Is it hard for you to say, “No?” Do you feel the need to explain yourself and give reasons followed by excuses followed by more reasons? Would you be surprised if I told you that you do not need to give a reason?
All the people of the world can be divided into two groups: those who can say “no” easily, and those who cannot.
To the folks in the first group, it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would have a problem with it. Like the famous line from the old movie, To Have or To Have Not, “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow,” people in the first group might say, “What’s so hard about it? Start with N, and end with O.”
But for many, many people, it’s just not that simple. Saying “no” for them carries enormous baggage. This is especially true for those who grew up in households which offered them little opportunity to say no. This is a version of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Read these principles over and over. Post them on your bathroom mirror. Digest them. Remember them.
For they will set you free.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how to feel more confident and honor your own needs and feelings more, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
This book was originally posted on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
Wife: Every time I say something even slightly negative to my husband, he gets really hurt and angry and refuses to discuss it.
Employee: Every year I’m extremely nervous to meet with my supervisor for my annual evaluation. If she gives me any criticism, I’m not sure I can take it.
Student: I made a C on my first statistics test. I guess I’m not cut out for this graduate program.
Friend: My friend Maggie told me that she thought I could get a better job. I feel so insulted that I haven’t talked to her for a while.
Stranger: The cashier at the grocery store snapped at me for taking too much time to pay. I was so upset that it ruined the rest of my day.
When I was 23 I started my first year of grad school. I was so excited that I had been chosen from hundreds of applicants for admission to a Ph.D. program in psychology. My first test in the psychology program was in statistics class. I was appalled to receive my test back with a big ugly C on it. “Are you prepared for the rigors of this program?” my professor had written at the top.
Actually, I was more than appalled. I had never imagined making a C in graduate school, let alone my first test. Stunned, I went home and questioned my entire life plan. “Maybe he’s right and I’m not up to this. I guess I’m not as smart as I thought. Maybe I should just drop out now before they kick me out,” I agonized.
Let’s face it. No one can go through life without getting negative feedback or criticism from others. And believe it or not, that’s actually a good thing. Because feedback (especially negative feedback) is essential for your growth and health.
We all have our own view of ourselves: our choices, behaviors, and performances. Criticism from others offers us a view of ourselves from the outside. In this way, other people’s views offer an excellent source of information about how we can grow. Yet unfortunately, many of us aren’t able to take advantage of this rich resource.
Folding and fighting are two very different responses to the same thing: feeling hurt. Unfortunately, neither response allows you to benefit from the criticism. And both happen when you lack a good, healthy Criticism Filter.
To become stronger in the face of criticism (and maybe even benefit from it), all you have to do is build yourself a boundary to keep criticism from spearing you in the heart while you process it. Sound easy? It’s not.
But you can do it!
4. Ask your criticizer questions. Try to understand exactly what they mean and why they are saying this. Filter their message, owning the parts that are true and discarding the parts that are false.
5. If your criticism carries something valid and useful, develop a plan of action. Is there something you can or should try to change about yourself or how you’re doing things?
And now, flashback to 1983. After several hours of painfully questioning my abilities and my future, I suddenly felt indignant. “Who is this professor to question my potential on the basis of one test?” I thought to myself. “He doesn’t know me at all.”
So why would he say that? I knew the answer. Because he was challenging me to either work harder or get out.
I also realized my part in this event. I had been over-confident and had not studied properly for the test.
I took out my Statistics book and started on page 1. I spent the entire weekend poring over every page and working through every problem until I fully understood every element of every section we had covered so far and was actually ahead on the material.
And what did I take forward from that experience? I never again went into another test under-prepared.
Sometimes I look back on that experience and wonder what might have happened if I had given up? Where might my life have gone, and how many regrets would I have taken with me?
Each experience of criticism is a challenge: to get better, get stronger, or change for the better in some way. You can fold or you can fight.
Or you can filter it and use it to make yourself better.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can lead to a lack of resilience in the face of criticism. To learn more, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psych central.
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.
There is so much more to learn about Childhood Emotional Neglect. Sign up for my Free CEN Breakthrough Video Series!
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.
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.
Childhood emotional neglect in a family dwells in the echoes of what’s not said, what’s not asked, and what’s not done.
In my work as a psychologist, I have seen how the absence of meaningful talk about feelings and a shortage of personal questions in a family can leave its children with an internal emotional block. These children grow up to be adults who had something vital robbed from them in childhood. And very, very few of them even know it was taken or that it’s now missing.
It’s their voice.
Not literally, of course! Most emotionally neglected people have plenty to say and they say it. They are quick to say things like:
How are you?
Is something wrong?
I’m happy to take on that task. Go ahead and assign it to me.
Sure, I’ll do that favor for you.
I don’t need any help.
All’s well here!
While all of the above may seem like a random collection of statements, they all share a common theme. They are all about “you” and none about “me.” They are all made frequently by people with childhood emotional neglect. They convey the life stance of those who grew up with their emotions ignored.
If you are ever around a typical infant, then you are familiar with the infant’s voice. All the way from birth through the age of 2 or 3 they express themselves very freely. Before they have words, they cry or giggle to communicate what they feel. As they get a little older, they point and say nonsense words. They yell and point out the car window and say, “Truck!” as soon as they know how to say it.
My point is that children are born with a voice that they are innately wired to use. What a baby feels and thinks has no filter. It comes out automatically and immediately.
But sadly, too many children must start filtering their voices all too much and all too soon.
Imagine being an older child who gets your feelings hurt (as all children inevitably do). Your face and body language show your feelings very clearly for all to see. But your parents go on as if everything is fine. They don’t even seem to notice.
Imagine going to your parent for help, but, too often, for whatever reason, they are not responsive.
Imagine walking through every day of your life as a child seldom being asked personal questions by your parents. Questions like:
What are you sad about?
Did something happen at school today to get you upset?
Is this scary for you?
What do you want?
What do you feel?
What do you need?
When you don’t get asked these questions enough, it is natural for your developing brain to assume that your personal feelings, wants and needs do not matter. After some time, you learn that you may as well not express them because no one really cares anyway.
Imagine going through every day of your life as a child receiving little feedback about who you are. Feedback such as:
You are amazing at math. But we need to put some time into increasing our vocabulary.
You seem to get bored and distracted at baseball practice.
You have a great sense of humor!
Your temper gets the best of you sometimes.
You’re my little pizza lover.
You like to help others. It’s so sweet to see.
I love how you want to make the people around you laugh.
You seem to be unhappy when your friend _______ is here.
When you don’t hear these observations and feedback enough, you don’t get to learn two vital things that you are meant to learn in childhood:
You don’t get to learn who you really are
And you do not find out that you are worth knowing.
This is how, growing up in a family that did not notice, validate, or show interest in you enough, you learned that your feelings do not matter.
It is how, bereft of enough emotional response and care, you learned that you should keep your true self under wraps.
This is how, by asking for things and having your words enter an empty void, you learned that it hurts to speak up.
It is how childhood emotional neglect took your voice away.
You were born with a strong voice, but your childhood took it away. So, you do not now need to create a new voice, you just need to recapture what you once had. Your voice is there, inside of you, waiting to be reclaimed.
Just as each time you speak up makes the next time easier; each time you pay attention to that small, quiet child within, you send him or her a powerful message.
By doing the opposite of what your parents did, by providing for yourself what they couldn’t give, you are validating who you are, and listening to what you need. You are saying to yourself and that silent little child within You Do Matter.
What do people do when they know that they matter? They express their feelings, their desires, and their needs. They speak up when needed to protect themselves.
What will you do when you realize that you matter? You will learn to speak your truth.
You will take your voice back.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN can be subtle and invisible so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and how to recover from it, see my books Running Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships and Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect
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 (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.
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 look like.
To learn more about emotions, emotional needs, and Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn how to use your emotions to communicate and connect in your most important relationships see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
Barry is good at his job as the manager of a department store, so he continues to do it year after year. But in the back of his mind, he wonders how he ended up here.
Sharon received the Most Dedicated Salesperson Award.
Francesca watched in frustration, feeling overlooked, as her co-workers were promoted over her head, one after another.
Simon’s manager appreciates how quickly he has adapted to his new role in the company, and how little support he’s needed.
Will’s boss gave him a “Needs Improvement” rating, citing inadequate communication with co-workers.
Elizabeth toils away behind the scenes in her customer service job, trying not to call attention to herself. She has no idea that she is capable of much more.
If you have ever been in one of the situations above, you know how it feels. Barry, Francesca, and Elizabeth are in painful situations in their jobs, while Sharon, Simon and Will are thriving in theirs.
You may be surprised to learn that all six of these folks’ job experiences, as different as they are, arise from a common underlying cause. All six grew up in households where their parents overlooked their emotions. They all grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
The funny thing about CEN is that it leaves you with a particular set of challenges. But in some situations, those challenges can actually become your strengths. When it comes to the workplace, CEN is a double-edged sword.
The Advantages of CEN in the Workplace
The Disadvantages of CEN in the Workplace
The folks who are the most rewarded by, and successful in, their jobs are strong communicators. They know themselves well, and they pay attention to what they are feeling and why. They ask for what they want, and they accept help when they need it.
You can become this way too.
Begin right now to focus more on learning who you are. What do you enjoy? What do you like? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Begin right now to pay more attention to your needs. Have you earned a raise? Do you deserve a promotion? Are you due a vacation? If so, ask for it.
Begin right now to change how you relate to others. Talk more, take on more interpersonal challenges. Watch how others discuss difficult topics, learn from it, and practice.
Others have seen your strong points for years, and have benefited from your competence, and your giving, independent nature. Now it is time for you to recognize what you have to offer, and ask for what you deserve.
You are worth it.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.