This week, I am sharing a segment of my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. It’s a vignette from the book that, I wrote for couples and families who are living with Childhood Emotional Neglect. This particular passage from the book explains what it’s like when a couple is living with, and harmed by, the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Olive and Oscar are a likable, caring couple who love each other and they clearly want to make their marriage work. But they have been experiencing a severe challenge. They both grew up in emotionally neglectful homes. Unbeknownst to them, they have been living under separate “CEN clouds” when they met, and they have lived under that cloud together for decades.
When Oscar and Olive married, they each lacked the emotion skills needed to make their marriage work. This led to a loving but emotionally devoid relationship that was functional, yet empty; loving, yet distant.
You can read the entire story of Oscar and Olive in the book, Running On Empty No More.
By the time Olive and Oscar came to my office for couples therapy, their marriage was in serious trouble. Years had gone by with little communication, while misinterpretations and false assumptions grew like weeds in an unkempt garden. Each partner sat fairly expressionless on my couch, struggling to explain why they had come to see me.
“I’m pretty much done with this marriage,” Olive finally said flatly. “We’ve been married all these years, and Oscar still doesn’t know me at all.”
“I do know her extremely well, in fact,” Oscar said. “And that’s the real reason she’s ‘done’ with our marriage.” (Yes, Oscar put sarcastic finger quotes around the word “done.”) “She never admits the real reason she does things.”
As I listened and observed this exchange in our first session, I was amazed.
Interestingly, I was able to tell after only a brief interaction with Olive that she was not the manipulator that Oscar described. I also saw the level of anger that Oscar carried, and how Olive seemed to be quite oblivious to it.
Olive’s abrupt announcement in the session that she was done with the marriage is typical of a person with CEN. Lacking the skills to communicate about subtle and varied emotions, and unable to understand or put the myriad of problems into words, she said the only thing she could formulate to communicate the intensity of her feelings in that moment. I have found that many CEN folks are prone to such extreme statements once they finally decide to voice their pain.
Olive and Oscar, in their double CEN marriage, had two emotional walls to contend with. Sadly, in this marriage, no one was knocking on anyone’s wall. Their chasm had been widening for many years and was now double-wide. They were both intelligent, good-hearted, and likable people, and they seemed like they should make a good couple. Despite the misinterpretations and despite the anger, I could sense the love between them.
Olive and Oscar had no opportunity as children to learn that emotional intimacy exists. Neither of them experienced it in their families or saw it between their parents. Both were intelligent, good, and caring people, but neither had access to their emotions, and neither had the emotion skills necessary to create and maintain true emotional intimacy with a partner.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) teaches you as a child to ignore and hide your feelings from others, and even from yourself. You learn very early in your life that emotions are useless, troublesome inconveniences and you take this philosophy forward into your adult life. You essentially wall off your feelings so that they will not bother you, and this may seem like a relief.
But, in actuality, you need your emotions to guide and connect you in your life, but the place you need them the most is your marriage.
Feelings are the spice in a relationship, the fireworks, and the glue. It is by working through feelings together that you connect as a couple and become close. An intimate marriage requires emotional exchange, emotional awareness, and emotional vulnerability.
There’s a particular feeling that I get when I work with a CEN couple. It’s similar to the experience of trying to push two magnets together that are facing the wrong directions. It’s like there’s a powerful force field between them, pushing them apart.
The only way to break the force field is to begin to help each partner to better access their own emotions in some small way. By talking about their feelings and their relationship in more nuanced, emotionally enriched ways, they each make a slight turn, followed by another slight turn, followed by another. Bit by bit, they gradually end up turning their faces enough that a slight pull can begin to form.
And when that happens, the real repair work has begun.
How To Learn More
To learn much more about how CEN affects your relationships, watch my Free CEN Breakthrough Video Series.
To read the rest of Olive and Oscar’s story and learn how they faced the Emotional Neglect with their children and with their own parents, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty
Emotions may seem vague, insubstantial, or useless to many. But, in truth, they are actually very, very real and very, very useful.
Emotions are physical sensations that take place in your body. They are, in fact, messengers. They are your body’s way of alerting you to watch out, take care, protect yourself, or seek something, for some examples.
Emotions are messages from your body. It is crucial that you listen to them. It’s not that they are always right, but they tell you about your deepest self and so they matter.
Most people would not put the two words “emotion” and “skill” together. In fact, every time I type “emotion skills,” the Word editor tries to correct me.
But, the truth is, that just makes me want to write about emotion skills more! They are, in fact, an incredibly key factor when it comes to your quality of life. They are also far too seldom identified and discussed.
I find myself writing and speaking about the 7 emotional skills quite often because of my specialty in treating Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
CEN is extremely common in today’s world. It simply involves growing up in a household where your feelings are ignored or discouraged. Folks raised with CEN tend to be disconnected from their own feelings and blind to emotions in general, so they have little opportunity to learn the 7 emotion skills in their lifetimes.
I teach these skills every single day to the clients I see in my office and discuss them with the CEN folks in my online CEN recovery program, Fuel Up For Life.
I hope that as you read the 7 skills above you were thinking about yourself.
How often have you used any one of these skills? Are you better at some skills than others? Is there one or more of the skills that seem foreign to you or particularly difficult to understand?
Three amazing things about the 7 Emotion Skills are: first, you probably never thought about them; second, once you’re aware of them, you can learn them; and last but not least, developing and improving these skills can literally change your life from the inside.
I could write volumes on each of these skills, so I will. Watch for a future article, Examples of the 7 Emotion Skills in Action.
Wonder if you have Childhood Emotional Neglect? Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty
Having a high IQ sets you up for success in life, right?
Well, sure, it certainly helps.
But, over the last decade, research has shown that there’s a kind of intelligence that’s even more important than the Intelligence Quotient traditionally measured by IQ tests. People who have this other kind of intelligence have better leadership qualities, are more productive, more satisfied, and are more successful at work and home. They are overall happier in their lives.
Here’s the real truth: Studies show that the higher your Emotional Quotient the better you are set up for success in life.
Emotional Quotient or Emotional Intelligence (also called EI) consists of 5 skills. As you read the 5 skills below think about yourself and your own abilities in each of these areas.
And now it’s time for another definition. This definition helps answer the natural question: Why do some people seem to have higher EI than others. Even folks with incredible academic skills and high IQ can have very low EI.
In my clinical work, as well as the data I’ve collected on Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) since I wrote my book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, one thing is clear to me. The biggest root cause of low EI is Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Growing up in a family that is unaware of your feelings and does not respond to them enough.
Yes, just as you may be thinking, CEN is rampant in today’s world. It is very easy for even loving families to fail to realize the extreme importance of their child’s feelings.
The signature challenge of adults who grew up with CEN is a marked lack of access to their feelings which impacts their lives deeply in multiple ways.
Having been subtly discouraged from having emotions as kids, they are not able to feel, identify, listen to, or be motivated, directed, and connected by their feelings.
And perhaps just as importantly, by growing up with their feelings ignored, they were not able to learn the 5 Skills of Emotional Intelligence.
Now, here’s the good news. Just as CEN lowers your EI, healing your CEN raises your EI. And you absolutely can heal your CEN!
Living authentically and close to your own heart requires paying attention to the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are: your emotions. And when you live this way, you will connect and inspire others. You will make good choices that move you and connect you to others.
In short, you will be emotionally intelligent.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free!
To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens and affects you through your adult life see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn how to honor your feelings in your most primary relationships see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Before you read the rest of this article please consider this: What do you think is the most personal question you can ask someone?
Yes, those are all very personal questions, for sure. But nevertheless, the answer is, as you may have suspected, NONE OF THE ABOVE.
The most personal question you can ask another person is “What are you feeling?”
Two things make this question so distinctly personal. First, you are asking about the other person’s feelings. And second, our feelings are the most deeply personal, biological expression of who we are.
Asking a person what they are feeling is inquiring about their deepest self. When you ask this question you are trying to understand or know this person’s inner experience. So this question is very personal, but it is so much more!
Because of the reasons outlined above, “What are you feeling?” is also one of the most caring questions you can ask. It’s a way of saying, “I care about the experience of your inner self. I want to know about the real you.”
“What are you feeling?” has other versions like:
How do you feel? (Emotionally not physically)
What do you feel about that?
What do you feel?
What are your feelings?
Despite the enormous value and power of all these questions, they are, each and every one, drastically underused in today’s world. Jokes and cartoons abound depicting harassed husbands dreading these questions from their wives.
Many people think of emotion as a weakness that is not to be talked about. Others believe that asking someone about their feelings is a violation of their privacy. But neither of these assumptions is actually true or valid in any way.
Of course, the questions can be applied in the wrong way, to the wrong person or at the wrong time. But most people, fearing any of that, refrain from asking it to the right person at the right time, potentially missing multiple opportunities to express interest and care on a deeply meaningful level.
Use it on yourself.
Yes, that is right. Use it on yourself.
As seldom as you pose this question to others, I’m willing to bet that you pose it even less often to yourself. But this is a very, very important question for you to ask yourself multiple times, every single day.
In my experience as a psychologist, and in my study of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), I have found that this question prevents Childhood Emotional Neglect in children when they are asked it by their parents. I have also seen that it cures Childhood Emotional Neglect when adults ask it of themselves.
Asking yourself, “What am I feeling?” accomplishes multiple healthy aims.
If your parents failed to notice or respond to your feelings enough as they raised you (Childhood Emotional Neglect), they set you up to believe that your feelings do not matter. Perhaps you’ve always felt it best to ignore them.
But sadly, living this way is blocking you from feeling all the joy, warmth, connection, excitement, anticipation, and love that you should be experiencing each and every day. Living with Childhood Emotional Neglect is a little like having a cloud hanging over your head through your entire adult life. It affects your inner life, your decisions, and virtually all of your relationships.
Amazingly, all of these adult struggles can be overcome by a combination of self-focus, self-knowledge and emotion training. And all can be accomplished by the simple act of asking yourself what you are feeling.
When you shift your approach to “feelings” from avoidance to acceptance, a truly remarkable change happens in your life. You begin to become aware of a part of yourself you never saw before, and a level of connection with others that you never knew existed before.
So ask. Ask the people who matter, and especially ask yourself.
What are you feeling? What am I feeling?
And reap the rewards of daring to ask the most personal question of all.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and hard to remember so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The CEN Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about how to deepen and strengthen your relationships by paying more attention to emotions, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Guest post by Joanna Rogowska:
I like to reward myself at the end of the week with a delicious meal with friends. It’s my weekly treat. I also like to check out new restaurants. So when my two good friends Lucy and Jane suggested meeting in our favorite burger place, I proposed a new Japanese restaurant instead. I had heard good things about the food and what caught my interest was their new interactive ordering system with overhead projection technology.
I’d read that each table in the restaurant was equipped with a built-in tablet. You could select your virtual tablecloth, explore the menu, project a picture of the meal onto your table, and of course, also order your food. I love new technological gadgets!
When we arrived, I fell in love with this place straight away – beautiful and authentic Japanese decor, lotus flowers, cherry blossoms, bamboo benches, and high-tech tables. A fantastic combination of traditional and modern Japan.
Lucy and I started ordering the meal, getting all excited about it. It was a really cool experience to be able to project the picture of each meal onto the plate in front of you. We played around with changing virtual table cloths, debating which one we were going to choose for our table. I realized that I was feeling something.
Playful, connected, excited, and happy.
As we were exploring the technological possibilities at our table, Jane suddenly called the waiter over and asked for a paper menu. “I really don’t know how to make this digital stuff work!” she told us. “It’s really not intuitive and annoying. I prefer a normal menu.”
Suddenly my pleasant feelings disappeared and a big sense of heaviness took their place. I suddenly felt overwhelmingly bad. I looked at Lucy and she seemed to continue enjoying looking through the menu and ordering her meal. But for me, as soon as Jane asked for a paper menu, I stopped enjoying the evening.
In the past, before learning how to master my emotions, I would have sat miserably throughout the rest of the meal feeling confused and simply “bad.” I would have let this ruin my evening. Now I knew better, and it was time to check in with my feelings to investigate what was going on. So I tuned in to my emotions.
Makes sense. I was looking forward to dinner today and suddenly I was not able to enjoy it. My intention was to relax and have a good time and now I was far from that, so I felt angry. But the big question was, why was I not enjoying the evening? I knew I had to dig deeper to find the right feelings.
Insecure, awkward, guilty, and ashamed.
As soon as I identified shame, I felt a sense of relief. It made so much sense for two reasons. First of all, I know I am a compulsive people pleaser. I tend to always put other people’s needs in front of my own. I cannot have a good time if I see that my friends are not enjoying themselves. So seeing Jane not enjoying the technology made me feel guilty for suggesting to go there.
But I knew there was more behind this feeling so I dug deeper. I had known that Jane was not a big fan of technology, yet I had still suggested this restaurant. How could I have been so inconsiderate? All I could think of was the fact that I was stupid because I couldn’t even pick the right restaurant for my friends…
Going through these feelings in my head brought me a sense of relief. I was feeling less and less overwhelmed and uncomfortable and beginning to feel some new feelings.
Clear, confident, and capable.
My feelings reminded me that the well-being of my friends was important to me. So I thanked my feelings for drawing my attention to the situation. I accepted my feelings and released them. I also accepted that my inner critic blew the situation slightly out of proportion, as things were actually going well. It was difficult to accept that, but it felt liberating to do so.
Finally, I reassured myself that Jane, having received her paper menu, was enjoying selecting her meal in a more traditional way and no one was thinking any less of me for choosing this location.
I once again felt what I had felt at the beginning of the evening.
The dinner turned out to be fantastic. We had a great time and we were pleased with the new discovery we made and the food we ate.
How quickly I could have let my emotions take over and ruin my evening if I hadn’t paid attention to them and made the effort to understand them. That was a reminder to me once again of how important it is for me to observe myself and try to understand my feelings.
The author, Joanna Rogowska, is a researcher for FeelingMagnets.com. Feeling Magnets are a helpful tool to get you more in touch with your emotions and learn how to use them.
To learn more about how to recognize, use, and express your emotions see the book, Running on Empty.
As you read the list of beliefs above, did any jump out at you? Was there one, or two, or more, that you thought, “Hey, that one’s not false!”?
If so, you are not alone. Many, many people go through their lives following some or all of these guidelines. And many, many people are held back by them. These beliefs have the power to keep you at an emotional distance from others, damage your friendships and marriage, and leave you feeling alone in the world.
The beliefs are typically rooted in your childhood. They are often messages passed down from one generation to another. They take root in your mind and live there, sometimes outside of your awareness.
These ideas tend to thrive in any family that struggles with emotions, either by over or under-expressing it. They’re so common among folks who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) that they’re included in my book, Running on Empty. All of the beliefs are based on false notions of how emotions work.
If you grew up in a family that didn’t understand how to manage, express or talk about emotion, you probably didn’t learn how and when to share or be vulnerable. You may have learned that it’s actually wrong to communicate about these things.
And chances are some of the 7 beliefs were communicated to you, either directly or indirectly.
Take a chance, and see what happens. The False Beliefs will start to melt away as you begin to experience the value of trust, openness, and closeness. Your relationships will thrive, and a whole new world will open up to you.
To learn more about emotions, relationships, and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Luke prepares himself to walk into the office party. Despite his reputation as the most helpful and productive salesperson in the company, his self-confidence flies out the window when he has to face people socially. “I never fit in anywhere,” he thinks to himself.
Often they are referred to as, “the strong, silent type.” They are giving, reliable, stand-up guys. They may be excessively driven, but that drive is mostly to provide for their families. They are there for others but ask for little in return. They are baffled by other people’s emotions, and typically just want to escape when anyone cries, yells, or shows intense feelings of any kind. They live in dread of the moment when their wife says, “I need to talk with you about something.”Continue reading
“Although many of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think”
— Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Neuroscientist and author of My Stroke of Insight.
If you answered yes to any of those, that’s nice. But you actually have another relationship that is more important than any of them. It’s one you probably never thought about before.
It’s your relationship with your own emotions.
How we treat our own feelings has a tremendous impact on how we treat others. Your relationship with your emotions is the foundation for all other relationships in your life.
Emotions are complex and can be mysterious. Sometimes they do what we tell them. Other times they refuse to obey. We may fall in love with someone we don’t like, or stop liking someone we love. We can lose our tempers unexpectedly, or surprise ourselves by staying calm in a stressful situation.
Just as you have to listen to the people in your life, you also have to listen to your emotions. Your emotions are your body’s way of speaking to you. Indeed your emotions provide an invaluable feedback system that can anchor, inform and direct you through life.Continue reading
Alexithymia: Difficulty in experiencing, expressing and describing emotions.
Every day I hear from folks who have just realized that they grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Often they say, “Finally I understand what’s wrong with me!” Many describe a huge weight lifted from their shoulders.
It is a wonderful thing to finally understand yourself in a new and useful way. Unfortunately, however, it is not enough. Step 1 is seeing and understanding the problem. Step 2 is healing the problem. Continue reading
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 on 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 in 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, 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.
Sign up to watch the Free CEN Breakthrough Video Series HERE!