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“Why Can’t You Just Be Happy?” How to Heal a CEN Marriage

My husband says he loves me, but I don’t feel love from him.

My wife gets confused and overwhelmed every time I try to talk to her about a problem.

My marriage feels flat. Something vital ingredient is missing from it.

As a psychologist who specializes in couple’s therapy, I have worked with hundreds of couples over the years. One of the greatest challenges that I see couples struggling with is when one of the members of the pair grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Often the spouse of the CEN person ends up making statements like those above in their first session of therapy together.

CEN happens when your parents communicate the subtle but powerful message, “Your feelings don’t matter.” Children who live in such households often adapt to their environments by pushing their emotions away so that they won’t bother their parents or themselves.

When you grow up in a household where your emotions are squelched, you miss out on a vital opportunity:  to learn how to identify, understand, tolerate, and express your emotions.  This causes big problems years later, in adulthood.

The CEN adult ends up struggling with emotional awareness, expression, and connection. So they have difficulty tolerating arguments, expressing opinions, and emotionally connecting with their spouses. “Why can’t you just be happy?” is a common statement that CEN people make to their husbands and wives. It comes from a lack of understanding of how emotions and relationships work. The spouse is often left feeling helpless, disconnected, and alone.

Tim and Trish

In Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, I used the example of Tim and Trish. Trish dragged Tim to couple’s therapy because she felt very unhappy in their marriage. She said that Tim often seemed irritable and unhappy with Trish and their children, despite his claims that he was happy. Tim was loath to come to see me with Trish, saying, “I don’t see why she won’t just let things go. Why can’t she just be happy?” Trish was experiencing the full impact of marriage to a person with CEN. She said that she knew that Tim loved her, but that she often didn’t feel love from him. Trish was also in the miserable, no-win Catch 22 served up by the CEN spouse, “Why can’t you just be happy?”

It can be very challenging to be married to someone with CEN. Here are some:

Signs That Your Spouse May Have CEN

The CEN Spouse:

  1. Seems to misread his or her own emotions – for example, says, “I’m not mad,” when clearly angry, or says, “I’m happy,” when clearly not.
  2. Often misreads your emotions or the feelings of your children or others.
  3. Has a limited vocabulary to express or describe feelings.
  4. Has a very difficult time tolerating a conversation that involves conflict or discomfort.
  5. Is often irritable for no apparent reason.
  6. Doesn’t seem to realize that some vital ingredient is missing in your relationship (emotional connection).

Now for the good news. CEN folks can change, and marriages with CEN can heal and become rich and rewarding. If you are married to a CEN man or woman, there are some things that you can do. I suggest that you follow these:

How to Enrich a CEN Marriage

  1. Read as much as you can about CEN. Read my website and, if possible, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.  If you feel that you are reading about your partner, then proceed to Step 2.
  2. Tell your husband or wife that you may have an answer to why you are struggling in the marriage. Explain, as best you can, what CEN is, how it can happen in even loving families, and how it is often no one’s fault.
  3. Explain to your partner that this is very important to you, and ask him/her to look into it for you.
  4. Ask him/her to take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire, and read about CEN on my website and Running on Empty.
  5. Since many CEN people have very good empathy for others’ true feelings, don’t hold back yours in this request. Let your spouse see the pain that this is causing you, but not in a blaming, accusing, or challenging sort of way. Just be honest and open with your feelings, but have compassion for how hard this may be for him.
  6. Tell your spouse that you love her and that you are asking for her to pay attention to this problem out of her love for you.
  7. If your partner reads Running on Empty and starts doing the Healing Sections, then it is very important to check in with him about how it’s going and express your appreciation for his efforts. Be open and available to communicate about his reactions as he goes along.
  8. Learn the Horizontal and Vertical Questioning Technique from the book Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships, and use it with your spouse. It will help deepen the relationship and will teach you both new ways to communicate and connect.
  9. If you run into problems or need help along the way, please consult a professional. Take either the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, which explains Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and affects adults; or Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships, which describes exactly how CEN plays out in couples, to your first session, and ask your couple’s therapist to look at it. Virtually any skilled, competent therapist who has a copy of the book can help you with CEN.
  10. If all this rings a bell with you but you’re not sure if CEN applies to you or your spouse, Take the free Emotional Neglect Test.

And Don’t Forget

Throughout this whole process, remember that your CEN spouse didn’t ask for this and is probably just as baffled about what’s wrong as you have been.

Offer loads of compassion, plenty of assurance, and don’t feel bad about asking your partner to do this for you. After all, you deserve a happy, fulfilling, emotionally connected marriage. And so does your partner.

How to Deal With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents

Now that I see what my parents didn’t give me, how do I continue to interact with them?

Should I tell my parents how they failed me?

If I talk to my parents about CEN, won’t it make them feel bad?

How do I handle the pain that I feel now, as an adult, each time my parents treat me as if I don’t matter?

If you were raised by parents who were not tuned in enough to your emotional needs, you have probably experienced the results of this parental failure over and over throughout the years and into your adult life. Once you realize how deeply you have been affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), it can become quite difficult to interact with the parents who neglected you.

One of the most frequent questions that I am asked by people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect is, “Should I talk to my parents about CEN?”

It’s actually quite difficult to answer the questions above. Every single living human being had a childhood, and no two stories are the same. Indeed, the number of possible answers to the question is as infinite as the variety of different ways that CEN can happen. It can be extremely healing when an adult child and his or her parents are able to come to a mutual understanding of how an emotional failure happened and why, and how it affected everyone involved. This, however, can be a complicated business, difficult, and even risky.

It’s important to keep in mind that it is not at all necessary to include your parents in your recovery from CEN. As an adult, you can identify what you didn’t get, and you can give it to yourself. I have seen many people go through this process with great success without ever including their parents.

That said, you may certainly feel a wish or need to reach some understanding about CEN with your parents. If so, it is very understandable that you might feel this way. If you are wondering about whether to talk to them, one extremely important factor to consider is the type of CEN parents that you have. 

The 3 Main Categories of CEN Parents

  1. Self-centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents: These parents expect the child to fulfill their needs, rather than the other way around. They may not have treated you with the physical and emotional care and protection that a child needs from a parent.
  2. Struggling: These parents may mean well, but they are simply unaware of their child’s needs because they are struggling in their own lives. They may be struggling financially, emotionally, or with the caretaking of a sick family member or child, for example.
  3. WMBNT or Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves: These parents love their children and give them everything they can. But they are not able to give their child enough emotional responsiveness and validation because they didn’t receive it in their own childhoods. They may be simply “emotion blind.”

Parents who are in the last two categories, Struggling or WMBNT, stand a better chance of being able to get past their initial hurt, guilt, or defensiveness to have a fruitful talk with their adult children about CEN. If your parents were in the Self-centered category, were abusive, or failed you in many other ways as well, see the section below called Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents.

First, let’s look at some general suggestions to consider. Then we’ll talk about how to apply them to the different types of parents.

5 Ways to Talk With Your CEN Parents

  1. Ask your parents about their own childhoods – If you are unsure about why your parents were blind to your emotional needs, ask them some questions about their own parents and their own childhoods. You may be able to see whether and how your parents were failed by their parents. If you can see your own parents more clearly, you may be able to understand why they failed you. Whether you decide to talk to them about CEN or not, your understanding of how they got their emotional blind spots may help you feel less hurt when you are affected by them.
  2. Try to find compassion for your parents – Often, when you can see how your own parents were emotionally neglected, you can feel some compassion for what they didn’t get. This can help you to feel less angry and frustrated with them for failing you.
  3. Anticipate and prepare – Think about whether to tell your parents about your discovery of CEN. Might one parent be more able to understand it than the other? Will your parents collapse into a pool of guilt for having failed you? Will they be completely unable to grasp it? Will they get angry?
  4. If possible, take a chance – If you feel there is a potential for positive results and healing, I suggest that you take a chance and talk about it.
  5. Talk with compassion and anticipate how your parents might feel – Many parents may feel accused, defensive, hurt, or guilty when you try to talk to them about CEN. It is very important to anticipate this and prevent it. Here are some guidelines: 
    • Choose your moment wisely, with few distractions, when your parents are in a calm mood. Decide whether to talk with one parent first or both together.
    • If at all possible, have this conversation in person. It can be difficult to see what your parents are feeling or to respond to them in a helpful way via phone or electronic communication.
    • Tell them that this is a new discovery about yourself that you wish to share with them.
    • Talk about CEN with compassion for them and how they were raised.
    • Talk about how invisible and insidious it is, and how easy it is for loving, well-meaning parents to pass it down to their children.
    • Tell them what you are doing to heal yourself.
    • Be clear that this is not a matter of blame and not an accusation; you are talking with them about it only because you want to move forward and be closer to them.
    • Offer to give them a copy of Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect so that they can read about it for themselves.

Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple Failure Parents

If you have parents who fall into one of these categories, then you are faced with a situation that is even more complex than those above. Unless your parents have changed and grown since your childhood, I am sorry to say that most likely they will not be able to grasp the CEN concept or to respond to you in any positive way.

For you, I offer one guiding principle that may be difficult for you to accept. But I stand by it, after having treated scores of CEN people with parents like this. Here it is:

Make the decision about whether to talk to your parents about CEN based solely upon your own needs. If you think it may strengthen you or make you feel better to talk with them (even if it causes a rupture or distance between you), then do it. If not, then do not. You are not obligated to take your parent’s needs and preferences into account. On this, it’s all about you. 

In other words, if you had an abusive or multiple-failure parent, you have carte blanche permission to do whatever you feel will benefit you in your life. You, your children, and your spouse come first. You do not need to protect your parents from the knowledge that they failed you.

Parents who were abusive to you as a child, either verbally, emotionally, physically, or sexually, are also, by definition, emotionally neglectful. If they had been emotionally attuned to you enough, they would not have been able to treat you this way.

If your parents were/are abusive in any way, then it may be of more value to talk with them about the abuse than about the neglect since abuse is far more visible and tangible than CEN. Because CEN can be so imperceptible and hides beneath abuse, it will be very difficult and unlikely for abusive parents to ever grasp the concept.

Unless your parents have been to therapy, have confronted their own issues and abusive ways, and actively changed, (for example, an alcoholic or addicted parent who gets sober and goes to AA such that his/her personality becomes truly different) they will probably be no more able to hear you now than they could when you were a child.

So, ask yourself, “If I talk with my parents about CEN, what are the possible outcomes?” Will they tell you that you are too sensitive and that you are blowing things out of proportion? Will they blow up in anger? Will they likely say something abusive? Will they twist around what you are saying, and use it against you somehow?

If any of these are likely, I suggest that you put your energy toward healing yourself, and leave your parents out of it. It is extremely important if you do decide to talk with them, that you do it with the understanding that you may need to protect yourself emotionally. It is vital that you be strong enough to not be emotionally damaged by their words or reactions. This is a tall order for anyone but is especially so when you were raised by self-centered or abusive parents.

The Takeaway

It is certainly not necessary to talk to your parents about CEN. You can heal from it without ever doing so. Learning more about your parents’ childhoods and having compassion for them may help make their emotionally neglectful ways less painful to you now. However, sharing the concept of CEN with them can be helpful in some families, and may be a way for you to improve your relationship with them. Be sure to take into account the type of CEN parents that you have when making the decision to talk with them. Your path to healing is unique to you. There are no right or wrong answers.

If you decide to talk with your parents about CEN, follow the tips and guidelines above, and proceed with care. For much more information, details, and support for how to decide and how to protect yourself 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.

Above all else, remember that your feelings are important and your needs are important. Yes, you matter.

Childhood Emotional Neglect and Assertiveness Don’t Mix

“What do you think?”

“How do you feel?”

“What do you need?”

“What do you have to say?”

Imagine a child, let’s call him Zachary, growing up in a household in which he is seldom asked the above questions (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). Perhaps his parents are emotionally neglecting him because they have five children and are overwhelmed with getting them all dressed in the morning, much less what they think or feel. Perhaps his father died, and his mother is so enveloped in her own grief that she is barely functioning. Perhaps he has an older sibling who is autistic and who takes up the huge majority of his parents’ attention and resources. Or perhaps his parents are self-centered, and pay attention mostly only to what they think and feel.

The reason for Zachary’s parents’ apparent lack of interest is almost irrelevant. Because whatever the reason, the impact upon Zachary is the same. Since his parents are NOT asking him these questions, he is NOT receiving this vital message in his childhood: Your thoughts and feelings matter.

Think of childhood as the “programming phase” of life. The way our parents treat us in childhood sets up all of the “programs” for how we will treat ourselves throughout our lifetime. If our parents don’t ask us these questions when we are children, we will not naturally ask ourselves these questions as adults. Zachary will grow into a man whose natural default setting is to undervalue and under-attend to his own feelings, needs and thoughts. Zachary will be out of tune with himself. He will have difficulty asking for things, expressing his feelings, and perhaps even knowing his own needs.

In a sense, Zachary is growing up receiving the classic, invisible and subtly conveyed message of CEN: Don’t value or express your feelings and needs. This message is the complete opposite of assertiveness, which calls upon us to do just that. In order to be assertive, you have to:

  1. Know what you feel and need
  2. Believe that what you feel and need matters
  3. Know how to express your feelings and needs in a way that the other person can hear

Having been raised with the wrong message, Zachary will naturally follow his default setting – unassertive. If he is troubled by his difficulty standing up for himself, he will have to make a conscious decision to override the default. He will have to make changes in his basic views of himself and his own importance.

If you identify with Zachary, good news! It is entirely possible to do this. Once you understand what’s wrong and why, you can make a decision to change how you view yourself, and you can learn the skills involved in assertiveness.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how it might be affecting you, see my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Can Self-Discipline be Learned?

Why didn’t I stop myself from eating that  fifth piece of pizza?

Why can’t I make myself finish that project at work?

Why did I skip the gym YET AGAIN?

What is wrong with me?!

The only thing worse than struggling with self-discipline is serving that struggle up with a generous dollop of self-directed anger and self-blame. In my twenty-plus years as a psychologist, I have listened to questions like those above uttered countless times by intelligent, competent  people who are caught up in an endless, frustrating cycle of “why can’t I?”

We human beings are not born with an innate ability to regulate and control ourselves (self-discipline). These are actually vital skills that become wired into our brains when we receive the right kind of emotionally attentive parenting in childhood.

How We May Naturally Learn Self-Discipline in Childhood

  • When your mother called you in from playing with your neighborhood friends for dinner, whether she realized it or not, she was teaching you how to stop yourself from doing something fun and rewarding in order to do something healthy and necessary.  She was teaching you that some things must be done, even if you don’t feel like it.
  • When your dad gave you the weekly chore of cutting the grass and then followed up in a loving but firm way to make sure you did it, he was teaching you how to make yourself do what you don’t want to do and the rewards of that.
  • When your parents made sure you brushed your teeth twice a day
  • When they said no to dessert
  • When they set aside and enforced “homework hour” every day after school because you’d been slacking on homework
  • When they continued to love you but set your curfew earlier as a consequence for your having broken it….

All of these parental actions and responses are internalized by you, the child. These actions set up a system in your brain during your childhood that will allow you to, later on as an adult, be able to override your own desires. When our parents do this right for us, we not only internalize the ability to make ourselves do things and to stop ourselves from doing things, we internalize our parents’ voices, which later in adulthood become our own.

Now let’s take a moment to talk about Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

What is “Childhood Emotional Neglect?”  It’s a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.  In this way, Emotional Neglect is not something that a parent does to his child; instead, it’s something that he fails to do for his child.  You may be wondering what this means, and how it is relevant to self-discipline.

Although there are a number of possible underlying causes of self-discipline struggles, like depression or attention deficit disorder (ADD), I often have found that the cause is actually invisible, unmemorable, Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Many people who were emotionally neglected in childhood freely describe themselves as procrastinators. Some call themselves lazy. Common are battles with over-and under-eating, excessive spending, or over-drinking.  Many emotionally neglected people also have difficulty forcing themselves to exercise, do menial tasks or do anything that’s not immediately fun or rewarding.

The truth is, all forms of self-discipline can be boiled down to two basic ingredients, which are:

Making yourself do things you don’t want to do — and stopping yourself from doing things you want to do but shouldn’t. 

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Causes Self-Discipline Problems in Adulthood

One of the infinite variety of ways that a parent can emotionally neglect a child is to fail to provide enough structure and consequences for the child.  Many loving, well-meaning parents do not understand why this is so important. They prefer not to fight with their child. They want to avoid conflict. They want their child to be happy all the time. Perhaps they are distracted by their own interests; perhaps they are addicted, exhausted, self-centered, widowed, struggling financially, or depressed. So they let the child stay out playing far too late; they mow the lawn themselves because it’s easier; they let the child eat dessert too often; they let that curfew-break slide by. They may feel that letting the child do whatever he wants to do makes for a more peaceful, “happier,” household.

I believe that most parents would not opt for the more peaceful household if they understood that they were failing their child.  They would instead choose to enforce more rules, assign more chores, and dole out more consequences so that their children would learn how to:

Make themselves do what they don’t want to do, and stop themselves from doing what they shouldn’t do. 

What You Can Do

If you struggle with self-discipline in a certain area(s), I encourage you to consider Emotional Neglect as a cause.  The good news is this: if your brain wasn’t “programmed” in childhood to have this skill, it’s not too late! Once you understand why you’re struggling with self-discipline, you can stop blaming yourself.  You can stop calling yourself “lazy” or “weak-willed,” or “a procrastinator,” and instead start on a clearly laid-out road to recovery.

If you would like to learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, read more throughout this website. To see my recovery program for Self-Discipline problems caused by Emotional Neglect, see my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.  To get it in paperback, Kindle or Nook, click HERE.

Tame Your Brain for a Happier Holiday Season

Why are some folks’ holidays happier than others?

For the majority of people, there is a one-word answer to this question:  Family.

Here’s why:

  1. During the Holidays, there is extra intense focus on family dinners, family parties, family reunions, and family gift-giving.
  2. During the Holidays, there is extra pressure to enjoy family time together. This “family joy” pressure is deeply rooted in holiday tradition, and also comes from everywhere around you, including the media.
  3. Because of all this, our families take on extra power over us November through January.
  4. Our human brains are biologically programmed from birth to need and seek emotional connection from our families of origin. This program runs throughout adulthood, whether we want it to or not. During the holidays, it kicks into high gear, driving up our needs and expectations for feeling loved and known by our families.
  5. Most of us don’t think about this. We go through the usual holiday motions, unaware that we are under such tremendous influence from our brains, history, the media and our families during this time of year.

Here’s what it all adds up to. If your family is healthy and warm, chances are, you will experience a healthy, warm holiday season without having to give it much thought.

If your family is clearly dysfunctional, chances are you will be expecting a challenging and stressful holiday season, and chances are, you will unfortunately have that. If you are in this group, you can find some good ideas and tips for the holidays HERE.

Then there’s a whole, large, Third Group. The Third Group is made up of people who come from a family which is neither healthy and warm, nor dysfunctional. A family which falls somewhere in-between.  A family which perhaps appears to be normal and fine, but which lacks some essential ingredient that makes its members feel loved, connected and happy. These families are a set-up for high expectations, followed by dashed hopes, disappointment, and feelings of emptiness. People in the Third Group fall between the cracks. No one thinks or writes about your dilemma. Don’t worry, I am here to help!

In my experience as a psychologist, I have realized that the majority of people who are from these Third Group families are unaware that they are not from healthy and warm families. When your family lacks enough emotional connection and validation, it is not something that you can readily see or notice. The absence of an invisible entity is doubly invisible. So these Third Group people experience the ultimate set-up. High expectations — dashed hopes — puzzlement about why they’re not feeling joyous. After all, there’s no visible explanation.

If you think you may be from a Third Group Family, here are some:

Tips for a Happy Holiday Season

  1. Recognize that you are living in an unnatural bubble until January.
  2. Tame your brain by purposely taking control of your own expectations. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be “joyous.” Instead set the goal of enjoying moments of the season, and of your family gathering.
  3. Focus on getting enjoyment from providing and expressing to others. Show the warmth and connection that you feel for someone when you feel it.
  4. Keep in mind that it’s not your fault. You are not the cause of the lack of emotional connection and validation in your family of origin. It’s not because of you, and it’s not in response to you. It just is.
  5. Identify the people in your life who truly know you and truly love you. These are the people who can provide you with that feeling of warmth which your human brain naturally needs. Spend more time and energy with those people throughout the season.
  6. Make a vow that in January, you will start to take a closer look at other ways that your Third Group family might be affecting you year-round. Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire to get started. Dealing with this now can make 2014 a year of personal growth, warmth and connection like no other.

Wishing you a warm, connected Holiday Season!!

 

How to Find a Therapist for Childhood Emotional Neglect

 

I’ve seen several therapists in the past, and none of them  talked about CEN with me.

My therapist talks about Emotional Neglect, but does not seem to have the same picture of it that you describe in Running on Empty.

My therapist doesn’t seem to understand what I mean when I talk about Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Can you please help me find a CEN specialist near me?

My book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect came out in 2012. Since then, I have enjoyed hearing from thousands of readers. Each week, I get multiple letters and emails from readers telling me their stories or asking questions about Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Often the messages are from people who read the book and feel that they finally can see the underlying cause of their struggles. Many of these folks have been in therapy in the past and found it helpful, but felt that an important piece was not addressed; their Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). The questions and comments above are ones which I have heard from literally hundreds of people.

There are several reasons why it is difficult to find a therapist who knows what you mean when you talk about CEN as it’s described in Running on Empty:

  • Although almost every therapist understands the concept of Emotional Neglect, most do not necessarily use the term Emotional Neglect to describe it. There still is not a recognized, universal term.
  • Since there is not yet a body of research proving the full picture of CEN, most mental health professionals do not necessarily see that full picture as it is described in the book. Until I have that research, Running on Empty is the only resource describing CEN fully. If your therapist has not read the book, he or she probably will not have the entire concept in mind.

This is why so many therapists seem to understand what you mean when you use the term Emotional Neglect, but then don’t talk about it directly or fully as treatment progresses.

Here’s the good news: Any well-trained, competent therapist who is open to reading Running on Empty will be able to quickly jump on board and help you with it.

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Start with a therapist who has good credentials, experience and/or a recommendation from a trusted source.
  2. If you are interested in doing the recovery exercises in the second half of the book, you might want to find a therapist who has skills in the cognitive-behavioral area. However, a therapist who describes herself as a “behaviorist” would probably not be a good match for this.
  3. Therapists use many different terms to describe themselves and I know it can be confusing. Many psychodynamic therapists will be on-board with doing this work with you, but therapists who say they are psychoanalytic will probably want to follow their own style of treatment and may not be a good fit.
  4. When you call for a first appointment, talk with the therapist on the phone first. Tell her about the book and that you are looking for a therapist to help you with “not just generic emotional neglect” but “the full picture of Childhood Emotional Neglect that is described in the book.”
  5. Ask the therapist if he/she will be willing to read the book, including the ‘For the Therapist’ chapter.
  6. If all systems are go, then take a copy of the book to your first appointment.
  7. At your first appointment, try to describe why this way of understanding yourself is helpful, and why other things you’ve tried have missed the mark.
  8. If you feel in the first meeting that the therapist isn’t fully on board, try another one. Seeing a therapist once does not obligate you to go back.

I hope you find these tips useful. And I hope you will not hold back from getting help with this. It’s possible to heal yourself, but it can be much easier with the support and guidance of a professional who truly understands what you are going through and how to mend it.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by this process or a bit at-sea, you can request a one-hour phone or Skype consult between your therapist and me (if your therapist is willing, of course). To learn more about scheduling a consult, please visit my Private Practice page.

On the Outside

 

I feel like I’m on the outside, looking in.

Whoever I’m with, I don’t feel I fit in.

When I’m with other people I may look fine, but I don’t feel fine.

The first item on the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire (ENQ) is:

– Do you sometimes feel like you don’t belong when you are with family or friends?

I put that question first in the ENQ on purpose. Because it is one of the most centrally defining qualities of a person who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect.

At first glance, it doesn’t make sense. Why would a person carry around a pervasive feeling of being out of place? Of not fitting in? Of being on the outside, looking in? Especially when among people who love you? It is a difficult to identify, difficult to name feeling; yet it can hold tremendous power over a person. It can make it hard to go to a social gathering, and difficult to stay very long. Perhaps you get irritable when you’re around other people and you’re not sure why. Perhaps you’re good at putting on a show to look like you’re having fun, but only you know that actually, you are not. Perhaps you are actually looking around at other people laughing and talking and appearing comfortable, and wondering what you are missing.

In over twenty years as a psychologist, I have heard many lovely people describe this feeling. They each use different words, but they all have one common factor which links them: they all grew up in a household with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

CEN happens when parents fail to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. When you are a child whose feelings are largely ignored, you receive an indirect, but very powerful message from your parents. That message is, “Your feelings don’t matter.” I have seen time and time again, that when children receive this message, they automatically adapt. They push their feelings down and away so that they will not bother anyone. This may help the child survive, or even thrive, in a household that is not friendly to emotion. But in adulthood, it becomes a problem.

Your Emotions and Your Relationships

As adults, we need our emotions. Emotion is the glue that connects us to other people and the spice that keeps things interesting. When your emotions are pushed away, it’s hard to feel the emotional connection that binds people together at a party. It’s even harder to experience the spontaneous, happy synergy that occurs when people are truly fully present with each other. So instead, you are like a baker without yeast. You are operating without a key ingredient that everyone else has. And you feel it.

If you find yourself identifying with this, please remember that while the “On the Outside” feeling is a real feeling, it is not a real thing. The people you are with do not see you that way. They don’t see you on the outside. They don’t feel that you don’t belong. They want to connect with you and enjoy your company.

The best thing about CEN is that it can be overcome.

4 Tips to Overcome Your On the Outside Feeling

  1. Become more aware of your “On the Outside” feeling. Notice when you feel it. Take notice of the power it has over you. Keep it in the back of your mind at all times. Remind yourself that it’s just a feeling.
  2. Once you’re more aware of the feeling, its source, and its power, start to fight it. Force yourself to go to social gatherings, and constantly fight the feeling while you’re there.
  3. Tell someone (your spouse, a sibling, a good friend) about this feeling. Explain the source and your struggle. Ask that person for their support at family functions, parties, and other gatherings.
  4. Address your CEN. It’s important to attack your CEN from all angles. One of the best ways to do this is to start working on accepting and feeling your own emotions more. The better you get at this, the weaker your “On the Outside” feeling will become.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible and difficult to remember so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire (ENQ). It’s free.

Becoming more comfortable with your emotions is a key part of this process, as well as learning how your feelings (and you) fit into relationships with other people. If you find yourself mystified or daunted by this, you can learn much more about how to use your emotions to enrich, enliven, and deepen your relationships in the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Once you realize what’s wrong, you are on your way to recovery. You’re on the path to a more connected, more comfortable, and more fully satisfying life. You don’t need to feel on the outside anymore.

Empty

The Definition of Empty: “Not Filled”

Everyone knows what the word “empty” means. It’s a simple word, easily understood.  But what does “empty” mean in terms of human feelings and emotions? Here, it is not so simply defined.

My definition of emptiness as a human emotion: the feeling that’s caused by the absence of feeling; a general sense that something is missing inside of oneself; a feeling of disconnection from oneself and others; numbness; sometimes experienced physically as an empty space in the belly, chest, throat or other part of the body.

Emptiness is not a clinical term among mental health professionals. It’s not a common term among the general public. It’s not something that people generally talk about. Yet in my 25 years of practicing psychology, I have encountered many people who have tried to express it to me in some way. Few of them have had the words to describe it. Mostly I had to intuit what was going on for them and give them the words. Each time, it brought the person great relief. It is incredibly healing and connecting to put a label on a plaguing, undefined feeling that has dogged one for years. A label offers understanding and hope, and a path somewhere.

I have a theory about why emptiness has gone so unnoticed, unknown and ill-defined. It’s because emptiness is not actually a feeling; it’s an absence of feeling. We human beings are not wired to notice, define or discuss the absence of things. We have a hard enough time talking about feelings. But the absence of feelings seems almost too vague, unimaginable, invisible; too difficult to grab hold of.

This is why so many people live with this feeling on and off throughout a lifetime. Many people don’t even know they have it, much less what it is. They just know that they feel “off”; like something just isn’t right with them. They feel different from other people in some inexplicable way. One person said to me, “I feel like a bit player in the movie of my own life.” Another said, “I feel like I’m on the outside, looking in at other people who are truly living.”

I also have a theory about–

What causes emptiness:

Children who grow up in a household where feelings are not acknowledged, validated or responded to enough, receive a powerful message. They learn that their emotions are not valid, do not matter, or are unacceptable to others. They learn that they must ignore, neutralize, devalue or push away their emotions. For some children, this message permeates every aspect of their emotional lives; for others, it may only affect certain parts. Either way, the child disconnects from his own feelings. He pushes them down and away (because after all, they are useless, negative or unacceptable to others). It’s adaptive for the child to do this, as it will help her to be more comfortable in her family environment. But she is unknowingly sacrificing the most deeply personal, biological part of who she is: her emotions. Years later, as an adult, she will feel the absence of this vital part of herself. She will feel the empty space which her feelings are meant to fill. She will feel disconnected, unfulfilled, empty.

I have noticed, over years of working with people who have emptiness, that they are usually thoroughly stand-up folks. They are folks who care for others better than they care for themselves; who put a smile on their faces and soldier on, never giving away that something’s just not right for them. They literally run on empty.

I‘ve given a name to this process of developing emptiness. I call it Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). I’m trying to educate people about CEN. I’m trying to reach the scores of people who are living their lives under its influence, with little awareness or ability to describe it. I’m trying to offer them the words to talk about it, and the opportunity to heal.

To learn more about emptiness and Childhood Emotional Neglect, read more throughout this website, www.EmotionalNeglect.com, or pick up a copy of my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s available on this website under THE BOOK tab, via Amazon (Kindle or paperback), or through your local bookstore.

 

How to Identify Childhood Emotional Neglect in Your Clients

For Mental Health Professionals

As clinicians, we all know how to see and diagnose depression, anxiety, phobias, substance dependence as well as a myriad of other disorders in our patients. We watch for a certain cluster of symptoms, compare the number and severity with the description of that disorder in the DSM or the ICD-9, and presto. Sometimes it’s pretty simple and clear; other times, it’s complicated.

But it’s never as difficult as with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Here’s why:

  1. It’s not memorable: The adult symptoms of CEN are not caused by childhood events. In contrast, they are in fact caused by childhood non-events. They’re a direct result of a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. Since this is not something that happens to a child, but is instead something that fails to happen for a child, the child’s eyes don’t see it and her brain doesn’t record it. The adult patient in your office has no memory of it. This makes it really difficult to see.
  2. It’s not visible: CEN is often buried beneath depression, anxiety, phobias, substance abuse, or some other, more obvious or florid condition. It can also be buried beneath childhood trauma, which is far more obvious and memorable. Your client will likely be asking for relief from these more widely-known, visible symptoms.
  3. There aren’t words for it: Many of the symptoms of CEN are quite difficult to put into words. People seldom spontaneously report and describe feelings of emptiness, the Fatal Flaw, counter-dependence or Alexithymia the way they might report panic attacks, difficulty sleeping or alcohol abuse.
  4. It’s not well-known: Much of the public has been educated about the most common mental health maladies. Many people are able to recognize when they are depressed or anxious. Until now, CEN has received little to no attention. People don’t know it exists, or how to see it in themselves. It is my mission to try to change this, with your help.
Fortunately, there are ways to deal with all of these barriers. Here are the first five things (from the For the Therapist chapter of Running on Empty) to watch for to help you identify CEN in a client:
  1. One of the first hints that I am sitting with a CEN client is a sense that the clinical picture doesn’t add up. For example, the client’s adult struggles seem inexplicable in the context of his description of his childhood. Since CEN is not typically remembered, many CEN patients describe their childhood as “fine,” leaving me wondering how these lifelong symptoms developed.
  2. Watch for a client to feel guilty, or even angry at himself, for simply having feelings. CEN clients received a powerful message in childhood: Don’t Have Feelings. The adult will therefore blame himself and feel ashamed of his emotions.
  3. Watch for a patient to be highly protective of her parents. Many CEN people’s parents were actually quite loving, and provided well for their children. The adult looks back upon childhood and sees the love and the material comfort, but can’t see what the parents didn’t provide: emotional validation and support. CEN clients can be fiercely defensive of their parents.
  4. Many CEN patients doubt the substance of their childhood memories. “I feel like I’m probably exaggerating, it wasn’t really that bad.” “Isn’t this boring for you to listen to?” “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, it’s probably not that important.” These are all common statements from CEN people who are relating events from childhood.
  5. Watch for Alexithymia, or Low Emotional Intelligence. People who grow up in homes that are blind to emotion don’t learn how to tolerate, identify, respond to or manage emotion. This is one of the most observable telltale signs in the therapy relationship.
Of course, identifying CEN is only the start. It can also be difficult to help your client see that he has CEN. This is why I wrote Running on Empty. My hope is to help people everywhere and their therapists identify what’s going on under the surface, put it into words, and join together to correct it. In the book, I cover the ten primary struggles of the emotionally neglected child in adulthood, the twelve types of parents who are likely to emotionally neglect their child, and a full section on how to heal, including a chapter For the Therapist.

 

 

 

Six Tips for Parenting Teenagers

 

There is very little about raising a child that prepares us to raise a teen.

We tend to hit our parenting stride when our children are around age 9, 10, 11. Then, the child enters adolescence and all of the rules suddenly change. It’s like plate tectonics. The earth shakes, and your child wakes up a different person. And this requires you to be a different kind of parent.

As a psychologist who specializes in treating teens, I have helped scores of adolescents and their parents navigate the rough waters of adolescence over the last twenty years. I am now the parent of two teenagers myself, and I think this puts me in a unique situation. Shouldn’t I be really good at this, since it’s my professional specialty? The answer is:   Hmm. It’s just not the same when it’s your own child.

As a psychologist, I call children’s natural, gradual detachment from their parents throughout adolescence “individuation.” As a parent, I call it simply “loss.” I’ve never felt more alone in my house than I do now. My children, ages 17 and 14, far less often choose, unprompted, to speak to me. When I ask my 17-year-old how her day was, the answer is typically an eye-roll. My son, whose sunny disposition and warm heart has always been my consolation during his older sister’s natural distancing, is now only “himself” about 20% of the time. The other 80%, he’s a sullen, preoccupied, hungry, headphone-covered young fellow.

These two went from, as young children, seeking a kiss and hug from me before leaving for school in the morning, to tolerating it, to outright refusing it. When I walk in the door after a long day’s work, only one person offers a greeting:  my husband. It’s hard. It’s lonely. It’s thankless.

It might sound like I’m complaining, and I guess I am. But I would also like to acknowledge the great things about having teenagers. For example, I now have considerably more free time. My daughter drives herself and her brother places. Neither seems to need me as much. I get to spend more quality time with my husband, doing fun activities that we both enjoy. Exciting things are happening, as my daughter has started to think about and explore the process of choosing a college. It is exciting to watch little babies grow into almost-adulthood and the amazing people that they are becoming.

Now I would like to share some of the lessons that I have learned along the way. Each of these Tips for Parenting Teenagers represents things that are distinctly different from parenting young children. I learned them the hard way, through my own personal experience; then I ran them through the sieve of professional research and experience. So you can rest assured that all of these tips are doubly tried and true, personally and professionally.

  1. Choose your battles carefully. Younger children are more dependent upon you, so you have more intrinsic power. Your bond is more consistent, and you can afford to address things as they come up. On the other hand, your teenager is trying to assert independence and needs to feel a sense of his own power and authority. That makes it very important to preserve your bond and to fight only the battles that really matter.
  2. Don’t over-respond to your teen’s moods:  Teens are moody in a way that younger children are not. And their moods can be very powerful in the household. It’s important to give them the space to be in a bad mood without getting angry in return or trying to “fix” it for them. Often, their moods have nothing to do with their parents. They are more related to hormones, or to simply being an adolescent.
  3. Let your teen choose your moments to communicate with her: With an adolescent, timing is everything. Your teen will tell you what moments to choose. Don’t try to talk to your teen when she’s tired or stressed or moody or seems to be shut down. Instead, when she seems open, put down everything you are doing and talk to her then.
  4. Make sure the rules and expectations are clear and well-communicated. I recommend writing them down and posting them on the refrigerator. Teenagers are masters of manipulation. They are great at blurring, fudging, forgetting. Writing things makes them more concrete and inviolable.
  5. Give your teen room to grow while keeping the emotional connection intact. This is the most difficult tip of all. Your teen doesn’t want to need you and doesn’t want to want you. It’s your job to tolerate the rejection, and simply be there for him, no matter what. Never reject your teen.
  6. Walk the line. Your adolescent is either approaching or at the line that separates the child from the adult. He’s confused by this. His roles are changing and his brain is changing. Your job now is to walk that line with him. As his parent, this line becomes the one between freedom and rules; between dependence and independence; between family and friends; between home and the rest of the world. To be on that line with your teen means tolerating the confusion and discomfort that he feels himself. So set limits and enforce them, while taking your teen’s personal characteristics and needs into account. Let him make mistakes, but not too many. Encourage his peer friendships, but check up on him when you have concerns or doubts about them. In other words, back off. But not too much.

To learn all about how to parent your child of any age in an emotionally responsive and attuned way, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. It’s filled with tips that explain exactly how to emotionally affirm and validate your child, keeping the emotional connection strong.