“Although many of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think”
— Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Neuroscientist and author of My Stroke of Insight.
What is the most important relationship in your life? Your spouse? Your child? Your mother or father?
If you answered yes to any of those, that’s nice. But you actually have another relationship that is more important than any of them. It’s one you probably never thought about before.
It’s your relationship with your own emotions.
How we treat our own feelings has a tremendous impact on how we treat others. Your relationship with your emotions is the foundation for all other relationships in your life.
Emotions are complex and can be mysterious. Sometimes they do what we tell them. Other times they refuse to obey. We may fall in love with someone we don’t like, or stop liking someone we love. We can lose our tempers unexpectedly, or surprise ourselves by staying calm in a stressful situation.
Just as you have to listen to the people in your life, you also have to listen to your emotions. Your emotions are your body’s way of speaking to you. Indeed your emotions provide an invaluable feedback system that can anchor, inform and direct you through life.Continue reading
Few phrases sum up the idea of narcissism better than:
It’s all about me.
But the most defining feature of a person with narcissism is actually not his self-involvement. It’s his deeply concealed fear of being exposed as inadequate.
Underneath the bluster and arrogance of the narcissist lies a hurt and fragile core. Deep down, narcissists fear others will see that they are not special or superior (they are just human beings after all), so many of their grandiose behaviors are designed to prevent that exposure. Surprisingly, this deeply buried vulnerability is the trait that can do the greatest damage to the narcissist’s child.
What is it like to grow up with a narcissistic parent? Meet Lucy, who was raised by a narcissistic father.
Lucy grew up knowing that she was her father’s favorite. A straight-A student and accomplished athlete, she made sure to never let him down by making a B or dropping a ball in a game, like her brother did. Lucy noticed early that she was special in her father’s eyes. She saw how enraged and embarrassed her father was when her older brother got in trouble at school, and she made sure never to make him feel that way.
Lucy made many decisions in her life that were designed to please her father. She felt that if she let him down he would stop loving her, so she followed in his footsteps to take over his dry cleaning business. Lucy never thought about what she herself wanted as a career because her father made it clear to her from birth that he had already set up her life for her.
At age 23, Lucy was feeling bored behind the counter of the dry-cleaner and yearned to go back to college and get an MBA. It took her months to gather the nerve to tell her father her plan. When she did, he was enraged. “I’ve given you everything, and this is how you repay me? You have no idea what you’re doing. When you’re broke and miserable, don’t come to me for help.”
From that point on, Lucy’s father treated her coldly, as if he no longer loved her. She was no longer the apple of his eye. Her brother finally got his turn as the favorite, and Lucy was on her own.
The narcissistic parent is not able to see his child as a separate person. The child is an extension of himself; an object to deliver admiration, but also capable of bringing shame. These parents often choose one child who they feel most likely to reflect positively upon them and lavish favoritism upon that child, as Lucy’s father did. This leaves the other children jockeying for attention and love.
Since the narcissist’s child is seen as an extension of the parent, any normal failure, struggle, or flaw of a the child poses a threat to the narcissist of being exposed as imperfect. So he keeps a tight rein upon the children, especially the favored one, out of fear of being exposed. When any child, particularly the chosen one, expresses his own wants, feelings or needs, this makes the parent feel vulnerable. The child is likely to meet with harsh rejection.
Throughout childhood, Lucy’s own identity was neglected while she toiled to be the perfect child to protect her father’s vulnerable core from exposure. This is one of the many ways in which Childhood Emotional Neglect can happen. As an adult, Lucy will struggle to define her own wants and needs. In fact she may feel selfish for simply having wants and needs. As an adult, that long ago child will be trapped in her father’s mirror, yearning for his lost love and approval.
Today, for your healing and for yourself, it’s your turn. Right here, right now:
It’s all about you.
CEN can be invisible and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn much more about how to deal with your narcissistic or self-centered parent, especially how to protect yourself in a way that won’t make you feel guilty, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral
Alexithymia: Difficulty in experiencing, expressing and describing emotions.
Every day I hear from folks who have just realized that they grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Often they say, “Finally I understand what’s wrong with me!” Many describe a huge weight lifted from their shoulders.
It is a wonderful thing to finally understand yourself in a new and useful way. Unfortunately, however, it is not enough. Step 1 is seeing and understanding the problem. Step 2 is healing the problem.
If you grew up with parents who did not respond enough to your emotional needs (CEN), then as an adult you are probably faced with the particular set of challenges that are unique to CEN. Children who grow up receiving the message that their emotions are not valid naturally adapt by pushing their emotions down and away, so that they won’t burden their parents with their feelings and emotional needs. If you push your emotions away as a child, you will, as an adult, lack access to them. This is why one of the most universal struggles for the CEN adult is alexithymia.
Fortunately, alexithymia is a problem that can be fixed. Emotional awareness and knowledge can be learned. In fact there is a clear and direct process to learn it. Many people have had success doing it on their own, and many with a therapist’s help.
Here is a six-step exercise that, if done regularly, will gradually get you back in touch with your feelings, which is a major part of healing from CEN.
If you take even just five minutes for this exercise three times a day (or as often as you can manage), you are forcing your brain to perform activities that are novel. You are forging new neural networks which get stronger and perform better each time you do it, even when you are not successful in identifying or naming a feeling.
The Identifying and Naming Exercise
Step 1: Sit in a room alone with no distractions. 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 in 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. Consult a list of feeling words if you need it.
Step 5: If you’re having difficulty identifying any feelings, it is okay. Coming up with a word is less important than going through the process of trying to tune in. As long as you keep doing the exercise as often as possible, you will start to make progress. Be persistent and do not give up!
Step 6: If you do find a feeling word that 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.
So now ask yourself:
“Why would I be feeling ____ right now?”
Determining what you are feeling and why can be very difficult for many people, but it is especially so for those with Emotional Neglect. This exercise may seem simple, but it is not easy. Emotionally Neglected people often have great difficulty sitting with themselves, and that is a requirement for this exercise to work. If it seems very hard when you first attempt it, or even impossible, please keep trying.
As you gradually become more able to sit with yourself, focus inward, and tune into your feelings, you will also eventually start to be more aware of your emotions naturally, as they come up in your life. You will find yourself changing: feeling more meaning in your life, more connected to others, more purpose and direction, and more trust in yourself.
Yes, in a few minutes per day, you can overcome alexithymia. In a few minutes a day, you can change your life.
To find out if Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is at work in your life, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral
As a mental health professional, how often have you heard the term Childhood Emotional Neglect used on its own; that is, not followed by the words “and abuse.” I scoured the databases of the APA, and used google and other search methods. I talked with colleagues, and looked through every self-help book that looked promising. Virtually every time the term “emotional neglect” is used, it is either mixed with, or used as a misnomer for, some type of physical neglect or some type of emotional abuse. This was the final factor which drove me to write a book about it. This is the driving force which has had me speaking and writing about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) for the past three years.
During twenty years of practicing psychology, I gradually became aware that CEN, a tremendously powerful childhood factor, is being overlooked. Why? Because CEN hides. It dwells in the sins of parental omission, rather than commission. It’s the white space in the clinical picture, rather than the picture itself. It’s what was not said or observed or remembered from our patients’ childhoods, rather than what was.
We therapists know that emotion is important, and that if it is not handled well by our clients’ parents in childhood, there will be clear and direct results years later, when our clients are adults. When we screen and evaluate our patients, we ask them about everything that they can see, hear, touch and remember about their childhoods: major events, including emotional, physical, verbal abuse, or any type of trauma, for example. We look for all of these types of memories, as we know that any of these experiences, in even subtle forms in childhood, can play out over a lifetime. We also know about emotional neglect and parental failures. But these are so invisible and unmemorable that it’s difficult to grab onto and difficult to talk about. How do we help our clients become aware of the full impact of what didn’t happen for them?
It took me years of encountering patients who were difficult to understand based upon all of the usual factors to realize that, in some cases, I was asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places. Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible, intangible, and unmemorable. It’s not something that a parent does to a child. Instead, it’s something that a parent fails to do for a child. Since it’s not an act, but a parent’s failure to act, it’s not noted or remembered by parent, child or onlooker. Yet it has a profound effect upon how that child will feel and function as an adult.
Some people can be profoundly affected by one incident of extreme Emotional Neglect, and some may experience a childhood filled with mild incidents. Others experience a childhood that is so riddled with CEN that they grow up defined by it. In my own clinical experience, I have found that few, if any, of these people remember or report any of it. In fact, many of them report (and had) loving, caring parents who had no idea that they were failing their child. This is what makes CEN so pernicious, so difficult to see, and so easy to overlook by clients and their therapists.
I have identified a particular pattern of characteristics in adults who experienced CEN as a child. They include, among others, struggles with emotional awareness; self-blame; feelings of emptiness; problems with self-discipline; and a deep-seated feeling that “something is wrong with me,” which I call the Fatal Flaw.
I have found that keeping Emotional Neglect in the forefront of my mind, and talking about it specifically with patients has made me a far more effective therapist. I feel that for years, I was like the proverbial blind man, treating parts of the elephant – unaware that there was a whole elephant to which I should be attending.
Visit my Readers’ Comments Page to see what readers are saying about CEN.
In writing my self-help book, Running on Empty: Overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect, I have two goals which I am passionate about:
1. I want to make Childhood Emotional Neglect a household term. I want to make as many people as possible aware of the power of this largely overlooked, invisible factor. I want people to know how it affects us when our emotions are not validated; first by our parents in childhood, and later by ourselves in adulthood. I want to take a childhood non-event, which typically goes unseen and unnoticed, and give it equal recognition and respect to the events that we talk about with our patients every day. I want to offer a specific, shared language for us all to talk about this parental failure to act with our patients, and a framework to treat it.
2. I want to ask you, my fellow mental health professionals, to help bring this concept to more people. I’m interested in opening up a sharing of thoughts and experiences among mental health professionals. I want to know if it resonates with you in your clinical work. I want to find out if you will have the same feeling of understanding and success in being able to reach more patients, offer them answers, and move them forward.
I hope you will find Running on Empty: Overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect a helpful resource. With a special chapter for parents and another for mental health professionals, I hope it will help you open new doors with stuck patients.
Fill out the form below to join my Therapist Newsletter, and if you are licensed and have read Running on Empty or taken one of my trainings, I will add you to my Find A Therapist List to receive referrals from .
And if you would like to help your patient further, click here to learn more about my Fuel Up for Life program.
My mother has complained about my behavior as a child for YEARS. When I was little, she says I “always wanted to be held,” and was “so dramatic” as a teen, acting out to get attention. I was nearly held back in Kindergarten for lack of social skills; I hadn’t been around children my age regularly until then. In occasional situations with peers, she reports that I clung to the wall.
She was faithful to pass along my father’s criticisms because he rarely spoke. He had no friends and didn’t participate in social activities. He was hospitalized this January, and my mother didn’t even tell me! He passed away 3 weeks after I found out he was sick. I have no tears; I barely knew him. He hasn’t been gone 6 months and the house I grew up in is already on the market.
Perhaps they assumed that if their kids were fed, clothed, sheltered, and in school, their work was done. My mother said once that it never occurred to her that she should be teaching her children to take care of themselves. We were her job.
I’ve struggled for over 50 years to find my strengths, and am scared and frustrated to be without a career (or job) at an age when most people are preparing for retirement.
Reading your mother’s description of you as a child breaks my heart. She thought you were excessively needy. I can, without even knowing you, say with 100% certainty, that you were not needy or poorly behaved.
You were emotionally starving.
In reality, there is no such thing as a needy child simply because there is no such thing as an un-needy child. All children are emotionally needy by definition. It is the parents’ responsibility to try their best to understand what their child needs and to try their best to provide it. Whether it be structure, limits, freedom of expression, emotional validation or social skills, it’s all part of the job.
Growing up emotionally ignored results in growing up with a tendency to ignore yourself. When you ignore yourself, you don’t have a chance to truly know yourself. What career should you be in? What kind of job would you excel at and enjoy? Not knowing yourself makes you feel lost, alone and at sea. The answers are there inside of you, but you were not taught how to find them.
Many parents (yours included) don’t realize that their job is not simply to provide for their children and raise them; they’re also supposed to respond to their children’s emotions. Wanting to be held is a healthy and normal requirement that all children have. “Drama” is nothing other than a judgmental word for emotions. Teenagers act out when they’re either over-controlled or under-attended to by their parents.
How can you know yourself when your parents never knew you? How can you feel that you’re lovable when you didn’t experience enough feeling of love from those who brought you into this world and are supposed to love you first and best?
Fortunately, dear Anon, you can still get where you want to be! Accept that you are worth knowing, and start giving yourself the attention you didn’t get as a child. Notice what you like, love, hate, enjoy, prefer, and need. Start noticing what you feel, and start using those feelings to guide and connect you.
If you haven’t yet read the book Running on Empty, please do so as soon as you can. If you don’t have a therapist, please consider finding one. The social and emotional skills you missed can be learned. You are a classic example of Childhood Emotional Neglect. And you can heal.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral
Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs.
All children require a certain amount of emotional response and emotional validation from their parents in order to grow up feeling happy, healthy and strong.
When your parents notice what you’re feeling, name it, and help you manage it, they are not only teaching you invaluable life skills, they are also giving you some powerful messages.
We care about the deepest, most personal, biological part of who you are: your emotions.
You are important. You matter.
So if your parents failed to do this for you enough, by definition they emotionally neglected you.
And emotional validation is the most important thing you never got.
That’s what makes Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) so invisible. It’s very hard to see things that fail to happen, and it’s almost impossible to remember them.
We have long been aware of the fact that what happens to us in childhood has a tremendous effect upon who we become as adults.
But the opposite is also true. What doesn’t happen for us in childhood has an equal, or even greater effect.
Emotional Neglect comes in an infinite variety of forms. It can be incredibly subtle, such that a hundred people could be watching it not happen, and be completely unaware.
An Example of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN):
Young Will’s friends gang up on him on the soccer field one day. So Will comes home from school feeling sad. Will’s parents don’t notice his sadness. Neither says, “Will, 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 usually does no harm.
So how could an incident like this damage a child, leaving 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 Will, 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 Will feels is not noticed, responded to or validated by his parents, Will is likely to 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, and perhaps even questioning his own purpose and value.
This becomes even more difficult when the emotionally neglected adult looks back to her childhood for an explanation for why she 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 they didn’t get in their childhoods. So as adults, they blame themselves for whatever is not right 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 is that it is 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 spots. 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 the 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 enough 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, and another, and another.
I want to give answers to those many people who are living their lives feeling empty, confused, and blaming themselves, unaware of the key life ingredient that they never got.
Unaware that they can now give it to themselves.
Since CEN is so subtle and invisible, it can be hard to know if you have it. Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Your emotions are the most deeply personal, biological part of who you are. They are also your greatest resource for coping and strength.
Legions of people walk through decades of their lives completely unaware that they are missing something. They may look around, and they may see others living more fully, or with more color or vitality. They may have a vague sense that something is not quite right.
But they are intelligent and competent and likable, and so they do okay. They put one foot in front of the other, and they take life step by step. Doing what is expected, and providing what is needed, they have no idea that they’re more vulnerable to life’s challenges than other people are.
Until unexpectedly their job changes, or their child has a significant problem, or someone they love moves away or passes away. Maybe it’s a problem in their marriage, or a rejection or a hurtful action directed at them, but something happens to throw them off their game.
Then they struggle mightily, and they sense that their struggle may be going too far, and they find that they are depressed. “Why is this so hard for me?” they wonder. “How did I end up here? Shouldn’t I be more resilient?”
For many of these fine people, the answer is, “Perhaps.”
Perhaps if you had received enough emotional attention in childhood you would now have access to your emotions in a more vibrant and helpful way.
Perhaps if your parents had noticed what you were feeling as a child, you would be noticing that now, yourself. Perhaps if you had been filled with self-knowledge and self-care and self-love as a child, you would have them to rely on now, in your time of need.
Growing up in a household where feelings are not addressed enough (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN) takes a remarkable toll on a developing child. Not the least of which is this: It sets the child up to be more prone to depression throughout her lifetime, and to forever blame it on herself.
If you grew up without enough emotional validation and response from your parents (CEN), you probably did what most good children do: you automatically pushed your emotions away and walled them off. This may have worked fairly well through your childhood, but now, in your adulthood, you need full and healthy access to your emotions.
5 Ways CEN Causes Depression in Adulthood
1. Your emotions are walled off: Since you pushed them away as a child (to cope in your childhood home), you are now living without access to this rich, motivating, stimulating feed back system.
2. You missed the emotion training course that other people got: You grew up in an Emotion-Free Zone. No one taught you how to identify, express, manage or use your emotions.
3. CEN makes you feel alone in the world: When no one notices what you’re feeling enough as a child, and when the response to your emotional needs is tepid or absent, you learn that you cannot (or should not) rely on others emotionally.
4. You are prone to directing your anger inward: Anger can be an empowering, useful emotion when you know how to use it. If your anger was not accepted when you were a child, and if you were not taught how to use it, you are at risk for turning it against yourself.
5. You are inclined to the feel shame: Growing up with CEN, the powerful message that your emotions either don’t matter or are bad can easily make you feel ashamed for having them. Yet your emotions are wired into you. You can’t not have emotions. The result: shame.
And now, after all that bad news, I have some very good news for you. Now that you see and understand the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can heal it yourself. When you do this, you will not only reduce your susceptibility to depression, you will also improve many other areas of your life as well.
3 Ways to Become Less Vulnerable to Depression
• Start working on your CEN. The best thing about CEN is that it can be healed. You can break through that wall that you built to block off your feelings in childhood. You can begin to feel more varied emotions. You can learn how to use your anger in a healthy, protective way. You can learn the emotion skills that you missed.
• Accept that your feelings are your friend. Your emotions are a source of vitality and richness. Without them, you are living in a gray world, devoid of the color that others experience. Reclaiming your feelings and learning to use them will connect you, relieve you and enrich you.
• Reach out. CEN taught you to circle your wagons, but those wagons are now holding you separate. Learning to let your wagons loosen will open the world to you. With more people on your side of the wall, you will no longer feel so alone.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is invisible. Yet it makes you struggle with emotions throughout your adult life, and makes you more prone to depression. To find out if you are affected by CEN, take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test.
Emotional Intelligence (EI): Your ability to manage and understand emotions and relationships, your own as well as others’.
Research has shown that Emotional Intelligence is more vital to life success and satisfaction than general intelligence. This makes EI a very important skill for parents to teach their children.
The good news: Children automatically learn EI when they are raised by parents who have it themselves. Parents with EI are able to understand what their child is feeling and why. Their emotionally attuned responses to the child model and teach him how to read, understand, and respond to his own and others’ feelings in a healthy way.
The bad news: A parent who struggles with EI himself may lack the skills necessary to be able to teach them to his child. In other words, you can’t teach your child what you don’t know. This is why low EI is self-perpetuating through generations of families.
One way to make sure that you do not teach your child about emotion is to simply ignore his emotions while you are raising him (Childhood Emotional Neglect). If you seem not to notice that your child is upset, sad, angry, hurt or anxious, you are subtly telling him that his sadness, anger, pain or anxiety don’t matter. You are teaching him to ignore his own feelings.
Emotionally neglected children grow up to experience a variety of challenges, only one of which is low Emotional Intelligence. As adults, these children also struggle with excessive guilt and self-blame, feelings of emptiness, and a general lack of joy in life.
No loving parent wants to set her child up for that scenario. But parenting is probably the most complicated job in the world. In fact, it is built into the natural process of parenting that even the most loving parents will pass our own strengths and weaknesses on to our children. Often, the only way to stop that cycle is to consciously make the effort to override it.
Three Parenting Tips to Maximize Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence:
Life Advantage: Your child will see herself reflected in your eyes, and she will know who she is. This will give her confidence in her life choices and will make her resilient to life’s challenges.
Life Advantage: Your child will learn empathy and will have healthier relationships throughout his life.
Life Advantage: Your child will have a healthy relationship with his own emotions. He will naturally know that his feelings are important and how to put them into words and manage them.
No parent can follow these tips perfectly, of course. This is not about perfection; it’s about making the effort. Effort in itself shows love and care. When your child sees you trying to understand his feelings or feel his feelings, whether you succeed or not, he receives a powerful message:
Your feelings matter to me.
And what your child will hear:
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is often invisible and unmemorable. To find out if it is at work in your life, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.
The Fatal Flaw: A deep-seated feeling that something is wrong with you. You are missing something that other people have. You are living life on the outside, looking in. You don’t quite fit in anywhere.
If you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), chances are, The Fatal Flaw is at work in your life.
If you pushed your feelings away as a child, you now lack access to them as an adult. You sense deep down that something is missing (it’s your emotions). And your life lacks the richness, connection and meaning that your feelings should be bringing to your life. This is the basic cause of the Fatal Flaw. Most people who have it are not aware of it, and this gives it incredible power.
Yes, your Fatal Flaw is powerful. But so are you. You have a great deal of personal power that is being drained by your Fatal Flaw.
So today’s the day. Declare war on your Fatal Flaw, and start using your weapons of awareness, your emotions, your intellect, and your words.
This is a battle that you can win. I promise.
To learn more about the Fatal Flaw, what caused it and how to overcome it, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author.
The Fuel of life is feeling. If we are not filled up in childhood, we must fill ourselves as adults. Otherwise, we will find ourselves running on empty.
A quote from the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect
There are legions of fine people walking around feeling numb or empty, and for good reason. They all grew up in homes that did not notice their feelings or respond to them enough.
There is, indeed, a real connection between this type of childhood and that feeling. And the short quote above, in some ways, says it all.
But to summarize in a nutshell how this happens: Your parents act as if your emotions are invisible or irrelevant, so you do too. You block your emotions off to “protect” yourself from being bothered or burdened by them. You lose access to this deepest, most personal expression of who you are.
Then, as an adult, you feel it. Perhaps you know you should be feeling something but you’re not. Perhaps you look around and see other people living in a bright, colorful world but yours seems gray. Perhaps you have a deep sense of something missing inside you. Perhaps you feel an empty feeling in your belly or chest or throat.
Perhaps your body is trying to tell you that something is very wrong.
Healing your emptiness is not necessarily simple, but it is definitely possible. It has been done successfully by many people before you, and it will be done by many after.
The healing process takes place in three different areas, outlined in the table below. Once you’ve looked through the 3 areas of healing your emptiness, continue on to see the steps you can take to work on this.
|Thoughts/Behavior||Relationships||Your Inner Life|
|Recognize what you didn’t get in childhood||Increase emotional connections||Grieve what you didn’t get|
|Emotional awareness & management||Boundaries (distance?) with parents as needed||Develop compassion for yourself|
|Self-care||Work on trusting others||Decrease self-directed anger|
|Decrease self-blame||Therapy relationship||Self-acceptance & self-love|
|Increase self-knowledge||Share your pain with another||Value your emotions|
|If you have depression or anxiety, consider therapy and medication||Let down your walls||Reclaim the parts of yourself that your parents rejected or ignored|
If you find this Table overwhelming, please don’t be alarmed. As I said above, all of these can be done. I know this because I have been through them with many people in therapy, and have witnessed amazing progress.
However, please take note of two things: It takes commitment, a conscious effort, and time; and it often helps tremendously to work with a skilled therapist who you feel very comfortable with.
Step 1: Recognition and Grieving: The first and most vital step for everyone who feels Empty is to recognize that your empty space represents something that you didn’t get in childhood. Identify what is missing (emotional validation, connection and perhaps rejected parts of yourself), and grieve it all. This may involve feeling sad and/or angry. It’s okay. You have to feel it to move forward.
Step 2: Start to Fill the Holes: Befriend your emotions; start noticing when you have them; learn to name them and to manage them. Listen to what they are telling you.
Step 3: Work on Self-Care: Put yourself first, learn to say no. Pay attention to your own needs and recognize that your needs matter. Stop blaming yourself.
Steps 1, 2 and 3 can all be worked on by making a conscious effort, paying attention, and self-monitoring on the tracking sheets from the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. You may want to enlist the help of a CEN therapist. Visit the Find A CEN Therapist List to find a CEN-trained therapist to help.
Step 4: Let Down Your Walls: Share with a trusted person that you are working on getting closer to people, and to accept and feel more connection and love. Try to express your feelings more and to be more assertive.
You may make more progress here by getting some emotional or physical distance from your neglectful parents. The distance can be temporary, while you work on this.
Step 5: Learn to Love Yourself: Yes, it is easier said than done. This process involves seeing yourself as the child you were, growing up as you did. What parts of you did your parents ignore or reject? Know that they did so because of who they were, not because of who you were.
Have compassion for that little child, and for yourself as an adult. Your struggle is real, and you deserve more and better. You must reclaim, and learn to love, all of the different parts of who you are: your emotions, your needs, your inner you.
Above all, as you do this work, please carry these words with you:
Your emptiness is an important part of you. It represents the old and the past, but also the future and the new.
It is not an absence but free space filled not with pain, but with possibility. It is room for your new story, the one you will write yourself. It is room for your life, your feelings, and the people who you choose.
Fill it with self-knowledge, self-care, self-compassion, self-love, and your people.
Then you will find yourself running on empty no more.
To read more about healing the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect on your relationships see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.