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Emotional Neglect-Childhood Emotional Neglect-Jonice Webb, PhD-Dr. Jonice Webb-Running on Empty-Self-Discipline-Emptiness-Unfulfilled-Finding Meaning
Emotional Neglect-Childhood Emotional Neglect-Jonice Webb, PhD-Dr. Jonice Webb-Running on Empty-Self-Discipline-Emptiness-Unfulfilled-Finding Meaning
Abandonment issues lurk under the surface of your life, often raising their ugly heads when you least expect them. Abandonment issues are caused by a painful experience of being left by someone important, like a parent, spouse, sibling or very close friend.
Any single one of these three key factors can make you more vulnerable to developing abandonment issues:
All abandonment is not the same. There are two different types.
Most people think of abandonment as a physical experience. In other words, when a child is abandoned, it means that his parents physically left him. Many children have this painful event happen when a parent dies or leaves them for another reason. Adults can be physically abandoned by their spouse leaving them, or by another important person in their lives dying or moving away.
Emotional abandonment is far less obvious, yet equally painful. Emotional abandonment happens when an important person who you believe cares about you and loves you, seems to stop caring about and loving you.
The experience of being abandoned, either physically or emotionally, prompts a very predictable response in your human brain. Your brain automatically goes into high alert, becoming hyper-vigilant for any whiff of anything that could lead you to be hurt by another abandonment.
If you do not acknowledge and work through how you feel about the abandonment experience, your brain’s hypervigilance becomes more intense and continues longer. Over a much longer time than necessary, you may search for rejections or potential abandonments everywhere, and your brain may continually hold you back from taking healthy emotional risks in your life. This is the very definition of “abandonment issues.”
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you. When you grow up this way, you receive a powerful, unspoken message throughout your childhood that your emotions do not matter.
Being raised to ignore your feelings sets you up to downplay your emotional reactions to all of the things that happen throughout your entire life, and that includes your abandonment experience.
Unfortunately, ignoring and downplaying your feelings about the abandonment prevents you from being able to work through them in a healthy way. All that old hurt, sadness, anger and fear stays right there with you, keeping your brain in high alert, and holding you back from new relationships and experiences. All of this may happen completely outside of your awareness.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is often subtle and invisible, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To learn more about CEN and how to heal it, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens and how to heal yourself see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn how to heal CEN in your relationships and as a parent, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Lucy — The Highly Sensitive Person
Lucy sits on the edge of her bed, relieved to be behind the closed doors of her bedroom. Slowly, she climbs under the covers, pulling them over her head. In complete darkness, she finally is able to relax.
Lucy — The Highly Sensitive Person With Childhood Emotional Neglect
With her covers over her head, finally, in complete darkness, Lucy wonders why she still does not feel better. Being alone feels better in one way but worse in another. The dark, safe quiet soothes her, but it also unsettles her. Somehow, it seems to intensify that uncomfortable feeling she always has somewhere in her belly: the feeling of being deeply and thoroughly alone in the world. “What is wrong with me?” she wonders.
In the late 1990s, it was discovered that some people are born with much greater sensitivity to sound, sight, texture, and other forms of external stimulation than others. Aron & Aron (1997) named people who are “wired” in this special way the Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP.
If you are an HSP, you tend to be a deep thinker who develops meaningful relationships. You may be more easily rattled or stressed than most people, but it’s only because you feel things deeply. You may seem shy, but you have a rich and complex inner life, and you are probably creative.
HSP children like Lucy are far more affected by events in their family than their parents and siblings might be. Yelling seems louder, anger seems scarier, and transitions loom larger. And because the HSP tends to feel others’ feelings, everyone else’s sadness, pain or anxiety becomes her own.
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when you grow up in a family that does not address the feelings of its members. The emotionally neglected child may feel sad, distressed, hurt, angry or anxious. And when no one notices, names, inquires about, or helps him manage those feelings, he receives a message that, though unspoken, rings loudly in his ears: your emotions do not matter.
As an adult, the CEN person, following the belief that her feelings are irrelevant, continually tries not to deal with them. She pushes them down, hides and minimizes them, and may view them as a weakness.
This is why the emotionally neglected child grows up to feel that something vital is missing. He may appear perfectly fine on the outside, but inside, without full access to his emotions, which should be stimulating, motivating, energizing and connecting him, he goes through his life with a sense of being different, flawed, empty and disconnected for which he has no words to explain.
Many HSPs question their 3 greatest strengths or do not even recognize them until they read about them. Even then, it can be difficult to believe or own them.
Since Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up to question your essential validity as a person, you are uprooted from your inalienable strengths, dragged away from what should be grounding you and driving you and connecting you.
Minus enough emotion skills, you are not sure what to do with the powerful force from within, your feelings. Sadly, instead of harnessing it and using it, Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up for a lifelong battle with your greatest resource.
You will see how beginning to treat your most valuable resource with the regard and significance it deserves, you will be moving forward to a much more empowered future.
The future you were born to have.
Emotional Neglect can be subtle so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Please enjoy this free excerpt from the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
How do you know if your marriage is affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?
As you know, Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible, and the huge majority of people who have it are completely unaware. That means that legions of relationships are weighed down by this unseen force. So how do you know if this applies to yours?
If you or your partner has already done some Childhood Emotional Neglect work, then you already know that your relationship is affected. When one partner is out of touch with his or her emotions, meaning he or she lacks emotional awareness and emotion skills, there is no way for the relationship to continue unaffected.
Even if you know that Childhood Emotional Neglect has affected your relationship, it’s important to know the specific effects. On the other hand, if you’re reading this book because you suspect your partner has CEN, then it might help to know some signs to look for.
Here are the markers I use to spot Childhood Emotional Neglect when I meet a couple for the first time for therapy. These are the main ways that it often plays out over time or can be observed in a given moment. As you read through the markers, think about whether each item is true of you, your partner, or both.
Conflict avoidance is essentially an unwillingness to clash or fight and is one of the most classic signs of CEN in a couple. It’s also one of the most damaging.
Believe it or not, fighting is healthy in a relationship. There is no way for two people to closely intertwine their lives for decades without facing some important differences of opinion hundreds, or more likely thousands, of times.
Conflict avoidance has the power to severely undermine a relationship. Not only are you and your partner unable to solve problems by avoiding them; in addition, the anger, frustration and hurt from unsolved issues goes underground and festers and grows, eating away at the warmth and love that you should be enjoying with each other.
Being in a long-term committed relationship is supposed to prevent loneliness. Indeed, when a relationship is going well, there is a comfort that comes from knowing that someone always has your back. You are not facing the world alone. You are not one, you are two.
But it’s entirely possible to feel deeply lonely, even when you are surrounded by people. And when emotional intimacy is not fully developed in your relationship, it can lead to an emptiness and loneliness that is far more painful than you would feel if you were actually alone.
Every couple must talk about something. Emotionally connected couples discuss their feelings and emotional needs with relative ease. Not so with the emotionally neglected. When you have CEN, you stick with “safe” topics. Current events, logistics or the children, for example. You can plan together. You can talk about the kids. You can talk about what’s happening, but not about what you’re feeling. You seldom discuss anything that has depth or emotion involved. And when you do, it may feel awkward or difficult, and the words may be few.
A willingness to open up, to explore problems and to have an exchange about feelings, motivations, needs, and problems is essential to the health of a relationship.
Few couples know the term “emotional intimacy,” what it means and how to cultivate it. Yet emotional intimacy is the glue that holds a relationship together and the spice that keeps it interesting. It’s essential, but it’s also hard to tell whether you have it or not. It’s also the biggest relationship challenge of all for those who grew up with Emotional Neglect. How do you know if your relationship lacks this very important ingredient?
If you’ve been together a long time, I know what you’re thinking: “Come on now, Dr. Webb. What long-married couple has passion?”
My answer is PLENTY. Passion changes over the years, for sure. But in an emotionally connected relationship, it does not go away. It simply mellows and becomes more complex over time. Passion goes from the desperate drive to be constantly together and having sex early in the relationship, to a feeling of comfort knowing that your partner is nearby. You look forward to seeing her after an absence. You have a desire to be physically close, a deep understanding of each other’s sexual needs, and a motivation to please each other sexually.
Passion is also most deeply felt during and after a conflict. Conflicts stir intense feelings, a form of passion. And working through them together fosters a feeling of trust and connection that also is passion.
Many couples don’t know that they can and should have passion, or what to look for to answer whether they have it or not. Here are some signs that can tell you that it’s lacking in your relationship.
I hope you found this chapter from Running On Empty No More helpful. If you see some of these markers in your own marriage, please do not despair. The silver lining of Emotional Neglect in your marriage is that the cause of the problems is also a powerful path to change. See the book for much more in-depth information about what it means to have Emotional Neglect in your marriage, how to talk about it with your spouse, and exactly what to do.
Narcissism could best be described as an excessive focus on one’s own wants, needs, happiness and feelings over the wants, needs, happiness, and feelings of others.
When you are dealing with a true narcissist, you can bet that even when they are kind, they are being kind for a reason that serves them.
Generally, it’s not a good idea to trust a true narcissist. They will have their own interests in the front of minds and may be willing to hurt you in various ways if they deem it necessary in order to meet their own needs.
It is very important to keep in mind, though, that there are many different levels of narcissism. Some narcissists are so self-absorbed that they do not care about anyone else’s health, happiness or safety. Others can have milder versions of varying degrees, where they may act moderately narcissistically in some situations, and much less so in others.
There’s a lot of talk about narcissism these days. At last, the general population is becoming knowledgeable about what narcissism is, what it looks like, and how it forms.
But in some ways, the more you know about narcissism the more questions you may have. It can stir up a lot of doubt about the people in your life, whether one or more is a narcissist, and what you can, or should, do about it.
No one has more reason, or more right, to have such questions than the child of a narcissist. Being raised by a narcissistic parent is a very hard thing to understand and cope with. This is made even more complicated because the child of the narcissistic parent can be fooled into believing or feeling the narcissistic parents’ attention, which is actually mirroring, is love.
The child of a narcissist has a life that appears one way but is actually another. This is, in many ways, a process of growing up deceived.
All children begin from a place of trust at birth. Babies are born with their brains already primed to experience love and care from their parents, and so they naturally interpret their parents’ actions through that lens.
All parents must make decisions for their child. But most parents make decisions, as best they can, based on what they feel is best for their child. In stark contrast, the narcissist makes decisions based on what’s best for herself. But children, of course, know nothing about selfishness or narcissism, so they will naturally believe that their parents’ selfish decisions arise from love and care.
Narcissistic parents are unable to see or hear their child or connect with her inner self. Because they experience their child as an extension and reflection of themselves, they are only tuned in to whether the child makes them feel bad or good. When you make your narcissistic parent feel very, very pleased, you will bask in the warm glow of her “love.” But it’s not an honest love of your true inner self; it’s simply a matter of feeling pleased with the positive mirror image you have provided for her.
This is how the child of a narcissist ends up in a school he would not choose, or practicing an instrument he does not enjoy. It is how the child of a narcissist ends up home alone, feeling unloved and poorly cared for. It is how the child of a narcissist ends up feeling like her parents’ prized possession one day, and their deepest shame the next. It is how the child of a narcissist ends up feeling unknown, unseen and unheard, but confused about why that is. And this is how the child of a narcissist grows up to feel alone, empty and lost as an adult. And despite the periodic warm glow of the Narcissists’ false love, it’s how the child ends up feeling neglected all of her life
Unaware, you are constantly a victim of your parents’ whims and needs. But inconsistent, false or absent love takes its toll, leaving you, the child, wondering, “Am I an acceptable person who is deserving of love?”
The short and simple answer to this question is this: You end up feeling neglected because you truly have been. Yes, you are a victim of Emotional Neglect. This can be fairly obvious if your parents were absent, abusive, or, out of selfishness, did not provide for your essential physical, educational or physical needs.
But many lovely victims of their narcissistic parents struggle to understand or accept that they are a victim at all. Because what if your parent was not particularly abusive, appeared loving, and met at least some of your essential needs described above? This can make it very difficult to accept that you were neglected.
But you were. You were emotionally neglected. You grew up with what I call Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs. And no parent fails more on that than the narcissist.
You grew up with the deepest biological expression of your truest self, your feelings/emotions, ignored. Your narcissistic parent, if he saw your feelings at all, experienced them as an inconvenience or a burden. This conveys to you a powerful Life Rule that you will likely follow your entire life: “Your feelings are a useless burden.”
What your parents gave you in childhood will be continued through your whole life. You have grown up with Childhood Emotional Neglect. And you have learned how to neglect yourself. But the good news is this: Now that you’re an adult, the ball is in your court. You can reverse the harm your narcissistic parent did to you by treating yourself in the exact opposite way.
To learn how to reverse the harm of your narcissistic parent, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn how to deal with your narcissistic parent now in a way that allows you to become stronger and healthier, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Above all, never doubt this fact for one more minute: Being raised by a narcissist does make you feel you’ve been neglected your whole life.
Few things have the power to hold you back in your adult life as much as abandonment. Legions of people are wondering how to overcome abandonment issues from childhood.
Sadly, there are many different ways that parents can fail their children. Thanks to research and awareness, there are many resources available to people who grew up with any form of abuse from their parents. But there are two other types of parental failure that are far less noticed or discussed: parental abandonment and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Children are born literally “pre-wired” with some very specific emotional needs. Thanks to loads of scientific research, we now know, without a doubt, that in order to grow and thrive as an adult, children must feel loved and emotionally attached to their parents.
Childrens’ emotional needs are, in fact, so crucial that even well-meaning, physically present parents can inadvertently harm their children by not responding enough to their children’s emotions. This subtle parental failure happens far and wide, and I have given it the name Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
Though CEN happens under the radar in most emotionally neglectful homes, it nevertheless leaves lasting effects upon the child: disconnection, lack of fulfillment, and feelings of being empty and alone, among others.
If physically present, well-meaning parents can fail their children in such a subtle way that harms them, you can imagine the powerful impact of parental abandonment.
Parents leave their children in many different ways, and for many different reasons. Whether your parent left you because of divorce, death, or choice, the reason matters far less than the fact that he or she left you.
It is very difficult for a child’s brain to absorb the enormity of abandonment. Children often suffer problems with anger or grief after the loss of a parent. Most children have difficulty believing that it is permanent, even if their parent has passed away. But if your parent walked away by choice, you will also likely struggle with your very natural question of, “Why?”
Many thousands of children grow up with parents who are physically present, yet emotionally absent — Childhood Emotional Neglect. These children grow up to feel less important than others, and deeply alone.
Many thousands more children experience the deep trauma of a parent physically abandoning them. If you had this experience as a child, you have probably grown up to struggle with trust, shame, and low self-worth.
Even if you are physically abandoned, if you have one parent who remains present and is emotionally attuned to you, this can greatly soften the impact of the other parent’s abandonment.
Emotional attunement from a parent is the balm that soothes all childhood hurts, and the antidote that prevents depression, anxiety, and low self-worth. If you grew up in a family that offered a shortage of this balm, you may be struggling to this day.
Whether you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, abandonment, or a combination of the two, it’s not too late for you to repair those childhood hurts. Now, as an adult, you can make up for what you didn’t get in childhood.
By beginning to tune in to yourself to pay attention to your feelings, by making a concerted effort to take care of your own needs, and by learning emotion management skills, you can begin the process of accepting your own true value as a human being.
If your parents failed you emotionally or abandoned you, you can become your own present, loving and attuned parent now.
It’s never too late to begin to accept that you matter.
To learn much more about the emotional needs of children, the effects of having emotionally or physically absent parents and how you can heal yourself, see Running On Empty or Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free!
What’s the most important ingredient for a happy life?
Philosophers, clergy, psychologists and researchers of all kinds have offered opinions on this question over the last five decades. Some say wealth, some say religion. Still others say family is the most important thing.
But one factor emerges over and over in study after study as a primary ingredient which must be present in childhood to produce a happy, healthy and well-adjusted adult. That factor is emotional attachment, warmth and care. In a word, love.
This factor was recently studied very specifically by Harvard researchers (Vaillant, 2012) who wanted to compare the effects of childhood financial wealth with childhood warmth. By following over 200 men (yes, only men) over an extended period of 70+ years, they were able to identify clear patterns. They saw that childhood financial wealth has little to do with adult success, satisfaction and adjustment. And that parental warmth and care throughout childhood is a much more powerful contributor.
Some may wonder, “What’s the big deal? Don’t virtually all parents automatically love their children?”
In my years as a psychologist, I have seen for myself that money is not enough to raise a healthy child. But I’ve also seen that love is not enough. At least not the generic, “I love you because you’re my child” kind of love.Continue reading
Everything that’s wrong in your life is the fault of your parents. Whatever your struggles, your mistakes and your pain, you are not to blame. You are an innocent victim of those who raised you.
At least that’s the way some folks interpret my definition of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
The definition of CEN: A parent’s failure to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs. People who grow up this way go forward into adulthood out of touch with their own emotions, feeling empty, alone and disconnected, and are baffled about what is wrong with them.
Here’s a comment that was posted on Ten Steps to Learn Self-Discipline:
Are you saying that when a parent fails to teach their children this skill well enough, that parent is guilty of Childhood Emotional Neglect? This article was insulting.
I’ve received many such comments. They point to one of the biggest barriers I have encountered in my efforts to bring the concept of Childhood Emotional Neglect to more people: the discomfort of blaming the parents.
Despite the overwhelming body of research proving it, many people strongly resist the fact that their parents’ treatment of them in childhood had a profound effect upon who they are as adults. It is uncomfortable to blame our parents for the problems and issues that we experience in adulthood. It feels like letting ourselves off the hook. Some people consider it “whining.”Continue reading
16-year-old Bruce is feeling lonely and bored on this Saturday. After buying a soda and candy bar for breakfast at the convenience store, he stops by his only friend Joe’s house to hang out. A couple of hours later, he starts to feel annoyed by Joe’s “childish” sense of humor. After several irritating jokes from Joe, Bruce loses his temper. “Grow up you loser. You’re boring,” he blurts suddenly on his way out the door, leaving a surprised and hurt Joe behind him.
Bruce walks slowly around the neighborhood, bored again. “Maybe I should go home and play my guitar,” he thinks. But then realizes that his mom may be up by now, and he doesn’t want to run into her. No telling what mood she might be in. So he decides to try to sneak in and up to his room by going in the back door. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.
“Where the h— have you been you lazy little punk?!” his mother yells from the kitchen when she hears his footsteps. Bruce turns on his heel and goes straight back out the door. Back to Joe’s house, he knocks on the door, walks in and says, “What’s up?” as if this morning’s hurtful insult never happened.Continue reading
Some of the most powerful words are those of real people sharing their stories. Some of the quotes below were emailed to me (with permission to share), and some were posted as comments on my website. Here is a sampling of the real words of people who grew up with CEN.
The CEN Childhood
The first 16 years of my life that my family lived together, I can’t remember a single meaningful or real communication that occurred between any of us in that time.
My feelings and emotions were the last things on my parents’ minds. The best they could do was provide a home with basic amenities.
I honestly don’t remember my parents much at all, though both are still alive and married today.
I never heard the phrase “I love you.” There was no one to talk to, no one who cared. I brought myself up in every sense of the word.
I remember the intense indescribable pain that I felt as a young child when my mother wouldn’t acknowledge the simple child affection I wanted to give.Continue reading
Few phrases sum up the idea of narcissism better than:
It’s all about me.
But the most defining feature of a person with narcissism is actually not his self-involvement. It’s his deeply concealed fear of being exposed as inadequate.
Underneath the bluster and arrogance of the narcissist lies a hurt and fragile core. Deep down, narcissists fear others will see that they are not special or superior (they are just human beings after all), so many of their grandiose behaviors are designed to prevent that exposure. Surprisingly, this deeply buried vulnerability is the trait that can do the greatest damage to the narcissist’s child.
What is it like to grow up with a narcissistic parent? Meet Lucy, who was raised by a narcissistic father.
Lucy grew up knowing that she was her father’s favorite. A straight-A student and accomplished athlete, she made sure to never let him down by making a B or dropping a ball in a game, like her brother did. Lucy noticed early that she was special in her father’s eyes. She saw how enraged and embarrassed her father was when her older brother got in trouble at school, and she made sure never to make him feel that way.
Lucy made many decisions in her life that were designed to please her father. She felt that if she let him down he would stop loving her, so she followed in his footsteps to take over his dry cleaning business. Lucy never thought about what she herself wanted as a career because her father made it clear to her from birth that he had already set up her life for her.
At age 23, Lucy was feeling bored behind the counter of the dry-cleaner and yearned to go back to college and get an MBA. It took her months to gather the nerve to tell her father her plan. When she did, he was enraged. “I’ve given you everything, and this is how you repay me? You have no idea what you’re doing. When you’re broke and miserable, don’t come to me for help.”
From that point on, Lucy’s father treated her coldly, as if he no longer loved her. She was no longer the apple of his eye. Her brother finally got his turn as the favorite, and Lucy was on her own.
The narcissistic parent is not able to see his child as a separate person. The child is an extension of himself; an object to deliver admiration, but also capable of bringing shame. These parents often choose one child who they feel most likely to reflect positively upon them and lavish favoritism upon that child, as Lucy’s father did. This leaves the other children jockeying for attention and love.
Since the narcissist’s child is seen as an extension of the parent, any normal failure, struggle, or flaw of a the child poses a threat to the narcissist of being exposed as imperfect. So he keeps a tight rein upon the children, especially the favored one, out of fear of being exposed. When any child, particularly the chosen one, expresses his own wants, feelings or needs, this makes the parent feel vulnerable. The child is likely to meet with harsh rejection.
Throughout childhood, Lucy’s own identity was neglected while she toiled to be the perfect child to protect her father’s vulnerable core from exposure. This is one of the many ways in which Childhood Emotional Neglect can happen. As an adult, Lucy will struggle to define her own wants and needs. In fact she may feel selfish for simply having wants and needs. As an adult, that long ago child will be trapped in her father’s mirror, yearning for his lost love and approval.
Today, for your healing and for yourself, it’s your turn. Right here, right now:
It’s all about you.
CEN can be invisible and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn much more about how to deal with your narcissistic or self-centered parent, especially how to protect yourself in a way that won’t make you feel guilty, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral