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How to Know When You Are Having a Feeling

How do you know when you are having a feeling?

As the pioneer of the concept and full theory of CEN — or Childhood Emotional Neglect — I receive hundreds of questions every week about CEN, what it means, how it works, its effects, and how to heal.

Many readers of my books and blogs have very personal, thoughtful observations and questions to share. In fact, I have learned quite a lot from receiving, reading, and answering them.

Of all those many questions there is one that I receive over and over and over again. And then again. And the next day, there it is again. I get it so often because it’s a key piece of the cause of CEN and a key building block for CEN healing too. In fact, it would be hard to overstate its importance.

How do you know when you are having a feeling?

My answer to this question is not quite as simple as most would like. It’s complicated by the fact that every human being is different.

How Do You Know When You Are Having A Feeling? 3 Signs

Note: Any one of these signs is an alert that you are having a feeling. You do not need to have all three.

  1. Physical sensation: Emotions are literally physical sensations that reside in your body. If you know that you are someone who is unaware of your feelings it may help to pay more attention to your body, paying special attention to the sensations that may come and go. Emotions are often felt in the belly or chest or throat but they can also be in your arms, legs, hands, head, or any other part of your body. Watch for a physical sensation and when one happens, stop and take note.
  2. Physical pain or symptoms: Emotions that are not acknowledged or attended do not go away. They hang around under the surface of your life and can cause physical symptoms like headaches, backaches, fatigue, restlessness, jaw clenching, chest tightness or an almost endless list of other physical symptoms. In fact, research shows that, for example, repressed anger has been linked to heart attacks. When you notice a physical symptom, stop and ask yourself if you might be repressing an emotion.
  3. Surprised or confused by your own behavior: Our actions are driven by our feelings. When you are aware of what you’re feeling, you have the opportunity to use your brain to consider the feeling you are having and plan your actions. This puts your behavior under your control. If you are surprised or confused by something you do, consider the possibility that you are having a feeling of which you are unaware. Pause to think about this.

What To Do If You Notice One of the 3 Signs of Having a Feeling

The 3 signs above will, hopefully, alert you to the possibility that you may be feeling something and that is an excellent start! But the signs will not tell you what you are feeling or what it means. To help you with that, I created an exercise to guide you. I first shared it in my book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s called The Identifying & Naming Exercise.

The Identifying and Naming Exercise

Step 1: Close your eyes. Picture a blank screen that takes over your mind, banishing all thoughts. Focus all of your attention on the screen, turning your attention inward.

Step 2: Ask yourself the question: “What am I feeling right now?”

Step 3: Focus on your internal experience. Be aware of any thoughts that might pop into your head, and erase them quickly. Keep your focus on: “What am I feeling right now?”

Step 4: Try to identify feeling words to express it. You may need more than one word.

Step 5: If you’re having difficulty identifying any feelings, skim through the Feeling Word List in the Resources at the end of the Running On Empty book, and see if one or more words jump out at you.

Step 6: Once a word jumps out at you, say it out loud. “I feel ______.” Does it sound right when you say it? Does it feel right when you say it? Does it feel partially right but you need more words to describe it?

Step 7: When a feeling word seems like it may be accurate, you are ready to move on to the next step, which is trying to figure out why you are feeling that.

We will save Step 7 for another day because right now we’re trying to help you know when you’re feeling something. Learning the other feeling skills is easier once you have become more skilled at this first one.

The Takeaway

Your emotions are literally physical sensations that reside in your body. When you fail to notice and acknowledge a feeling, it can become a physical problem for you or it can make you act in ways that may be undesirable or regrettable or simply confusing.

Learning how to identify when you are having a feeling is a vital skill for living a happy and healthy life. When you grow up in an emotionally neglectful family you sadly do not have the opportunity to learn it. In fact, you learn the opposite: how to ignore, deny, belittle, and block off your feelings.

Now, as the adult you are, you have the power to make some new choices for yourself. You can choose to focus, choose to learn and choose to feel.

You can choose to start valuing your feelings and using them to know and understand yourself better. You can start down the path of healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s never too early or too late to choose yourself.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Works and Why It Transfers Through Generations

And how it affects your day-to-day life now.

Emotional Neglect: A parent’s failure to respond sufficiently to your emotional needs. In other words, Emotional Neglect is something that failed to happen in your childhood.

To demonstrate why emotional neglect as a child is so invisible, let’s do an experiment.

First, I’d like you to think of an event that happened yesterday. It can be anything, big or small, just something that happened.

Second, I’d like you to think of something that didn’t happen yesterday.

My guess is that the second request was quite a bit more difficult than the first. That’s because our brains record events as memories. Things that fail to happen go unnoticed, unseen, and unremembered.

We have long been aware of the fact that what happens to us in childhood has a tremendous effect on who we become as adults. But the opposite is also true. What doesn’t happen for us in childhood has an equal or greater effect.

Remember that Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. Because it’s a parent’s failure to act, rather than a parent’s act; just like we saw in our little experiment, it goes unseen, unnoticed, and unremembered.

Emotional Neglect comes in an infinite variety of forms. It can be incredibly subtle, such that 50 people could be watching it not happen, and be completely unaware.

An Example of Emotional Neglect in Action:

Joey’s friends gang up on him on the soccer field one day. So Joey comes home from school feeling sad. Joey’s parents don’t notice his sadness. Neither says, “Joey are you OK?” or “Did anything happen at school today?” No one seems to notice that anything is wrong.

This probably seems like nothing. Indeed, it happens in every home, and it generally is nothing.

So how could an incident like this damage a child and leave scars that remain into his adulthood? The answer lies in the natural, developmental needs of children.

In order for a child to grow up with a complete and solid sense of himself, who he is, and what he’s capable of, he (or she) must receive enough awareness, understanding, and acceptance of his emotions from his parents. If there is a shortage from the parents in any one of these areas, the child will grow up feeling incomplete and lacking some of the skills and self-knowledge and self-care that are necessary to fully thrive in this world.

And now back to our boy Joey, who came home from school feeling sad. If this happens on occasion, it’s no problem. If it happens with enough frequency and depth — that what Joey feels is not noticed, responded to or validated by his parents — Joey will grow up with a hole in his emotional development. He may deeply believe that his feelings are irrelevant, unimportant, or even shameful or unacceptable.

As a psychologist, I have seen time and time again that these subtle parental failures in childhood leave the adult with a feeling of being incomplete, empty, unfulfilled, or even questioning his own purpose and value.

This becomes even more difficult when the emotionally neglected adult looks back to his childhood for an explanation for why he feels this way. I have heard many emotionally neglected people say, “I had a great childhood. I wasn’t mistreated or abused. My parents loved me and provided me with a nice home, clothing, and food. If I’m not happy, it’s my own fault. I have no excuse.”

These people can’t remember what didn’t happen in their childhoods. So as adults, they blame themselves for whatever is wrong in their lives. They have no memory of what went wrong for them, so they have no way of seeing it or overcoming it, to make their lives happier.

In addition to self-blame, another unfortunate aspect of emotional neglect as a child is that it’s self-propagating. Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot when it comes to emotions, their own as well as those of others.

When emotionally neglected children become parents themselves, they’re unaware of the emotions of their own children, and they raise their children to have the same blind spot. And so on and so on and so on, through generation after generation.

My goal is to make people aware of this subtle but powerful factor. To give everyone the ability to look back and see the invisible; have the words to talk about it, and an opportunity to correct it and stop blaming themselves.

I want to make the term Emotional Neglect a household term so that parents will know how important it is to respond sufficiently to their children’s emotional needs and understand how to do it.

I want to stop this insidious force from sapping peoples’ happiness and connection to others throughout their lives and to stop the transfer of Emotional Neglect from one generation to another to another. I want to give answers to those many people who are living their lives feeling disconnected and unfulfilled, and wondering what is wrong with them.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how to recover from it, see the books, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. Since CEN is so subtle and invisible, it can be hard to know if you have it. Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test.

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

The 3 Unique Challenges of the Parentified Child in Adulthood

Marc

Marc’s parents divorced when Marc was seven.  From that point on, he was raised by his mother, with occasional “check-ins” by his father. Marc’s mother owned and managed a deli, and had to work long hours to support Marc and his two younger siblings. Marc hurried home from school to pick up his siblings at the bus stop, made dinner for them, and often was responsible for getting them to bed.

Alise

When Alise was nine, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As Alise grew into middle school and high school, her mother was at home, getting sicker and sicker. The more disabled her mother got, the more Alise picked up the slack at home. She cared for her mother, did the grocery shopping, and even fought with insurance companies over her mother’s medical needs.

There are many ways in which the child can become what therapists call, “parentified.” Addicted, depressed, financially pressured, physically ill, or bereaved parents are some examples.

Believe it or not, there is a silver lining to being parentified. Marc, for example, grew up to be a very responsible man. He worked his own way through college because he was determined to have a career. He didn’t want to struggle financially, as his mother did. Marc is now a giving, caring husband and father. He knows how to parent because he did it as a child.

Like Marc, Alise is also a very responsible adult. She’s a research scientist in the medical field. Alise is driven to find cures for incurable diseases, and she works long hours by choice to meet her passionate goal. She is a loving mother and wife. Alise is excellent at giving and care-taking, for her family and for the world. Because her childhood prepared her to be.

Yes, there are far worse things that one’s childhood can prepare her to be. In many ways, Marc and Alise are in an excellent position to live happy, productive lives.

However, there is a serious downside to being parentified.

The 3 Unique Challenges of the Parentified Child

  1. Excessive self-sacrifice: If you grew up caring for others, you may not have learned how to care properly for yourself. You may not have learned something that everyone else knows: that your first and primary responsibility in your life is your own health and happiness. Unless you take care of yourself first, you will be depleted by your life.
  2. Regret: When the child becomes the parent, she grows up far too soon. This leaves you with a feeling of sadness and loss when you look back on your childhood. “I never got to be a kid,” you lament. You hear stories of other peoples’ childhoods, and you feel envious and sad. You are sentenced to a lifetime of regret.
  3. Co-Dependence: When you are programmed as a caretaker, it becomes difficult to step out of the caretaker role. This, in some ways, is a set-up. You are more likely to form friendships with or marry people who need care, and stay with them far too long. At your own expense.

Marc

Marc learned many lessons from his childhood. He works long hours and supports his family well. Yet as those around Marc thrive and grow, Marc does not. His wife, and the mother of his children, is an alcoholic. So while she repeatedly drinks, passes out, and drops the ball in caring for the children, Marc quietly picks up the slack. He tries and tries to help her get sober. He lives under a black cloud, and cannot see that he has simply re-created his childhood.

Alise

Alise is busy saving the world, and this is her blessing and her curse. She enjoys success and the love of her family, yet she grows more and more tired every day. Alise learned everything she needs to thrive in her childhood, except for one key thing. She did not learn that her needs are important. In fact, she didn’t learn that she even has needs. Alise lives under the same cloud as Marc. Each day she wonders what joy is. Each day she longs for what’s missing in her life.

3 Steps for Marc, Alise, and You

  1. Put yourself first. Accept that you have needs, and pay attention to what they are. When you need healthy food, fun, rest, fresh air or alone time, take it.
  2. Replace the joy you missed as a child by finding it now. You didn’t get to run free through the neighborhood with your friends, or be doted on by two caring parents? Maybe you didn’t learn the feeling of emotional freedom? Learn it now. Discover what you love, and pursue it. Seek joy, and know that you’ve earned yours.
  3. Stop over-caring for those around you. Life is short, and you are living yours for others. This is your time to turn your powerful caring skills toward yourself.

If you were in the role of the parent as a child, your life is about to change. You are about to re-parent yourself in a way that you missed as a child. You’re going to start living as you were always meant to live and experiencing the joy, happiness, and care that you’ve always deserved.

To learn more about the parentified child as well as other forms of Childhood Emotional Neglect and how to heal from them, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free on this website. 

A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral as When the Child Becomes the Parent. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.

The Importance of Self-Acceptance & 4 Ways to Achieve It

Here are ten everyday habits that have been proven, in study after study, to make people happier. As you read the list, think about how often you practice each one:

  • Giving: doing things for others
  • Relating: connecting with people
  • Exercising: taking care of your body
  • Appreciating: noticing the world around
  • Trying out: continuing to learn new things
  • Direction: having goals to look forward to
  • Resilience: finding ways to bounce back
  • Emotion: taking a positive approach
  • Self-acceptance: being comfortable with who you are
  • Meaning: feeling part of something bigger

A charity called Action for Happiness, in collaboration with another organization, Do Something Different, surveyed 5,000 people to determine how many people practice each of these habits on a regular basis.

Interestingly, in the sample of people surveyed, they found that one of the habits that makes the most powerful contribution to happiness was practiced the least:

Self-Acceptance

Self-acceptance can be described as simply liking yourself. It requires forgiving yourself for your own mistakes and having compassion for yourself. Knowing who you are, your own strengths and weakness, and feeling deeply that, after it’s all added up, you are good enough.

In my 20 years of practicing psychology, two things have always been very clear to me. First, self-acceptance, or self-love, is not only a primary building block for happiness, but it’s also a requirement. And second, the huge majority of people who don’t have self-acceptance lack it for exactly one reason: they don’t know themselves.

And you can’t like and fully accept someone who you do not know.

In my experience, I’ve seen that the majority of people actually would like themselves, if they could actually see the full picture of who they are. But if your self-view is distorted, shallow or missing big pieces, then you are missing not only self-knowledge but also the opportunity for self-acceptance, the foundation for happiness.

Self-knowledge starts in childhood. Lucky children who are raised by parents who truly see them, notice their personalities, their preferences, their emotions, their needs, strengths, and weaknesses, learn who they are through their parents’ reactions to them. When this lucky child looks into his parents’ eyes, he sees his true self reflected there. Because his parent sees him and understands him realistically, he gets a realistic view of himself, and a true understanding of who he is.

Unfortunately, though, the world is full of parents who are too busy, too depressed, too addicted, too self-absorbed, too overwhelmed or too achievement-focused to actually see their children in this very real, truly meaningful way. Many of these parents are none of the above, but they simply are unaware of the emotions of themselves and their children, and end up emotionally neglecting them for that reason. Whatever the cause, these are families of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.

Many emotionally neglectful parents love their children and are good parents in many ways. But because they miss the “feeling” part of parenting, they simply lack the ability to fully see and know their child. Often, they are not able to do so because their own parents did not see or know them either. Typically, it’s no one’s fault, it just is.

Unfortunately, however, no matter the impediment on the part of the parent, the effect upon the child is the same. He grows up not seeing himself, not knowing himself. So how can he truly like himself? And how can he find true happiness?

3 Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Do you feel that you truly know yourself, inside and out?
  • Do you like who you are?
  • Do you love yourself?

If you’re not sure, or if you answered “No” to any of those three questions, it’s okay. Because this is one impediment to your happiness on which you can make great progress yourself.

And the answer is far simpler than you might think.

The 4 Goals to Reach Self-Acceptance

1. Pay attention to yourself.

  • Your likes and dislikes
  • What bothers you?
  • What makes you angry?
  • What is your temperament?
  • What are your values?
  • What are your talents?
  • What are your weaknesses?

2. Identify the things you don’t like about yourself. Are there areas in which you can self-improve? If you can change it to become a better person, set a goal to improve in that area. Self-improvement is likable. And trying is likable, even when you sometimes fail.

3. Have compassion for yourself. You are human, and you have faults and weaknesses, just like every other human being. Learn from every mistake you make, and give yourself credit for trying. Accept that you cannot be perfect.

4. Pay attention to what you feel, and why. Your emotions are the most deeply personal part of who you are. Take responsibility for your feelings. Judge yourself in the big picture, not for one small mistake, weakness or lapse.

Going through life without knowing yourself does plenty of harm to your ability to enjoy life. But since that lack of self-knowledge will chronically hold you back from self-acceptance, and therefore, happiness, it’s triply important to work on the Four Goals above.

After all, you have nothing to lose. And you have self-knowledge, self-love, and happiness to gain.

To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, how it affects adults and families, and how you can heal, see the books Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free!

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

2 Kinds of Lonely Feelings and How to Cope With Them

It was Thanksgiving, twenty-some years ago, and I was in graduate school. I decided not to go home to visit my family that year. Unexpectedly, my close friend and roommate told me that she was going to spend the holiday at her fiancé’s house in another city.

“Come with me,” she said. “It will be fun!” I knew that it would be, but somehow, I just didn’t feel like it. “No, I’ll be okay. I feel like being alone,” I assured her.

The morning of Thanksgiving, I got up in an empty house, and instantly knew I had made a mistake. The house felt empty, and so did I. I walked into the empty kitchen, and filled an empty cup with coffee. I sat down with an empty thud, and stared down at the empty table.

Thus began one of the loneliest days of my life.

Almost everyone feels lonely sometimes. It’s an unavoidable part of the human condition. Few are so surrounded by people at all times that they never feel left on their own.

But it does seem that loneliness is becoming a serious problem that threatens us all. New research from the American Psychological Association has established that far more people are living alone than was true in the past. New studies also show that loneliness can significantly harm your health, and decrease the length of your life.

This new research suggests that we should begin to pay more attention to the spread of “alone.” We need to take a closer look at “alone,” and “lonely.” What do they mean? How do they feel? Can we prevent ourselves from experiencing them?

First I would like to assert this one vital point: You needn’t be alone to be lonely. And you can easily be alone, and not be lonely. In other words, “lonely” is not a state, it’s a state of mind. Actually, it’s a feeling; a feeling that visits some folks more than others.

The 2 Kinds of Loneliness

1.  The kind you feel when you are actually alone. This “alone” is situational. It happens when you acutely recognize that there are no people with you. You may feel this when, for example, you weren’t invited to a party, or you just moved and haven’t made any friends yet, or are sitting at home alone on a Saturday night. This alone is painful, and difficult to tolerate. But it goes away when people arrive.

2. The kind that’s more lonesome than being alone. You can feel this kind of loneliness anywhere, even when surrounded by people. This “lonely” can happen when you are actually alone. But it can also happen when you are in the company of people who genuinely love and care about you. This type of loneliness can follow you wherever you go, and it often does. This loneliness can come at any time, under any circumstances. In fact, it may be so woven into the fabric of your life that you feel it all the time. It’s a feeling that can become a part of your everyday experience of yourself and your life.

This kind of loneliness comes from your childhood. It comes from growing up in a household where the deepest, most personal expression of who you are, your feelings, are ignored or squelched by your parents (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN).

Having your feelings ignored or discouraged while your brain is developing sends you a deeply-felt, never-understood message:

You are alone in this world.

This is one of the powerful messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect. And it does not leave you simply because you grow up. It stays there, visiting at will, and often when you least expect it.

The Solution to the Loneliest Lonely

The amazing thing about CEN is that its solution is the exact opposite of its cause.

As a child, your emotions were squelched or regarded as “nothing.” So now, you must encourage your own feelings, and make a choice to treat them as “something.”

Your walled off emotions are keeping you walled off from the people who could be occupying your heart and mind right now. Your walled off feelings represent your true self, and they have waited for you long enough.

When you begin to pay attention to them, you are paying attention to your true self. When you listen to them and take them seriously, you are listening to yourself, and taking yourself seriously.

Once you become aware of your CEN, and how it’s affecting you, you can begin to use your emotions in a way that connects you to people. It can literally change the way you feel inside, and the way you live your life.

You can begin by putting words to all of the emotions that go into “lonely” for you. Here is what I felt that day, some 20-odd years ago:

Sad

Singular

Rejected

Empty

Lost

Isolated

Bereft

Unloved

Uncared-for

On my own

On the outside

I now understand that I wasn’t rejected by others that day. No. I was rejecting myself.  I now know that taking down the wall that your child self built is one of the most important things you can do in your life. And beginning to use your emotions to connect with others in a new way is the icing on the cake.

It does take work and perseverance, but it will change you for the better in significant ways. You can defeat your Type 2 Lonely. You can take this on, and win, I assure you. 

On your mark. Get set. Go.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To learn more, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn more about how to use your emotions in a new way to connect with the central people in your life, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

A version of this article was initially posted on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.

The Painful Education of the Emotionally Neglected Child: 10 Harmful Lessons Learned

Growing up in an emotionally neglectful household takes its toll on you.

When, as a child, no one notices enough what you are feeling or when you need emotional support, you receive covert messages that are never stated outright, but which will nevertheless guide your life going forward.

Silent, unintended, usually invisible, these messages take root early and well. As you go through adolescence, they undermine the self-confidence and self-knowledge you should be gathering.

As you grow into adulthood, they prevent you from making the choices that are right for you. As you form relationships and fall in love, they prevent you from valuing yourself. As you have children and raise them, they weigh you down and leave you feeling mystified about what you are missing and why.

The only way to reduce their power over you is to realize the signs you were emotionally neglected as a child and understand they are there and how you got them. And to make a conscious choice to stop letting them hold you back and push you down.

10 Painful Lessons Childhood Emotional Neglect Teaches You

1. It’s not good to be too happy or too sad.

As a child, you naturally had intense feelings, as this is how all children are wired. Exuberant one moment, intensely frustrated the next, you needed someone to teach you how to understand and manage your emotions.

But what you got instead was a covert message that your emotions were excessive. What you learned was to dampen your feelings, not the skills you needed to manage them.

2. You are overly sensitive.

As a child, you naturally felt upset when things upset you. You naturally felt angry when you were hurt. What you needed was to have your upset feelings soothed by a loving parent so that you could learn how to soothe yourself.

But what you got was a message that your feelings were a weakness. What you learned was to judge yourself for having them.

3. Your needs and preferences are irrelevant.

As a child, you had needs, just as all children do. You had things that felt important to you, and things that felt good or bad to you. What you needed was for someone to notice, or to ask what you needed or wanted, so that you would feel that you mattered.

When no one asked you enough, you learned instead that you don’t.

4. Talking about a problem will unnecessarily burden other people.

Growing up, you had problems with school, with siblings and with friends. What you needed was to know that you could talk to a parent.

Instead, you knew that they, for whatever reason, could not handle it. What you learned was that others couldn’t handle your problems, and so you’d best keep it to yourself.

5. Crying is a weakness.

All humans cry, and for a reason. Crying is a way to release and process your emotions. As a child, you cried sometimes (maybe often). What you needed was for this to be okay.

Instead, your family didn’t know that crying has a purpose, so they ignored your tears or shamed you for having them. Perhaps they never showed tears themselves. You learned that crying is negative and should be avoided, one of the biggest signs you were neglected as a child.

6. Others will judge you for showing your feelings.

Were you judged for showing feelings in your childhood home? This powerful message has been carried forth with you. “Hide your emotions from others” is the message, “or others will think less of you.” Or, worse, they will use your feelings against you.

7. Anger is a negative emotion and should be avoided.

As a child, of course you often felt angry, as this feeling is a natural part of life. As a child, what you needed was help to name, understand and manage your anger.

Perhaps instead your anger was squelched or overwhelmed by another’s. Maybe you were punished for showing it. What you learned was that anger is bad and that you should suppress it.

8. Relying on another is setting yourself up for disappointment.

Children need help, period. So do adolescents and adults. As a child, you needed support, direction, suggestions, and assistance. But you could see that your parents were not up to that.

What you learned was that it is best not to ask for help in general because you are setting yourself up for a letdown.

9. Others are not interested in what you have to say.

As a young child, you had endless wonder at the world around you. As you grew, you had endless things that you wanted and needed to ask and say. Yet talking was not valued in your family, and you were not asked or listened to enough.

What you learned is that your questions and words are not valuable and that you should keep them to yourself.

10. You are alone in the world.

As a child, you needed to feel that an adult had your back; that no matter what happened, there was support and help for you. Instead, when you needed something you discovered that your adult(s) were busy, overwhelmed or not aware. What you learned was that you were all alone.

The Truth

These lessons all seem so real and so true when you grew up receiving them in such a subliminal, global way. But do not forget that they are merely lessons of your family, not truths. The fact that you learned them does not make them right.

The truth is…

Strong feelings connect us to ourselves and to each other, and being able to have them is a sign of health and strength.

Knowing your own needs and preferences and expressing them is a key to living a happy, fulfilled life.

Talking about your problems helps you solve them.

Crying is a healthy way of coping.

Letting others see your feelings helps them know you better.

Anger is an important message from your body that empowers you.

Mutual dependence is a form of teamwork that makes you stronger.

What you have to say is important, and you should say it.

You are human. You are connected, you are important.

You are not, in fact, by any stretch, alone.

Since CEN is so subliminal and unmemorable, it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out if CEN may be getting in the way of your happiness, health, and well-being, Sign Up to Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

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

My Dear Black Sheep, 3 Things You Must Know

I’ve met many lovely people who have been excluded by their families. When I see them in my therapy office I help them figure out why they have been excluded, and it is almost never for the reasons they have always assumed. 

In a recent post called Black Sheep, I talked about some common myths, and how excluded folks, or Black Sheep, are usually not what they appear to be.

Surprisingly, they are invariably a simple product of family dynamics. In other words, being excluded typically has little or nothing to do with the person being excluded. You’ve always thought it’s you, and it is not.

My Dear Black Sheep

Since I will probably never be able to see you in my office, here are 3 important things that I want you to know:

First, Research Supports You

First, let’s talk about the power of exclusion. We all tend to underestimate it.

But a study by O’Reilly, Robinson, and Berdahl, 2014 proved otherwise. These researchers compared the effects of workplace ostracism (being excluded or ignored) with bullying.

They found that office workers view ostracizing a co-worker as more socially acceptable than bullying him or her. But surprisingly, they found that ostracized workers suffer more than bullied ones. In fact, ostracized workers are actually more likely to leave their jobs than are their bullied colleagues.

If the exclusion is this harmful to adults in their workplace, imagine how it affects a vulnerable child in his family, during the time that his identity is developing.

Imagine how it affected you.

Second, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Affects You

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief that causes itself to come true. This happens because our belief influences our actions to the point that we bring the belief alive. Even when the belief is false, we make it come true simply by believing in it.

Self-fulfilling prophecy has a huge body of research supporting it, going all the way back to the 1950s. For example, it’s been scientifically proven that children whose teachers believe they are smarter than they are actually performed at a higher level.

The teachers treat the children as more intelligent, and the children respond to that treatment by making it so.

Imagine how this process works in the family of a Black Sheep.

You are a child, and your family believes that you are strange, or difficult, or different or inferior. So they treat you that way. You, an innocent child, respond to the way that you are being treated. You may start to act like you are strange, difficult, different or inferior. If this goes on long enough, you may become who your family originally believed that you were. And then you see yourself that way.

The Black Sheep family dynamic is a form of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. When your parents don’t see or value who you really are, it is very difficult to see or value your true self.

So now it may be hard for you to know the truth. Who are you really? Who would you be if not for all of the distorted messages you have received from the people who should love you the most?

Here is good news for you. Now that you know about Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, you can take control of it. Once you recognize the parts of yourself that were literally “projected” on you by your family, you can be freed up to either embrace those pieces of yourself or let them go.

A new journey begins which will allow you to define yourself, by yourself and for yourself. Free of judgment and prophecy.

And Third, You Were Chosen

You were chosen by your parents or your siblings for a reason. Perhaps you are the brightest in the family; perhaps you are the strongest. Perhaps you are the sweetest or most sensitive. Perhaps you’re artistic or have a different temperament or personality or appearance from the rest of your family.

Perhaps you were born at a certain time, a certain gender, or in a birth order that affected how your parents and siblings regarded you.

Perhaps you will never know why you were chosen.

But what is important for you to know is that you didn’t ask for this, and it’s not your fault. Your family does not see the real you. They don’t understand that your weakness in their eyes is actually your strength.

So embrace your difference, for it is your power.

And please know this:

You were chosen for a reason.

You are real.

You are valid.

You matter.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it affects children and adults, and how to learn to see and value your true self, see the book, Running on Empty. To understand how Childhood Emotional Neglect effects play out in your adult relationships with your partner, your parents and your children, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

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

Coping With Childhood Emotional Neglect: Thanksgiving Survival Tips

Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN has a way of making family holidays like Thanksgiving, which should feel welcoming, loving and warm, fall short.

It’s the invisible force that just slightly subdues the welcome, cools the warmth, and quashes the love. It’s the background of your family picture which no one sees. It’s the gray fog that lingers round the family, making it impossible to truly see each other.

The members of an emotionally neglectful family walk through each and every holiday with a vague feeling of disappointment and discontent.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when you grow up in a family that does not “see” the emotions of its members. In the CEN family, feelings are treated as if they are irrelevant or even burdensome. Children in these families learn to ignore and hide their own feelings.

If this is your family, how do you take care of yourself so that you can enjoy Thanksgiving? 

5 CEN Tips for Thanksgiving

  1. Have a support person: Make sure that you have one person with you who understands Childhood Emotional Neglect, and knows what you have been through. A spouse, sibling or trusted friend can give you great strength at the moments you need it most. Meeting your support person’s understanding eyes across the room is validating and grounding.
  2. Keep your expectations realistic: Our human brains are naturally wired to expect nurturance and care from our families of origin. But in the emotionally neglectful family, if you let yourself fully embrace those expectations, you can be left feeling twice as empty. Try to adjust your expectations before you go, so that you’ll be ready. It’s better to be pleasantly surprised than disappointed.
  3. Be aware of your feelings: During the course of the day, you may experience a variety of different emotions, like frustration, emptiness, boredom, anger or disappointment to name a few. Pay attention to these feelings as they arise. Accept and name them, and let yourself have them. You are feeling those emotions for a reason, and you can use them later to help you understand how your family affects you.
  4. Be thankful for your strength: Growing up with Emotional Neglect has made you uncommonly strong. As an emotionally neglected person, you have learned to rely on yourself. On this day, focus on the gifts your family has given you, and the positives that have come from growing up as you did. Whether you realize it or not, your Childhood Emotional Neglect taught you how to be independent, capable, and giving. These are things to be thankful for.
  5. Especially focus on self-care: Get some exercise, wear clothes you feel comfortable and good in. Stay at your Thanksgiving family gathering only as long as you are OK, and not one minute longer. This is a day when it’s extra important to put yourself first.

Emotional Neglect passes through the generations unseen and unnoticed. Most likely your parents have raised you very much the same as they were raised themselves.

For your healing, it’s important to acknowledge everything you didn’t get from your family. On this day, work on accepting what you didn’t get, what you did get, and why. And realize that your parents cannot give you what they do not have themselves.

Remind yourself that everything you got, and everything you didn’t get: It all adds up to who you are now.

 And you’re all right.

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

To learn much more about Emotional Neglect, how it happens how it affects you, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty.

A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.

Parents: 10 Steps to Connect With Your Adult Child

The world is full of mothers who are wondering why their adult sons don’t answer their calls, and fathers who struggle awkwardly to talk to their daughters.

“What did I do wrong?” they ask. “Why can’t we be closer? Shouldn’t our relationship be easier now?”

It’s entirely possible to be a loving, caring parent who worked hard to do everything right in raising your child and to still end up with a strained relationship once your child grows up. It’s because parenting is so complex and multi-layered that it’s far too easy to make one crucial error that your child has difficulty either understanding or recovering from.

One of the easiest and most invisible errors that a parent can make – Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) – passes silently from one generation to the next, unnoticed and unchecked. And unfortunately, it also can lead to some of the greatest parent/child emotional gaps once the child grows up.

Sadly, it’s all too easy to make this mistake. All you have to do is fail to respond enough to your child’s emotional needs when you are raising her. This leaves your child, as a grown-up, without enough access to her emotions. It also leaves her feeling as if you don’t really know her on the most deeply personal level: the emotional level.

So she may then come to you for advice, but not for solace. She may expect you to be there for her financially, but not emotionally. She may share her thoughts with you, but not so much her feelings.

One of the most common questions I receive from readers of this blog is from parents who have realized that they inadvertently, through no fault of their own, emotionally neglected their child. This is a painful realization for any parent, and it’s extra painful when your adult child keeps her distance from you, seems angry at you, or is struggling with issues of her own.

Please know that no matter what’s gone wrong between you and your adult child, the burden generally lies on you, the parent, to initiate fixing it. So what do you do if you want to repair or deepen your relationship with your CEN adult child? The good news is that there are clear steps that you can follow.

Four Guiding Principles to Keep in Mind Before You Start

  • It’s your job to initiate the fix but your child must then meet you halfway in working through it.
  • In your own mind, take blame and guilt out of it. All parents make mistakes. What you did was the best you could do at the time. You’ll be able to remedy this far better if you don’t blame yourself or your child, and instead focus on understanding and moving forward.
  • The key is to listen to your child in a different way than you ever have, and with a completely open mind. Your job: listen for his feelings, and then validate them.
  • Be aware of an easy mistake to make: taking too much responsibility for your adult child’s struggles. It’s important to walk the line between acknowledging your mistakes while also making sure your child understands that as an adult, he must be the one to resolve the effects of CEN within himself and within his own life. You cannot do it for him and you should not try.

10 Steps to Get Closer to Your Adult CEN Child

  1. Tell your child that you’d like to talk with him about something important, and ask him when is a good time. This will help him know that this really matters to you even before you talk about it.
  2. Start the conversation by saying, “I feel like we’re distant from each other. I want to be closer to you, and I want to fix what’s wrong, or missing.”
  3. Ask him if he feels it too. He may say no, in which case you should not be discouraged. Acknowledge his perception, but if he’ll allow it, continue to express yours.
  4. Talk with your child about your discovery of how Emotional Neglect happens; how invisible it is, and how it can separate a child from his feelings and persist into adulthood causing problems.
  5. If your child seems resistant to discussing it, then try to talk about yourself more than him. Chances are excellent that you were emotionally neglected yourself as a child (because we all naturally parent our children the way we ourselves were parented). Explain how it happened to you and how it’s affected you in your life.
  6. If your child acknowledges a problem, ask him what’s wrong from his perspective, and then truly listen.
  7. Validate, validate, validate. Do this by hearing him and acknowledging his feelings, whatever they are. Acknowledging does not require agreement; it involves only understanding.
  8. Ask your child what you can do differently for him. As long as his request is healthy for both of you and does not involve you fixing his life for him, then try your hardest to deliver it.
  9. Don’t expect your first talk about this to resolve matters. You may need to have multiple conversations.
  10. Keep trying. Don’t give up, even if your child resists or continues to be distant. Much can be gained from persistence.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it transfers from one generation to the next, and how it affects children once they grow up, see the book, Running on Empty. For many more specific tips and information about improving your relationship with your child see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article was originally posted on psychentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.

33 Unspoken Family Rules & How to Override Them

Unspoken Family Rules. What are they?

Every family has them, but no one ever talks about them. They remain, by definition, unsaid.

Sometimes they’re positive and healthy. Other times, they are toxic.

Either way, these powerful messages from your childhood home plant themselves into the base of your brain and become an unconscious part of how you live in the adult world; perhaps even embedded in your very sense of who you are: your identity.

Read through the list below, and see if any of these unspoken family rules speak to you. Did your family adhere to one, two or even more?

As you read through the list, write down any messages that feel familiar. These are the messages that run through your head, affecting your choices, emotions, and life to this very day.

Becoming aware of these powerful unconscious rules can free you up to override them. You can take control of them and counter them instead of letting them run your life.

Examples of Unspoken Family Rules

The family comes first.

Wanting something is selfish.

Needing something is selfish.

Emotions are a sign of weakness.

Needs are a sign of weakness.

Don’t ask questions.

Don’t have needs.

Don’t talk.

Negative emotion is harmful to those around you.

Don’t bring any pain to this house.

Always act like everything is OK, even when it’s not.

Don’t talk about anything meaningful.

Don’t refer to anything negative.

Don’t rock the boat.

No fighting (conflict) is allowed.

Don’t make noise.

Don’t rock the boat.

Keep your problems to yourself.

Handle it yourself.


Don’t talk about uncomfortable things.

Silence is bad. Always fill it.

Don’t do better than your parents.

Don’t outshine others in the family.

Whoever yells the loudest wins.

Don’t upset your father (or mother).

Don’t trust anyone outside the family.

Certain things must be kept a secret from everyone outside of the family.

Act like you don’t see ______.

Your friends will betray you. You can only rely on your family.

It doesn’t hurt to twist the truth now and then.

White lies are okay.

All lies are okay.

If we don’t acknowledge it, it’s not real.

The Result

Each of these powerful messages does a particular type of damage. Each sets you up to do the wrong thing in your adult life.

The messages above the line are the distinct messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. They all set you up to sacrifice yourself for what feels like the greater good…the good of the family. Keep your needs and feelings to yourself, don’t cause problems, don’t share, show or (perhaps) even feel emotions, especially when they’re negative.

These messages, in adulthood, make you feel deeply and personally invalid; like you don’t stand on equal ground with everyone else. As an adult, you will struggle with the 10 Characteristics of the CEN Adult outlined in the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, like a lack of emotional awareness, self-awareness, self-knowledge, and a deep feeling of being different and flawed and on your own.

The messages below the line all set you up to pretend, deny, or twist reality, tiptoeing around people instead of challenging them. Keep the family secrets at all costs, or don’t trust anyone who is not family.

These messages will drive you to make decisions you’re not proud of, put your family before yourself even when it’s harmful, and have problems with excessive emotional expression.

All of the messages have the power to make you feel confused, unhappy, and bad about yourself. All of them will cause you to have problems with social and emotional skills.

All of them can be overridden by you.

4 Steps to Override Your Unspoken Family Rules

1. Become aware of the rules that are in your head. Keep your list easily accessible, and review it often.

2. Pay attention: Notice when one of these rules speaks to you. Awareness is half the battle.

3. Make up an opposing, healthy rule to counteract each unhealthy one. For example,

Don’t talk about _________

becomes

Talk about __________.

And

Negative emotion is harmful to those around you

becomes

Negative emotion is not harmful to those around you, if you express it in a healthy way.

4. Make an effort to learn the skills you missed in childhood: the purpose, value, and validity of your emotions. Your feelings will guide you if you only start to listen to them, use them and manage them. It’s never too late to learn those skills.

For help in learning emotional skills, and overriding powerful messages from childhood, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

To learn much more about how CEN affects your family relationships now, your marriage and your own parenting and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children.

Did you grow up with an unspoken family rule that’s not listed here? If so, please share it with us by posting it in a comment below.

A version of this article first appeared on psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.

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