This is the month that makes us all go a little mad. You know what I mean. This morning is a perfect example. I woke up to sunny skies offering a brightness that hints of Spring to come. Now, two hours later, it’s cloudy. The winds have picked up, and I really don’t want to go outside. Weary of winter, brown, dingy remnants of the most recent snowstorm, not a lot going on in general. That’s March.
I have found that March is particularly challenging for one particular group of people. To determine whether you are a member of this group, please answer these questions about yourself in general before reading on:
You may be wondering what all these questions have in common, so let me explain. There is a subset of the population who feel pressure to stay busy all the time. Be productive, move around, don’t sit still. I have come to realize that there is a surprising explanation for this particular mindset. It’s not society, technology, inner resourcefulness or drive. It’s actually Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Here’s how it works. When you grow up in a household that’s blind to emotion, you don’t learn the skills necessary to accept, identify tune in to, or express your own emotions. Emotions which aren’t dealt with and managed go underground, pooling together inside of you like a pot of soup. This “soup” simmers away outside of your awareness. Out of sight, out of mind. As long as you stay busy, driven, focused on things, distracted, you don’t have to feel those feelings. But it’s those alone moments when there is nothing to distract you that the feelings start to bubble up. I have seen this lead to great discomfort in many people; a feeling of restlessness and discontent that is difficult to sit with.
This is what makes March a particularly difficult month for the emotionally neglected. When we’re trapped inside, suspended between winter and spring, we are forced to sit with ourselves. It is a challenge which we can either run from or face. I say, let’s take it on.
My book Running on Empty has 3 chapters dedicated solely to helping emotionally neglected people learn to tolerate, accept, name, manage, and express emotion. Here I’m going to share with you an exercise that I often assign to my emotionally neglected patients. It’s designed specially to help you learn to tolerate your pot of soup, a skill that will help make your life more peaceful, calm and emotionally connected.
Identifying & Naming Exercise
Do this exercise once per day. You can start with three minutes, or one minute, or ten minutes, depending on how difficult it is for you. You decide what’s most workable for you to start with:
Step 1: Close your eyes. Picture a blank screen that takes over your mind, banishing all thoughts. Focus all of your attention on the screen, turning your attention inward.
Step 2: Ask yourself the question:
“What am I feeling right now?”
Step 3: Focus on your internal experience. Be aware of any thoughts that might pop into your head, and erase them quickly. Keep your focus on:
“What am I feeling right now?”
Step 4: Try to identify feeling words to express it. You may need more than one word.
Step 5: If you’re having difficulty identifying any feelings, you can google “Feeling Word List,” or use the Feeling Word List in the Resources section of Running on Empty to help you identify what you are feeling.
If you find this exercise impossible, don’t be upset! Many E.N. people have great difficulty with this exercise. Simply try this instead:
Here, you are using Step 1 as an exercise to learn how to sit with yourself and your feelings and tolerate them. Do this as many times per day as you can. The more you do it, the better you will get at it. At some point, you will be ready to go back and try Steps 2 through 5 again, and it will be easier this time.
Bottom Line: Emotions are a useful, vital, biological part of who we are. They cannot be erased, and they will not be denied. We can make them our friends or our enemies, but we cannot run from them. If you’ve been running from your feelings, turn around and face them. Learn to sit with them, express them, manage them, and use them to make decisions. Allow them to enrich and enliven your life, and you will feel more connected, more fulfilled, stronger and overall happier in the end.
Put an end to your March Madness.
Give Your Valentine the Best Gift Ever: Emotional Attunement
Candy and flowers are lovely Valentine gifts for your special someone, but what happens after the chocolates are gone and the petals fall off the roses? Every day can’t be Valentine’s Day for couples … or can it?
In my experience as a couple’s therapist, I have noticed that the biggest predictor of marital happiness is something that I call “Emotional Attunement.” Long-term happiness can be difficult for many couples to achieve … especially when this factor, Emotional Attunement, is missing from the relationship. Lack of Emotional Attunement can lead to frustration and feelings of loneliness. In fact, it can feel more lonely to be disconnected within a marriage than simply being single.
What is Emotional Attunement? It is:
Why do some couples have Emotional Attunement, and others don’t?
Most people learn how to be emotionally attuned during their childhood. When a parent treats a child with understanding, looks beneath the child’s behavior to respond to what he is feeling, and takes the time and effort to truly know her child, she is teaching that child Emotional Attunement skills that he will automatically apply in his relationships as an adult. If a parent unwittingly fails his child enough in any of these areas, he is letting his child grow up with a lack of these necessary skills (Childhood Emotional Neglect).
Even couples who possess these skills can easily slip into taking each other for granted and taking the easy road.
Here are some examples of poor Emotional Attunement:
Here are some examples of good Emotional Attunement:
If you or your partner grew up without enough Emotional Attunement from your parents; if you feel your relationship is lacking, GOOD NEWS! There is a way to get back on track today … and to stay there all year long.
If you or your partner struggle greatly with these skills, I recommend that you start addressing your Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) right away. You can learn the skills now that you missed out on while you were growing up. To learn more about CEN, take a look at the ABOUT EMOTIONAL NEGLECT and THE BOOK pages of this website.
In the meantime, write this Valentine Pledge in your Valentine card:
“In the coming year, I pledge to work harder to understand you; to notice what you are feeling and to feel it myself; and to tell you what I am feeling and why so that you can understand me better too.”
The Valentine Pledge is the best gift you can give your significant other. It carries more weight than gold or diamonds, will outlast chocolates or flowers, and will add an ongoing richness to your lives that no romantic dinner can offer.
If you follow this Pledge, you can make every day Valentine’s Day. No candy or flowers required.
Dr. Jonice Webb – Bio
Dr. Jonice Webb is the author of Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect (Morgan James Publishing, October, 2012). Dr. Webb has been interviewed on dozens of radio shows across the United States and Canada about Childhood Emotional Neglect and has appeared on The Literati Scene in Boston. She has a PhD in clinical psychology, and has been licensed to practice since 1991. She currently has a private psychotherapy practice in Lexington, MA, where she specializes in the treatment of couples and families. Dr. Webb resides in the Boston area with her husband and two children.
Every November, it starts to happen.
In the stores, on the sidewalks downtown, on the television, and even among our own family, we experience a push toward holiday spirit. It’s a gradual build toward Thanks; then Merriment; and finally on December 31, Reveling. It’s all fun (well, mostly fun for most people).
But all good things must come to an end. Many people have told me that starting as early as January 2, they start to feel a sense of grey doldrums. It may be that your Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukkah family gathering didn’t go well. It may be that the Holidays never really met their full potential this year. Or it may be that your holidays were all terrific, and you are now faced with back to regular life: work, school, winter, and nothing special going on.
Most post-holiday doldrums will go away on their own, with time. But there are some things you can do to drive them off faster. I highly recommend fighting back so that your year gets off to a good, solid start. There’s nothing like taking action to make you feel in control of your life and your happiness. Here are Four Tips to put you in charge of your post-holiday doldrums:
Don’t let that gray feeling take you over. It’s the best way to get a good start to the year.
Happy New Year
Make 2013 Your Year
When we think of New Year’s resolutions, we usually think about things we want to change about ourselves. Most people try to think of the things they don’t like about themselves and resolve to change them. Here are some examples of typical resolutions:
This year, I invite you to think of resolutions differently. Instead of changing something you don’t like about yourself, think positively. Think about what you want to accomplish in 2013. Here’s the question to start with:
A year from now, when you look back on 2013, what accomplishment do you want to see?
Here are some examples of possible “Revolution Resolutions” that you might feel happy to see when you look back from 1/1/2014:
Obviously some of these are bigger than others. It all depends upon what’s going on in your life, and what stage of life you are in. If you’re busy raising small children, it may not make sense to choose something as major as starting a new business, for example. Perhaps making new friends or starting a blog might be more in order. The important thing is to choose a resolution that’s attainable FOR YOU and that will improve your life in some significant way.
Here are 4 Tips to help ensure Resolution success in 2013:
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!
Do you have an obnoxious uncle, a surly son, a snide sister or a mean mother?
Few people can hurt us as much as the people closest to us. Usually, that’s family. Most people have at least one family member who is verbally brutal, judgmental or just plain thoughtless. Unfortunately, when we react to the rude comments these people make, our reaction can easily make us look worse than them. Here is a good example of how this can happen:
When I was 22 years old, I went with my friend Jackie to her parents’ house for Christmas Eve dinner. I was a little nervous about going, because Jackie had, over the two years that I had known her, told me many stories about how critical her father was. He had said things to her in the past like, “Well, Jackie, looks like you’ve put on the proverbial Freshman Fifteen,” and “I never thought a child of mine could be as poor at math as you are.”
Jackie had a large family, and dinner was served buffet style. As all of the twenty-some people were bustling around filling their plates, Jackie’s dad said, “Watch out everyone, don’t get between Jackie and the food.” Everyone laughed. That is, everyone but Jackie and me. I was looking at Jackie, as a momentary look of devastation crossed her face. Then she did something extremely surprising to everyone. She dropped her plate of food on the tile floor, and stomped out of the room with a look of impenetrable hatred directed at her father.
Everyone stood in stunned silence for a moment. Then her cousin said, “Wow, what’s with her?” Another relative said, “Man, she’s touchy.” I seemed to be the only person there who understood the background, and that Jackie was not reacting to that one comment. She had finally snapped after a lifetime of putdowns and insults from the man who was supposed to nurture and protect her.
Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to NEVER draw the negative attention to yourself, while still defending yourself. Here is the “magic formula.”
Tip #1: BE PREPARED. Before your family event, it’s important to do some thinking. Try to recall some of the rude comments this person has said to you in the past. What basic theme do they follow? Imagine the upcoming scenario (location, event, e.g., family dinner), who will be there, and exactly what your critic might say in those circumstances. Next, think of some comebacks that you can pull out of your metaphorical back pocket and throw at your critic as needed. Expect a mean comment. It is better to be prepared for something that doesn’t happen than it is to be unprepared for something you didn’t foresee. See the examples for comebacks below in Tip #3.
Tip #2: BE CALM. Vow to stay calm, no matter what. Remember that your critic’s attacks upon you say more about him/her than they do about you. Do not let yourself get worked up. The calmer you remain, the more effective your comeback will be.
Tip #3: BE ASSERTIVE. “Assertiveness” is basically this: Speaking your mind in a way that is not designed to hurt the other person.” Here are some examples of some effective assertive comebacks for situations like this:
“Dad, comments like that are hurtful.”
“Excuse me, that was uncalled for.”
“That’s nice. Real nice.”
“I don’t understand why you feel a need to say something like that to me.”
Tip #4: BE STRONG. The worst thing you can do is let a critical or verbally brutal person hurt you. If you prepare yourself in advance, stay calm, and say something assertive, you will appear unscathed and will earn the admiration of all those around you. Then, when you go home, think it over and remind yourself that this person is attacking you because of his or her own weakness. Don’t take it in. Be Strong.
People who grew up in households with low tolerance for emotion tend to carry particular beliefs about emotions in relationships into their adulthoods. Below is a good, but not exhaustive, sampling of beliefs that I’ve heard many emotionally neglected people say. Please read through these seven beliefs, and put a mental check-mark next to the ones that you feel are true.
1. Sharing your feelings or troubles with others will make them feel burdened.
2. Sharing your feelings or troubles with others will chase them away.
3. If you let other people see how you feel, they will use it against you.
4. Sharing your feelings with others will make you look weak.
5. Letting others see your weaknesses puts you at a disadvantage.
6. It’s best not to fight if you want to have a good relationship.
7. Talking about a problem isn’t helpful. Only action solves a problem.
When you grow up receiving consistent direct or indirect messages, no matter how subtle, that you should keep your feelings to yourself (Childhood Emotional Neglect), it is natural to assume that your feelings are burdensome and undesirable to others. But the reality is that feelings and emotions are the glue that binds people together. Sharing feelings or troubles with a friend draws them closer and makes you seem stronger. Fighting out a conflict with someone you care about, when done right, is the best way to get through to the other side of that conflict. And talking about a problem has been proven to help people feel better.
Fortunately, not one of the above Seven Beliefs is true. In fact, they are each and every one dead wrong. Subscribing to any one of these false beliefs can set you at a disadvantage in friendships and relationships of all kinds. They will each and every one hold you back from making healthy, solid and meaningful connections with people; whether it be girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, sibling, family or friend.
If you put a mental checkmark next to any one of the Seven Beliefs, it may mean that you were emotionally neglected, in some way, in childhood. If that is the case, it will be vital for you to figure out how you were emotionally neglected so that you can overcome it. Read more about Emotional Neglect: what it is, how it works, how it affects people and how to overcome it throughout this website. Much more information on Emotional Neglect can be found in my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, at Amazon, or your local bookstore. The Kindle version is also available Here.
If you feel you need more help in dealing with this, I hope you will contact a qualified psychologist or psychotherapist to help you attack your false beliefs. If you don’t they may hold you back in every area of your life, but especially in your relationships with the people you care about the most.
“Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”
Stupid, sappy, mushy, melodramatic, insipid, tiresome, wimpy, lame. These are all words that I have heard people use to describe their own emotions.
As a psychologist, I see in our society a poor tolerance for something that is a deeply personal, biological part of who we are as humans: our emotions. Indeed, if you grew up in one of the many, many households where emotion was discouraged or poorly tolerated (Childhood Emotional Neglect), you may now, as an adult, have a negative connotation to feelings of all kinds. You may see emotion as a sign of weakness.
You may hide your feelings from yourself and others; even the people you care about the most. You may regard the expression or sharing of feelings as maudlin, illogical, or just plain useless. You may have no idea what you feel or why because you have buried your emotions so deeply, even from yourself.
Why did emotion evolve in the first place? Sometimes, especially to emotionally neglected people, emotions feel like a burden. Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to feel sad when we had a conflict with a friend, angry when someone cuts us off in traffic, or anxious before a job interview? On the surface, maybe it would seem easier if we didn’t have to feel those things. But my belief is that if we didn’t have emotions, life would not be better. In fact, it would not be sustainable.
Emotion is necessary for survival. Emotions tell us when we are in danger. They tell us when to run, when to fight, and what is worth fighting for. Emotions are our body’s way of communicating with us and driving us to do things. Here are some examples of the purposes of just a few emotions.
|FEAR||tells us to escape/self-preservation|
|ANGER||pushes us to fight back/self-protection|
|LOVE||drives us to care for spouses, children, others|
|PASSION||drives us to procreate, create and invent|
|HURT||pushes us to correct a situation|
|SADNESS||tells us we are losing something important|
|COMPASSION||pushes us to help others|
|DISGUST||tells us to avoid something|
|CURIOSITY||drives us to explore and learn|
You get the idea. For every emotion, there is a purpose. Emotions are incredibly useful tools to help us adapt, survive and thrive. People who were emotionally neglected were trained to try to erase, deny, push underground, and in some cases, be ashamed of, this invaluable built-in feedback system. Because they are not listening to their emotions, they are operating at a disadvantage from the rest of us. Pushing away this vital source of information makes you vulnerable and potentially less productive. It also makes it harder to experience life to its fullest.
Emotions do more, though, than drive us to do things. They also feed the human connections that give life the depth and richness that makes it worthwhile. It is this depth and richness which I believe provides the best answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Emotional connections to others help us stave off feelings of emptiness as well as existential angst.
If you have spent a lifetime trying to deny your natural, biological emotional responses, you may at times feel disconnected, empty, or unfulfilled in life. The people who love you may find you distant, self-contained, or even arrogant. You may find yourself irritable or angry more often than you would like.
If any of this rings a bell to you, please read more about Emotional Neglect throughout this website. There is much more information about it in my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. In the book, I talk about the many forms that Emotional Neglect can take, the 12 types of parents who unwittingly emotionally neglect their child, and the 10 issues that emotionally neglected children struggle with as adults. I also offer six clear strategies for overcoming Emotional Neglect.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how to recover from it, see my books Running Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships and Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect , and Take The Emotional Neglect Test for free.
Are you wondering if Emotional Neglect applies to you? Take this questionnaire to find out. Circle the questions to which your answer is YES.
Emotional Neglect Questionnaire
Look back over your circled (YES) answers. These answers give you a window into the areas in which you may have experienced Emotional Neglect as a child. To learn more about Emotional Neglect, you can order a copy of my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect by clicking on THE BOOK tab of this website, or by going to Amazon.com or your local bookstore.
What didn’t happen to you as a child?
Over 20 years of practicing psychology, I started to see a factor from people’s childhoods that weighs upon them as adults, sapping their joy, and causing them to feel disconnected and unfulfilled. This factor is so subtle that it goes virtually unnoticed by everyone, while it does its silent damage to people’s lives. I call this factor Emotional Neglect, and it’s the topic of my self-help book, Running on Empty.
Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. In other words, Emotional Neglect is something that failed to happen in a person’s childhood.
In order to demonstrate why Emotional Neglect is so invisible, I’d like to do a little experiment. I’d like to ask you to close your eyes for just a moment. Get comfortable in your chair, and think back to yesterday. I have two things I want to ask you to think of:
First, I’d like you to think of an event that happened yesterday. It can be anything, big or small…just something that happened.
Second, I’d like you to think of something that didn’t happen yesterday.
My guess is that the second request was quite a bit more difficult to fulfill than the first. That’s because our brains record events as memories. Things that fail to happen go unnoticed, unseen, and unremembered.
Mental health professionals, as well as most of the general public, have long been aware of the fact that what happens to us in childhood has a tremendous effect upon who we become as adults. I have become aware that the opposite of this is also true; that what doesn’t happen for us in childhood has an equal or greater effect.
Remember that Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. Because it’s a parent’s failure to act, rather than a parent’s act; just like we saw in our little experiment, it goes unseen, unnoticed, and unremembered.
Emotional Neglect comes in an infinite number of different forms. It can be incredibly subtle, such that 50 people could be watching it not happen, and be completely unaware. Here’s an example:
Let’s say a child comes home from school feeling sad. The parent either doesn’t notice the child’s sadness, or says nothing about it. This probably seems like nothing. Indeed, it happens in every home around the world, and it generally is nothing.
So how could an incident like this damage a child, leaving scars that remain into his adulthood? The answer lies in the natural, developmental needs of children. In order for a child to grow up with a complete and solid sense of himself, who he is, and what he’s capable of, he must receive enough awareness, understanding, and acceptance of his emotions from his parents. If there is a shortage from the parents in any one of these areas, the child will grow up feeling incomplete, and lacking some of the skills and self-knowledge and self-care that are necessary to fully thrive in this world.
So back to our boy, who came home from school feeling sad. If this happens on occasion, it’s no problem. If it happens with enough frequency and depth: that what the child feels is not noticed, responded to or validated by a parent, that child will grow up with a hole in his emotional development. He may feel that his feelings are irrelevant, unimportant, or even shameful or unacceptable.
As a psychologist, I have seen time and time again that these subtle parental failures in childhood leave the adult with a feeling of being incomplete, empty, unfulfilled, or even questioning the purpose and value of his own life.
This becomes even more difficult when the emotionally neglected adult looks back to her childhood for an explanation for why she feels this way. I have heard many emotionally neglected people say, “I had a lovely childhood. I wasn’t mistreated or abused. My parents loved me, and provided me with a nice home, clothing and food. If I’m not happy, it’s my own fault. I have no excuse.”
These people can’t remember what didn’t happen in their childhoods. So as adults, they blame themselves for whatever is wrong in their lives. They have no memory of what went wrong for them, so they have no way of seeing it or overcoming it, to make their lives happier.
In addition to self-blame, another unfortunate aspect of Emotional Neglect is that it’s self-propagating. Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot about emotions, their own as well as those of others. When they become parents themselves, they’re unaware of the emotions of their own children, and they raise their children to have the same blind spot. And so on and so on and so on, through generation after generation.
My goal is to make people aware of this subtle but powerful factor. To give everyone the ability to look back and see the invisible; have the words to talk about it, and an opportunity to correct it and stop blaming themselves.
I want to make the term Emotional Neglect a household term. I want to help parents know how important it is to respond enough to their children’s emotional needs, and how to do so. I want to stop this insidious force from sapping peoples’ happiness and connection to others throughout their lives. I want to stop the transfer of Emotional Neglect from one generation to another to another.
I want to give answers to those many people who are living their lives feeling disconnected and unfulfilled, and wondering what is wrong with them.
“What the heck is wrong with you?”
“You are an idiot.”
“How could you make such a stupid mistake?”
These may sound like nasty, abusive comments that someone might say to his spouse during a major fight.
Actually, they are typical, everyday comments that many people say to themselves on a regular basis. Many of these people would NEVER say anything that hurtful to their spouse or anyone else. These are thoughtful, caring people who would not want to hurt another person that way, because they feel compassion for others. The problem is that they do not have that same amount of compassion for themselves.
Why would a person “talk” to herself this way? I have often found the roots of it to lie in Childhood Emotional Neglect. When our parents don’t teach us in childhood the process of: 1) acknowledging a mistake; 2) figuring out what we can learn from it; and 3) forgiving ourselves and putting it behind us, we have no choice but to become our own internal “parent,” which we then carry forward through our adulthood.
In the absence of a balanced, forgiving parent who holds us accountable, we become our own internal parent. A child-like parent who is excessively harsh.
Attacking putdowns like these can become almost a habit. When you do not treat yourself with the same compassion you have for others, you gradually break down your own self-esteem and self-confidence without even realizing it. You are doing as much damage to yourself as you would if you were living with someone who put you down and attacked you constantly.
If you were emotionally neglected in this way, and find yourself with that harsh internal voice, the good news is that it can be fixed.
Here’s the Reverse Golden Rule: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone you love and care about.
Start paying attention, and catch yourself in your “automatic putdowns.” Consciously put in the effort to challenge those destructive comments, and counter them with more productive one. This does take work, but it is well worth it. And please don’t hesitate to find a good therapist near you.