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The Myth of Unconditional Love

“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?

What is 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.

Unconditional Love – Guidelines to Follow

  • Love your child no matter what.
  • Except for your children, be careful about giving your love too freely.
  • Remember that earned romantic love is the strongest kind. Have a bottom line in your relationship.
  • Make sure you are worthy of those who trust you enough to love you.
  • Love is fragile and valuable. Treat it with care and protect it.
  • Do not feel pressured to love your parents no matter what. Yes, they deserve more latitude than anyone else in your life. But it’s not your job to love them no matter what they do to you.
  • Know that if you didn’t/don’t receive unconditional love from your own parents, it’s not too late. You can provide it for yourself now, in adulthood. To learn how, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
  • To learn how to feel and share love in a meaningful way despite Childhood Emotional Neglect see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

 

Were You Raised in a Passive-Aggressive Family?

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.

3 Types of Anger-Uncomfortable Families

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 Lesson the Children Learn: The angriest person wins.

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 Lesson the Children Learn: Anger is bad. If you feel angry, you are bad. Do not talk about it.

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.

  • The Lesson the Children Learn: Anger is useless. Don’t bother with it. Do not talk about it.

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.

Enter passive-aggression.

Passive-aggression: The indirect expression of anger and resentment, fueled by feelings that are not addressed and resolved by talking about the issues directly.

The Passive-Aggressive Family

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.

How to Use the Vertical Questioning Technique to Strengthen and Deepen Your Marriage

“Sometimes I just feel like walking away and never coming back,” Craig finally said haltingly, after a long uncomfortable pause.

When he looked up into his wife Liz’s eyes, he was shocked at what he saw…

As a couple’s therapist, I’ve worked with hundreds of couples over the years. If I had to name the one most ubiquitous challenge that I see couples facing, it’s this:

How to know what you’re feeling, and manage those feelings so you can share them with your partner.

It’s just so much easier to talk about logistics and happy things. The kids, our jobs, finances, vacation plans; these are all important. And they all share one common factor: they mostly happen at the surface.

The real glue that holds two people together in a way that is strong and true does not dwell there on the surface. That glue is made of emotion, feeling, conflict and, yes sometimes pain. These can only be accessed by courageously wading deeper, into the messy world of emotions with your partner.

Literally, all couples struggle with this to some degree. But the ones who I see having the most difficulty with it are couples in which one or both partners grew up with CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect). When you grow up in a household where feelings are ignored or discouraged, you have little opportunity to learn about your emotions: how to manage, express and work with them. This can pose a formidable challenge to any committed relationship.

Here is an easy-to-learn technique that you and your partner can use to access each other’s hearts and emotions, and build that valuable relationship glue. It’s called The Vertical Questioning Technique.

The Vertical Questioning Technique

First, it’s important to understand the opposite of vertical questions: horizontal questions. These are the questions that you ask your partner on a day-to-day basis. Here are some examples:

Why are you home late?

What are the plans this weekend?

How much did you buy?

Where were you?

What do you think we should do?

All of these questions have value, yes. But they are geared toward gathering information, not deepening your relationship.

In contrast, vertical questions are geared toward accessing emotions. They are challenging questions that make your partner look inside, not outside. They challenge him to go deeper by looking more deeply into himself. Here are some examples of vertical questions:

How do you feel about that?

No, really…why did you really say/do that?

Are you angry? Why?

You look sad. Are you?

Do you realize that your expression (or body language) doesn’t match your words?

Yes, it’s true, these questions are not for the faint of heart. They are challenging and can be difficult to give and to receive. But they will take you somewhere real and meaningful.

Now let’s revisit Craig and Liz so that you can find out why Craig was shocked by what he saw in Liz’s eyes. Here is the full story.

Liz had noticed that for weeks, Craig had been coming home from work unusually late. She was worried that he continued to be angry about a disagreement they’d had several weeks ago. Several times she had asked him if anything was wrong. Each time he’d smiled and said, “No, not at all, everything’s fine.” Yet he continued to be distant and disconnected from her. He talked easily about logistics and plans but seemed uninterested in her. Try as she might, she ended up feeling frozen out.

Liz Tries Vertical Questioning With Craig

Liz: You’ve been coming home late, and you seem kind of distant. Is anything wrong?

Craig: (With a smile) Don’t be silly. I’m just tired, everything’s fine. I’m going to bed.

Liz: Wait a second. Do you realize that your words don’t match your body language? Your smile doesn’t look real, and you’re walking away as you tell me that everything’s fine. Could there be something else going on with you?

Craig pauses and looks annoyed for a moment. Then the annoyance passes, and he looks perplexed. Liz waits while she sees his attention turn inward.

Craig: I-I don’t know. What’s the big deal? (but he is clearly flustered by Liz’s questions).

Liz: I’ve been sad lately because you seem so distant and disconnected. Can you please try to figure this out for me? I don’t want to live like this.

Craig: (Looking truly concerned for the first time, as he sees his wife’s sadness) Well, believe me, I’m over it. But I still can’t believe you talked to my mother about my drinking problem behind my back. It was a total violation of my trust. I can’t imagine why you would do that to me. Obviously, you don’t care how I feel.

Liz waits while Craig looks at the floor, tears welling in his eyes.

“Sometimes I just feel like walking away and never coming back,” he finally says.

Craig doesn’t see it, but while he’s talking Liz’s eyes are also filling with tears. She feels a combination of sad because she hurt Craig, angry that it’s taken him so long to say this, but relieved and grateful that he’s finally saying it. When he finally looks up, Craig sees how much Liz truly does care what he needs, feels and thinks.

Believe it or not, it almost doesn’t matter what happens from here. Liz’s Vertical Questioning (and her willingness to be vulnerable by sharing her own sad feelings) has helped Craig access his true feelings. And now they have shared what I call an emotional-meeting-of-the-minds.

It is truly a golden moment. Craig and Liz have both sat with their strong emotions together and felt each other’s pain. This moment forms the glue that will bind them together and keep their love and their passion strong.

So don’t be afraid. Ask those hard questions. Challenge your partner, and challenge yourself. It’s the best way to show, and strengthen your love.

To learn more about Horizontal and Vertical Questioning, Childhood Emotional Neglect, and how to build the emotional skills that are needed for a strong marriage, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children.

A version of this article originally appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.

Childhood Emotional Neglect: A Guide For Therapists & Clients

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to validate and respond to your emotions enough as they raise you.

Growing up this way leaves you with some significant challenges throughout your entire adult life.

As I have said many times before, Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be healed. Even beyond that, therapists and laypeople alike are realizing that taking the steps to heal CEN is a powerful way to change your life from the inside.

One of my greatest goals in writing and speaking and teaching about Childhood Emotional Neglect is to give both mental health professionals and CEN sufferers a common language to talk about what failed to happen, the gaps that are left by that, and what it takes to fill them.

This route to healing is both validating and compelling for those who grew up with Emotional Neglect. And more and more therapists are finding that walking their clients through the 4 CEN Recovery Steps is remarkably rewarding work.

For Clients

Looking For a CEN Trained Therapist?

If you are looking for a therapist who is familiar with the CEN concept and is trained in the recovery process, see my Find A CEN Therapist Page. It lists almost 500 licensed therapists located all over the world who have either read my books or have attended one of my CEN Therapist Continuing Education Trainings. And if there are none located in your area, many of the therapists on the list do Skype treatment.

Want Your Therapist to Learn About CEN?

If you are in treatment with a therapist who is not trained in treating Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can share this article with your therapist as a way to introduce him or her to the CEN concept and the kind of work you would like to do together.

About Childhood Emotional Neglect — For Therapists

  • Your client may have read self-help books, or even seen other therapists in the past. Nevertheless, he/she has found the awareness of Childhood Emotional Neglect deeply validating, and offering answers not found before.
  • If you can join your client in this conceptualization of what is wrong, I believe you will find that the CEN concept also offers you both a meaningful path forward in your work together.
  • The primary problem is this: Your client grew up in a non-emotionally-aware family. Even though you are quite likely already aware of this, it is important to acknowledge it as the center of what’s wrong for your client now.
  • As a child, your client had to wall off their emotions in order to get by in their emotionally empty home.
  • Now, as an adult, your client’s emotions remain walled off. CEN adults do not have enough access to the emotions that should be stimulating, connecting, guiding and enriching them through adulthood. They know that something is not right, but they do not know what it is until they find the explanation of CEN.
  • CEN adults struggle with a particular pattern of symptoms: emptiness or numbness, a feeling of separateness, a deep sense of being fundamentally flawed, lack of self-knowledge, and low emotional intelligence.

Free Resources For Therapists

Become a CEN Specialist: You can find many more Resources and Tools For CEN Therapists on the For Therapists Page.

Fill out this Brief Form to apply to become a CEN Specialist and get listed on the Find A CEN Therapist Page.

The 4 Steps of Childhood Emotional Neglect Treatment

The treatment of Childhood Emotional Neglect is a process of 4 steps, all of which build upon each other. When you are aware of the natural progression of these steps you will be able to guide your client through them in a meaningful way.

  1. Help your client become aware of the exact way that Emotional Neglect happened in her childhood home. The goal is for your client to understand, on a deep level, what she did not get in her childhood (emotional validation, awareness, and skills), and how it has affected her in her adult life.
  2. Break down the wall blocking your client’s emotions so that he can begin to have more feelings. Helping your client break down his wall involves exercises of emotional awareness, plus meditation/mindfulness and monitoring practices that consciously attempt to reach and identify emotions, as well as building the client’s emotional vocabulary.
  3. Teach your client how to name, tolerate, manage, express, and use her feelings. As your client’s wall begins to break down, he will begin to feel more variety, complexity, and depth of emotions. This is your opportunity to begin to fill in the emotion skills that he wasn’t able to learn in his childhood home. If your client has read the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, he will be aware of the special structured exercises to help guide him through this. He will need you to learn about them so you can guide him through this process of learning what to do with feelings.
  4. Help your client start applying her newfound emotions to strengthen and deepen her relationships. Since your client has lived without enough access to her emotions, her friendships and relationships are likely either too few, lacking in depth, or both. You can now guide your client into the process of inserting her feelings into her relationships and beginning to change them into something more meaningful and resilient.

For Therapists & Clients

CEN Resources To Assist Your Work Together

CEN Therapist List: Clients can find a CEN trained therapist near them. If you are a therapist, you can request to be added to the list to receive more referrals of CEN folks, which I am sure you will find to be some of the most rewarding people to work with.

Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect: This book presents the concept of CEN in depth to readers, how it happens, why it can be so unmemorable, and how it affects the child, plus many aspects of the recovery process. It also has a special chapter for therapists.

Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children: This book is all about how to identify and heal the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in couples and families. It also offers lots of specific information for parents on exactly how to emotionally validate and respond to their children. I wrote this book to use as a guide for clients and therapists to go through together. It is especially helpful for Treatment Step 4.

Whether you are a CEN sufferer looking for a therapist who understands you in this deep and meaningful way or a therapist who wants to learn about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how to walk your clients through the 4 Stages of Recovery, there are many answers and resources for you.

One of my biggest goals is to provide a well-trained therapist who is passionate about treating Childhood Emotional Neglect to every man, woman and child everywhere in the world who needs one.

What Triggers Abandonment Issues? 4 Ways to Heal

What Triggers Abandonment Issues? Anything That Hints of Abandonment.

One day, you’re going through your life just fine. Going to work, seeing your friends, and all of the normal everyday things. Then, without warning, your world turns dark.

Suddenly you feel a need to protect yourself from those you trusted yesterday, and you feel a sense of anger, hurt, and rejection in relationships that made you happy before. Suddenly, you feel lost, alone, and bereft.

Why the change? Did a random mood come over you? Did depression set in? Maybe, but probably not. What probably happened was that you encountered a surprise trigger; one you didn’t expect or see.

Someone or something triggered your abandonment issues. And your feelings about yourself, your life, and someone you love have all been cast in a different light.

Such is the power of abandonment issues.

Abandonment issues come from being wounded by an important person in your life unexpectedly leaving you. For example, in childhood a parent suddenly becomes less available (or leaves or passes away); or, in adulthood, your spouse or partner unexpectedly walks away. A significant abandonment at any time in your life can leave you with an abandonment wound.

Your abandonment wound must be acknowledged and addressed, or it will sit under the surface of your life, waiting to be triggered. Years later, someone important to you may say or do something that feels to you like they no longer care or may leave – maybe they are only going on vacation, or cancel a lunch date –  but that feeling of being walked away from, or left, gets touched off. And suddenly, your world turns dark.

What Makes You Vulnerable to Abandonment Triggers? Being Unaware

Not everyone who is abandoned ends up being vulnerable to abandonment triggers. Some people are more vulnerable than others. And what makes you more vulnerable is this: being unaware of the full importance and impact of your abandonment wound.

If you are someone who pays little attention to your own feelings in general, you are likely to minimize the emotional impact of painful events, such as your original abandonment. And being unaware of an event’s true effect on you (the wound) leaves that effect, and all its power, in its place as you move forward in your life.

Your buried, unacknowledged wound sits under the surface of your life, roiling with unaddressed feelings. Like the lava sitting in an inactive volcano, your wound waits to be touched off by any large or small thing that may happen in your current life to trigger it.

Did Your Childhood Set the Stage? Yes.

As a child, did your parents notice and respond to what you were feeling? Were emotion words used very often? Were you supported when you felt hurt, sad, or angry?

Any answer less than “all of the above” means that you did not receive enough emotional attention and support when you were growing up. You were raised with some amount of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.

By not responding to your feelings enough, your parents, probably without realizing it, sent you a powerful, subliminal message each and every day:

Your feelings don’t matter.

As you grew into adulthood, you were set up to overlook your own emotions. You were set up to under-attend to your emotional wound.

Since our feelings, even very old ones, do not go away until they are at least accepted and acknowledged, still dwell there, under the surface, waiting for a trigger….

4 Steps to Heal Your Abandonment Issues

  1. To go forward, you must first look backward. Identify your first, wounding abandonment. If it seems unimportant, accept that it actually was and that you have simply been ignoring it.
  2. Talk through your original abandonment experience with someone you trust. A friend or a therapist will be a good choice for this. Try to recall how you felt when it happened. Try to understand that original event in a new way, applying the wisdom of your adult brain.
  3. Begin to work on healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Pay more attention to your emotions all the time, and start to notice and put words to what you are feeling.
  4. Own your abandonment wound. That pool of pain lies within you, waiting to be accepted, and treated as if it matters. Simply acknowledging and accepting it will make you so much stronger.

When you accept your pain and treat it as if it matters, you are doing an amazing thing. You are healing your abandonment wound, making yourself less vulnerable to what triggers your abandonment issues. But you are also doing much more. You are treating the most deeply personal, biological part of who you are (your emotions), as if they matter, and you are treating yourself as if you matter.

You are taking strides in healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect by making yourself emotionally aware. You are taking your power back and moving forward, gradually leaving your abandonment issues behind you.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be invisible, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, and to learn more about how CEN happens and how to heal,  Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, why it’s so invisible, and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

You Can Use This Video to Help Heal Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs as they raise you.

You can see from this definition that Childhood Emotional Neglect is not something that your parent does to you. Instead, it is something that your parents fail to do for you.

For example, your parents fail to notice enough when you are upset, hurt, or in need of help. Or they fail to ask you enough what you feel, what you need or what you want. So it’s not an actual event, it is quite the opposite. It is, in fact, an event that fails to happen.

This is why I have so often said that most Childhood Emotional Neglect is typically invisible and unmemorable. It weaves itself into the fabric of the family, and endures quietly in the everyday drumbeat of family life, with emotions in the family falling under the radar day after day after day after day.

No one talks about feelings or names them, no one teaches the children about feelings, and no one validates what anyone else is feeling enough. Which is not to say that none of it ever happens at all; but simply that it does not happen as much as the child needs.

But there was a 2009 experiment by Dr. Edward Tronick, a psychology professor at UMASS Boston, that shows a sudden, active, visible, and memorable version of Childhood Emotional Neglect as it happens.

After you watch the video, I have more to say. But please do not read further until you’ve watched the video.

So go to the link below and watch it. Then come right back here so that I can help you process it. Even if you have seen this video before, it is vital that you watch it now. We need it to be fresh in your mind as we use it to process your CEN.

(If you have problems with the link below, just go to Youtube and type into the search bar “Edward Tronick Still Faced Experiment.”)

Watch the Still Faced Parent Video. Then come right back!

OK, so now you’ve watched the video. And I have some questions for you.

I would like for you to take some time with each question, really thinking about it. Writing your answers is helpful instead of just thinking them.

3 Questions About the Still Faced Parent Video

  1. What feelings did you see the baby having after its mother assumed the still face? Can you name three? Please make sure you use only one word for each feeling, not phrases or descriptions.
  2. Did you have any feelings while you watched the video?
  3. Can you name the feelings you had while watching it? Again, single words, not phrases or descriptions.

Step 1 in Healing Your Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

I ask you to consider how the child responded in the video, what you thought the child was feeling, and how intense her feelings were.

Then think about how it might affect an infant to grow up with a parent who is not necessarily as dramatically ON or OFF as the Still Faced Parent but is nevertheless blind to her child’s feelings.

Unlike the extremes of the still faced parent, the emotionally neglectful parent’s emotional inattention may be quite consistent and predictable. Imagine that the child continually goes to his parent for soothing or support, and can generally count on having his physical needs met. But his emotional needs fall by the wayside.

What does this child learn? She learns that when she needs to be soothed, comforted, or understood, she should keep those needs to herself. She learns that, unlike her physical needs for food, water, clothing, and shelter are important, but that her emotional needs are not. She learns that the deepest, most biological expression of who she is, her emotions, do not matter.

She learns that she does not matter.

Yet the emotionally neglected child will likely have no memory of his parent’s failure to act. Unlike the child of a more extreme or unpredictable parent who suddenly withdraws attention, rejects or abandons the child, or emotionally abuses him, he will likely be unable to see or recall the more subtle, everyday lack of action.

This is what happens in the life of the child who is growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect.

In my five-part Fuel Up For Life Recovery Program to heal Childhood Emotional Neglect, the first step is the foundation for the other four. Step one is becoming aware, and truly accepting, the reality of your Childhood Emotional Neglect: that it happened to you, how it affected you as a child, and how it’s affecting you now.

Now that you have watched the video and thought about how it pertains to you, I invite you to go back and watch it again. This time, pay attention to what you are feeling as you watch it. Watch the Still Faced Parent Video Again.

Then, keep in mind this: the feelings you have while you watch this video are likely the ones you had as a child, probably in a less intense but more chronic way, over and over throughout your childhood. These are probably also the feelings that reside in your body, now walled off but still there, in your adult life too.

Over the next few weeks, when you have a few minutes to yourself, keep picturing yourself in the place of the child in the Still Faced Parent Video. Try picturing yourself as a child, with the parents you had and in the home you grew up in.

What CEN lessons did you learn? What CEN messages did you get? How are you continuing to follow those lessons and messages now? Consider these questions for some time, and think deeply into it. Your answers form the foundation upon which your healing will be built. The deeper your understanding, the more thorough your awareness, the more ready you will be for the next step in your recovery.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable. To find out if you grew up with it, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

To learn how to feel your feelings and express them in your relationships plus parent your children in an emotionally responsive way, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

How to Know if You Were Emotionally Abandoned as a Child: 4 Signs

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:

  1. The abandonment is sudden or unexpected
  2. Your abandonment experience happens in your childhood
  3. You have a general tendency to downplay or ignore your own feelings

All abandonment is not the same. There are two different types.

What is Physical Abandonment?

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.

What is Emotional Abandonment?

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.

Abandonment Issues Are A Coping Response

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.”

4 Signs You Have Abandonment Issues

  • A fear of initiating plans with people – This likely applies not only to new friends and acquaintances. You may have the same fear about suggesting plans with those you’re close to.
  • A feeling of hurt and/or anger when someone fails you, even in a small, explainable way – You may experience everyday failures of the everyday people in your life especially acutely. It’s hard for you to take in the other person’s circumstances as an explanation. Instead, you feel it personally and deeply.
  • You feel safer keeping people at a distance – Depending on others emotionally is scary, so you prefer to keep your relationships feeling safe. You may be great at taking care of others emotionally, but you’re afraid to let others take care of you.
  • You tend to downplay the importance of the people in your life – You may find yourself at times pretending that you care less than you do about certain people and what they do. “I don’t care if you’re there or not,” “Either way, it’s good with me,” “You can do whatever you want and it won’t matter to me,” are things you may hear yourself saying.

The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) in 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.

What To Do if You See These Signs in Yourself

  1. Become aware of your abandonment fear – Accepting your sensitivity to abandonment, and the event that originally caused it, is an important key. Once you see your fear and what caused it, you can begin to take control of it.
  2. Become aware of the Emotional Neglect in Your Childhood – Just as Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) sets you up to be vulnerable to abandonment issues, healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect will help you resolve them. Learning to pay attention to your own feelings, and how to value and use them (all part of recovery from CEN) will not only go far toward solving your abandonment issues but will make you stronger in many other areas of your life too.

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.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Undermines the Highly Sensitive Person’s 3 Greatest Strengths

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.

The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

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 (CEN)

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.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Undermines the Highly Sensitive Person’s 3 Greatest Strengths

  • Strength #1: You feel things deeply and powerfully. If you have ever doubted that this is a strength, I want to assure you that it is. Our feelings are built into us for a reason. When we allow ourselves to feel them, they guide us. They tell us what we need and what we want. They motivate us, and they connect us to others. But when you grow up emotionally neglected, you learn that your emotions are useless and should be ignored and hidden. This takes your powerful force from within, disempowers it, and perhaps even shames you for having it.
  • Strength #2: You are a deep thinker who needs to have meaning and purpose in your life. You are not one to skim across the surface of life. You need to feel that what you are doing matters. This important strength helps you invest more deeply in your own decisions, and helps you to live your life in a more real way. But when you grow up with the CEN message that your feelings don’t matter, you internalize an even more painful message. Since your emotions are the most deeply personal expression of who you are, it’s natural for you as a child to internalize the message as, “I don’t matter,” and to take it forward with you as a deeply held, unconscious “truth.” Going through your adult life, you tend to feel less important than other people, and this undermines your ability to experience yourself, and your life, as meaningful and important.
  • Strength #3: Your intense feelings and your need to have meaning and purpose in your life both make your relationships heartfelt and genuine. But when you grow up with your feelings ignored (CEN), you miss out on the opportunity to learn how to understand and manage your emotions and the emotions of others. This can leave you somewhat at-sea when it comes to handling your most important relationships: for example, your marriage, your children, and your closest friends. You are held back from your tremendous capacity to enjoy wonderful, whole-hearted relationships by your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

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.

How To Reclaim Your Greatest Strengths

  1. Once you see that Childhood Emotional Neglect is at work in your life, you are immediately on a new path. Seize the moment by learning everything you can about CEN. How it happens, why it’s so invisible and unmemorable, how it affects your relationships, and the steps to healing.
  2. Start treating your emotions differently. Instead of trying to escape, avoid or minimize your feelings, begin to pay attention to them. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, and think about each emotion and what it’s telling you.
  3. Walk through the steps of CEN healing. They are clearly outlined, and thousands of people have walked the walk before you. Take one step after another, and you will begin to heal and change.

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.

To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens and how to heal it in yourself and your relationships, see the books Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More.

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.

How To Know If Your Marriage is Affected By Childhood Emotional Neglect

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.

The Main Markers of CEN in a Relationship

Conflict Avoidance

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.

Look For:

  • You try not to bring up hurtful topics or issues that you’re angry about.
  • You are so uncomfortable with clashes or arguments that you sweep problems under the rug instead of talking about them.
  • Bringing up something negative feels like unnecessarily opening Pandora’s Box.
  • You or your spouse uses the silent treatment when unhappy or angry.

Feeling Lonely or Empty in the Relationship

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.

Look For:

  • Even when you’re with your spouse, you sometimes feel a deep sense that you are all alone.
  • You lack the feeling that you and your spouse are, or that you work together as a team.

Conversation Is Mostly about Surface Topics

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.

Look For:

  • Talking about a topic that involves emotion is a huge struggle for one or both of you. Emotional intimacy requires vulnerability on both sides. When you have no choice but to talk about something emotional, it’s a challenge of epic proportions. Trying to put feelings into words seems impossible. You typically, as a couple, end up blowing up and/or abandoning the topic altogether.
  • It’s difficult to find things to talk about. You go out to dinner for your anniversary, and you expect it to feel warm and romantic. But instead, the table between you feels like a barrier that divides you. In general, the conversation can feel stilted or awkward, especially when it “should” be the opposite.
  • One or both of you have a limited vocabulary of emotion words.

Emotional Intimacy Is Lacking

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?

Look For:

  • You are uncomfortable showing emotion in each other’s presence. When you’re feeling sad, angry, anxious or upset, or hurt, lost, vulnerable or overwhelmed, you try to hide it from your partner. Maybe you don’t want to burden her, or perhaps you don’t want to appear weak. Maybe you prefer to keep things positive.
  • You are often surprised by how poorly your partner seems to understand or know you. You’ve been together long enough that you should be able to predict each other’s actions and decisions. Yet your partner frequently misinterprets what you mean, or incorrectly predicts what you will do.
  • One or both of you frequently misreads or misrepresents what he is feeling; for example, he insists, “I’m not angry,” when he is clearly, visibly angry.
  • One partner claims to be perfectly happy, even when the other expresses deep dissatisfaction in the relationship. (When a couple is emotionally connected, one cannot be happy with the relationship unless the other is also happy.)
  • It feels like something important is missing, even though you like and love your partner. Holding back your feelings in any of the ways described above leads to an absence of the very stuff that makes a relationship rich and meaningful. It’s hard to put it into words, but something key is missing, and some part of you knows it.
  • You are living very separate lives, even though you like and love each other. You are two planets revolving around each other, and only sometimes do your orbits meet. Lack of teamwork and lack of connection leaves you each pursuing paths that work for you, regardless of whether those paths bring you together or not.

Lack of Passion

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.

Look For:

  • Very little fighting takes place in the relationship
  • Lack of physical affection on a casual or daily basis
  • Inadequate sex and/or desire for sex
  • Lack of need or desire to see each other

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.

How Being Raised By A Narcissist Can Make You Feel You’ve Been Neglected Your Whole Life

Can Being Raised By A Narcissist Make You Feel You’ve Been Neglected Your Whole Life?

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.

Raised By a Narcissist

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?”

How Being Raised By A Narcissist Can Make You Feel You’ve Been Neglected Your Whole Life

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.

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