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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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, what can you do? Is there anything that can make you feel better?
There are many feelings that can make us human beings uncomfortable. Anger, sadness, hurt, anxiety, fear, loss or grief, for example. Most of us would not choose to feel any of these. In fact, we will often go to great lengths to escape and avoid feeling them.
But there is one feeling that can be more intolerable than any of those. It’s in its own category because it is not like the others.
I have seen this feeling drive people to do extreme things to escape it, like take risks, harm themselves, put themselves in dangerous situations, or even consider suicide. Many people feel this feeling, but few have words to describe it.
I call this feeling the “unfeeling feeling.” The best way to describe it is a deep sense of emptiness or emotional numbness.
Here are some important facts to know about emotional numbness.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to notice, respond to, and validate your emotions enough as they raise you.
When you grow up with your feelings ignored or unwelcome, your young brain builds a wall to block them off. It’s an effective coping mechanism that helps you avoid being a “problem” in your childhood home.
But this effective coping mechanism backfires when you grow up. As you move into adulthood, you need your emotions. If you were a boat, your emotions would be your engine, anchor, and rudder. They should be not only grounding and rooting you but also motivating, directing and guiding you.
When your emotions are blocked off, your body feels it. Something vital is missing. You sense this deeply, and it does not feel good. Just as your body knows when you are hungry or thirsty, it also knows when your feelings are blocked. You are emotionally numb.
And now for the good news. If you feel emotionally numb, there is plenty of hope for you. I am going to give you answers.
There are two ways to address your emotional numbness. One is short-term coping, and the other is long-term solving. To truly address the problem it makes sense to do both. But in this article, we are going to talk about short-term coping. How do you manage the unfeeling feeling when you get it?
Trying to avoid or escape the unfeeling feeling will not work. It’s natural, when you feel numb, to try to escape it by using external or physical stimulation. That’s why so many people might go shopping, sky-dive, drink, use drugs, gamble or even harm themselves. When you’re feeling this, it seems like something extreme will solve it by making you feel something…anything seems better than nothing at that moment.
But when you take any action like this to escape numbness, you are only setting yourself up for more numbness in the future. Plus the numbness can drive you too far, so you are at risk for overspending, over-drinking, or excessive risk that might harm you.
There are, however, a few far healthier and more effective things you can do. First, it’s very important to take note that you are feeling emotionally numb or empty. Second, you must do the opposite of escape or avoidance. The key to dealing with numbness in the moment is to go straight at it.
In other words, the best way to cope with numbness is to try to reach your blocked-off emotions. To do this, you must focus inward, not outward. You must reach out to your emotions.
When you feel emotionally numb, choose an option above and do it to feel more alive.
But overall, the best way to not only manage but extinguish, emotional numbness from your life is to heal the Childhood Emotional Neglect you’ve been living with all these years.
To find out how to remove Emotional Neglect from your relationships, and banish numbness from your life by replacing it with connections to others, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Why Does Emotional Neglect Make You Feel You Are Running On Empty?
It’s an excellent question.
Not long after my first book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, came out I was interviewed on NPR’s Topical Currents Show. The first thing the interviewer asked me was, “Why the name Running On Empty? Where did that come from?”
To be honest, I was somewhat unprepared for this question, and I stumbled a bit. The only answer I could think of at first was: “Because that’s what Emotional Neglect makes you feel.” It made such intuitive sense to me that I had never even thought about how to explain it.
Since that day I have been asked that question many, many more times. And I have put considerably more thought into how to describe the relationship between Emotional Neglect and emptiness in a way that makes not only intuitive sense but also offers helpful personal understanding to those who grew up emotionally neglected.
First, we’ll define what “Empty” actually feels like. Then we’ll talk about what it means to be running on empty.
Here are some of the ways I have heard it described by many different people.
A hollow feeling in my stomach
A lack of feelings, like I have no emotions
A weird feeling in my throat
A sense of being entirely depleted, and having nothing more to give
Going through life on autopilot
Unfulfilled and lost
As you can probably see from the different expressions above, “empty” can feel different to different people. Yet, for all, it comes down to one common factor: a deep, uncomfortable sense that something important is missing inside of you.
Just as all of our feelings are messages from our bodies, so also is emptiness. Emptiness is a real sense of a real thing that really exists.
When you have Emotional Neglect, you are indeed missing something. Something valuable and dear. Something that’s required for a happy, connected, and fully engaged life.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to notice, validate, and respond to your emotions enough as they raise you.
When you grow up with your parents failing to notice what you are feeling, you are growing up with the most powerful expression of your deepest self (your emotions) ignored. What is a child to do?
Fortunately and unfortunately, children’s brains automatically step in to protect them in these situations. When, as a child, you perceive, on some level, that your emotions are not welcome in your family, your brain automatically walls them off for you. This way, those troublesome feelings won’t burden you and your parents. In many ways, this coping technique is brilliantly adaptive.
But it’s also what makes you feel empty as an adult.
Growing up and moving forward in your life, you are not aware of what your brain has done for you. You are not aware that your feelings are blocked from you. You are not aware that you are living your life without full access to a key life ingredient that everyone else has: your emotions.
You may not be aware of any of this, but your body is. Your body knows that something is missing, and it sends you signals to tell you. It sends you feelings of emptiness in your belly or chest or throat as a way of saying, “Pay attention! Something is wrong here!”
In previous writings, I have compared the experience of running on empty to eating a cake baked without enough sugar, playing the role of “extra” in the movie of your life, and living under cloudy skies.
When you are engaged with your feelings, and you are actively managing them and using them, you gain many important advantages. Your feelings will tell you what to pursue and what to avoid, what and who to care about, and what you want and what you need. And they’ll provide you the motivation and energy for all of those things.
When you are deprived of this natural, rich and connecting resource, you tend to drift, not quite knowing who you are or what to do. You end up giving without receiving enough back and depleting your own resources to your own detriment.
You may even set up a good life for yourself but still wonder why you’re not happier.
Why am I running on empty?
Surprisingly, there is an answer to running on empty. You do not have to live this way for the rest of your life.
The way you become full is to do the opposite of what you learned in childhood. You grew up with your feelings ignored, so now is the time to change that.
It is never too late in your life to alter the way you treat your emotions. Even if you feel numb now, your emotions are there. They are waiting for you on the other side of that wall you built in childhood.
To reach them, you must first begin to see their value. When you invite them into your life, they will come. You can chip down that wall that blocks them off, and learn the skills to manage them.
Then lastly, you can learn how to use them to enrich and deepen and strengthen your relationships.
So why does Emotional Neglect Make you feel you are Running On Empty? As a child, it was because your parents, perhaps unintentionally, discouraged your feelings. But now, it’s because you are continuing to ignore your own feelings.
But you are grown now. You are in charge of your own decisions and your own life. You can make the decision to stop running on empty.
To find out if you are living with the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn how to break down the wall that blocks your feelings and begin to use them, see Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn how to use your emotions to strengthen and enrich your relationships, see Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Why does it matter if you grew up with your feelings ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect)? To you, it may not seem to be all that important. So let’s talk about the 3 most tragic Childhood Emotional Neglect symptoms in adults.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A subtle, often invisible childhood experience that happens when your parents fail to notice or respond to your feelings enough.
In all of my years as a psychologist, I have never seen anything so seemingly innocuous, yet so powerfully damaging as the simple failure of your parents to notice or respond to what you are feeling as they are raising you. It’s a “simple failure” that becomes a part of your everyday life forever.
Growing up with your emotions disregarded automatically communicates a silent, but powerfully effective, message to your deepest self: as a child, you accept, on a very deep level, that in your childhood home, your feelings do not matter. As a child, you must wall off your own feelings so that you will never appear sad, hurt, needy or emotional to your parents.
Going through life ignoring and undervaluing your emotions has some very predictable effects on your life as an adult. I have seen the pattern play out in the lives of countless lovely, otherwise healthy people. Always the same silent struggles, the same unanswered questions, the same deep sense of being different from everyone else.
When you grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, you end up experiencing the worst of two worlds. First, you are disconnected from your feelings, which should be stimulating and guiding you. You are living without enough access to this marvelous, powerful, energizing feedback system: your emotions.
Second, your walled off emotions remain unaddressed and unmanaged. Those blocked emotions just sit there, unattended, roiling and waiting, perhaps emerging at times which seem to make little sense to you. Or maybe seldom emerging at all, but instead causing you to make poor decisions or develop health problems, like headaches or back pains, or worse.
In the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect I identified 10 struggles of the emotionally neglected adult. They are feelings of emptiness, counter-dependence, unrealistic self-appraisal, poor self-compassion, guilt and shame, self-directed anger/self-blame, the Fatal Flaw, difficulty nurturing self and others, poor self-discipline and alexithymia.
If left unaddressed, all these silent struggles work together to cause some powerful effects on your life.
Not knowing what you feel makes it hard to know what you want. That’s because “want” is a feeling, not a thought. I have watched scores of talented, capable people drift in their lives, making decisions that are not quite right for them, or going where the tide takes them. Sometimes they get what they want, but it’s often a matter of chance, not choice.
When you are disconnected from your own feelings, you are blocked from the most deeply personal part of who you are. You are probably good at noticing and attending to other people, but you are not paying attention to yourself.
In fact, you continue to squelch your true self in exactly the way your parents, maybe unintentionally, squelched you as a child. You have hurts and triumphs, loss and accomplishment, pains and love, anger and pleasure, sadness and joy, all inside you. If you would listen, you would learn who you really are.
Of the 3 most tragic Childhood Emotional Neglect symptoms, this is the one that makes me the most sad.
Other people catch glimpses of your light, although you probably have no idea that you have it. You have caught glances of it in the past, when you have surprised yourself by doing something you thought impossible for you to do, faced a fear, felt a warm glow of connection from someone important to you, or been vulnerable in a brave way. If you think deeply about this you will remember.
Your light is special because it is uniquely you. It is a product of your genes, your emotions, and your life experiences. Other people see it, even though you hide it. Putting yourself on the sidelines or trying to stay invisible; avoiding conflict and being afraid to “rock the boat” are all ways to hide your light.
Sadly, as you continue to squelch your light, you are holding yourself back from being your best and true self. What feels “safe” is actually “dark.”
You deserve better. And you can allow yourself to have it.
Just as the cause of all of these struggles seems simple — your parents didn’t respond enough to your emotions as they raised you — so also seems the solution.
You grew up with your feelings ignored, and now you must do the exact opposite. You can start right away simply paying attention to your feelings.
Take the time to notice when you are feeling something, learn how to name what you are feeling, and begin to learn how to use your feelings to inform, direct, motivate and guide you.
When you do the work, you get to reap the rewards. You will gradually start to know yourself, get what you want, and let your light shine.
And all that’s actually happening is that you are becoming more authentically your true self, and that is everything.
To find out if you grew up with Emotional Neglect, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about how Emotional Neglect happens and how to heal it, see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To find out how Childhood Emotional Neglect holds your relationships back and how you can solve it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.