As a mental health professional, you may be wondering why Jonice Webb is talking so much about Childhood Emotional Neglect. After all, you probably have it in the back of your mind often as you work with clients. We, therapists, know that emotion is important, and that if it isn’t handled well by our clients’ parents in childhood, there will be clear and direct results years later when our clients are adults.
As you have no doubt noticed over and over in your work, this clear, apparent observation on our parts, supported by the work of Attachment Theorists like John Bowlby in the 1950s and Donald Winnicott in the 1960s, is not so easily communicated to, or believed by, the population at large. I have found that people, in general, have great difficulty accepting that subtle emotional experiences in childhood have any effect whatsoever upon them as adults.
In writing my self-help book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, I have two goals which I am very passionate about:
1. I want to make Emotional Neglect a household term.
I want to make as many people as possible aware of the power of emotion, and how it affects us when our emotions are invalidated, ignored or suppressed; first by our parents in childhood, and later by ourselves in adulthood. I want to take a childhood non-event, which typically goes unseen and unnoticed, and gives it equal recognition and respect to the events that we talk about with our patients every day. I want to give you the words to talk about this parental failure to act with your patients, and a framework to treat it.
2. I want to make as much of the general population as possible more familiar with, and aware of, Attachment Theory.
Every day I see lovely people blaming themselves for having an issue. They blame themselves because they do not see the connection between their childhood experiences and their adult functioning. I hope you will look at my blog called Stop Blaming Yourself for more explanation of why I feel this is so important.
I have found that keeping Emotional Neglect in the forefront of my mind while conducting psychotherapy over the past several years has made me a far more effective therapist. I feel that for years, I was like the proverbial blind man, treating parts of the elephant – unaware that there was a whole elephant to which I should be attending.
I hope you will find Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect a helpful resource in your work with patients. With a special chapter for parents and another for mental health professionals, it will perhaps help you open new doors with stuck patients.
But above all, I hope you will join me in my efforts to make Emotional Neglect a household word.
A beautiful young woman sits across from me. Twenty-five, single, college-educated. Great job, lots of friends. A life filled with parties and group trips on the week-ends. She should be smiling, but she is not.
“What is wrong with me?”, she asks tearfully. When I look into her eyes, I see that this is not a rhetorical question. She wants an answer. As her therapist, I know that there is an answer, but it may not be one that she’s ready for. So I ask her, “What is it about this promotion that makes you so anxious?”
This question is followed by a fresh burst of tears. “I have no idea. There’s no reason for it. I’ve worked so hard, I’ve put everything into climbing the ladder. I so deserve this. Everyone tells me so, my friends, my co-workers and my boss. They’re all so happy for me. But every time I think about going to my new position, I get panicky. I feel it now, give me a minute.” She puts her hands over her eyes and takes a few, deep breaths.
As a psychologist, I know that the roots of Elizabeth’s anxiety are not contained within this situation; the roots are in her childhood. And for her to be able to overcome the panic and function well at work, I’ll need to help her dig them out.
Eventually, as I ask question after question, Elizabeth suddenly starts talking about her fifth grade graduation. Here is her story:
It was a big day at school, filled with parents and pride. Each child had created a collage depicting his favorite parts of elementary school for the parents to see. Elizabeth’s had been singled out by the teacher as especially artful earlier in the day, and she was extremely excited for her parents to see it. Her parents sat through the graduation ceremony and clapped enthusiastically, with pride on their faces. After the ceremony, the parents had the opportunity to mill around the classroom to look at all of the collages hanging on the walls. Just as her parents had worked their way through the crowd to the spot where her collage was hanging, her father’s beeper went off. “We have to go,” he announced, urgently turning and taking her mother’s arm. “This was great, Elizabeth, but it’s time to go,” her mother said as they rapidly headed for the door.
Elizabeth obediently followed her parents through the crowd, across the parking lot and to the car, dragging her feet and looking down at the pavement. She knew that her father was a cardiac surgeon who saved lives, and that her collage was nothing compared to that. Since she understood, she kept her tears silent in the back seat of the car.
Fast forward, back to Elizabeth sitting in my office. She told me that she had not thought of this incident for years. Yet there was something about her current situation that reminded her of it. As she told the story, her tears came even more readily, filling Kleenex after Kleenex. “This is so stupid,” she said, blaming herself. “What am I, eleven years old?”
It was only after I helped Elizabeth connect the dots that she was able to see the source of her anxiety, and how it related to her childhood memory. It turned out that she had had many similar incidents in childhood, in which moments that should have been hers suddenly were trumped by someone else’s medical crisis. Through these experiences, Elizabeth had internalized the notion that her achievements are insignificant, and that she should therefore expect to be disappointed by them.
Over and over, again and again, I see intelligent, accomplished people fail to make connections between their childhoods and their current struggles. We human beings do not like the notion that those who raised us had such a profound effect upon who we are as adults. Most of us will acknowledge intellectually that it’s true, but when it comes down to owning it, we resist. Instead, we blame ourselves.
In 1951, psychiatrist John Bowlby first put forth the idea that the quality of an infant’s attachment to its mother actually had an effect on the personality of that infant as an adult. At first, his concept, which we now call ‘Attachment Theory’ was attacked and challenged by scientists for lack of evidence. But over the last 60 years, his theory has been proven over and over again, by study after study. Aspects of Attachment Theory have been fine-tuned by later researchers, so that mental health professionals now understand that even very subtle parental behaviors toward a child can often be observed in that child many years later, in adulthood.
I often wonder why Attachment Theory isn’t more readily embraced on a personal level by all people. Wouldn’t it help people like Elizabeth more quickly figure out for themselves why they are anxious, sad, angry or hurt? Wouldn’t we blame ourselves less for our struggles if we could more readily see that our reactions are rooted in our childhood? Wouldn’t that understanding make it easier for us to overcome our inner obstacles?
Here’s my theory about why we resist the notion that our parents have had such a profound effect upon us as adults: I think that if we allow ourselves to see the true impact that our parents had upon us, we may end up feeling disempowered, or even victimized. If we understand the true impact that we have on our own children, we may feel terrified at the prospect of having so much power. Since we are not fond of feeling either, we lean more toward blaming ourselves for our issues, and underplaying the impact which we have on our own children.
I have seen it happen many times in my office. As soon as a client recognizes the true roots of his current struggle, he is freed up to face it and overcome it. When he faces it, he is less likely to pass that struggle on to his children.
When we embrace the true power that our childhoods have in our lives, we become stronger. And so do our children.
Several months ago I was at a dinner party. It was late in the evening, after dinner, and we were all sitting around the table talking. I mentioned to the group that writing my book, Running on Empty, has been surprisingly demanding. At times when I would typically be relaxing, reading, or watching TV, I am now brainstorming, planning, or writing. But I explained that I am driven to do this anyway because I feel driven about my message: making people aware of the invisible effects of Emotional Neglect. As my brother-in-law, Rich, was listening to me talk, he said, “I’m going to send you something in the mail that you have to read.”
I didn’t give this another thought until I received an envelope from him a few days later. In it was, “The Common Denominator of Success,” by Albert E.N. Gray. It is a copy of a speech made my Mr. Gray at the National Association of Life Underwriters in 1940. Mr. Gray has now passed away, but his message is timeless. His speech, while geared toward helping insurance salesmen, applies to any human being who wants to be successful.
Here is Mr. Gray’s discovery of “the common denominator of success,” in his own words:
“The common denominator of success–the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful–lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.”
In my role as psychologist and therapist, I have had the honor of working with many very bright, capable people who struggle with self-discipline. It is painful when a person who has tremendous potential is held back by their own ability to realize it. I have found that the very thing that gets in many such people’s way in fulfilling the potential that they clearly know they have, is an inability to make themselves do what they don’t want to do. Often these folks call themselves lazy. They get angry at themselves for not carrying through the promises they make themselves to do important things. The anger at themselves drains them and eats away at their self-esteem. Gradually, slowly, they start to give up because they are being taken down by a negative cycle of anger at themselves, frustration, and feelings of failure.
I have been quietly treating these people for years. I often can see early on what the patient herself cannot: that her struggles with self-discipline are rooted in her Emotional Neglect. Most people don’t realize that we humans are not born with the ability to structure ourselves. Nor are we born with a natural ability to make ourselves do what we don’t want to do. In fact, quite the opposite. We learn this skill from our parents. As a child, each time your parents called you in to dinner, interrupting your play with the neighbor kids, made you take a bath, clear the table, clean your room, brush your teeth, hang up your clothes, weed the garden or empty the dishwasher, they were teaching you the two most vital aspects of self-discipline: how to make yourself do what you don’t want to do; and how to stop yourself from doing what you do want to do.
Mr. Gray has helped me to recognize that these two most basic skills of self-discipline are not solely a function of childhood parental training. A sense of purpose is also an essential ingredient. Mr. Gray maintains that it is an individual’s personal purpose that drives him or her to make the choice to do things that are unpleasant, boring, or scary. That purpose has to be driven by feeling, not logic, or it will not be strong enough to do the trick. Logic is not a great motivator, whereas emotion is.
Now I realize that beyond helping people stop the self-blame and learn how to make themselves do what they don’t want to do, I also have to help them find their purpose. What do you feel passionate about? What do you really care about. Because once you find what you truly want and desire, your passion will motivate you far beyond what you think you need. And then you will be better able to make yourself do things that you don’t want to do.
I highly recommend reading Mr. Gray’s speech. It is beautiful prose, written in 1940’s (i.e., sexist) style. I suggest that you ignore that part, read, enjoy and learn.
Oh, yes, thanks Rich!
Before we talk about stress, I ask that you please answer these two questions:
1. On a scale of 0 to 10, rate your average daily stress level over the past month. 0 is no stress, and 10 is maximum stress. Please write your answer down.
2. Do you believe that your own personal stress level could be impacting your physical or mental health? Please write your answer down, YES or NO.
Yesterday I was sitting at the hair salon reading a book that I had downloaded to my phone while I waited for my highlights to take effect. After a brief chat with my hairdresser about how great it is to read a book on your phone, she asked, “So, what are you reading?”
I stammered for a few seconds, during which I was thinking, “Should I tell her what I’m reading? Maybe I should tell her I’m reading that other book I downloaded that’s about tips for authors, since at least it would show I’m accomplishing something.” In the end, since I’m not one to lie, I told her the truth: that I was reading a book by Ann Rule about a series of real life murders that took place in the Seattle area. Brain candy. Embarrassing!
That experience came to mind later that day when I started reading a new study about stress. I felt surprised at myself for actually having considered lying to hide my leisurely reading, and I wondered why we humans so often feel a need to present a striving, productive face to the world. Do we not feel worthy unless we are busy and industrious? Isn’t this discomfort with being idle a tremendous source of stress for all of us?
A 2011 study conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the American Psychological Association showed that many Americans are living with high levels of stress every day. The average daily stress level reported (on a 10-point scale, where 0 is none and 10 is maximum), was reported at 5.2. 22% reported extreme levels of average stress, which they defined as a level of 8, 9 or 10.
In a way, I think it’s a good thing that at least Americans are aware of their stress and are willing to admit to it. Unlike other emotions, like sadness, anger, jealousy, fear or even anxiety, stress is more acceptable in today’s world. In fact, it’s almost valued, like a Badge of Honor in our society. For example, when a friend says, “How are you?” we are not likely to say, “Oh, good, kinda bored actually, not much going on.” Instead, we search our brains for all the social events, child-centered activities and work projects which we hope will prove how busy and productive we are.
In general, the more stressed you are, the better life you are supposedly living.
Now here comes the really interesting part. In the same study, 9 out of 10 adults said that they believe that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression and obesity. But 31-36% of those same people believe that stress has only a slight or no impact on their own physical or mental health. In other words, yes it’s a problem, but only for other people.
Now let’s go back and look at your answers to the questions above. I asked you to write your answers down so that you couldn’t go back and change them. Is your answer to #1 higher than 3? If not, congratulations! You are doing something right. But if it is above 3, then your answer to question #2 becomes more important.
If your average stress level is over 3 and your answer to #2 was ‘NO’, I encourage you to give this some thought. It is difficult to see how stress affects us personally. But studies show that sustained high stress levels can cause physical problems like weight gain, sleep disruption, cardiac issues, and lowered resistance to disease. The fact that you can’t see it happening doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. Chances are, your sustained stress level is taking its toll on you.
If your average stress level is over 3 and your answer to #2 was ‘YES’, this would suggest that you are aware that your stress is a bad thing for you, and that is a good start. But please do not stop there.
Your stress will probably not go away on its own. Rather than letting it control you, you must take control of it. This will require taking action to change some aspects of your lifestyle. Here are some suggestions to help you do that:
1. See the value of down-time. It’s not just okay to relax, do nothing, or read a meaningless book, it’s essential.
2. Make a list of all of the factors in your life that contribute to your stress. Go through the list and put a check-mark on any items that could be eliminated or reduced. Then make a plan for how you are going to do that. Many highly stressed people have actually invited a fair amount of their own stress by taking on more than they can handle. Now’s your chance to get rid of some of the excess baggage.
3. Plan a vacation or some sort of break for yourself.
4. Ask for help. Chances are, there are people around you who will help and support you if you ask for it and let them know what you need.
5. Pay more attention to meeting your own physical and emotional needs. Eat healthy, exercise daily, and make sure you get the amount of sleep that your body truly needs.
6. Find a creative outlet that allows you to express and expand yourself. Learn to cook, redecorate a room, take up painting or guitar. Creative outlets will reduce your stress level.
7. Here’s the most important one: use your relationships to calm you. Studies show that when we are in the company of people we like or love, our brains excrete oxytocin, a neurochemical that is relaxing and gives us a feeling of well-being. What a great natural and healthy “medicine” that we can give ourselves.
I hope that you will try these ideas for at least one month. Then come back and re-take the Real Stress Test. See if your scores have improved. Don’t expect a miracle. It’s a work in progress. The important thing is that you be aware of how you are living, face the reality of it, and work to make it better.