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Parents: 10 Steps to Connect With Your Adult Child

The world is full of mothers who are wondering why their adult sons don’t answer their calls, and fathers who struggle awkwardly to talk to their daughters.

“What did I do wrong?” they ask. “Why can’t we be closer? Shouldn’t our relationship be easier now?”

It’s entirely possible to be a loving, caring parent who worked hard to do everything right in raising your child and to still end up with a strained relationship once your child grows up. It’s because parenting is so complex and multi-layered that it’s far too easy to make one crucial error that your child has difficulty either understanding or recovering from.

One of the easiest and most invisible errors that a parent can make – Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) – passes silently from one generation to the next, unnoticed and unchecked. And unfortunately, it also can lead to some of the greatest parent/child emotional gaps once the child grows up.

Sadly, it’s all too easy to make this mistake. All you have to do is fail to respond enough to your child’s emotional needs when you are raising her. This leaves your child, as a grown-up, without enough access to her emotions. It also leaves her feeling as if you don’t really know her on the most deeply personal level: the emotional level.

So she may then come to you for advice, but not for solace. She may expect you to be there for her financially, but not emotionally. She may share her thoughts with you, but not so much her feelings.

One of the most common questions I receive from readers of this blog is from parents who have realized that they inadvertently, through no fault of their own, emotionally neglected their child. This is a painful realization for any parent, and it’s extra painful when your adult child keeps her distance from you, seems angry at you, or is struggling with issues of her own.

Please know that no matter what’s gone wrong between you and your adult child, the burden generally lies on you, the parent, to initiate fixing it. So what do you do if you want to repair or deepen your relationship with your CEN adult child? The good news is that there are clear steps that you can follow.

Four Guiding Principles to Keep in Mind Before You Start

  • It’s your job to initiate the fix but your child must then meet you halfway in working through it.
  • In your own mind, take blame and guilt out of it. All parents make mistakes. What you did was the best you could do at the time. You’ll be able to remedy this far better if you don’t blame yourself or your child, and instead focus on understanding and moving forward.
  • The key is to listen to your child in a different way than you ever have, and with a completely open mind. Your job: listen for his feelings, and then validate them.
  • Be aware of an easy mistake to make: taking too much responsibility for your adult child’s struggles. It’s important to walk the line between acknowledging your mistakes while also making sure your child understands that as an adult, he must be the one to resolve the effects of CEN within himself and within his own life. You cannot do it for him and you should not try.

10 Steps to Get Closer to Your Adult CEN Child

  1. Tell your child that you’d like to talk with him about something important, and ask him when is a good time. This will help him know that this really matters to you even before you talk about it.
  2. Start the conversation by saying, “I feel like we’re distant from each other. I want to be closer to you, and I want to fix what’s wrong, or missing.”
  3. Ask him if he feels it too. He may say no, in which case you should not be discouraged. Acknowledge his perception, but if he’ll allow it, continue to express yours.
  4. Talk with your child about your discovery of how Emotional Neglect happens; how invisible it is, and how it can separate a child from his feelings and persist into adulthood causing problems.
  5. If your child seems resistant to discussing it, then try to talk about yourself more than him. Chances are excellent that you were emotionally neglected yourself as a child (because we all naturally parent our children the way we ourselves were parented). Explain how it happened to you and how it’s affected you in your life.
  6. If your child acknowledges a problem, ask him what’s wrong from his perspective, and then truly listen.
  7. Validate, validate, validate. Do this by hearing him and acknowledging his feelings, whatever they are. Acknowledging does not require agreement; it involves only understanding.
  8. Ask your child what you can do differently for him. As long as his request is healthy for both of you and does not involve you fixing his life for him, then try your hardest to deliver it.
  9. Don’t expect your first talk about this to resolve matters. You may need to have multiple conversations.
  10. Keep trying. Don’t give up, even if your child resists or continues to be distant. Much can be gained from persistence.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it transfers from one generation to the next, and how it affects children once they grow up, see the book, Running on Empty. For many more specific tips and information about improving your relationship with your child see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article was originally posted on psychentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.

33 Unspoken Family Rules & How to Override Them

Unspoken Family Rules. What are they?

Every family has them, but no one ever talks about them. They remain, by definition, unsaid.

Sometimes they’re positive and healthy. Other times, they are toxic.

Either way, these powerful messages from your childhood home plant themselves into the base of your brain and become an unconscious part of how you live in the adult world; perhaps even embedded in your very sense of who you are: your identity.

Read through the list below, and see if any of these unspoken family rules speak to you. Did your family adhere to one, two or even more?

As you read through the list, write down any messages that feel familiar. These are the messages that run through your head, affecting your choices, emotions, and life to this very day.

Becoming aware of these powerful unconscious rules can free you up to override them. You can take control of them and counter them instead of letting them run your life.

Examples of Unspoken Family Rules

The family comes first.

Wanting something is selfish.

Needing something is selfish.

Emotions are a sign of weakness.

Needs are a sign of weakness.

Don’t ask questions.

Don’t have needs.

Don’t talk.

Negative emotion is harmful to those around you.

Don’t bring any pain to this house.

Always act like everything is OK, even when it’s not.

Don’t talk about anything meaningful.

Don’t refer to anything negative.

Don’t rock the boat.

No fighting (conflict) is allowed.

Don’t make noise.

Don’t rock the boat.

Keep your problems to yourself.

Handle it yourself.


Don’t talk about uncomfortable things.

Silence is bad. Always fill it.

Don’t do better than your parents.

Don’t outshine others in the family.

Whoever yells the loudest wins.

Don’t upset your father (or mother).

Don’t trust anyone outside the family.

Certain things must be kept a secret from everyone outside of the family.

Act like you don’t see ______.

Your friends will betray you. You can only rely on your family.

It doesn’t hurt to twist the truth now and then.

White lies are okay.

All lies are okay.

If we don’t acknowledge it, it’s not real.

The Result

Each of these powerful messages does a particular type of damage. Each sets you up to do the wrong thing in your adult life.

The messages above the line are the distinct messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. They all set you up to sacrifice yourself for what feels like the greater good…the good of the family. Keep your needs and feelings to yourself, don’t cause problems, don’t share, show or (perhaps) even feel emotions, especially when they’re negative.

These messages, in adulthood, make you feel deeply and personally invalid; like you don’t stand on equal ground with everyone else. As an adult, you will struggle with the 10 Characteristics of the CEN Adult outlined in the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, like a lack of emotional awareness, self-awareness, self-knowledge, and a deep feeling of being different and flawed and on your own.

The messages below the line all set you up to pretend, deny, or twist reality, tiptoeing around people instead of challenging them. Keep the family secrets at all costs, or don’t trust anyone who is not family.

These messages will drive you to make decisions you’re not proud of, put your family before yourself even when it’s harmful, and have problems with excessive emotional expression.

All of the messages have the power to make you feel confused, unhappy, and bad about yourself. All of them will cause you to have problems with social and emotional skills.

All of them can be overridden by you.

4 Steps to Override Your Unspoken Family Rules

1. Become aware of the rules that are in your head. Keep your list easily accessible, and review it often.

2. Pay attention: Notice when one of these rules speaks to you. Awareness is half the battle.

3. Make up an opposing, healthy rule to counteract each unhealthy one. For example,

Don’t talk about _________

becomes

Talk about __________.

And

Negative emotion is harmful to those around you

becomes

Negative emotion is not harmful to those around you, if you express it in a healthy way.

4. Make an effort to learn the skills you missed in childhood: the purpose, value, and validity of your emotions. Your feelings will guide you if you only start to listen to them, use them and manage them. It’s never too late to learn those skills.

For help in learning emotional skills, and overriding powerful messages from childhood, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

To learn much more about how CEN affects your family relationships now, your marriage and your own parenting and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children.

Did you grow up with an unspoken family rule that’s not listed here? If so, please share it with us by posting it in a comment below.

A version of this article first appeared on psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.

7 Ways to Face Your Grief and Move Forward

Jared has done everything he can think of to make himself feel better since his father unexpectedly passed away two years ago. But he still feels blah and numb much of the time.

Sandra keeps choosing the same kind of guy over and over; alcoholic, angry, and afraid of commitment.

Claudia is irritable and bitter after her painful divorce. She can’t seem to get back to her old self.

All three of these people are stuck in some way. Each is suffering, each is confused. “Why can’t I get out of this?” they all wonder.

Fortunately for Jared, Sandra and Claudia, there is an answer, and it is the same for each of them. It’s a simple answer, yet it requires them to do something they dread.

Grieve.

Grief gets a bad rap, and in some ways, it should. After all, when does it enter our lives? When we’ve lost someone, or something, important. Grief only appears at times of pain and loss. But grief itself is not pain or loss. Instead, it’s a phase of processing pain and loss.

It’s a very natural human tendency to want to avoid pain. And it takes time to process a loss. This is what makes grieving so universally difficult. The three people described above are all stuck because they are avoiding their grief.

Jared is working hard, but to some extent on the wrong things. He’s trying to make himself feel better. But unfortunately, no amount of sporting events, dates, or successful work projects will help him process his loss and pain. He can only really move past his grief phase by going through it, not around it. This means he must accept his loss and sadness. Jared must allow himself to grieve.

Sandra wants to have the kind of healthy relationship that she sees others enjoy. So she keeps trying, over and over and over. Why does she keep repeating the same pattern? Because she has never grieved the father who left when she was 8 years old. “I don’t care about that jerk,” she’s said all of her life. Sandra is protecting herself with anger, because she doesn’t want to face, or feel, the pain of being abandoned by the man who was supposed to love her the most. Because Sandra isn’t allowing herself to feel, process, and work through her loss, she keeps recreating it. She keeps choosing men who will not really be there for her, and who will eventually abandon her.

Claudia was deeply hurt by her divorce from the man she was married to for 12 years, the father of her children. She was shocked and bereft when he signed those divorce papers. To cope, she has placed her focus on her children and making sure they have a life as close to normal as possible. Surely no one could fault her for this. But what keeps Claudia stuck in her bitterness and anger is not her focus on her children; it’s her failure to focus on herself. She needs to accept, feel, and work through her shock and pain and loss. She needs to grieve.

With all this talk of grief, here’s the good news. If you, like Jared, Sandra or Claudia, feel stuck, you may not actually be. You’re not facing a brick wall after all. You may, instead, be facing a phase. A phase that you can work through, and come out the other side. Yes, you know the solution. You need to grieve.

Seven Tips For Healthy Grieving

  1. Make an effort to think about who, or what, you’ve lost. This is a way to give yourself a chance to deal with your loss. Choosing to think about your loss is a way to prevent your brain from processing the loss at times when you are not wanting to do so.
  2. Let yourself feel the pain. The only way to make it go away is to feel it, process it, and go through it.
  3. Take control of your grief by scheduling it. For example, every day at 5:30 p.m. you will sit in a room alone, think about what you’ve lost, and let yourself feel it. Then you will distract yourself out of it. Force yourself to think about something else, and engage in an activity that will put it back into the background. Go on with your day.
  4. As you feel the feelings, put them into words. Here are some examples to start with:

I feel sad

I feel hurt

I feel bereft

I feel disappointed

I feel empty

I feel lost

I feel alone

I feel let down

I feel angry

I am mourning

    5. Choose a trusted person and share your feelings. Talking with someone about what you’re going through is incredibly helpful.

    6. Remind yourself that grief is a process, and it’s not permanent. It’s simply a phase of adjustment that is healthy and necessary.

    7. Don’t put a time limit on your grief. Everyone’s grief is different, and you can’t rush recovery. It will take as long as it takes. Period.

If you’re an emotional avoider or have a tendency to avoid your feelings in general, you’re at a higher risk of avoiding your grief and getting stuck. A tendency toward emotional avoidance is a sign that you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family. Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire

To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens to the child and how to stop avoiding your feelings see the book, Running on Empty.

A version of this article was originally posted on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.

Childhood Emotional Neglect: Stage 1 Recovery Worksheet For Therapists and Clients

In my office, as well as my online Childhood Emotional Neglect recovery program, Fuel Up For Life, I have had the privilege of walking hundreds of people through the 5 Stages of CEN recovery. Throughout these experiences, I have realized something remarkable.

I have discovered that the most difficult, painful hurdle in recovering from Childhood Emotional Neglect happens at the very beginning. The stage that seems the easiest, the one most people want to sail through and “get on with it” is the first one. Yet Stage 1 is extremely important. Of the 5 Stages of Recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect, Stage 1 is not only the building block for all of the others. It’s also the most difficult.

The 3 Parts of Stage 1 of CEN Recovery

  1. Accept that your parents failed you emotionally as they were raising you.
  2. Identify the specific ways your parents failed to meet your emotional needs. Did they pretend feelings didn’t exist? Did they punish you for having feelings? Did they treat you exactly like your siblings, even though you were very different? Did they seldom validate or name your feelings? Or did it happen in some other ways?
  3. How has CEN affected you through your adult life? Has it left you feeling empty, disconnected, or alone? Are you disconnected from your own feelings? How has that affected you?

Participants in my online CEN recovery program continually want to rush through the first module which is dedicated to walking them through Stage 1 in a deep, detailed, and meaningful way. And the CEN clients I see in my office often try to skip over this very important foundation.

Therapists also find Stage 1 challenging with their clients. They constantly ask me for help with getting their clients to do the work of fully accepting their CEN.

Realizing how your parents failed you emotionally and facing how it’s undermined your happiness, connection and sense of self is admittedly painful. But I have found that gliding through Stage 1 too quickly backfires later on, undermining the steps you must take to heal.

When you think about it, it does make sense. It’s hard to break down the wall that blocks your emotions when you’re not fully sure that a wall is there or why it might be there. And it makes it much easier to give yourself what you never got if you’re able to fully see that none of this is your fault.

When a CEN therapist emailed and said, “Can you please create a worksheet to help us therapists get our clients to see and accept how their parents failed to validate them? We need help with Stage 1,” I realized I needed to do just that.

If you are a CEN therapist here are 8 questions to use with your clients. I recommend that instead of asking these questions in the sessions, you send them home with your client and ask him or her to think about it and write down answers and bring them to the session.

If you are a CEN person who is not in therapy, you can use this worksheet to help you accomplish Stage 1 in a way that is deep, meaningful and effective. This will set you up for the 4 stages to come.

CEN Worksheet For Stage 1

  1. Describe a typical day in your childhood in as much detail as possible. Choose any age you’d like. As you go through the day, make a special point to think about what feelings you had at the time.
  2. Tell a story about a time your parents supported you through a difficult time. How did they support you?
  3. Describe a time when you felt one or both of your parents truly understood you. Were you surprised at the time?
  4. Did one or both of your parents use emotion words like “sad,” “angry,” “hurt,” or “afraid,” for example, very often or at all?
  5. Can you remember a time when you really needed your parents, and they were not there for you? Note: The reason is irrelevant in this exercise.
  6. Go through the Emotions List in the back of Running On Empty with your own childhood in mind and highlight the words that seem to fit it. Do not overthink it. Rely on your hand to know which words to highlight. You can go back and try to process it later.
  7. Read through the 10 Characteristics of the CEN Adult in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, Chapter 3: The Neglected Child, All Grown Up. Write down a list of the ones that you identify with as a problem in your own life.
  8. Now go back through your answers to Questions 1-6 and try to connect your childhood memories, experiences and feelings with the CEN struggles you identified in your answers to Question 7. Can you connect them?

My Number 1 Recommendation For Accomplishing Step 1

For CEN Therapists: Be aware that your CEN clients will naturally want to rush through Step 1. It is your responsibility to slow them down and support them to do the work. Support and challenge your client on this, and do not let them off the hook.

For CEN People: Be aware that this worksheet is not a simple solution of any kind. Step 1 often happens in layers, and you may need to revisit it over and over. Many of the members of my online program return to Module 1 over and over as they go through the other steps.

Take your time with these 8 steps. Look for a therapist on the Find A CEN Therapist List if you get stuck and/or could use some guidance and support.

My Number 1 recommendation for your first step in CEN recovery, whether you are a therapist or a sufferer, is this:

Do not rush.

Take your time.

Put your heart into this and do your best to face the pain.

You are worth it.

Download a PDF of the CEN Stage 1 Recovery Worksheet Here

A version of this article was first published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author.

How Empathy Can Go Wrong: 3 Hazards to Watch For

Judy knows that her husband, Tom, drinks too much. But she also knows that he grew up in an abusive home. Judy sees how Tom’s self-esteem plummets every time he visits his parents. She sees how hard he works to prove to himself, his parents, and herself, that he’s good enough. Judy feels Tom’s emotions every time she looks at him. She gets angry and hurt when he drinks so much, but she also feels his pain.

Todd, 20-years-old, understands that his father is well-known for his business success. His father has made many millions by buying and selling businesses and has his own company with 10,000 employees worldwide. Todd knows that his father has huge responsibilities on his shoulders, and can sometimes see the strain that his father lives under. This is what he reminds his younger teenage siblings (and himself) of when they are angry or hurt by their father’s verbal abuse.

Tina is a 42-year-old mother of three. She works full-time in the Intensive Care Unit of a local hospital. Tina is an empathetic and caring person, and others know this. She is typically the first one asked by her co-workers to cover an extra shift. She is the first one asked by the PTO president of her children’s school to organize and run a new committee. Tina can be counted on to say yes because she readily feels others’ stress and need, and always wants to be helpful whenever she can.

Of all of the emotions that we humans experience, one is generally believed, by psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and neuroscientists alike, to rise above the rest.

Empathy. It consists of feeling another person’s feelings.

We can get angry, we can feel guilty. We can be frustrated or anxious. We can grieve or feel sadness, regret or resentment. But none makes a statement about who we are as a person, or about the nature of the human race like empathy does.

It’s the glue that binds a family, the bond that helps two people resolve conflict. It’s a salve for pain and an essential ingredient in resilient romantic love. If you’re a parent, you must have it for your children in order to raise them to be healthy and strong adults.

Study after study has shown empathy’s surprising power. Empathy can motivate a wife to protect her husband, spur a man to care for his elderly mother, and even reduce the pain of an electric shock. Therapists know that when they can feel a patient’s feelings, it is a healing force for positive change.

Most people would never think of it, but empathy does sometimes go haywire. This best part of the human spirit can turn against us and, unchecked, it can damage both the empathizer and the recipient. Being aware of the risks of empathy-gone-bad is both incredibly important and vastly helpful.

3 Hazards of Empathy

1. By being excessive: This happens when you feel someone else’s emotions so deeply that you are blinded by them. Too much empathy can allow unhealthy or damaging behaviors to continue when they really shouldn’t.

Example Judy: Judy’s empathy is getting in her way because it’s preventing her from setting limits with Tom. Tom needs to hear Judy say, “I can’t take your drinking any more. It’s hurting the kids and me, and it’s hurting you. I need you to deal with your drinking problem. Now.” And he needs her to mean it. But Judy feels so much of Tom’s pain that she can’t make herself hold him accountable. This is where empathy becomes enabling, and how it can harm everyone involved.

2. By being misdirected: This happens when you feel the emotions of someone who doesn’t deserve it. Misdirected empathy makes the empathizer vulnerable to exploitation by the recipient.

Example Todd: Now an adult, Todd is being unable to hold his father accountable for the damage he is doing to himself and his siblings. He’s essentially giving his father a “pass” for his bad behavior because of his empathy for him. In this way Todd’s empathy is misplaced. By failing to protect himself from his father’s bad behavior, Todd is risking his own happiness and health (and that of his younger siblings). For this he will, all of his life, pay a heavy price.

3. By being too indiscriminate: This happens when you take a “shotgun approach” to empathy. You offer it too freely to too many people. When your empathy is free for the asking, you end up giving too much to too many people.

Example Tina: Tina has multiple responsibilities in her life: her children, her husband, her ICU patients, and herself. Yet none of these people gets as much of her time and energy as they deserve. That’s because Tina’s inability to let others manage their own stress and problems leads her to spread herself too thin. Depleted by the demands, Tina often feels exhausted and irritable around her children and husband. She wonders why she keeps gaining weight, and why there are dark circles under her eyes.

So Judy is enabling her husband, Todd is failing to protect himself, and Tina is harming herself (and by extension her family) by over-extending herself to others. These are three examples of how empathy can work against you.

How to Keep Your Empathy Healthy

  1. Be aware of when you’re feeling empathy and for whom. Make sure that the person receiving it deserves it.
  2. Keep your empathy in check. Make sure it doesn’t prevent you from holding a loved one accountable for his or her actions.
  3. Always prioritize your own needs. Take care of yourself before you care for others. That way you’ll be sure that your empathy can’t harm you.

Those who grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) learn early on that their feelings and needs don’t matter. This sets them up to be overly empathetic with others’ needs, and underly attentive to their own.

To learn more about CEN, emotions and how they affect relationships, Take the Emotional Neglect Test and see the books, Running on Empty and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

A version of this article was originally published on PsychCentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.

5 Reasons Forgiveness is Not a Good Way to Heal

For philosophers and clergy alike, the message is resoundingly clear: Forgive those who have hurt you, because holding on to anger is destructive. Case in point, see the small sampling of widespread broadcasting of such messages below.

Forgiveness is the final form of love

-Reinhold Niebuhr

To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and to realize that the prisoner was you

-Lewis B. Smedes

To err is human; to forgive, divine

-Alexander Pope

Forgiveness is often offered as a powerful solution; as an agent to not only help you heal from painful events but also allow you to move forward.

The general idea is that holding onto anger can make you bitter and hold you back from healing from harm that someone has done you. But the problem is that there are several serious problems with trying to use forgiveness as a solution.

Let’s first look at why it doesn’t work. Then, we will discuss a much better solution.

5 Reasons Forgiveness Does Not Work

  1. In today’s world, we generally seek to avoid emotions that are unpleasant, like anger and hurt. We naturally believe that we should escape “bad” feelings as soon as possible. Forgive and move on is a logical way to achieve this. However, emotions are not logical, and so this strategy does not work.
  2. Glossing over unpleasant feelings not only doesn’t work, but it also does not make use of the emotion. For example, hurt and anger carry vital messages from your body to your brain. The message from hurt is, “take care,” and the message from anger is “watch out, and protect yourself.” Before you forgive anyone, it’s vital that you listen to these messages, and heed them.
  3. True forgiveness is a wonderful thing, indeed. It happens after a process has taken place. This process involves accountability from the person who harmed you. If the person you’re forgiving has not acknowledged his or her harmful act and asked for your forgiveness, then you have not held the individual accountable.
  4. Forgiving those who have not taken responsibility for their actions falls short of holding them accountable. The offenders will be essentially let off the hook. This robs them of the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
  5. Forgiving someone who has not owned up to their actions makes you unnecessarily vulnerable. John F. Kennedy said, “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” In this quote lies a warning that forgiveness can leave you vulnerable to re-victimization. Without your anger and hurt to warn and remind you to protect yourself – and if the person who harmed you has not been held accountable – you are opening yourself up to being harmed again.

Quotes and articles about forgiveness present it as a solution to painful situations.

But forgiveness is not a solution. It’s a process.

The Process of True Forgiveness

  1. The offender realizes he (or she) has hurt you, perhaps because you have told him; perhaps because he notices your anger or hurt.
  2. A discussion and/or acknowledgment takes place, in which the offender takes accountability for her actions.
  3. The offender genuinely feels guilt or remorse and apologizes for his hurtful actions.
  4. An emotional meeting of the minds takes place in which you feel the remorse and accountability of the offender.
  5. This emotional meeting of the minds allows you to truly forgive your offender. All is not forgotten, but a mutual understanding has relieved you both.

In the process of true forgiveness, the relationship is changed forever, sometimes in a good way. Many who go through these steps together end up feeling more connected and closer than they were before the offense took place.

When There is No Accountability

Of course, it is true that in many of life’s situations the offender does not notice that she’s hurt you or does not appear to care. There is no accountability, no acknowledgment, no apology. So, sadly, there can be no meeting of the minds. These are some of life’s most difficult and painful experiences.

Here the solution becomes not about forgiveness, but about balance and self-care. If you allow your hurt and anger to rule you, you will be in danger of becoming bitter or vengeful.

Instead, please use your anger and hurt to build and enforce boundaries that will protect you from the other person. Soothe and balance your painful feelings with attention to your own health and recovery. Talk to those who care about you, eat well, and rest. Pay attention to your feelings and manage them.

And always keep in your mind the most healthy and powerful guiding principle for one who has been unjustly harmed and left with no accountability:

The best revenge is living well.

Nothing could be more true.

To learn more about emotions, how they are useful, and how to manage them in relationships, see the books National Bestseller Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article originally appeared on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.

The Myth of Unconditional Love

“Accept the children the way we accept trees—with gratitude because they are a blessing—but do not have expectations or desires. You don’t expect trees to change, you love them as they are.”

― Isabel Allende

Wives wistfully long for it from their husbands. Fathers demand it from their children. Friends call upon it to restore broken friendships. Who doesn’t want unconditional love?

What is Unconditional Love?

Unconditional love is the kind that endures despite any problem, injury, conflict or issue that may arise. Love that asks for nothing in return, and never ceases, no matter what.

Is unconditional love real? Is it attainable? Is it the foundation of a successful marriage? Is it a natural human need?

Or is it simply an epic myth?

It almost seems to be a need that is biologically built into the human condition. We long for it, but we can’t seem to find it. Is it a matter of finding the right person or doing the right thing? Can only people who are emotionally mature provide it? Is it required for a strong relationship or marriage?

Believe it or not, all of these questions have answers, and they are fairly simple and straightforward.

But first, a fascinating research study.

In 2009, a neuroscientist named Beauregard used MRI’s to look at the areas of the brain that are activated in unconditional love compared to romantic love. He found that unconditional love involves seven separate areas of the brain and that it is different from the brain activity seen in romantic or sexual love. Beauregard concluded that unconditional love is actually a separate emotion, unique and different from romantic love.

Beauregard’s study provides neurological evidence for something that is known by couples’ therapists everywhere: unconditional love has no place in a marriage.

Why can’t we expect it from our husband or wife? Two reasons. First, because it’s impossible for most people. And second, because even if a person could achieve it for his or her spouse, it would be unhealthy for both parties and for the relationship itself.

Imagine a husband who continues to love his wife even though she is a serial cheater, and hurts him over and over and over and over. What incentive does she have to stop hurting him? Actually, none. This dysfunctional, painful relationship can go on forever, unchecked. Because the husband has no bottom line to what he will accept: no limit to what he will tolerate, and his wife knows it.

When it comes to romantic relationships and marriage, we all must earn the love we receive. Unearned love (except the parental kind) is not real, it is not strong, and it is not resilient. Conditional love is meaningful because it’s earned, treasured and protected by both parties.

If you have no bottom line in your relationship, chances are you will sadly find yourself living at the bottom line. You will receive whatever you are willing to accept.

So where, then, does unconditional love belong?

In fact, it belongs in only one specific kind of relationship and going in only one direction.

And that is parent TO child; not in reverse. It is a parent’s job to unconditionally love his child. But parents must earn and deserve love from their child. This is what makes parenthood require a kind of selflessness that is uniquely different from every other kind of relationship that exists in this world.

So essentially we are all wired to need unconditional love, but we can only get it in one place: from our parents. Unfortunately, if we don’t feel unconditionally loved by our parents in childhood, we will grow up to feel in some way, on some level, alone. And we will feel in another way, on yet another level, deprived. 

People who grow up without unconditional love from their parents are growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect. In addition to feeling alone and deprived, if a parent’s love is highly conditional, the child may grow up to have depression, anxiety, or a personality disorder.

Many who grow up without unconditional love will be driven, through no fault of their own, to seek the missing love in all the wrong places: from boyfriends, girlfriends or spouses. I have seen many people go through many years looking for this special something that they didn’t get in childhood. Sadly, they seek it from the wrong people, in the wrong ways, unaware that they can, and should be, providing it for themselves.

Unconditional Love – Guidelines to Follow

  • Love your child no matter what.
  • Except for your children, be careful about giving your love too freely.
  • Remember that earned romantic love is the strongest kind. Have a bottom line in your relationship.
  • Make sure you are worthy of those who trust you enough to love you.
  • Love is fragile and valuable. Treat it with care and protect it.
  • Do not feel pressured to love your parents no matter what. Yes, they deserve more latitude than anyone else in your life. But it’s not your job to love them no matter what they do to you.
  • Know that if you didn’t/don’t receive unconditional love from your own parents, it’s not too late. You can provide it for yourself now, in adulthood. To learn how, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
  • To learn how to feel and share love in a meaningful way despite Childhood Emotional Neglect see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

 

53 Ways to Describe Hurt Feelings

Childhood Emotional Neglect: Happens when your parents do not address, validate, or talk about emotions enough as they raise you.

Growing up with your emotions ignored has some very specific effects on your entire adult life. Just as Childhood Emotional Neglect is a lack of emotional attention, one of its most harmful effects is also a lack of something: emotional skills and knowledge.

In my work with hundreds of CEN adults, I find, more specifically, that an almost inevitable consequence of growing up this way is a low emotional vocabulary. Many CEN people have few words to describe feelings. Some apply the same generic word to all of their feelings (like “stress,” “depressed,” or “anxious,” for example); some do not use any emotion words at all, and others use the wrong words altogether.

When emotions are seldom discussed in your childhood it is difficult to absorb and learn the thousands of words in the English language that describe emotions.

When we need to communicate a feeling we are having to another person, or even simply name it for ourselves, it is vital to be able to label it in a subtle and accurate way.

Imagine saying, “I felt hurt,” to your wife after she and her friends teased you relentlessly about your new white sneakers. Now imagine saying, “I felt chastised.” The difference may seem small, but it is significant.

The labels you put on your feelings matter.

“Hurt”

There is no way to be alive and not get hurt. We have all been there. When someone says something hurtful to you, how do you name the feeling for yourself, and how do you express it to others?

Yes, you can say, “I’m hurt.” Or you can say exactly how you feel and this will make it far more likely that you will be — and feel — understood.

Next time you feel something painful, look through this list to see which word seems to best describe what you are feeling.

Find hundreds of additional emotion words in the extensive Emotion Words List in the back of the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

53 Words to Describe Hurt Feelings

Invalidated

Chastised

Invisible

Ridiculed

Screwed

Wronged

Abased

Punched

Humiliated

Squashed

Burned

Blamed

Annihilated

Rebuffed

Brutalized

Bushwhacked

Laughed at

Agonized

Heart-broken

Disrespected

Victimized

Insulted

Jilted

Cheated

Devalued

Forgotten

Intimidated

Neglected

Defeated

Persecuted

Put down

Oppressed

Slighted

Aching

Afflicted

Injured

Offended

Rejected

Assaulted

Dejected

Tortured

Pained

Deprived

Tormented

Bleeding

Crushed

Abused

Damaged

Ignored

Snubbed

Diminished

Betrayed

Deflated

To learn much, much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how it happens plus access the full list of emotion words see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Do you have a word for “hurt” that is missing? Please share it! Simply post it in a comment on this blog.

Why is it So Hard to Be Assertive? 5 Skills You Can Learn

Why is it so hard to be assertive? There are some very good reasons why it’s such a struggle for so many.

The first reason is that lots of people think they know exactly what assertiveness is, but they actually only know half of the definition.

That missing half makes a huge difference.

Pause for a moment here and think about what “assertive” means to you. Come up with your own definition.

Did your definition describe standing up for yourself? Speaking your mind? Telling people how you feel or what you think? If so, you got it mostly right. This is the aspect of assertiveness which most people are familiar with.

Now let’s talk about the other half. In some ways, it’s the most important half. So, enough build-up. Here’s the true, full definition.

Assertiveness: Speaking up for yourself  — in a way that the other person can hear.

These two aspects of assertiveness, and how they work together, are what make assertiveness a skill which must be learned, rather than a natural ability. Most people have a hard time with the first half or with the second half, and many folks struggle with both. Also, our ability to be assertive varies with the situation, the people involved, and the amount of emotion that we are feeling at the time.

Most people err in one of two primary ways when they try to be assertive: they come across too weakly, making it too easy for the other party to discount their message; or they come across too strongly so that the other party becomes too hurt or too defensive to listen. Once the recipient’s defenses rise, your message will be lost.

No one struggles more with assertiveness than those who grew up in households where emotions were ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). These emotionally neglectful families do not have the vital skills required for assertiveness because they do not understand emotions, or how they work. They do not know the Five Skills of Assertiveness, so they are not able to teach them to their children.

If you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family, it’s important to acknowledge that you struggle with these skills for a reason. And it is not your fault.

In a minute we will talk about how you can learn the skills, but first let’s consider the skills themselves.

The 5 Skills of Assertiveness

  1. Being aware of what you are feeling in the middle of a difficult, possibly intense situation
  2. Trusting that your feelings and ideas are valid and worthy of expression
  3. Managing your feelings, possibly hurt or anger combined with an endless possible number of other feelings, and putting them into words
  4. Understanding the other person or people involved, imagining how it’s likely they feel, and why
  5. Taking into account the situation and setting

When you put these five skills together, you are able to say what you need to say in a way that is appropriate to the setting, situation, and people involved (not too strongly or weakly), so that the recipients can process your message without their defenses being ignited. Keep in mind that talking to a defensive person is like talking to an inanimate object. Your message will not get through.

You can see from these steps why assertiveness requires not just skill, but a constellation of skills. This is why if it’s hard for you, you are not alone.

The good news is that it is entirely possible to build your assertiveness skills. If you keep all five skills in mind, you can work on building them. Follow these special suggestions to learn these vital skills.

4 Ways to Build Your Assertiveness Skills

  • Pay more attention to your feelings all the time.
  • Make friends with your emotions. When you value your feelings, they will become your most valuable life tool. They will tell you when you need to speak up or take a stand. They will motivate and energize you when you need it the most.
  • Begin to build your emotion management skills. For example, increase your emotion vocabulary, and try to use those words more often in your daily life.
  • Take every opportunity to stand up for yourself, as best you can. If you miss a chance or do it wrong, it’s OK! Just review the situation afterward to determine what you wish you had done. The more often you do this, the more you will learn, and the easier assertiveness will become for you.

Growing up in an emotionally neglectful family leaves you struggling with many emotion skills that other people take for granted. To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

See the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships to learn how to use and manage emotions with the most important people in your life.

4 Reasons Therapists Don’t Talk Enough About Childhood Emotional Neglect

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.

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

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

“I want a therapist who is an expert in Childhood Emotional Neglect!”

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

Yes. In a way, it is puzzling. CEN is so widespread and causes so much pain. Why don’t therapists talk about it more directly and more often? Why aren’t all therapists addressing this with their clients?

This is one of the main reasons that I took up the cause of CEN. After talking with other mental health professionals and doing an exhaustive literature search, I could find virtually no research or writings specifically about Emotional Neglect. And I couldn’t identify a recognized, accepted, universal term for the concept that meant the same thing to every mental health professional.

It seems that just as an instance of CEN goes unseen and unnoticed, so does the CEN child himself. In a case of parallel process, so does the concept of CEN. To virtually all therapists, the basic idea that parents fail their children emotionally is not surprising or new. Remarkably, I think that’s part of the reason that therapists don’t talk about it. For us, it hides in plain sight.

4 Reasons Therapists Don’t Talk About Childhood Emotional Neglect

  1. For therapists, CEN hides in plain sight. It’s so ubiquitous and such an integral part of Attachment Theory (a basic tenet for mental health professionals) that therapists just know it. It’s like the blurred backdrop behind the picture. In the mind of a therapist, CEN is not a thing. It just is. So we’ve never bothered to give it a specific name.
  2. Research. Therapists don’t necessarily think of CEN as the cause of the specific pattern of adult symptoms that I have identified and described in my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. So as of now, there is no body of literature or research for them to consult. Establishing research data to support the pattern is my next goal. In the meantime, the only source of this full picture is the book, Running on Empty.
  3. Memories. Most therapists like to deal with memories and facts as much as possible. Since CEN is emotional and unmemorable, most people who are living with it have no actual memories to report to their therapist.
  4. Eclipsed and Blurred – “Child Abuse and Neglect.” When I scoured the professional literature for mentions of Emotional Neglect, I found many references. But it was virtually always as part of this phrase: “child abuse and neglect.” I realized that this phrase has contributed to CEN being so overlooked. Unfortunately, the ubiquitous use of “child abuse and neglect” has taken the concept of Emotional Neglect and thrown it into a pot mixed with three other things which are far more visible and memorable:
    1. Physical abuse: hitting, physical threatening of a child.
    2. Physical neglect: not providing enough food, shelter or warm clothing, for example.
    3. Emotional abuse: actively saying damaging things to a child, calling the child names, for example.

In this way, I think the phrase “child abuse and neglect,” which is so ubiquitous and useful, has actually done an inordinate amount of untold damage by blurring awareness of CEN.

For me, right now, my goals are unwaveringly clear. I want to make CEN a part of everyday conversation in this world. I want parents to know how to meet their children’s emotional needs, and why it matters.

I want every single person to be able to talk openly and directly about CEN with a therapist who understands the concept and knows the path to healing it.

I want every therapist to mean the exact same thing when they use or hear the term Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Think of all the children who are, at this very moment, growing up surrounded by Emotional Neglect. And all the adults who are suffering in silence, baffled by their pain.

If I could speak for all the therapists in the world, here is what we would say to them:

Your pain is real. It’s not nothing. You have it for a reason. It’s not your fault.

You feel invisible, but we see you. You can speak and we will listen. So stand up and talk. And let us help you heal.

To learn if CEN is a part of your life, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

Over 500 therapists located all over the world have now been trained in CEN therapy. Visit the Find A CEN Therapist List.

If you are a therapist and would like to join the CEN Network and receive referrals from me, I invite you to Fill Out The CEN Therapist Form.

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