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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
And how it affects your day-to-day life now.
Emotional Neglect: A parent’s failure to respond sufficiently to your emotional needs. In other words, Emotional Neglect is something that failed to happen in your childhood.
To demonstrate why emotional neglect as a child is so invisible, let’s do an experiment.
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 than the first. That’s because our brains record events as memories. Things that fail to happen go unnoticed, unseen, and unremembered.
We have long been aware of the fact that what happens to us in childhood has a tremendous effect on who we become as adults. But the opposite is also true. 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 variety of forms. It can be incredibly subtle, such that 50 people could be watching it not happen, and be completely unaware.
An Example of Emotional Neglect in Action:
Joey’s friends gang up on him on the soccer field one day. So Joey comes home from school feeling sad. Joey’s parents don’t notice his sadness. Neither says, “Joey are you OK?” or “Did anything happen at school today?” No one seems to notice that anything is wrong.
This probably seems like nothing. Indeed, it happens in every home, and it generally is nothing.
So how could an incident like this damage a child and leave scars that remain into 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 (or she) 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 and self-knowledge and self-care that are necessary to fully thrive in this world.
And now back to our boy Joey, 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 Joey feels is not noticed, responded to or validated by his parents — Joey will grow up with a hole in his emotional development. He may deeply believe 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 his own purpose and value.
This becomes even more difficult when the emotionally neglected adult looks back to his childhood for an explanation for why he feels this way. I have heard many emotionally neglected people say, “I had a great 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 as a child is that it’s self-propagating. Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot when it comes to emotions, their own as well as those of others.
When emotionally neglected children 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 so that parents will know how important it is to respond sufficiently to their children’s emotional needs and understand how to do it.
I want to stop this insidious force from sapping peoples’ happiness and connection to others throughout their lives and 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.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how to recover from it, see the books, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. Since CEN is so subtle and invisible, it can be hard to know if you have it. Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test.
A version of this article first appeared on YourTango.com. It has been reprinted here with the permission of YourTango.
Marc’s parents divorced when Marc was seven. From that point on, he was raised by his mother, with occasional “check-ins” by his father. Marc’s mother owned and managed a deli, and had to work long hours to support Marc and his two younger siblings. Marc hurried home from school to pick up his siblings at the bus stop, made dinner for them, and often was responsible for getting them to bed.
When Alise was nine, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As Alise grew into middle school and high school, her mother was at home, getting sicker and sicker. The more disabled her mother got, the more Alise picked up the slack at home. She cared for her mother, did the grocery shopping, and even fought with insurance companies over her mother’s medical needs.
There are many ways in which the child can become what therapists call, “parentified.” Addicted, depressed, financially pressured, physically ill, or bereaved parents are some examples.
Believe it or not, there is a silver lining to being parentified. Marc, for example, grew up to be a very responsible man. He worked his own way through college because he was determined to have a career. He didn’t want to struggle financially, as his mother did. Marc is now a giving, caring husband and father. He knows how to parent because he did it as a child.
Like Marc, Alise is also a very responsible adult. She’s a research scientist in the medical field. Alise is driven to find cures for incurable diseases, and she works long hours by choice to meet her passionate goal. She is a loving mother and wife. Alise is excellent at giving and care-taking, for her family and for the world. Because her childhood prepared her to be.
Yes, there are far worse things that one’s childhood can prepare her to be. In many ways, Marc and Alise are in an excellent position to live happy, productive lives.
However, there is a serious downside to being parentified.
Marc learned many lessons from his childhood. He works long hours and supports his family well. Yet as those around Marc thrive and grow, Marc does not. His wife, and the mother of his children, is an alcoholic. So while she repeatedly drinks, passes out, and drops the ball in caring for the children, Marc quietly picks up the slack. He tries and tries to help her get sober. He lives under a black cloud, and cannot see that he has simply re-created his childhood.
Alise is busy saving the world, and this is her blessing and her curse. She enjoys success and the love of her family, yet she grows more and more tired every day. Alise learned everything she needs to thrive in her childhood, except for one key thing. She did not learn that her needs are important. In fact, she didn’t learn that she even has needs. Alise lives under the same cloud as Marc. Each day she wonders what joy is. Each day she longs for what’s missing in her life.
If you were in the role of the parent as a child, your life is about to change. You are about to re-parent yourself in a way that you missed as a child. You’re going to start living as you were always meant to live and experiencing the joy, happiness, and care that you’ve always deserved.
To learn more about the parentified child as well as other forms of Childhood Emotional Neglect and how to heal from them, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free on this website.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral as When the Child Becomes the Parent. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.
It was Thanksgiving, twenty-some years ago, and I was in graduate school. I decided not to go home to visit my family that year. Unexpectedly, my close friend and roommate told me that she was going to spend the holiday at her fiancé’s house in another city.
“Come with me,” she said. “It will be fun!” I knew that it would be, but somehow, I just didn’t feel like it. “No, I’ll be okay. I feel like being alone,” I assured her.
The morning of Thanksgiving, I got up in an empty house, and instantly knew I had made a mistake. The house felt empty, and so did I. I walked into the empty kitchen, and filled an empty cup with coffee. I sat down with an empty thud, and stared down at the empty table.
Thus began one of the loneliest days of my life.
Almost everyone feels lonely sometimes. It’s an unavoidable part of the human condition. Few are so surrounded by people at all times that they never feel left on their own.
But it does seem that loneliness is becoming a serious problem that threatens us all. New research from the American Psychological Association has established that far more people are living alone than was true in the past. New studies also show that loneliness can significantly harm your health, and decrease the length of your life.
This new research suggests that we should begin to pay more attention to the spread of “alone.” We need to take a closer look at “alone,” and “lonely.” What do they mean? How do they feel? Can we prevent ourselves from experiencing them?
First I would like to assert this one vital point: You needn’t be alone to be lonely. And you can easily be alone, and not be lonely. In other words, “lonely” is not a state, it’s a state of mind. Actually, it’s a feeling; a feeling that visits some folks more than others.
1. The kind you feel when you are actually alone. This “alone” is situational. It happens when you acutely recognize that there are no people with you. You may feel this when, for example, you weren’t invited to a party, or you just moved and haven’t made any friends yet, or are sitting at home alone on a Saturday night. This alone is painful, and difficult to tolerate. But it goes away when people arrive.
2. The kind that’s more lonesome than being alone. You can feel this kind of loneliness anywhere, even when surrounded by people. This “lonely” can happen when you are actually alone. But it can also happen when you are in the company of people who genuinely love and care about you. This type of loneliness can follow you wherever you go, and it often does. This loneliness can come at any time, under any circumstances. In fact, it may be so woven into the fabric of your life that you feel it all the time. It’s a feeling that can become a part of your everyday experience of yourself and your life.
This kind of loneliness comes from your childhood. It comes from growing up in a household where the deepest, most personal expression of who you are, your feelings, are ignored or squelched by your parents (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN).
Having your feelings ignored or discouraged while your brain is developing sends you a deeply-felt, never-understood message:
You are alone in this world.
This is one of the powerful messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect. And it does not leave you simply because you grow up. It stays there, visiting at will, and often when you least expect it.
The amazing thing about CEN is that its solution is the exact opposite of its cause.
As a child, your emotions were squelched or regarded as “nothing.” So now, you must encourage your own feelings, and make a choice to treat them as “something.”
Your walled off emotions are keeping you walled off from the people who could be occupying your heart and mind right now. Your walled off feelings represent your true self, and they have waited for you long enough.
When you begin to pay attention to them, you are paying attention to your true self. When you listen to them and take them seriously, you are listening to yourself, and taking yourself seriously.
Once you become aware of your CEN, and how it’s affecting you, you can begin to use your emotions in a way that connects you to people. It can literally change the way you feel inside, and the way you live your life.
You can begin by putting words to all of the emotions that go into “lonely” for you. Here is what I felt that day, some 20-odd years ago:
On my own
On the outside
I now understand that I wasn’t rejected by others that day. No. I was rejecting myself. I now know that taking down the wall that your child self built is one of the most important things you can do in your life. And beginning to use your emotions to connect with others in a new way is the icing on the cake.
It does take work and perseverance, but it will change you for the better in significant ways. You can defeat your Type 2 Lonely. You can take this on, and win, I assure you.
On your mark. Get set. Go.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To learn more, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn more about how to use your emotions in a new way to connect with the central people in your life, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
A version of this article was initially posted on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.
I’ve met many lovely people who have been excluded by their families. When I see them in my therapy office I help them figure out why they have been excluded, and it is almost never for the reasons they have always assumed.
In a recent post called Black Sheep, I talked about some common myths, and how excluded folks, or Black Sheep, are usually not what they appear to be.
Surprisingly, they are invariably a simple product of family dynamics. In other words, being excluded typically has little or nothing to do with the person being excluded. You’ve always thought it’s you, and it is not.
Since I will probably never be able to see you in my office, here are 3 important things that I want you to know:
First, let’s talk about the power of exclusion. We all tend to underestimate it.
But a study by O’Reilly, Robinson, and Berdahl, 2014 proved otherwise. These researchers compared the effects of workplace ostracism (being excluded or ignored) with bullying.
They found that office workers view ostracizing a co-worker as more socially acceptable than bullying him or her. But surprisingly, they found that ostracized workers suffer more than bullied ones. In fact, ostracized workers are actually more likely to leave their jobs than are their bullied colleagues.
If the exclusion is this harmful to adults in their workplace, imagine how it affects a vulnerable child in his family, during the time that his identity is developing.
Imagine how it affected you.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief that causes itself to come true. This happens because our belief influences our actions to the point that we bring the belief alive. Even when the belief is false, we make it come true simply by believing in it.
Self-fulfilling prophecy has a huge body of research supporting it, going all the way back to the 1950s. For example, it’s been scientifically proven that children whose teachers believe they are smarter than they are actually performed at a higher level.
The teachers treat the children as more intelligent, and the children respond to that treatment by making it so.
Imagine how this process works in the family of a Black Sheep.
You are a child, and your family believes that you are strange, or difficult, or different or inferior. So they treat you that way. You, an innocent child, respond to the way that you are being treated. You may start to act like you are strange, difficult, different or inferior. If this goes on long enough, you may become who your family originally believed that you were. And then you see yourself that way.
The Black Sheep family dynamic is a form of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. When your parents don’t see or value who you really are, it is very difficult to see or value your true self.
So now it may be hard for you to know the truth. Who are you really? Who would you be if not for all of the distorted messages you have received from the people who should love you the most?
Here is good news for you. Now that you know about Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, you can take control of it. Once you recognize the parts of yourself that were literally “projected” on you by your family, you can be freed up to either embrace those pieces of yourself or let them go.
A new journey begins which will allow you to define yourself, by yourself and for yourself. Free of judgment and prophecy.
You were chosen by your parents or your siblings for a reason. Perhaps you are the brightest in the family; perhaps you are the strongest. Perhaps you are the sweetest or most sensitive. Perhaps you’re artistic or have a different temperament or personality or appearance from the rest of your family.
Perhaps you were born at a certain time, a certain gender, or in a birth order that affected how your parents and siblings regarded you.
Perhaps you will never know why you were chosen.
But what is important for you to know is that you didn’t ask for this, and it’s not your fault. Your family does not see the real you. They don’t understand that your weakness in their eyes is actually your strength.
So embrace your difference, for it is your power.
And please know this:
You were chosen for a reason.
You are real.
You are valid.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it affects children and adults, and how to learn to see and value your true self, see the book, Running on Empty. To understand how Childhood Emotional Neglect effects play out in your adult relationships with your partner, your parents and your children, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article originally appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of Psychcentral.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN has a way of making family holidays like Thanksgiving, which should feel welcoming, loving and warm, fall short.
It’s the invisible force that just slightly subdues the welcome, cools the warmth, and quashes the love. It’s the background of your family picture which no one sees. It’s the gray fog that lingers round the family, making it impossible to truly see each other.
The members of an emotionally neglectful family walk through each and every holiday with a vague feeling of disappointment and discontent.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when you grow up in a family that does not “see” the emotions of its members. In the CEN family, feelings are treated as if they are irrelevant or even burdensome. Children in these families learn to ignore and hide their own feelings.
If this is your family, how do you take care of yourself so that you can enjoy Thanksgiving?
Emotional Neglect passes through the generations unseen and unnoticed. Most likely your parents have raised you very much the same as they were raised themselves.
For your healing, it’s important to acknowledge everything you didn’t get from your family. On this day, work on accepting what you didn’t get, what you did get, and why. And realize that your parents cannot give you what they do not have themselves.
Remind yourself that everything you got, and everything you didn’t get: It all adds up to who you are now.
And you’re all right.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible and unmemorable, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.
The world is full of mothers who are wondering why their adult sons don’t answer their calls, and fathers who struggle awkwardly to talk to their daughters.
“What did I do wrong?” they ask. “Why can’t we be closer? Shouldn’t our relationship be easier now?”
It’s entirely possible to be a loving, caring parent who worked hard to do everything right in raising your child and to still end up with a strained relationship once your child grows up. It’s because parenting is so complex and multi-layered that it’s far too easy to make one crucial error that your child has difficulty either understanding or recovering from.
One of the easiest and most invisible errors that a parent can make – Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) – passes silently from one generation to the next, unnoticed and unchecked. And unfortunately, it also can lead to some of the greatest parent/child emotional gaps once the child grows up.
Sadly, it’s all too easy to make this mistake. All you have to do is fail to respond enough to your child’s emotional needs when you are raising her. This leaves your child, as a grown-up, without enough access to her emotions. It also leaves her feeling as if you don’t really know her on the most deeply personal level: the emotional level.
So she may then come to you for advice, but not for solace. She may expect you to be there for her financially, but not emotionally. She may share her thoughts with you, but not so much her feelings.
One of the most common questions I receive from readers of this blog is from parents who have realized that they inadvertently, through no fault of their own, emotionally neglected their child. This is a painful realization for any parent, and it’s extra painful when your adult child keeps her distance from you, seems angry at you, or is struggling with issues of her own.
Please know that no matter what’s gone wrong between you and your adult child, the burden generally lies on you, the parent, to initiate fixing it. So what do you do if you want to repair or deepen your relationship with your CEN adult child? The good news is that there are clear steps that you can follow.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it transfers from one generation to the next, and how it affects children once they grow up, see the book, Running on Empty. For many more specific tips and information about improving your relationship with your child see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was originally posted on psychentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.
In my office, as well as my online Childhood Emotional Neglect recovery program, Fuel Up For Life, I have had the privilege of walking hundreds of people through the 5 Stages of CEN recovery. Throughout these experiences, I have realized something remarkable.
I have discovered that the most difficult, painful hurdle in recovering from Childhood Emotional Neglect happens at the very beginning. The stage that seems the easiest, the one most people want to sail through and “get on with it” is the first one. Yet Stage 1 is extremely important. Of the 5 Stages of Recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect, Stage 1 is not only the building block for all of the others. It’s also the most difficult.
Participants in my online CEN recovery program continually want to rush through the first module which is dedicated to walking them through Stage 1 in a deep, detailed, and meaningful way. And the CEN clients I see in my office often try to skip over this very important foundation.
Therapists also find Stage 1 challenging with their clients. They constantly ask me for help with getting their clients to do the work of fully accepting their CEN.
Realizing how your parents failed you emotionally and facing how it’s undermined your happiness, connection and sense of self is admittedly painful. But I have found that gliding through Stage 1 too quickly backfires later on, undermining the steps you must take to heal.
When you think about it, it does make sense. It’s hard to break down the wall that blocks your emotions when you’re not fully sure that a wall is there or why it might be there. And it makes it much easier to give yourself what you never got if you’re able to fully see that none of this is your fault.
When a CEN therapist emailed and said, “Can you please create a worksheet to help us therapists get our clients to see and accept how their parents failed to validate them? We need help with Stage 1,” I realized I needed to do just that.
If you are a CEN therapist here are 8 questions to use with your clients. I recommend that instead of asking these questions in the sessions, you send them home with your client and ask him or her to think about it and write down answers and bring them to the session.
If you are a CEN person who is not in therapy, you can use this worksheet to help you accomplish Stage 1 in a way that is deep, meaningful and effective. This will set you up for the 4 stages to come.
For CEN Therapists: Be aware that your CEN clients will naturally want to rush through Step 1. It is your responsibility to slow them down and support them to do the work. Support and challenge your client on this, and do not let them off the hook.
For CEN People: Be aware that this worksheet is not a simple solution of any kind. Step 1 often happens in layers, and you may need to revisit it over and over. Many of the members of my online program return to Module 1 over and over as they go through the other steps.
Take your time with these 8 steps. Look for a therapist on the Find A CEN Therapist List if you get stuck and/or could use some guidance and support.
My Number 1 recommendation for your first step in CEN recovery, whether you are a therapist or a sufferer, is this:
Do not rush.
Take your time.
Put your heart into this and do your best to face the pain.
You are worth it.
A version of this article was first published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author.
Judy knows that her husband, Tom, drinks too much. But she also knows that he grew up in an abusive home. Judy sees how Tom’s self-esteem plummets every time he visits his parents. She sees how hard he works to prove to himself, his parents, and herself, that he’s good enough. Judy feels Tom’s emotions every time she looks at him. She gets angry and hurt when he drinks so much, but she also feels his pain.
Todd, 20-years-old, understands that his father is well-known for his business success. His father has made many millions by buying and selling businesses and has his own company with 10,000 employees worldwide. Todd knows that his father has huge responsibilities on his shoulders, and can sometimes see the strain that his father lives under. This is what he reminds his younger teenage siblings (and himself) of when they are angry or hurt by their father’s verbal abuse.
Tina is a 42-year-old mother of three. She works full-time in the Intensive Care Unit of a local hospital. Tina is an empathetic and caring person, and others know this. She is typically the first one asked by her co-workers to cover an extra shift. She is the first one asked by the PTO president of her children’s school to organize and run a new committee. Tina can be counted on to say yes because she readily feels others’ stress and need, and always wants to be helpful whenever she can.
Of all of the emotions that we humans experience, one is generally believed, by psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and neuroscientists alike, to rise above the rest.
Empathy. It consists of feeling another person’s feelings.
We can get angry, we can feel guilty. We can be frustrated or anxious. We can grieve or feel sadness, regret or resentment. But none makes a statement about who we are as a person, or about the nature of the human race like empathy does.
It’s the glue that binds a family, the bond that helps two people resolve conflict. It’s a salve for pain and an essential ingredient in resilient romantic love. If you’re a parent, you must have it for your children in order to raise them to be healthy and strong adults.
Study after study has shown empathy’s surprising power. Empathy can motivate a wife to protect her husband, spur a man to care for his elderly mother, and even reduce the pain of an electric shock. Therapists know that when they can feel a patient’s feelings, it is a healing force for positive change.
Most people would never think of it, but empathy does sometimes go haywire. This best part of the human spirit can turn against us and, unchecked, it can damage both the empathizer and the recipient. Being aware of the risks of empathy-gone-bad is both incredibly important and vastly helpful.
1. By being excessive: This happens when you feel someone else’s emotions so deeply that you are blinded by them. Too much empathy can allow unhealthy or damaging behaviors to continue when they really shouldn’t.
Example Judy: Judy’s empathy is getting in her way because it’s preventing her from setting limits with Tom. Tom needs to hear Judy say, “I can’t take your drinking any more. It’s hurting the kids and me, and it’s hurting you. I need you to deal with your drinking problem. Now.” And he needs her to mean it. But Judy feels so much of Tom’s pain that she can’t make herself hold him accountable. This is where empathy becomes enabling, and how it can harm everyone involved.
2. By being misdirected: This happens when you feel the emotions of someone who doesn’t deserve it. Misdirected empathy makes the empathizer vulnerable to exploitation by the recipient.
Example Todd: Now an adult, Todd is being unable to hold his father accountable for the damage he is doing to himself and his siblings. He’s essentially giving his father a “pass” for his bad behavior because of his empathy for him. In this way Todd’s empathy is misplaced. By failing to protect himself from his father’s bad behavior, Todd is risking his own happiness and health (and that of his younger siblings). For this he will, all of his life, pay a heavy price.
3. By being too indiscriminate: This happens when you take a “shotgun approach” to empathy. You offer it too freely to too many people. When your empathy is free for the asking, you end up giving too much to too many people.
Example Tina: Tina has multiple responsibilities in her life: her children, her husband, her ICU patients, and herself. Yet none of these people gets as much of her time and energy as they deserve. That’s because Tina’s inability to let others manage their own stress and problems leads her to spread herself too thin. Depleted by the demands, Tina often feels exhausted and irritable around her children and husband. She wonders why she keeps gaining weight, and why there are dark circles under her eyes.
So Judy is enabling her husband, Todd is failing to protect himself, and Tina is harming herself (and by extension her family) by over-extending herself to others. These are three examples of how empathy can work against you.
Those who grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) learn early on that their feelings and needs don’t matter. This sets them up to be overly empathetic with others’ needs, and underly attentive to their own.
To learn more about CEN, emotions and how they affect relationships, Take the Emotional Neglect Test and see the books, Running on Empty and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
A version of this article was originally published on PsychCentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.
“Accept the children the way we accept trees—with gratitude because they are a blessing—but do not have expectations or desires. You don’t expect trees to change, you love them as they are.”
― Isabel Allende
Wives wistfully long for it from their husbands. Fathers demand it from their children. Friends call upon it to restore broken friendships. Who doesn’t want unconditional love?
Unconditional love is the kind that endures despite any problem, injury, conflict or issue that may arise. Love that asks for nothing in return, and never ceases, no matter what.
Is unconditional love real? Is it attainable? Is it the foundation of a successful marriage? Is it a natural human need?
Or is it simply an epic myth?
It almost seems to be a need that is biologically built into the human condition. We long for it, but we can’t seem to find it. Is it a matter of finding the right person or doing the right thing? Can only people who are emotionally mature provide it? Is it required for a strong relationship or marriage?
Believe it or not, all of these questions have answers, and they are fairly simple and straightforward.
But first, a fascinating research study.
In 2009, a neuroscientist named Beauregard used MRI’s to look at the areas of the brain that are activated in unconditional love compared to romantic love. He found that unconditional love involves seven separate areas of the brain and that it is different from the brain activity seen in romantic or sexual love. Beauregard concluded that unconditional love is actually a separate emotion, unique and different from romantic love.
Beauregard’s study provides neurological evidence for something that is known by couples’ therapists everywhere: unconditional love has no place in a marriage.
Why can’t we expect it from our husband or wife? Two reasons. First, because it’s impossible for most people. And second, because even if a person could achieve it for his or her spouse, it would be unhealthy for both parties and for the relationship itself.
Imagine a husband who continues to love his wife even though she is a serial cheater, and hurts him over and over and over and over. What incentive does she have to stop hurting him? Actually, none. This dysfunctional, painful relationship can go on forever, unchecked. Because the husband has no bottom line to what he will accept: no limit to what he will tolerate, and his wife knows it.
When it comes to romantic relationships and marriage, we all must earn the love we receive. Unearned love (except the parental kind) is not real, it is not strong, and it is not resilient. Conditional love is meaningful because it’s earned, treasured and protected by both parties.
If you have no bottom line in your relationship, chances are you will sadly find yourself living at the bottom line. You will receive whatever you are willing to accept.
So where, then, does unconditional love belong?
In fact, it belongs in only one specific kind of relationship and going in only one direction.
And that is parent TO child; not in reverse. It is a parent’s job to unconditionally love his child. But parents must earn and deserve love from their child. This is what makes parenthood require a kind of selflessness that is uniquely different from every other kind of relationship that exists in this world.
So essentially we are all wired to need unconditional love, but we can only get it in one place: from our parents. Unfortunately, if we don’t feel unconditionally loved by our parents in childhood, we will grow up to feel in some way, on some level, alone. And we will feel in another way, on yet another level, deprived.
People who grow up without unconditional love from their parents are growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect. In addition to feeling alone and deprived, if a parent’s love is highly conditional, the child may grow up to have depression, anxiety, or a personality disorder.
Many who grow up without unconditional love will be driven, through no fault of their own, to seek the missing love in all the wrong places: from boyfriends, girlfriends or spouses. I have seen many people go through many years looking for this special something that they didn’t get in childhood. Sadly, they seek it from the wrong people, in the wrong ways, unaware that they can, and should be, providing it for themselves.
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.