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2 Kinds of Lonely Feelings and How to Cope With Them

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.

The 2 Kinds of Loneliness

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 Solution to the Loneliest Lonely

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:

Sad

Singular

Rejected

Empty

Lost

Isolated

Bereft

Unloved

Uncared-for

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.

My Dear Black Sheep, 3 Things You Must Know

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.

My Dear Black Sheep

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, Research Supports You

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.

Second, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Affects 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.

And Third, You Were Chosen

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.

You matter.

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.

Coping With Childhood Emotional Neglect: Thanksgiving Survival Tips

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? 

5 CEN Tips for Thanksgiving

  1. Have a support person: Make sure that you have one person with you who understands Childhood Emotional Neglect, and knows what you have been through. A spouse, sibling or trusted friend can give you great strength at the moments you need it most. Meeting your support person’s understanding eyes across the room is validating and grounding.
  2. Keep your expectations realistic: Our human brains are naturally wired to expect nurturance and care from our families of origin. But in the emotionally neglectful family, if you let yourself fully embrace those expectations, you can be left feeling twice as empty. Try to adjust your expectations before you go, so that you’ll be ready. It’s better to be pleasantly surprised than disappointed.
  3. Be aware of your feelings: During the course of the day, you may experience a variety of different emotions, like frustration, emptiness, boredom, anger or disappointment to name a few. Pay attention to these feelings as they arise. Accept and name them, and let yourself have them. You are feeling those emotions for a reason, and you can use them later to help you understand how your family affects you.
  4. Be thankful for your strength: Growing up with Emotional Neglect has made you uncommonly strong. As an emotionally neglected person, you have learned to rely on yourself. On this day, focus on the gifts your family has given you, and the positives that have come from growing up as you did. Whether you realize it or not, your Childhood Emotional Neglect taught you how to be independent, capable, and giving. These are things to be thankful for.
  5. Especially focus on self-care: Get some exercise, wear clothes you feel comfortable and good in. Stay at your Thanksgiving family gathering only as long as you are OK, and not one minute longer. This is a day when it’s extra important to put yourself first.

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.

To learn much more about Emotional Neglect, how it happens how it affects you, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty.

A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.

Unintentional Harm: The Most Common Type of Emotionally Neglectful Parents

The most common type of emotionally neglectful parents is also the most difficult kind to identify.

They lurk in fine neighborhoods, fine jobs, and fine houses. They create fine families, and if you are friends with them, they appear to be absolutely fine.

They may drive their children from one sports activity to another, stay on top of schedules, take family vacations, and help their kids with homework. They may even love their children and strive to do their best to raise them.

Yet they make one crucial mistake that, even though not their fault, leaves a lasting mark on their child.

Many are mostly kind and welcoming when their adult child comes to visit. But despite all this, there are telltale signs. There are ways to know if your parents are of this ilk. We will get to that later.

First, we must talk a little bit more about how emotionally neglectful parents are made, where they come from, and how they parent.

The Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves (WMBNT) Parent

The key to the most common type of emotionally neglectful parent, the Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves or WMBNT parent, is summed up by their title. These parents want to do right by their children, but they can’t. It’s because they grew up emotionally neglected themselves. WMBNT parents cannot give their children what they do not have. Unfortunately, it is that simple.

Because Childhood Emotional Neglect is so very common, so are emotionally neglectful parents. And since emotionally neglectful parents are so common, so are emotionally neglected children. It’s because these children grow up to be parents. The cycle continues, and on and on it goes, passing down through generations until someone finally sees what’s happening and calls a halt to its insidious process.

The WMBNT Cycle

  1. A child is raised by parents who are blind to emotions.
  2. That child grows up with his or her emotions ignored and under-validated.
  3. The child is not able to learn that his emotions are real or have value. The child is not able to learn how to identify, name, express, tolerate or use his feelings.
  4. Emotionally “blind,” the child grows into adulthood without adequate connection to her emotions. She is lacking the emotion skills she needs to thrive and is blind to feelings in general.
  5. Once she becomes a parent, the emotionally neglected adult is blind to the emotions of her own children, and she cannot teach her children the emotion skills she doesn’t have herself.

There are so many different varieties of WMBNT parents that we cannot possibly talk about them all. But here are the three common categories.

3 Types of WMBNT Parents

  • The Struggling Parent: These parents want to be there for their child but they can’t. They may be working several jobs trying to keep food on the table, trying to care for a special needs child or family member, or struggling with a physical or mental illness. The struggling parent may have good intentions but is simply too drained, distracted, or busy to notice what their child is feeling and respond to it.
  • The Physically Present But Emotionally Absent Parent: These parents are around. He or she may be a stay-at-home mom or dad, a parent who coaches your Little League team, or the room parent of your class. In this situation, you can see your parent but you cannot feel your parent. You may see that your parent loves you through their actions, but it’s hard to feel that love.
  • The Achievement-Oriented (or AP) Parent: The AP Parent is heavily invested in your success. Many genuinely want to see you excel at something you are passionate about. Others are earnestly trying to give you the opportunities that they didn’t have themselves while they were growing up. Either way, in the process, they can become overly focused on one aspect of the child and miss the essence that makes him who he is: his feelings.

Unintentional Harm

What makes these parents qualify for Well-Meaning status? They think that they are doing what’s best for their children. They are acting out of love, not out of self-interest. Most are simply raising their children the way they themselves were raised.

This is what we human parents do. We automatically follow the “programming” that our parents set up for us, and to change that programming, we must first be aware, and then we must make a conscious choice to do something different from what our parents did.

Children of Well-Meaning parents generally grow into adulthood with heavy doses of three things: all the symptoms of CEN — emptiness, lack of fulfillment, and feelings of disconnection —  a great deal of confusion about where those symptoms came from, and a wagonload of self-blame. That’s because when, as an adult, you look back at your childhood for an explanation for your problems, you may see a benign-looking upbringing.

Everything you can remember about your childhood may seem fairly normal and fine. That’s because you remember what your well-meaning parents gave you, but you cannot recall how what they were unable to provide.

“It must be me. I’m flawed,” you decide. You blame yourself for what is not right in your adult life. You may feel guilty for the seemingly irrational anger that you sometimes have at your well-meaning parents. You also struggle with a lack of emotion skills since you had no opportunity to learn them in childhood.

Since WMBNT are difficult to identify, how do you know if you have them? Look for these signs, taken from my book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children (link below this article).

6 Signs That You Have WMBNT Parents

  1. You have a love for your parents and are surprised by the sudden anger you sometimes have toward them.
  2. You feel confused about your feelings about your parents.
  3. You feel guilty for not loving your parents as much as you think you should.
  4. Being with your parents seems boring or flat.
  5. Your parents don’t see or know the real you, as you are today.
  6. You know that your parents love you, but you don’t necessarily feel it.

Okay, so I know what you’re thinking: If I have WMBNT parents, does this mean that I am one? Do not panic, but the answer is that you may well be. It is very, very important for you to remember that this is a legacy handed down to you by the generations that came before you. It is not your fault. And it can be reversed!

What To Do

  • First, learn everything you can about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), what it means, how it happens, and how it affects you. Visit emotionalneglect.com for lots of free information and to take the CEN Test, and see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect (link below) for in-depth guidance about healing your own CEN. 
  • For clear guidelines on how to cope with your own emotionally neglectful parents and concrete solutions to change your interactions with your own children, toddlers to adults, see the book  Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children (link below).

You did not ask for this, yet you have been coping with it all your life. Now, you are in a unique position to change everything. Your grandmother, grandfather, mom, and dad simply did not know.

But, now you do. And you are the one who will refuse to pass it down.

In an act of emotional heroism, you are the one who, in your family, will stop Childhood Emotional Neglect in its tracks.

To learn much more about how CEN plays out in families and passes down through generations and concrete ways to heal it in family systems, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children 

Parents: 10 Steps to Connect With Your Adult Child

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.

Four Guiding Principles to Keep in Mind Before You Start

  • It’s your job to initiate the fix but your child must then meet you halfway in working through it.
  • In your own mind, take blame and guilt out of it. All parents make mistakes. What you did was the best you could do at the time. You’ll be able to remedy this far better if you don’t blame yourself or your child, and instead focus on understanding and moving forward.
  • The key is to listen to your child in a different way than you ever have, and with a completely open mind. Your job: listen for his feelings, and then validate them.
  • Be aware of an easy mistake to make: taking too much responsibility for your adult child’s struggles. It’s important to walk the line between acknowledging your mistakes while also making sure your child understands that as an adult, he must be the one to resolve the effects of CEN within himself and within his own life. You cannot do it for him and you should not try.

10 Steps to Get Closer to Your Adult CEN Child

  1. Tell your child that you’d like to talk with him about something important, and ask him when is a good time. This will help him know that this really matters to you even before you talk about it.
  2. Start the conversation by saying, “I feel like we’re distant from each other. I want to be closer to you, and I want to fix what’s wrong, or missing.”
  3. Ask him if he feels it too. He may say no, in which case you should not be discouraged. Acknowledge his perception, but if he’ll allow it, continue to express yours.
  4. Talk with your child about your discovery of how Emotional Neglect happens; how invisible it is, and how it can separate a child from his feelings and persist into adulthood causing problems.
  5. If your child seems resistant to discussing it, then try to talk about yourself more than him. Chances are excellent that you were emotionally neglected yourself as a child (because we all naturally parent our children the way we ourselves were parented). Explain how it happened to you and how it’s affected you in your life.
  6. If your child acknowledges a problem, ask him what’s wrong from his perspective, and then truly listen.
  7. Validate, validate, validate. Do this by hearing him and acknowledging his feelings, whatever they are. Acknowledging does not require agreement; it involves only understanding.
  8. Ask your child what you can do differently for him. As long as his request is healthy for both of you and does not involve you fixing his life for him, then try your hardest to deliver it.
  9. Don’t expect your first talk about this to resolve matters. You may need to have multiple conversations.
  10. Keep trying. Don’t give up, even if your child resists or continues to be distant. Much can be gained from persistence.

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.

Childhood Emotional Neglect: Stage 1 Recovery Worksheet For Therapists and Clients

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.

The 3 Parts of Stage 1 of CEN Recovery

  1. Accept that your parents failed you emotionally as they were raising you.
  2. Identify the specific ways your parents failed to meet your emotional needs. Did they pretend feelings didn’t exist? Did they punish you for having feelings? Did they treat you exactly like your siblings, even though you were very different? Did they seldom validate or name your feelings? Or did it happen in some other ways?
  3. How has CEN affected you through your adult life? Has it left you feeling empty, disconnected, or alone? Are you disconnected from your own feelings? How has that affected you?

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.

CEN Worksheet For Stage 1

  1. Describe a typical day in your childhood in as much detail as possible. Choose any age you’d like. As you go through the day, make a special point to think about what feelings you had at the time.
  2. Tell a story about a time your parents supported you through a difficult time. How did they support you?
  3. Describe a time when you felt one or both of your parents truly understood you. Were you surprised at the time?
  4. Did one or both of your parents use emotion words like “sad,” “angry,” “hurt,” or “afraid,” for example, very often or at all?
  5. Can you remember a time when you really needed your parents, and they were not there for you? Note: The reason is irrelevant in this exercise.
  6. Go through the Emotions List in the back of Running On Empty with your own childhood in mind and highlight the words that seem to fit it. Do not overthink it. Rely on your hand to know which words to highlight. You can go back and try to process it later.
  7. Read through the 10 Characteristics of the CEN Adult in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, Chapter 3: The Neglected Child, All Grown Up. Write down a list of the ones that you identify with as a problem in your own life.
  8. Now go back through your answers to Questions 1-6 and try to connect your childhood memories, experiences and feelings with the CEN struggles you identified in your answers to Question 7. Can you connect them?

My Number 1 Recommendation For Accomplishing Step 1

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.

Download a PDF of the CEN Stage 1 Recovery Worksheet Here

A version of this article was first published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author.

How Empathy Can Go Wrong: 3 Hazards to Watch For

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.

3 Hazards of Empathy

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.

How to Keep Your Empathy Healthy

  1. Be aware of when you’re feeling empathy and for whom. Make sure that the person receiving it deserves it.
  2. Keep your empathy in check. Make sure it doesn’t prevent you from holding a loved one accountable for his or her actions.
  3. Always prioritize your own needs. Take care of yourself before you care for others. That way you’ll be sure that your empathy can’t harm 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.

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.