, yet it drags on you and weighs on you day after day. This feeling can become such a constant in your everyday life that you experience it not as a feeling, but as a fact of life.

Woven into the fabric of your existence, you naturally assume it’s a basic part of the human condition.

Doesn’t everyone feel like I do?

Until one day you look around, and you see that other people seem more comfortable in their own skin. Other people seem to feel that they belong. Other people seem to be living lives filled with passion and joy and heartbreak and hurt that you, in some inexplicable way, for some unfathomable reason, seem unable to fully experience.

“What do all these people have that I lack?” you wonder. Why do they seem to be so connected, so comfortable, so driven, so fulfilled?

Why do I seldom feel like I belong? Why am I living on the outside? What makes me different from everyone else?

Believe it or not, when you ask these questions, it’s actually a good sign. It means that you have finally moved beyond your lifelong assumption that everyone feels this way.  You have progressed forward and reached a realization.

Everyone does not feel like I do. I am missing out on something important. Something that truly matters.

Now some good news. Keep reading and you will find that you can overcome this feeling. You don’t have to live with it anymore. But first, let’s talk more about what caused it in the first place, and also what it means.

What Causes This Feeling?  Childhood Emotional Neglect

Childhood Emotional Neglect is, unfortunately, a common childhood experience. It takes place in many unsuspecting homes and is perpetrated by many unaware adults. It’s often invisible, usually unmemorable, but yet it leaves an enduring mark upon the child.

Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to notice your feelings enough and respond to them. So it’s not exactly something that happens to you as a child; it’s more like something that fails to happen for you as a child.

Your emotions and feelings and emotional needs go unnoticed, unvalidated, and essentially ignored.

This was the experience that caused the feeling that you live with now.

What Does This Feeling Mean?

When you grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, you learn that your emotions are a useless burden, and you continue to treat your own feelings in exactly that way as you move forward in your life.

Going forward, whenever you have a feeling, you either question it or doubt it or minimize or reject it. You assume that your feeling is wrong, or selfish or excessive or useless so you override it or ignore it or both.

Every time you do this to one of your emotions, you are doing it to yourself. You are pushing the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are down, and away. In doing so, you are minimizing and marginalizing yourself. You are making yourself an incomplete version of yourself. You are squelching yourself.

What does this feeling mean? It means that you are continuing to neglect yourself.

How Can You Get What Other People Have?

In a way, the answer to this question is remarkably logical. To get what other people have, you must reverse the process of the Childhood Emotional Neglect you grew up with. You can start by absorbing and embracing the Emotion Facts below.

5 Emotion Facts

  • Your emotions are wired into your biology. Since you cannot choose them, you cannot judge them as wrong, excessive or bad. They are what they are and you must accept them.
  • Every feeling is a message from your body. It’s important to pay attention and listen to their message.
  • Emotions are useful sources of energy, connection, motivation, passion, and purpose. The more you embrace your feelings, the more you will have all those things.
  • Even though every feeling is important, that does not mean every feeling should be indulged. There are ways to manage your feelings, and many feelings can, and should, be managed.
  • Never judge yourself for having a feeling. It is what you do with your feelings that matter.

Once you understand and accept the 5 Emotion Facts above, you can make a vow to yourself that you will stop the pattern set up for you in childhood. And then you can fulfill that vow by treating yourself in a different way.

So when that inner voice says, “It does not matter what you feel,” you do not accept it; you talk back.

“It does matter what I feel,” you insist. “I will accept and pay attention to this feeling. I will listen to its message, I will take responsibility for it. I will manage it or, if needed, share it. I will own it as the deepest expression of myself.

No more, “Do you feel like I do?” No more “on the outside.”

My solemn vow to myself: I will not hide anymore.

To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect keeps you feeling disconnected from the most important people in your life, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

Why Emotional Neglect and Depression Are Often Experienced Together

Why are Emotional Neglect and depression often experienced together?

Let’s start with a brief refresher on Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), how it happens, and how it plays out through the neglected child’s adult life.

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

This usually unmemorable childhood experience is deceptively powerful. It gains its impact from the fact that it happens daily, subliminally, and under the radar. The child receives the message:

Your emotions are not important, not relevant, or not welcome here in your childhood home.

Children who receive this message often as their brains are developing naturally adapt to their situation. They automatically wall off their feelings so that they will not be a burden to their parents in their childhood home.

This naturally adaptive step is truly an amazing solution. But, sadly, it backfires in many ways as the child grows into adulthood. One of those ways is by making you more vulnerable to depression.

5 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Makes You More Vulnerable to Adult Depression

You’ve walled off your pain and it now weighs you down.

When you were a child, you learned to push all of your feelings away. This became your primary way of dealing with difficult emotions. When your feelings were hurt, instead of using this as an important message from your body, you tended to push it away. Throughout the decades of your life, this is how you have managed most of your sadness, loss, anger and other pain. But, unfortunately, blocked off feelings never really go away. They collect, all swirled together, on the other side of your wall. Since you’re unaware of them you can’t process them. They may arise at times when you least expect them, and they also weigh you down, sapping your energy and making your world feel heavy or gray. They make you more vulnerable to depression.

Your joy is blocked off, along with all your other emotions.

Blocking off feelings is usually not possible to do in a discriminating way. Unfortunately, you cannot choose to wall off some emotions and not others. So when you block of negative emotions you also lose your positive ones. You may find it difficult to experience happiness, enjoyment, and reward as intensely as other people can. This makes you more vulnerable to becoming depressed.

You are out of touch with what you want, need or enjoy.

Why don’t you know these things well enough? Because the way to know what you want is by feelings like desire, craving or longing; the way to know what you need is by feeling deprived or needy; and the way to know what you enjoy is by feeling rewarded, pleased, happy or pleased. When you are cut off from your own feelings, you are not able to know these things as well as you should. This makes it difficult to seek what you should be seeking, or make yourself happy. This makes you more likely to become depressed.

Even when you know what you would enjoy, it’s hard for you to prioritize your own needs.

Since few folks are 100% removed from all of their feelings, there are probably times when you do know what you want, need or will enjoy. But when you grew up with Emotional Neglect, you learned to keep your wants and needs to yourself. So even if you do know what you would like, something deep inside stops you from requesting it. Other people’s wants and needs always seem more important or more legitimate, and you allow your own to fall between the cracks. Unlikely to prioritize your own wishes, you are unwittingly making yourself more likely to become depressed.

You may have made some life decisions that aren’t right for you.

A funny thing happens when you are not connected with your feelings: you don’t get to make major life decisions based on your feelings. And, after all, our feelings are our most effective guides to our true selves. This is why so many people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect end up in jobs, marriages, and locations that are not quite right for them. Going through the motions, living the life that chose you instead of the life you chose to live, you may find yourself feeling off-kilter, unfulfilled, and somewhat at-sea in your adult life. This lowers your defenses to depression.

What You Can Do If You Are Prone To Depression

Not all people who grew up with Emotional Neglect end up with depression, but many do. The reality is that the feelings that we allow ourselves to feel, even if they hurt, inform us. They tell us what to do to fix things, and how to make ourselves happy. But feelings that are walled off are able to do none of those things for us. Instead, they hang over our lives like a dark cloud.

But that dark cloud need not be a part of your life forever. You can access those old feelings and process them now, and they will lose their power over you.

You can learn a new way to allow yourself to feel and use your current feelings too. And both of these new skills will not only make you less depressed, but they will also make you less likely to become depressed in the future.

Start paying attention to your feelings as your friends and helpers.

Start expressing your wants, needs, and wishes.

Stop neglecting yourself.

You can learn much more about how to heal your Childhood Emotional Neglect throughout this site. To go even deeper into the healing process, see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect affects your relationships, and how to heal those effects, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children.

10 Strategies For Coping With Childhood Emotional Neglect

How do you cope with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?

Growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up to struggle with a series of challenges as an adult.

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

When you grow up this way you automatically block your feelings off as a child to cope with the implicit messages in your childhood home.

No Feelings Allowed.

With your emotions walled off, you go through your adolescence and adulthood lacking full access to a potent, vital ingredient from within: your emotions, which should be motivating, directing, connecting, stimulating, and empowering you.

When you are living this way, it’s hard to see the problem, or even that there is a problem. Most children in emotionally neglectful homes have no idea that anyone should be noticing their feelings, validating them, or responding to them. Then, when they grow into adults, they continue to have no idea.

Yet as an adult who grew up with Emotional Neglect, you surely may sense that something is not right with you, but you do not know what it is.

Once you understand that you missed out on a key element of childhood, you are finally freed up to fix the problem. You can give yourself what you never got — emotional attention and validation — and learn how to connect with your feelings and how to use them.

Childhood Emotional Neglect may leave you feeling somewhat empty and disconnected, lost or alone. But good news! There are powerful things you can do to cope.

10 Strategies For Coping With Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

  1. Deeply acknowledge the way Emotional Neglect happened in your family and how it’s affected you. This is not as easy as it might sound. It’s important to try to understand, for example, was it one parent or both? Did your parents fail to respond to your emotions because they were struggling themselves? Because they were selfishly focused on their own needs? Or because they simply did not know that emotions matter? Was your Emotional Neglect active or passive, mean-spirited or benign? How did it affect you as a child, and how is it affecting you now? Understanding your CEN on a deep level will free you from self-blame and shame, and validate your experience.
  2. Accept that your emotions are blocked off, but they are still there, waiting for you. Your child’s brain protected you by walling off your emotions, but it could not make them go away completely. Today you can still access them. By accepting that they exist, you’ll be able to learn how to listen to them, use them and manage them.
  3. Pay attention to your feelings. This is probably the single most powerful thing you can do to cope with your CEN. It’s a way to do the opposite of what your parents taught you, start to honor your feelings, and reach across the wall to the richness, color, and connection that lies on the other side: your emotions. Paying attention to your feelings will allow you to begin to use them as they are meant to be used.
  4. Practice sitting with negative feelings to increase your tolerance. Learning how to sit with strong or painful feelings is one of the main early building blocks to learning all of the emotion skills. Sitting with negative feelings will put you in control of yourself.
  5. Keep an ongoing list of your Likes and Dislikes. Pay attention and take special note as you go through your day. Write down everything you can find that you either do or do not like. It can be small, medium or large, but nothing is too small to make the list. Knowing these things about yourself will set you up to be able to make yourself happier.
  6. Develop and practice compassion for yourself. As a person with CEN, you are probably far kinder to others than you are to yourself. Try to accept that as a human being, you have the same rights that you allow everyone else. You will make mistakes, you will make poor decisions, and you will fail. And you should not be any harsher on yourself for those things than you would be on a friend who you love. Practicing self-compassion will build your self-love.
  7. Become aware of the feeling of anger when it happens in your body. Of all the emotions, anger is the one that, when blocked off instead of expressed and managed, will consume you. Becoming aware of your anger will immediately start to soothe and empower you.
  8. Read a book on assertiveness. Learning how to be assertive is the counterpart to becoming aware of your anger. Being assertive is a way to get other people to hear what you feel, hear and need. Learning assertiveness will make other people value you more.
  9. Share your CEN story with someone close to you. There is something about sharing your CEN story that allows you to own it and take it seriously. Telling someone about your CEN will help you feel less burdened and alone.
  10. Look for the effects of CEN on your primary relationships. Has your Childhood Emotional Neglect played out in your marriage? Affected the way you’ve parented your children? Made you feel uncomfortable with your parents? Looking for the effects of CEN in your relationships will open the door to the people you love.

These 10 strategies for coping with Childhood Emotional Neglect actually do more than just help you exist and manage your life with your CEN. They have the added advantage of helping to heal your CEN.

Practice these 10 strategies as best you can and you will not only survive, you will thrive. And in the most important way of all. Emotionally. 

To learn much more about how CEN holds you back from learning the emotion skills, how that affects your relationships, and how to heal Emotional Neglect in relationships, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your children.

To learn much more about how CEN happens, how it plays out through adulthood, and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

find out if you grew up with CEN, Take The CEN Test. It’s free.

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

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

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

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

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

I am not like other people.

I’m missing something.

I feel empty.

I’m not alone, but I feel alone.

I am numb.

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

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

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

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

How Do I Take The First Step?

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

The Amazing Shift That Happens When You Finally Understand

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

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

This is the vital first step to feeling again.

The Choice You Have To Make Now

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

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

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

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

It All Comes Down To Your  Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sad Connection Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Narcissism

Believe it or not, there is a sad connection between Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) and narcissism. If you know very much about either, you probably find that difficult to believe.

After all, people who grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect have a strong tendency to view themselves and their own needs as unimportant and secondary to others whereas, in contrast, those with narcissism are known for putting themselves and their own needs first.

How, then, could these two opposite personality styles be related? Actually, in quite a few very important ways.

But before we talk about how these two are linked, let’s first define them both.

Childhood Emotional Neglect

Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions and emotional needs as they raise you. This sends you, a child, a subtle message, “Your feelings don’t matter.” Children who receive this message automatically push their feelings down, basically walling them off, so that they will not be troubled by them.

This may allow you to cope in your childhood home, but in adulthood, having your feelings blocked causes all kinds of problems in your life. Having your feelings walled off is basically a recipe for feeling disconnected and unfulfilled in your adult life. It makes emotions puzzling, keeps your relationships lacking, and makes you feel less important, less valuable, and less valid than other people.

Narcissistic Personality

Narcissism exists on a continuum, all the way from having some narcissistic traits all the way to the other end, the more extreme narcissistic personality disorder which is an official clinical diagnosis.

A person with narcissistic traits is likely seen as self-centered and somewhat grandiose. For example, they may tout their own accomplishments often, be willing to step on others to get to the top, and thrive in the limelight.

A person with narcissistic personality disorder takes all of those a few steps further. But some other likely qualities of the personality disorder include a desperate need to be admired, inability to feel empathy for others, arrogance, plus a willingness to exploit others to achieve their own needs for power and control.

5 Sad Connections Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Narcissism

  1. One of the causes of CEN is being raised by a narcissistic parent. Narcissistic parents are a major source of Childhood Emotional Neglect. Narcissistic parents are unable to see the true nature of their children or respond to them emotionally. They are taken up trying to get their own needs met, and are not capable of giving emotionally to anyone, and that includes their child. So children of narcissistic parents often have their emotional needs ignored or discouraged, the very root cause of CEN.
  2. Most narcissists grew up with an extreme variety of Emotional Neglect. The extreme type of CEN that contributes to narcissism happens when your parents not only ignore your emotions, they actively squelch your feelings and your true self.  Narcissism may be partly determined by genetics, but to become a narcissist, you generally must grow up with a complex mix of being emotionally squelched (CEN) in some ways, and overly indulged or excessively praised in some kind of superficial or inaccurate way. CEN is at the core of every narcissist.
  3. People with pure Childhood Emotional Neglect are drawn to narcissists and vice-versa. When you have CEN, you tend to take up little space. Deep down you feel unimportant and invalid, so you don’t ask for much, and you don’t allow yourself to want or need much. On the other hand, those with narcissism are the opposite. Narcissists put their own feelings and needs first, and feel most comfortable when taking up lots of space. This predisposes people with CEN and narcissists to feel comfortable with each other. They often fall in love with each other, but it seldom works out well.
  4. Many Emotionally Neglected people have a narcissistic sibling. This is because when the parents are emotionally neglectful, the various levels of sensitivity of the children combine with the differing ways the emotional neglect comes across to each child. One may grow up with the struggles of pure CEN and another sibling may end up with narcissism.
  5. The hidden inner cores of narcissistic people and those with Childhood Emotional Neglect are very much the same. Since CEN is a contributing part of the development of narcissism, this is not surprising. The shared inner core of these two very different styles is a shared inner feeling of being empty, alone, and insignificant. This is how adults end up feeling when they grow up with the most deeply personal, biological expression of who they are (their feelings) squelched or ignored.

Yes, There is a Sad Connection Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Narcissism

If you were to meet a CEN person and a narcissistic person on the same day, you would see how truly opposite they are. Yet these two disorders, though so very different, in a strange and paradoxical way, cause and perpetuate each other.

Both narcissism and Childhood Emotional Neglect could be wiped off the planet if all of the parents in the world did one crucial thing: noticed, validated, and responded to their children’s emotional needs.

Then the sad connection between CEN and Narcissism would not matter at all. Because every child would know, deep down, and without a doubt, that he matters.

To learn much more about the relationship between CEN and narcissism plus how to raise your children with awareness and validation of their emotional needs, see the books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More.

When You Feel Emotionally Numb, Do This To Feel More Alive

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.

5 Important Facts About Emotional Numbness

  1. You have the unfeeling feeling for a reason, and you are not alone. Other people feel this way too. But everyone does not feel this way.
  2. The emotional numbness you feel is a message from your body. Your body is trying to tell you something, and it is vital that you listen.
  3. This message from your body is one of the most valuable and important ones you will ever receive.
  4. The message is this: Your feelings are blocked off.
  5. The likely cause of your blocked-off feelings, and hence your emotional numbness, is Childhood Emotional Neglect.

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.

When You Feel Emotionally Numb, Do This To Feel More Alive

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.

4 Healthy Ways To Cope With Emotional Numbness

  1. Remember and reimagine a time when you felt a strong emotion: To do this, close your eyes. Think about a time in your life when you felt strong hurt, happiness, sadness, pain, loss or joy. Put yourself back there and try to relive it in your mind. As soon as you contact a feeling, allow yourself to feel it. Think about what you are feeling, and about why this was such an intense experience for you. Once you do this, you will find that your numbness has left you.
  2. Do The Identifying & Naming Exercise: I specially created this exercise to help you get in touch with your blocked-off feelings. To do it close your eyes, clear your mind, and focus your attention. Then ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Try as hard as you can to identify a feeling in your body. Any feeling at all. If you feel nothing, keep trying. If you become frustrated, congratulations. You are having a feeling. As soon as you have a feeling, your numbness will be replaced. (To learn more about how to do the Identifying & Naming Exercise, including additional helpful steps, see the book Running On Empty.
  3. Meditate: This is a way to not only focus inward but also to take control of your own mind. Meditation is the surest way to go straight at your numbness instead of escaping it. It may seem impossible, but just trying to do it is a way of proactively challenging your numbness.
  4. Reach out to someone you like or love: The feeling of numbness thrives on disconnection. You cannot feel numb when you are feeling connected to another person. Connecting, talking or laughing with someone is an excellent way to extinguish your emotional numbness.

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?

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.

What Does “Empty” Feel Like?

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

Numbness

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.

Why Does Emotional Neglect Make You Feel You Are Running On Empty?

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!”

Running On Empty

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?

The Good News

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.

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