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The Different Faces of Emptiness: Part 1

150680407_88f0218e86_mSince the release of Running on Empty in 2012, many people have identified with the feeling of Empty. People who don’t have it don’t understand. But people who feel it know:

In many ways, emptiness or numbness is worse than pain. Many people have told me that they would far prefer feeling anything to nothing. It is very difficult to acknowledge, make sense of, or put words to something that is absent. Emptiness seems like nothing to most people. And nothing is nothing, neither bad nor good. But in the case of a human being’s internal functioning, nothing is definitely something. Empty is actually a feeling in and of itself. And I have discovered that it is a feeling that can be very intense and powerful. In fact, it has the power to drive people to do extreme things to escape it.

(From Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect)

Empty is the” unfeeling” feeling. It’s the painful sense that some vital ingredient is missing from inside. Does it feel the same for everyone who has it? For example, does it feel different if you have depression, a personality disorder, or just straight Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?  The answer is yes. It all depends on one factor: how extreme were its causes?

Causes of Emptiness:

  1. Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): This is the type of Empty that I address in my book, Running on Empty.  It is caused by growing up in a household that is blind to emotion. Children who grow up this way sense that their emotions are invisible and irrelevant. So they push their feelings down, so as to not burden themselves or their parents. These children grow into adults who are out of touch with their own feelings. The emptiness that results is literally a deep sense that something is missing inside; some essential ingredient that is a deeply personal and vital part of who you are. That essential ingredient is, of course, your feelings.
  2. Active Invalidation in Childhood: This is a more extreme version of the CEN described above. It happens when your parents are not just blind to your emotions; they actively reject your emotions. Examples are rejection (ex: “Go to your room”) or punishment for simply being sad, angry, or hurt. If you grow up this way, you learn to not just push your emotions away; but to actively reject and punish yourself for having feelings. In adulthood, your empty space will be filled with self-directed anger and self-blame. On top of feeling empty, you may feel uncomfortable in your own skin, and you may not like yourself very much overall. You may be more vulnerable to depression.
  3. Shallow, Harsh, Unpredictable Parenting:  This is the type of childhood experience which causes significant disruption in the child’s personality that can lead to the development of a personality disorder (such as Narcissistic or Borderline). These parents respond to the child on the surface, while selectively, unpredictably rejecting and punishing his emotional responses. In addition, they greatly reward the child for being how they want him to be, and harshly reject or punish him for simply being, or feeling, himself. When you grow up this way, since you are not permitted to “be” who you are, you develop a fragmented version of who you should be. You reject parts of yourself that your parents find unacceptable, and may experience yourself as perfect one day, and horrible or worthless the next. The missing piece for this child, once grown up, is more than emotion; it’s a cohesive sense of self. This is the deepest, most painful form of Empty. This is the emptiness that is felt by people with personality disorders.

So if you have Empty Type 1 or 2, you have a cohesive “self,” but you lack access to your emotions. With Type 3, you have a fragmented “self” and little access to your emotions. But the anger and pain caused by the unpredictable, shallow and harsh treatment throughout childhood runs deep. Those emotions may erupt unpredictably and intensely, outside your control. You feel empty because you sense, deep down, that your true “self” is fragmented or missing. Sadly, you were not able to develop it while you were growing up.

Here’s the good news. All three forms of emptiness, once understood and acknowledged, can be overcome. Watch for my next post, The Different Forms of Emptiness Part II, which will be about the paths to healing when you have Emptiness Type 1, 2 or 3.

Yes, they are different.

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral

Robin Williams and Childhood Emotional Neglect

13790103_f44dd462db_oSince Robin Williams’ sad and shocking suicide on August 11, friends, family, fellow stars, and even reporters have offered multiple explanations for the virtually inexplicable:

Why did he do it?

Some of the many possible factors which have been proposed are depression, alcohol, drugs, and Parkinsons Disease. But I see another potential factor which is never mentioned by anyone. A factor which falls between the cracks just as its sufferers do: Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).Continue reading

Why Don’t Therapists Talk More About Emotional Neglect?

José Manuel Ríos ValienteChildhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.

“After reading Running on Empty I told my therapist that I’m pretty sure I was emotionally neglected as a child. He understood what I meant but he never mentioned it again”.

“I’ve been seeing my therapist for a year and she has never mentioned Emotional Neglect to me.”

“I live in San Francisco. I can’t find a therapist who is an expert in Childhood Emotional Neglect!”

Since I first started speaking and writing about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) in 2012 I’ve heard the above comments many times, from people all over the world.

Yes. In a way, it is puzzling. CEN is so widespread and causes so much pain. Why don’t therapists talk about it more directly and more often? Why aren’t there Emotional Neglect specialists? Emotional Neglect articles and workshops?Continue reading

The Most Important Relationship of All

“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.

First MemeWhat 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

Raised By A Narcissist

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. Continue reading

Three Tips to Teach Your Child Emotional Intelligence

 

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is 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.Continue reading

Do You Have Alexithymia?

Alexithymia: Difficulty in experiencing, expressing and describing emotions.

Identifying & Naming Exercise

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. Continue reading

Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test

Take the ENQ

During twenty years of practicing psychology, I started to see an invisible force from childhood which weighs upon people as adults. It’s a “non-event” which is unnoticeable and unmemorable and yet leaves a profound mark upon the child that endures throughout adulthood. It’s Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

CEN is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.

This failure to respond can masquerade as loving parent behavior. It can happen in families which are seemingly healthy and fine. And it can be overshadowed by more obvious child mistreatment or abuse. In any case, it goes unseen and unnoticed while it does its silent damage to people’s lives.

Many people have found answers to problems that have baffled them throughout their lives, by recognizing that CEN is the cause. But because CEN is so difficult to see or remember, it can be very hard to identify whether you are living your adult life in its grip. I’ve devised the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire to help you discover whether you may have grown up this way.

I have found it very useful, but have not yet been able to establish reliability or normative data through research. So please know that, at this point, the ENQ is based upon clinical experience, and has not been scientifically studied yet.

Sign up to  Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire

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To learn more about CEN; how it happens, why it’s so invisible, and how to heal from it, visit EmotionalNeglect.com, or see Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Invalidated Child: Invisible Adult

 

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Zach

Our childhoods are in the past. As adults, we must put childhood behind us and focus on the now. Right?

Wrong.

Today we know that our child selves live within us, and that the power of that child is remarkable. Our parents’ view of us as children is the way we view ourselves as adults. The way our parents treated us as children in large part determines how we treat ourselves as adults.

This child/adult connection has been proven over and over again by research. I see it every day in my psychotherapy office; and never more clearly than in the case of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

In CEN, the child is given a subliminal message, often inadvertently, that his/her emotions are irrelevant. This leaves a profound mark upon the child in adulthood. To see how this works, let’s look in on Zach as a child, and then meet up with him again twenty-three years later.Continue reading

Childhood Emotional Neglect: Man vs. Woman

“CEN people, both men and women, are exceptionally likable folk. This is part of the tragedy of CEN. These are some of the most lovable people in the world, and yet they feel the most alone.”

I often get asked whether Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) affects men and women differently. My answer is,  “yes, it does.” Although the essential effects are the same, some of those effects tend to play out differently in men than in women.

In Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect I tried to represent both genders in my descriptions, examples, and vignettes. Before I talk about this more, I need to mention one large caveat. The differences that I’ve seen between CEN men and women are general descriptions that do not apply across-the-board. I often see the masculine effects in women and vice-versa. Since there is significant crossover, please don’t take these differences too firmly or stringently. And definitely, do not think there is something wrong with you if you fit more neatly into the opposite gender. It does not indicate a problem of any kind.

As you look over the table below, you may notice that the differences are not very surprising. In recent years, neuroscientists have found that men have more connections in their brains from front to back and within each hemisphere than women, making them more suited to perception and coordinated actions. Women, on the other hand, have more connections between the hemispheres. This gives women an advantage in the areas of intuition and interpersonal processing.

TABLE OF CEN GENDER DIFFERENCES 

Adult CEN Characteristic Women Men
 
Emptiness or numbness Attempt to fill selves with other people and their needs Seek adventure to feel something or isolate themselves
Counter-Dependence Seek to fill others’ needs in place of their own Fervently embrace and pride themselves on independence & competence
Little Compassion For Self Harsh judgments drive down self-esteem Harsh judgments become pressure to be “the best,” often at work. May become driven.
Fatal Flaw Feel unlikeable or unlovable Feel invisible and overlooked
Struggles With Self-Discipline Self-care suffers: eating, exercise, sleep and rest May become overly or compulsively self-disciplined at times
Alexithymia May learn the language of emotion but it’s hard to apply it to themselves Emotions go underground and come out as irritability
Self-Directed Anger and Blame Anger is directed at themselves and may turn into depression Anger is more likely to also be turned outward at others

 

Generally, men and women suffer equally when it comes to CEN. But women tend to be harder on themselves and to become excessive caretakers and givers, ignoring their own needs and feelings. They can end up feeling drained and exhausted because they are not taking care of themselves and have difficulty saying “no” to others.

Men, on the other hand, are more inclined to embrace and value the feelings of isolation and disconnection that go along with CEN. Men with CEN may misperceive their isolation as a sign of masculine strength. Yet these men are also pained by the feeling that they are not connected when they are with other people. They struggle with feeling ignored and overlooked by others but lack the words to express it.

One thing that I have seen over and over in CEN men is an acute discomfort (often anxiety) in large groups of people, especially when they are expected to socialize. In these situations, their intensive individuality combines with the feeling of being ignored to create a special type of misery.

The other primary difference I see between women and men’s CEN is what they do with their feelings. Women feel ashamed for having emotions. They turn their anger against themselves. Men are more likely to be totally unaware that they have feelings at all.

Anger is more accepted from men than from women in today’s world. So men don’t suppress their anger as much as women. Instead, they may alternate between suppressing it and then feeling it unexpectedly, sometimes directing it towards others and sometimes toward themselves.

What happens when two people with CEN form a relationship or marriage? I can tell you that it makes for some very interesting challenges. Check back to see a future blog on this topic.

Some of the most remarkable characteristics of people with CEN deserve mention here. CEN people, both men, and women are exceptionally likable folk. This is part of the tragedy of CEN. These are some of the most lovable people in the world, and yet they feel the most alone. They are typically excessively competent, stand-up folks; yet they feel invisible. They suffer because some vital ingredient is missing from their lives. Yet that missing ingredient is their own emotions, which are not missing; just suppressed.

If I could gather all of the CEN men and women in the world together in one huge room, here is what I would say to them:

You are not invisible, and you are not to blame. You have no reason to be ashamed. Ask yourself what you feel and why, and you will find your true self there. Your emotions will become your compass, your comfort and your connection to life. And then you will realize how very much you matter.

To learn much more about how to heal your marriage if you and/or your spouse grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

To find out whether you grew up with CEN, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral