How do you help an emotionally neglected (CEN) client, who grew up with their feelings ignored or suppressed, learn about emotions and how they work?
In the process of talking, writing, and teaching about Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I have had many wonderful opportunities to talk with hundreds of therapists about their experiences and challenges treating CEN clients.
If you are a CEN therapist, I want to start by thanking you from the bottom of my heart. You are helping me reach my longstanding goal of providing CEN therapy to everyone throughout the world who needs it.
If you are not yet a CEN therapist, I hope that you might consider it. I am trying to make CEN therapy available to everyone who needs one.
As it stands right now, there are hundreds of therapists from all over the world listed on the Find A CEN Therapist List.
Despite the healthy numbers, more CEN therapists are clearly needed. Every day, I receive emails from people with CEN who are upset because they cannot find a CEN specialist to help them.
Throughout these few years of training therapists in the treatment of CEN, one major challenge stands out. How do you help a CEN client learn about emotions and how they work?
Believe me, I understand this problem all too well. Since clients who grew up with their feelings ignored have their emotions walled off as a defense mechanism, they not only view their emotions as useless, harmful, or weak, they also have likely not learned some of the most basic aspects of how feelings work.
Getting a CEN client to talk about feelings in session can seem almost impossible. So how can we teach them about something they are so repelled by and try to avoid at all costs?
Over the last couple of years, one tool has begun to stand out to me as I struggle with this problem in my own work. It’s the Emotions List from the back of my first book, Running On Empty. I use it in multiple different ways that tailor to what a particular client needs. It allows us to start right where they are and get on the healing path that I know has the potential to help them enormously.
1. The Homework/Process — Tailor it To Your Client
2. What Was Your Client’s Experience of Doing the Homework?
3. Look for Patterns in Your Client’s Highlighted Words
4. Identify Your Client’s Core Feeling
Reuniting our CEN clients with their feelings is one of our greatest challenges. I find that there is something about the Feelings List that, even though it’s very long, feels manageable, and maybe even comforting to these clients.
Perhaps the notion that feelings can be labeled offers assurance that feelings are real and identifiable and understandable.
Each of the ways to use the list described above is a jumping-off point for you and your client to talk about emotions.
Special Point: Identifying a client’s core feeling — the feeling they felt most in their childhood — can be almost like a pipeline to their other feelings. I will write another blog about this process and how to use it in CEN therapy so watch for that.
I’m sure there are many other ways to use the Feelings List in CEN treatment that we have yet to discover. If you have some thoughts about this, I would love for you to share it! Just post it in the Comments section of this blog.
I would love for you to take my 2-CE therapist training, Identifying & Treating Childhood Emotional Neglect: An Overview. Learn about it here: https://drjonicewebb.com/treating-cen/.
Maryann was raised by a mother who was both emotionally intense and needy. All through her childhood, Maryann had to be very caring and supportive toward her mother to try to prevent explosions.
Because of this, Maryann grew up with strong tendencies to care for and placate others deeply entrenched in her character. But these character traits, essential survival mechanisms growing up, became a serious problem for her in her adult life. Maryann was such a placater that she wasn’t taken seriously at work. Others often took advantage of her. Maryann was not happy.
Finally, Maryann decided that she needed to change. She decided to stop placating, stop agreeing with everyone and everything, and begin to show more backbone. But it wasn’t easy. Each time Maryann tried to speak up for herself to express disagreement or assert her own needs, she felt intense anxiety come over her.
Essentially everyone knows first-hand what it means to be anxious. Few among us are spared this intense feeling of discomfort.
William James, who is considered The Father of American Psychology, described his own anxiety this way: “a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach … a sense of the insecurity of life.”
Since anxiety is so common and troublesome, I’ve seen plenty of it in my work as a psychologist. One thing I’ve noticed is that all anxiety is not the same. The particular type of anxiety you have determines not only how it feels, but also how it should be treated and managed.
1. Biology: Research has shown that some babies are born with an anxious temperament. Babies who are observed as edgy and reactive have been seen to grow up to be edgy and reactive adults; in other words, anxious babies grow into anxious adults. This type of anxiety is genetic, and it tends to run in families.
Biology, however, is not a sentence to a lifetime of anxiety. First, because biological anxiety waxes and wanes throughout your lifetime, it may become problematic really only during times of transition or stress. And second, because you can learn to manage your biological anxiety.
Best Solution: Anxiety management techniques are plentiful and effective. The best way to learn them is to see a cognitive/behavioral therapist. Some common anti-depressant medications are also effective in treating biological anxiety.
2. Childhood Emotional Neglect: This essentially boils down to how you handle your feelings. When you push your emotions down or suppress them, they don’t simply disappear. Instead, they remain there, buried. Repressed and suppressed feelings pool together under the surface and become a diffuse form of anxiety. This type of anxiety seems to come and go at will. It becomes your main feeling. In general, you may find yourself existing in two states: you either feel anxious, or you feel nothing at all.
Best Solution: The best solution for this type of anxiety is to break through the wall between yourself and your pool of blocked-off emotions. Pay attention to your feelings, allow yourself to feel them, learn to put them into words, and how to manage and express them. This may sound like a lot of work, but it will gradually reduce your anxiety and will have multiple other positive effects upon your life satisfaction as well.
3. Personal Growth: This is one of the most powerful, and yet least talked about, forms of anxiety. It’s the anxiety that’s naturally built into virtually every step of emotional or psychological growth that you take in your lifetime. It’s especially intense when you’re trying to give up a coping mechanism that you needed in childhood (like Maryann). This anxiety arises when you’re about to make a healthy change in yourself, and it tries to pull you backward.
Each time Maryann tries to abandon the habit that saved her life in childhood, her body screams, “No-o-o-o-o!” It does this by sending her feelings of fear, to alert her that what she’s about to do is dangerous.
Best Solution: The most helpful strategy in managing this type of anxiety is simply recognizing what it is. When you can accept that it’s only your body warning you against something that’s not dangerous, you can accept the feeling, and then override it. In Maryann’s situation, a vital step in her growth process involves not giving in to the wave of anxiety she feels, but instead letting it wash over her like a wave; and then overriding it. This means speaking up in spite of it.
Each time Maryann manages her anxiety this way, ending with healthy action, she is reducing her anxiety’s power. She’s essentially re-programming her brain to recognize that the new behavior (speaking up) is not dangerous, but adaptive and healthy.
Every single human being, every single day receives messages from their body.
“Don’t try that,” insist the voices of your anxiety.
So now, you must begin to insist back: “I will not run away from this. I will not stop. I will not stay quiet, I will speak up. I will try that.”
Accept the feeling, understand its cause, and you can take control of what’s been controlling you.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free. To learn more about how to understand, manage, and override your emotions, see the book, Running on Empty.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
Ten-year-old Jack walks slowly home from school, dreading the moment when he has to walk through the door of his house. He has no idea what kind of mood his mom will be in. She may greet him warmly or she may lay into him, calling him a “lazy bastard, just like your father.” Filled with a dread of what’s to come, the closer Jack gets to home, the more slowly he walks.
Ten-year-old Sadie has lived in a large, mostly empty house with her mother since her parents split up. She misses her father and brother desperately. The household used to be active and busy; now it feels quiet, empty, and lonely. Sadie worries about her mother sequestered in her own room; so near and yet so far away. “I wish Mom would talk to me sometimes like she used to,” Sadie thinks. She sits on the edge of her bed and sobs quietly so that her mother won’t hear her.
While emotionally abusing a child is like emotionally punching him, Emotional Neglect is more akin to failing to water a plant. While the emotionally abused child learns how to brace for a punch, the emotionally neglected child learns how to survive without water.
It has never stopped amazing me how often the terms emotional abuse and emotional neglect are misused. In articles, in books, and even in the professional literature and scientific studies, they’re incorrectly interchanged quite frequently. Typically emotional neglect is called emotional abuse, and far too often emotional abuse is referred to as emotional neglect.
But the reality is that they could hardly be more different. They happen differently, they feel different to the child, and they leave different imprints on the child once he or she grows up.
Emotional abuse is an act. When your parent calls you a name, insults or derides, over-controls, or places unreasonable limits on you, she is emotionally abusing you.
Emotional Neglect, on the other hand, is the opposite. It’s not an act, but a failure to act. When your parent fails to notice your struggles, issues, or pain; fails to ask or be interested; fails to provide comfort, care, or solace; fails to see who you really are; These are examples of pure Emotional Neglect.
To see the different effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect, let’s check in on Jack and Sadie 32 years later.
At 42 Jack is an accountant and is married with two children. Jack’s employers love his work and like him as a person. Nevertheless, he has switched jobs every two years, on average, throughout his career. In every job, Jack somehow ends up locking horns with co-workers. This is because he tends to take any form of mild request or negative feedback as criticism. Then he either hides, keeping his head down, or strikes back.
At home, Jack loves his wife and children. But his wife gets upset with him because he can be very hard on his children. Jack expects perfection and can be very demanding and critical, bordering on verbally abusive but never quite crossing the line to belittling or name-calling.
Generally, Jack goes through life braced for the next “hit.” He puts one foot in front of the other, wondering what negative event will befall him next.
At 42 Sadie is a Physician’s Assistant in a large, busy medical practice. She, like Jack, is married with two children. At work, Sadie is known as “the problem-solver.” She is able to resolve, smooth over, and answer every single problem or question that arises, so everyone goes to Sadie for help. Sadie is gratified by her reputation as super-competent, so she never says “no” to any request.
People look at Sadie and see a wonderful wife and mother. She loves her husband and children, and they love her back. But Sadie, her husband, and everyone else is puzzled about why her children are so angry and rebellious. They seem unhappy and act up in school. Sadie is exhausted by the heavy demands in her life. She’s so busy helping and giving to others she has no idea that she needs “watering” too. Sadie feels burdened, empty, and alone much of the time.
Jack and Sadie are good examples of the differing effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect. Jack struggles to manage and control his own feelings and reads malice into other people’s feelings. In contrast, Sadie’s emotions are suppressed. She lacks access to her own feelings so much that she lives for other people’s feelings. She struggles to set limits at work, and at home with her own children.
What Jack and Sadie have in common shows the overlap between emotional abuse and emotional neglect. They both feel depleted and empty. They both feel confused, lost, and somewhat joyless. Neither is able to experience, manage, or express their feelings in a healthy or useful way.
And now for the great news. Both Sadie and Jack can heal.
And even more importantly, it is vital that you recognize, own, accept, and learn about yourself, and realize why YOU matter.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, sign up to Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free! To learn more about recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the book, Running on Empty.
**IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are a licensed therapist located anywhere in the world who would like to help people work through their Childhood Emotional Neglect and receive referrals from me, fill out this form to receive my newsletter for therapists and learn how. If you have read both of the Running On Empty books and taken one of my CEN Therapist Trainings, you can be listed on my Find A CEN Therapist Page.
A version of this post was originally posted on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
What happens when two people, each of whom grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, meet and marry? They create the doubly emotionally neglected couple.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is a subtle, often invisible childhood experience that many adults experienced in their families. As children, they didn’t know it was happening. And as adults, they typically have no memory of it.
Yet its effects continue to hang over them like a gray cloud, coloring their entire adult lives. The cloud inserts itself into their marriages, causing emotional distance, miscommunication, and lack of intimacy.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs.
When you grow up with parents who do not validate or respond to your feelings, your child brain knows just what to do. It builds a wall to block off the most deeply personal, biological part of who you are: your emotions. Safely tucked behind the wall, your parents (and you) can pretend that your feelings aren’t even there, or don’t matter.
Decades later, when you are in a serious relationship, a series of very predictable problems ensue. That wall that helped you as a child interferes. It blocks off the invaluable internal resource you need to bind and connect you to your partner: your emotions.
Interestingly, those who grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect tend to be attracted to one another. When your own emotions are blocked off, you are bound to feel most comfortable with a partner whose emotions are also tucked safely away.
So what happens when two people who grew up emotionally neglected marry? How does the couple deal with two walls between them, over the years of being together?
Meet Jason and Betsy, the double-CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect) couple. They’ve been married for 10 years, and neither is aware of their CEN. It’s Saturday morning, and they are having a mundane conversation.
Betsy: I’ll drop off Curt at basketball practice at 9:30. Can you pick up Emma from gymnastics at 9:45?
As she makes this request, Betsy is secretly worried that Jason will be irritated that she’s asking him to do something. So as she asks, she watches his reaction carefully.
Jason sees Betsy giving him a look he can’t interpret, and assumes she’s trying to manipulate him somehow. He decides to call her bluff by martyring himself to make her feel bad.
Jason: What’s the big deal? Why does this require us both? I’ll do both drop-off and pick-up.
Betsy notices the edge in Jason’s tone and assumes it’s because she asked him to do a task for her. “Would it kill him to chip in on the weekend?” she thinks to herself with aggravation.
Betsy: Just forget it. I’ll do both.
As Betsy does the drop-off and pick-up that morning, she seethes inside at how unwilling Jason is to help out with the kids.
Meanwhile, Jason sits at home feeling three competing things: frustrated at his “manipulative” wife, perplexed about what really happened between them that morning, and vaguely guilty that he is sitting at home while Betsy does all the work.
Eventually, the guilt wins out. Feeling bad, he starts making a big pot of chili, which he knows Betsy likes.
No matter how connected you are by love, companionship, children, or history, you are not able to connect enough in the most important way: emotionally. It’s not that you don’t feel emotion (both Betsy and Jason have plenty of emotions in the description above), it’s just that neither of you is well enough in touch with what you are feeling so that you can share them and use them as you are meant to as a couple.
While your parents were busy ignoring your feelings, you were missing an important childhood experience. You were not learning how emotions work. You didn’t have the chance to learn how to know when you’re having a feeling, identify that feeling, put it into words, or share it with another. These are the skills required to build emotional intimacy with your partner, and you may not even realize that you don’t have them.
You probably noticed how very out of touch Betsy and Jason are with each other. Betsy views Jason as unwilling to help, which isn’t true, and Jason views Betsy as trying to pull something over on him, which she isn’t. Both end up feeling upset with each other for false reasons. And neither has the communication skills to discover that his/her assumptions and readings of the other are wrong.
In addition to the normal conflicts that all couples encounter, incorrect readings also contribute to the wedges that drive you farther and farther apart every day. The longer you are together, the more distant you feel.
I see many double CEN couples in my office, and one thing I often notice is that they usually have a genuine bond of love for each other. But despite the love, one or both members of the couple senses that something very important is missing. One or both of the members feel, despite the love, uncomfortably lonely in the marriage.
If you recognize yourself and your partner as you read this, do not despair. There are answers!
You can use this newfound understanding to reach out to your partner. Now that you know what divides you, you can break down your walls, and power forward to a brighter, more connected future.
Because the great thing about Childhood Emotional Neglect is that it can be healed.
To learn how to take the steps to reach out to your partner and break through the walls that block you, see the book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
CEN can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.
A version of this post was originally posted on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
Permissive parents are difficult to spot. Many appear to be great parents to an observer, and even to the children who are raised by them. Even after those children grow up, it still appears that way.
Why? Because permissive parents are often very loving. They may provide a childhood that seems ideal to their children after they grow up.
Permissive parenting is a type of camouflage. It’s a case of the inadequate parent disguised as adequate; the conflict-avoidant parent disguised as kind.
Not that permissive parents purposely disguise themselves. Quite the opposite. In fact, most permissive parents really love their children and want to do right by them. Yet they inadvertently fail their children in the most important way.
The Permissive Parent: This is the “Don’t worry, be happy” parent. This parent avoids conflict with the child. They view themselves and behave, more like a friend than a parent. They consult with the child on decisions that they should be making in their role as a parent. They don’t provide enough structure to the child or impose consequences when appropriate.
In short, by failing to perform the difficult role as a parent they over-empower the child. This may feel wonderful to the child but is, in fact, a form of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Psychologist Diana Baumrind was the first to describe the Permissive Parent way back in 1966. Here are Diana Baumrind’s thoughts about this type of parent:
“She presents herself to the child as a resource for him to use as he wishes, not as an ideal for him to emulate, nor as an active agent responsible for shaping or altering his ongoing or future behavior. She allows the child to regulate his own activities as much as possible, avoids the exercise of control, and does not encourage him to obey externally defined standards.”
If you weren’t raised by permissive parents, as you’re reading this you may be feeling envious of the child who was. After all, what child wouldn’t love to have that kind of freedom from responsibility and consequences?
But that kind of freedom has a dark underside. In fact, those raised by permissive parents face a particular set of challenges in adulthood.
Deep down, the adult child of permissive parents feels flawed. With no explanation for your struggles, you assume there is something wrong with you.
Fortunately, there is a way out of this. Recognize the source of your struggles. Recognize that it’s probably not your parents’ fault since they most likely thought they were showing you love and care by not making you angry or setting limits. They just wanted a happy child. They had no idea that they were emotionally neglecting you.
Know that all of these skills are learnable.
If you’re reading this blog and thinking you might be a permissive parent yourself, don’t despair. It’s not your fault! We all raise our children the way we ourselves were raised unless we consciously override it. And you can!
To find out more about permissive parenting, how to acquire the skills you missed, and how to make sure you don’t raise your children this way, see the books, Running on Empty, and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article first appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
One of the problems I have noticed with the term “Childhood Emotional Neglect” is that it does sound so negative. It so perfectly describes the problem that it may, perhaps, give the impression that it’s a burden you’d rather not know about.
But, in reality, CEN is quite the opposite. It’s actually a remarkably hopeful concept that every parent, every husband, every wife, everyone who was raised by someone; in fact, every human being should know about.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN: Happens when parents who have an emotional blind spot fail to notice, validate, and respond enough to their child’s emotions and emotional needs.
CEN is not a form of abuse or trauma. It’s not something your parents do to you, but rather, it is something they fail to do for you. It happens in loving households all over the world simply because so many parents are unaware that CEN exists. It passes down through generations, silently transferring. It’s difficult to see and hard to remember, which serves to hide its invisible power. It seems like nothing, but its effects stay with you throughout your entire adult life.
So, that is the negative part. But there’s also an amazing and positive aspect to CEN which offers hope and solace and possibility to everyone who sees it in themselves.
In the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, I outline the types of parents who have these blind spots and why they have them. But for the purposes of this article, the main point is this. Whether your parents are too focused on themselves and filling their own needs to notice yours, or are genuinely trying to do their best but simply do not have emotional awareness or understanding, you can be confident that it has affected you.
Many thousands of people feel a profound sense of relief when they first realize that Childhood Emotional Neglect is the explanation for the struggles they have lived with for a lifetime. I know this because I hear from more and more such folks each and every day.
But here’s the truth: Becoming aware of your Childhood Emotional Neglect is incredibly powerful. It’s a turning point and a game-changer.
But it’s not enough.
Now that you know what’s wrong, you must fix the problem. And the really great news is YOU CAN! Healing your CEN is a series of steps in which you give yourself now what you did not receive as a child: emotional attention, validation, and care.
I have worked for the last 8 years to define the exact steps it takes to reparent yourself and heal the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in adults. I’ve also helped countless numbers of CEN adults walk down the path of recovery.
My goal is to help you heal your CEN. I want to provide you with easy access to as many as possible of the resources I’ve created over the years. All right here, in one place.
**Many are free, but some are not. You’ll notice two asterisks next to the resources that are **free.
Bookmark this article and check back periodically. I’ll add new resources as I create them! If you have an idea for a resource that would be helpful, post it in a comment on this article and I’ll see if I can provide it.
Casey is tired of coming home to her apartment every day. She feels like her home drains her energy more than her job does. Not because it’s not a nice place, and not because of anyone else who lives there. Actually, she lives alone. It’s just that Casey’s apartment is a disorganized mess. Every Friday, she vows that she’ll do a thorough organizing and cleaning job before Monday comes. But every weekend, she finds something more interesting to do with her time.
Silas knows that he needs to cut down on his drinking. He’s been getting to work later and later on Mondays because he’s a bit hungover from the weekend. This doesn’t get him into trouble with his supervisor, but Silas can see the trend happening and gradually increasing throughout the year.
Beth and James are a busy couple with two young sons. They both work hard to take care of the boys and make a living. Generally, life is pretty good. Except that each secretly feels that the marriage is bland and unrewarding. “Something’s not right,” Beth thinks to herself. “I’m bored,” James thinks to himself. Both know they should say something to the other, but neither wants to take the risk of making matters worse. And neither wants to hurt the other.
We almost all neglect ourselves in one way or another, at one time or another. One could argue that the damage we do by neglecting ourselves is far more substantial than whatever neglect we experience from others.
What sets us up to neglect ourselves as adults? Being emotionally neglected as a child. When your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs, they inadvertently teach you how to ignore your own needs as an adult. So, if you have been neglecting yourself, don’t feel bad because it’s not your fault. But it is now your problem to fix. And, believe me, you can.
Read through the common areas of self-neglect below, and see if any ring true in your life.
Have you been neglecting yourself in these, or other ways? If so, rest assured that you are in good company, along with much of the human race.
Take a moment and try to imagine treating a child the way you are treating yourself/your body right now. Would you deprive a child of joy? Vegetables and fruits? Fun? Nice clothing? An opinion? Fresh air and exercise? Then why do you treat yourself or your body this way?
Now is a great time to stop the neglect and start giving yourself the time, attention, and effort that you need and deserve.
Imagine that Casey, Silas, Beth, and James followed the five steps above. Imagine that Casey cleans her apartment, and sets up a system to keep it clean. Imagine that her home becomes the place of comfort and solace that it should be.
The deep roots of self-neglect often spring from a lack of self-worth. Somewhere, somehow, maybe you don’t feel you are worth the effort of self-care.
Just as Silas could take charge of his own life, Beth and James could face their troubles and make their marriage warm and fulfilling again. And you can take charge of your own self-neglect with enough motivation, dedication, and perseverance. You only need to commit to yourself.
You are worth it.
To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up for self-neglect in adulthood, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
Just Letting You Know: On Saturday, 4/4 at 3 p.m. EST I’ll be on Instagram Live answering your questions about coping with the social distancing and anxiety of this pandemic. Join me at @drjonicewebb! I would love to connect with you during this difficult time.
As the psychologist who literally wrote the book on Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I have heard thousands of people describe what it was like for them to grow up in a family that avoided talking about meaningful or emotional topics, and who treated feelings as irrelevant or burdensome.
In case your reaction to the paragraph above was, “What’s the big deal about that,” I will take a moment to explain.
Your emotions are biologically wired into you for a reason. They go far beyond just the fight-or-flight mechanism. They are also an expression of your deepest self. Your feelings tell you what you like, love, enjoy, dislike, abhor, want and need, what harms you, and much, much more. Your emotions are like your rudder; they ground you and direct you. They also connect you.
When, as a child, your family is generally uncomfortable with the vital resource of emotions embodied in each of its members, when your family treats your feelings as if they do not exist or are a burden, you learn to do the opposite of what is healthy.
You learn to push your feelings away and wall them off. You learn to view them as a problem instead of the solution they are meant to be. You grow up separated from the deepest expression of who you are.
Then, as an adult, instead of listening to your gut, you ignore it. Instead of knowing what you want, you ignore it. Instead of seeking what you need, you ignore it. On and on and on, you miss the cues that should be your roots, your rudder, and your meaning.
You are literally living your life without taking your own feelings into account. But that does not mean that they are gone.
Core Feelings: The feelings you had most often as a child. They can be positive feelings or negative ones. They are the feelings you had so often as a kid that they have become a part of who you are. They reside in your body, with or without your awareness of them.
Every adult alive has brought feelings forward from their childhood, whether they realize it or not. The vast majority of emotionally neglected children are easily revisited by the alone, insecure, and lost feelings they felt so often as kids. These 3 emotions simmer under the surface of their adult lives, easily touched off by current events that recreate them in some vague way.
Enter the Covid-19 Epidemic. Enter quarantines, sheltering-in-place, and social distancing.
Hello, Core Feelings.
I hope that as you read this you are already thinking about how the feelings of your own childhood may be touched off by our current situation. And now I’m going to give you some help with that.
First, I want you to know that most everyone is feeling these 3 feelings during this extraordinary time, even those who did not grow up with CEN.
Alone: Social distancing is keeping the population physically isolated from each other, and so most people are naturally feeling alone right now. But when “alone” is your core feeling, this situation returns you back there in an achy sort of way. The aloneness you naturally feel now as an adult gets combined with the aloneness you felt as a child and you feel it with extra power and pain.
Insecure: Everyone is wondering what’s going to happen tomorrow and in the future, and so everyone’s feeling of security is threatened right now. But if you were instilled with a deep sense of insecurity as a child, you are more at risk of doubting yourself and your ability to handle whatever is to come. You may be feeling some anxiety and wondering how — and if — you will be able to cope.
Lost: Just as it happened for you as a child, your feelings of aloneness and insecurity threaten to undermine the roots you have planted for yourself. Since this feeling has been with you for so very long you are vulnerable to helplessness and hopelessness about finding your way through this worldwide crisis.
Even though you may feel alone, insecure, or lost right now, please know that you are not. Your feelings are expressions of your emotional truth but they are not necessarily a reflection of external reality.
When you let your feelings run rampant on their own, you are at their mercy.
When you own them, consider them, and process them, you can put the past where it belongs, choose the emotions that are helpful, and put the rest in their place.
You can use this pandemic to become more authentic. You can claim your power to shape your choices, your future, and your life by taking this chance to face your feelings and heal your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn how to take the steps to recover your feelings, process them, and use them see the book Running On Empty. To join an online community of CEN people going through the healing steps together see the Fuel Up For Life Program.
To find out if you grew up with CEN Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
On Saturday, 4/4 at 3 p.m. EST I’ll be on Instagram Live answering your questions about coping with the social distancing and anxiety of this pandemic. Join me at @drjonicewebb! I would love to connect with you during this difficult time.
I have often talked about the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN on a marriage. It’s somewhat like an invisible barrier that blocks spouse from spouse, holding the two emotionally apart, creating and feeding distance and a deep sense of being alone.
But since Childhood Emotional Neglect can be so difficult to pinpoint in your own, or your partner’s, history, it’s not easy to know if it’s playing a part in your marriage.
Why is the lack of fighting a potential sign of Emotional Neglect? Strangely enough, often it’s the couples who fight the least who are in the most trouble. This is because fighting requires a willingness to challenge each other, an ability to tolerate anger (your own and your partner’s), and some element of emotional connection.
Emotional connection, the opposite of Emotional Neglect, is not made up solely of positive feelings like warmth, affection, and love. It also requires an ability to tolerate conflict with each other, and a mutual trust that you, as a couple, can get angry and upset, share difficult words, and come through to the other side with your relationship intact.
A willingness to fight is a willingness to share painful emotions. And that’s a sign of emotional connection.
There is no feeling of loneliness worse than that experienced inside of a relationship. It feels terrible to feel alone when you’re with someone. And loneliness is one of the greatest warning signs of an emotionally neglectful couple.
You can have a relationship that seems great, with a partner who has a good sense of humor, common interests, a good job, and kind nature, but still feel alone.
This happens when your relationship with your partner is good on the surface but lacks emotional substance. Emotional connection is the foundation of a relationship. When it’s weak, the relationship has an emptiness to it. It can take two people years to see past their good surface connection and realize what is missing underneath.
Do you find yourself using friends or family to “fill in” for your spouse when you need support? If so, is it because your spouse isn’t there? Because she often says the wrong thing? Because you’re not sure he’ll care?
In a close, connected, non-neglectful marriage, your spouse will be the first person you want to tell when things go wrong or when something great happens.
One key question to ask yourself is: Does she want to be the first person? If you don’t think so, this is a sign of other problems in your marriage. I encourage you to find a skilled couple’s therapist and convince your partner to go with you.
If you think your mate does want to be your go-to person, then the problem may be simply that he doesn’t know how to be that person for you. This is a matter of skills, and the good news is that these skills can be learned.
“I’m happy in our relationship in some very important ways, but yet it feels like something is missing.”
“I read an article about relationships that struck a chord with me. Will you read it for me, and let me know if you have a reaction to it too?”
“Did you know that not fighting in a relationship is not necessarily a good thing?”
“I love you so much, and I want us to be even closer. Will you work on this with me?”
To learn how to build your emotion skills see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn how to share them in your marriage to build emotional intimacy see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psych central.
Wife: Every time I say something even slightly negative to my husband, he gets really hurt and angry and refuses to discuss it.
Employee: Every year I’m extremely nervous to meet with my supervisor for my annual evaluation. If she gives me any criticism, I’m not sure I can take it.
Student: I made a C on my first statistics test. I guess I’m not cut out for this graduate program.
Friend: My friend Maggie told me that she thought I could get a better job. I feel so insulted that I haven’t talked to her for a while.
Stranger: The cashier at the grocery store snapped at me for taking too much time to pay. I was so upset that it ruined the rest of my day.
When I was 23 I started my first year of grad school. I was so excited that I had been chosen from hundreds of applicants for admission to a Ph.D. program in psychology. My first test in the psychology program was in statistics class. I was appalled to receive my test back with a big ugly C on it. “Are you prepared for the rigors of this program?” my professor had written at the top.
Actually, I was more than appalled. I had never imagined making a C in graduate school, let alone my first test. Stunned, I went home and questioned my entire life plan. “Maybe he’s right and I’m not up to this. I guess I’m not as smart as I thought. Maybe I should just drop out now before they kick me out,” I agonized.
Let’s face it. No one can go through life without getting negative feedback or criticism from others. And believe it or not, that’s actually a good thing. Because feedback (especially negative feedback) is essential for your growth and health.
We all have our own view of ourselves: our choices, behaviors, and performances. Criticism from others offers us a view of ourselves from the outside. In this way, other people’s views offer an excellent source of information about how we can grow. Yet unfortunately, many of us aren’t able to take advantage of this rich resource.
Folding and fighting are two very different responses to the same thing: feeling hurt. Unfortunately, neither response allows you to benefit from the criticism. And both happen when you lack a good, healthy Criticism Filter.
To become stronger in the face of criticism (and maybe even benefit from it), all you have to do is build yourself a boundary to keep criticism from spearing you in the heart while you process it. Sound easy? It’s not.
But you can do it!
4. Ask your criticizer questions. Try to understand exactly what they mean and why they are saying this. Filter their message, owning the parts that are true and discarding the parts that are false.
5. If your criticism carries something valid and useful, develop a plan of action. Is there something you can or should try to change about yourself or how you’re doing things?
And now, flashback to 1983. After several hours of painfully questioning my abilities and my future, I suddenly felt indignant. “Who is this professor to question my potential on the basis of one test?” I thought to myself. “He doesn’t know me at all.”
So why would he say that? I knew the answer. Because he was challenging me to either work harder or get out.
I also realized my part in this event. I had been over-confident and had not studied properly for the test.
I took out my Statistics book and started on page 1. I spent the entire weekend poring over every page and working through every problem until I fully understood every element of every section we had covered so far and was actually ahead on the material.
And what did I take forward from that experience? I never again went into another test under-prepared.
Sometimes I look back on that experience and wonder what might have happened if I had given up? Where might my life have gone, and how many regrets would I have taken with me?
Each experience of criticism is a challenge: to get better, get stronger, or change for the better in some way. You can fold or you can fight.
Or you can filter it and use it to make yourself better.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can lead to a lack of resilience in the face of criticism. To learn more, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psych central.