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.
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.
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? 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.
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.
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.
Show me a family that has no anger in it, and I’ll dig out their anger and show it to them.
That’s my job. I’m a therapist.
Every family has anger. It’s unavoidable in life and in a family, simply because it is literally wired into our brains. It’s a part of our physiology, just as our eyelashes, elbows, and toes. There are many ways that families can handle anger, depending on their comfort level with it.
They can wield it as a weapon, figuratively hitting each other over the head with it; they can push it underground, or they can ignore it and pretend it does not exist.
Or they can use it the way nature intended; as a way to drive truth, and connect family members in a genuine, real and meaningful way.
The Anger as a Weapon Family: In this family, anger is used by one or more members as a source of power. Anger may be expressed in a variety of aggressive ways, like yelling, insults or barbed comments; by throwing things, breaking things, or other physical intimidation or threats.
The Underground Anger Family: This family views anger as unacceptable, or even bad. Angry feelings are viewed as unloving, uncaring or rebellious and are met with negativity or punishment.
The Ignoring Anger Family: This family treats anger as if it doesn’t exist. When a member of the family shows anger, it receives little response. Anger is invisible.
None of the children growing up in these three types of families has an opportunity to learn much about anger: how to listen to its message, manage it, express it, or use it in a healthy way. By definition, all of these children are growing up in an emotionally neglectful family.
All of these children are receiving this message: Don’t talk – don’t talk – don’t talk. No one wants to know when you are angry.
But let’s focus in particular on The Underground and the Ignoring Families, because they have one very big factor in common. They both are breeding grounds for passive-aggression.
Since anger is wired into the human brain, it happens in every human being, whether they want it or not. When you are in an environment that is chronically intolerant of this particular emotion you naturally, automatically suppress your angry feelings whenever they arise. This causes some major problems for you, and in your family.
Pushing anger down is like pushing water down. It has to go somewhere. So it may seep underground and sit there, or it may go slightly under the surface, and ripple and roil, waiting for a chance to spew.
In these two types of anger-intolerant families, the anger goes underground, but it does not disappear. It stays there. And it has to come out somehow, sometime, in some way.
Passive-aggression: The indirect expression of anger and resentment, fueled by feelings that are not addressed and resolved by talking about the issues directly.
Molly felt anxious and uncomfortable as she sat eating dinner with her family. She was acutely aware that her parents refused to speak to each other or make eye-contact.
Joel’s dad was an hour late to pick him up after soccer practice. As Joel sat on the curb waiting, he found himself wondering if his dad was angry about the argument they had the night before.
Jessica found it excruciating when her mother gave her the silent treatment. So she took great care to appear unaffected by it.
Many research studies have clearly established a link between passive-aggression between parents, and problems in the children.
One 2016 study by Davies, Hentges, et al., showed that children growing up in such an environment of indirectly expressed, unresolved hostility are more insecure, and take less responsibility for their own problems. They are also more prone to depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal.
Another difficult aspect of passive-aggression is that most people are completely unaware of their own passive-aggressive behavior. They are often, also, unaware of their own underground anger and resentment that’s fueling it.
Steps to Become Less Passive-Aggressive
Accept that you have anger. Accept that it’s normal and healthy, it’s valuable, and you can use it to make your relationships better.
Increase your anger awareness. Watch for anger in other people. Watch for it in yourself. When you start trying to feel your anger, you’ll start breaking down the wall that blocks it.
Read everything you can about assertiveness. It’s a skill that allows you to express your anger in a way that the other person can take in your message without becoming defensive. Buy a book on it if you can. Then read it!
When something happens that makes you feel angry, take note of the feeling. Practice sitting with it and tolerating it. Apply what you’ve learned about assertiveness.
And talk talk talk.
To learn how to deal with CEN in your marriage, your parenting and with your emotionally neglectful parents, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the national bestseller Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Let’s start with a little test to see where you are on this.
Read through this list of personal actions, and label each as either “strong” or “selfish.”
If you answered “selfish” to all three:
Chances are, you are highly uncomfortable with saying “no” under any circumstances. You are governed by guilt, and you believe that your own needs are less important than those of others.
If you answered “strong” to:
Number 1: You are able to be strong, at least for the sake of your children. If you are saying no for the sake of your children, you are putting their needs before your elderly aunt’s, and that is a judgment call. Who needs you more right now? If it’s your children, then being able to say “no” to your aunt is a sign of strength.
Number 2: Saying no because you are tired could very well represent strength. If you get enough rest for yourself, you will be in better shape to take care of others. It’s an example of putting your own needs first, which makes it easier for you to contribute to the world in a positive way.
Number 3: You could potentially be crossing the line over to selfish here. Is the Red Sox game truly more important than giving your elderly aunt an outing? Unless there are some mitigating circumstances, you may be making a self-centered choice here. This one may require some careful self-reflection.
In truth, the line between selfish and strong is blurry at best. For example, saying no because of the baseball game may not represent selfishness if you need to be able to talk about it intelligently at a sales meeting the next day, or if your aunt asks you to dinner more often than you can comfortably accommodate in your life. Or saying no because of your children could be selfish if it’s really because you would enjoy being with your children more than dinner with your aunt.
Few people are purely selfish or strong. Most of us struggle with decisions like these all the time. Many people feel selfish and guilty for the simplest personal choices which are actually healthiest and best for them or their families. Sometimes we err too far toward selfish; at other times we give too much because of fear of being so. Often a decision which appears selfish is not, and strong decisions can sometimes come across as selfish to others.
If you have a tendency to feel guilty or selfish when you put your own needs first, it may be because you were emotionally neglected in childhood. Emotional Neglect happens when parents either purposely or unwittingly give a child the message that his feelings and emotional needs are irrelevant. The unspoken message is: “Your needs don’t matter.”
Children who grow up this way, once they become adults, have great difficulty viewing their own needs as important enough to trump anyone else’s. They feel guilty valuing or emphasizing what they want, feel and need. This is an important quandary since emotional health requires us to take care of ourselves first.
Do you worry that you are selfish? Truly selfish people don’t usually struggle much. They easily make the decision that’s best for themselves. They don’t think too much about it, and they don’t look back.
If you follow the above guidelines, you will be strong. Because, in the end, for each and every decision that you make in your life, your strength comes from the fact that you cared enough to think it through.
Strength comes not from putting another’s needs before your own. Instead, it comes from the simple act of weighing another’s needs against your own.
A version of this article first appeared on Psychcentral.com. It is republished here with the permission of the author.
This comment was posted on the Ask Dr. Webb Page of my website. It describes an experience that many can relate to: the feeling of being overlooked.
I have a question about invisibility. I was at a study group and afterwards everyone was chatting with each other except me. I had this overwhelming feeling of being invisible. It brought me almost to tears. Then, just this past Saturday I was standing with my husband and other men when a lady I knew came up, stood right next to me and asked where all the wives were. I said “I’m right here” and she replied “I didn’t see you.” I’m not sure what to make of this.
Are some people overlooked more than others? Yes.
Is it because they’re less interesting? Less important? Less vivid? No.Continue reading
Abigail needs to tell her adult son Mark that she thinks he has a drinking problem.
Simon needs to tell his wife Lisa that he’s afraid he doesn’t love her anymore.
From time to time, we all find ourselves in a tough spot. Something looks wrong or feels wrong, and we need to say something difficult. Something painful that may hurt someone we care about, but which nevertheless must be said.
Abigail and Simon have some tough decisions to make. Do they speak up and risk hurting their loved ones? How do they say it? Would it be better to just keep it to themselves? At least then they wouldn’t cause anyone pain.
Many people in these situations choose the last option. Sometimes it feels easier and kinder. Unfortunately, that is typically the worst choice. Uncomfortable truths seldom disappear on their own. And they have far more power to hurt when they remain unspoken.
If you grew up in a family that discouraged frank discussion, emotional expression, or honest discourse (this is Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), having a conversation like this may feel simply wrong to you. And even if you do decide to speak your truth, you may not have been able to learn the emotion skills you need to do it right.
Abigail and Simon could easily do this wrong. Abigail could blurt out her message when Mark has been drinking. Simon could pick a fight with Lisa, and leave the house angrily, never explaining why and leaving Lisa baffled and unresolved.
Or each could go about speaking his truth in a caring and compassionate way.
Don’t shy away from speaking your truth. That is not loving, and it will not help.
Make yourself uncomfortable. Do the background work. Take the time, put in the effort, and sit together through the pain. Wait for the seed to sprout, and then revisit the topic with care.
That is what true love and care looks like.
To learn more about emotions, emotional needs, and Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral
“What do you think?”
“How do you feel?”
“What do you need?”
“What do you have to say?”
Imagine a child, let’s call him Zachary, growing up in a household in which he is seldom asked the above questions (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). Perhaps his parents are emotionally neglecting him because they have five children and are overwhelmed with getting them all dressed in the morning, much less what they think or feel. Perhaps his father died, and his mother is so enveloped in her own grief that she is barely functioning. Perhaps he has an older sibling who is autistic and who takes up the huge majority of his parents’ attention and resources. Or perhaps his parents are self-centered, and pay attention mostly only to what they think and feel.
The reason for Zachary’s parents’ apparent lack of interest is almost irrelevant. Because whatever the reason, the impact upon Zachary is the same. Since his parents are NOT asking him these questions, he is NOT receiving this vital message in his childhood: Your thoughts and feelings matter.
Think of childhood as the “programming phase” of life. The way our parents treat us in childhood sets up all of the “programs” for how we will treat ourselves throughout our lifetime. If our parents don’t ask us these questions when we are children, we will not naturally ask ourselves these questions as adults. Zachary will grow into a man whose natural default setting is to undervalue and under-attend to his own feelings, needs and thoughts. Zachary will be out of tune with himself. He will have difficulty asking for things, expressing his feelings, and perhaps even knowing his own needs.
In a sense, Zachary is growing up receiving the classic, invisible and subtly conveyed message of CEN: Don’t value or express your feelings and needs. This message is the complete opposite of assertiveness, which calls upon us to do just that. In order to be assertive, you have to:
Having been raised with the wrong message, Zachary will naturally follow his default setting – unassertive. If he is troubled by his difficulty standing up for himself, he will have to make a conscious decision to override the default. He will have to make changes in his basic views of himself and his own importance.
If you identify with Zachary, good news! It is entirely possible to do this. Once you understand what’s wrong and why, you can make a decision to change how you view yourself, and you can learn the skills involved in assertiveness.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how it might be affecting you, see my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Do you have an obnoxious uncle, a surly son, a snide sister or a mean mother?
Few people can hurt us as much as the people closest to us. Usually, that’s family. Most people have at least one family member who is verbally brutal, judgmental or just plain thoughtless. Unfortunately, when we react to the rude comments these people make, our reaction can easily make us look worse than them. Here is a good example of how this can happen:
When I was 22 years old, I went with my friend Jackie to her parents’ house for Christmas Eve dinner. I was a little nervous about going, because Jackie had, over the two years that I had known her, told me many stories about how critical her father was. He had said things to her in the past like, “Well, Jackie, looks like you’ve put on the proverbial Freshman Fifteen,” and “I never thought a child of mine could be as poor at math as you are.”
Jackie had a large family, and dinner was served buffet style. As all of the twenty-some people were bustling around filling their plates, Jackie’s dad said, “Watch out everyone, don’t get between Jackie and the food.” Everyone laughed. That is, everyone but Jackie and me. I was looking at Jackie, as a momentary look of devastation crossed her face. Then she did something extremely surprising to everyone. She dropped her plate of food on the tile floor, and stomped out of the room with a look of impenetrable hatred directed at her father.
Everyone stood in stunned silence for a moment. Then her cousin said, “Wow, what’s with her?” Another relative said, “Man, she’s touchy.” I seemed to be the only person there who understood the background, and that Jackie was not reacting to that one comment. She had finally snapped after a lifetime of putdowns and insults from the man who was supposed to nurture and protect her.
Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to NEVER draw the negative attention to yourself, while still defending yourself. Here is the “magic formula.”
Tip #1: BE PREPARED. Before your family event, it’s important to do some thinking. Try to recall some of the rude comments this person has said to you in the past. What basic theme do they follow? Imagine the upcoming scenario (location, event, e.g., family dinner), who will be there, and exactly what your critic might say in those circumstances. Next, think of some comebacks that you can pull out of your metaphorical back pocket and throw at your critic as needed. Expect a mean comment. It is better to be prepared for something that doesn’t happen than it is to be unprepared for something you didn’t foresee. See the examples for comebacks below in Tip #3.
Tip #2: BE CALM. Vow to stay calm, no matter what. Remember that your critic’s attacks upon you say more about him/her than they do about you. Do not let yourself get worked up. The calmer you remain, the more effective your comeback will be.
Tip #3: BE ASSERTIVE. “Assertiveness” is basically this: Speaking your mind in a way that is not designed to hurt the other person.” Here are some examples of some effective assertive comebacks for situations like this:
“Dad, comments like that are hurtful.”
“Excuse me, that was uncalled for.”
“That’s nice. Real nice.”
“I don’t understand why you feel a need to say something like that to me.”
Tip #4: BE STRONG. The worst thing you can do is let a critical or verbally brutal person hurt you. If you prepare yourself in advance, stay calm, and say something assertive, you will appear unscathed and will earn the admiration of all those around you. Then, when you go home, think it over and remind yourself that this person is attacking you because of his or her own weakness. Don’t take it in. Be Strong.