Do you ever wonder how emotionally healthy you are?
We all have a general idea of what we think an emotionally healthy person looks like. Maybe it’s not being depressed or anxious, not suffering, or not having a diagnosis. Maybe it’s being happy, or being able to live a good life.
All of these things are important and have great merit, of course. But what are the specific factors that make a person emotionally healthy? Here are the five hallmarks that hardly anyone thinks about.
1. You’re able to hold two opposites in your mind at the same time.
“Is she a good person or a bad person? Did you like the movie or not? Are you talented, yes or no? Who’s right, you or me?” This tendency for our minds to polarize things into opposites in order to settle on a clear solution applies to all areas of our lives. But it shows up especially starkly in very personal questions, such as how we view ourselves, how we think about our childhoods, and how we judge others.
The ability to see the gray areas is a skill that not everyone has, for sure. But here we’re talking about a step beyond that. The ability to say during a conflict with another person, “We are both right, and we are also both wrong.” To be able to conclude, in any situation, “This is both extremely good and extremely bad,” “This person is both well-intentioned and potentially harmful,” “I love you and hate you at the same time.” “My parents gave me a lot, but they also failed me terribly.” All are true.
Opposites go together far better than most people realize. And if you can hold the opposing sides in your mind together at the same time, it gives you a birds-eye view of yourself, a person, or a situation that is far more accurate and real than grasping for a one-dimensional answer.
2. You can manage your feelings while communicating.
Managing your emotions is one thing and communicating is another. Each is a difficult skill to master. Put them together and you have a great challenge. Being able to manage the hurt you are feeling so that you can explain to someone how you feel; being able to manage your anger in order to express the problem in a way that the other person can hear. These are two examples of strong psychological mental health.
3. You’re self-aware.
Everyone knows themselves. But the question is, how well? Do you understand your typical responses to things? Are you aware of what you feel, and why you’re feeling it? What are your strengths and weaknesses? Talents? Likes and dislikes? What do you need, and what do you enjoy?
The better you understand yourself, the more resilient you are in challenging situations, the better you can forgive yourself for mistakes, and the better life choices you can make for yourself.
4. You’re comfortable in your own skin.
This involves being happy to simply be you. Think of it as spending time with yourself, happily and comfortably. Can you sit alone with no entertainment and be comfortable? Can you be in the moment right now and not thinking ahead, thinking about the past, or thinking about something or someone else? Are you able to sit with a feeling, accept that feeling, and try to understand it?
These are all examples of being comfortable in your own skin.
5. You’re willing to take risks.
Being able to stretch yourself, not only within your comfort zone but beyond it, takes a great deal of strength and resilience. Are you willing to put yourself out there? Can you rely on yourself to manage failure, if it happens? Do you know yourself well enough to know what’s worth going out on a limb for? Can you forgive yourself if you don’t succeed?
The strength required to take the risk of failure, and to survive failure, is a great strength indeed.
If reading all of these qualities is somewhat intimidating, don’t worry. Few people possess all five. In fact, most of us would do well to simply be striving toward having each one.
1. Become less invested in being right.
When you give up some of your connection to being right, you open up a whole new world; the birds-eye world that is an important part of being wise. You rise above the right/wrong mentality, and you start to see yourself and others differently.
Being able to see the polar opposites — the greater truths — makes it easier to understand your own feelings (which often oppose each other) and to understand others. It aids your ability to see and understand yourself.
2. Learn and practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness, or the ability to be in the moment, with your attention turned inward at yourself, what you’re doing and what you’re feeling, is a key part of both self-awareness and being comfortable in your own skin. It has also been shown by scientific research to have multiple other psychological and health benefits.
3. Work on viewing failure differently.
Failure is a sign of courage. Failure means that you pushed yourself outside your comfort zone and took a risk. Failure, done well, is a growth experience. We can learn more from our failures than we can from our successes.
As you become more self-aware, more mindful, more emotionally communicative, and more comfortable in your own skin, you will be freer to take risks and learn from them. Your relationships will become deeper and more satisfying. This will ultimately support you to experiences and successes far beyond what you ever thought you could achieve.
Growing up in a family that avoids, ignores, or disparages your feelings (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN) disconnects you from your feelings in your adult life. To find out if you grew up with CEN, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty
A version of this article was originally published on yourtango.com. It has been updated and published here with the permission of the author and Yourtango.
Julie loves her husband Dom very much, but lately, all they seem to do is fight. Julie wonders how Dom can possibly complain that she’s not home enough lately when he can see how many demands she is juggling.
Bill struggles to do everything right in life. He has a good job and a family that loves him. Yet he walks through his days feeling numb. As he provides for his family and responds to his boss’s every request, he sometimes wonders what it’s all for. Recently he’s been drinking more than he should.
House, job, family. Parenting, grocery shopping, errands, and social media; we are all people of the world. And in today’s world, our lives are overly full in so many ways. So it’s ironic that so many of us feel so very UN-full.
The feeling of emptiness is elusive. It’s experienced differently by different people. Hardly anyone knows how to put it into words. So you may at times say you’re stressed or down because it’s the best word you can come up with, even though it doesn’t seem to quite capture what you feel.
Even more likely, you say nothing. After all, you may have a life that is actually quite full. And you may assume that everyone feels this way.
Whatever your personal experience of emptiness, the roots of this feeling almost always can be found in your childhood.
We grow up in households that are busy or struggling, and somehow not quite emotionally nurturing enough. From this, we learn everything about how to stay busy and struggle, but little about how to nurture ourselves.
So we grow up looking in all the wrong places for support and fulfillment. We live our adult lives with a sense that something is missing, and no idea how to find it.
Julie can’t see what Dom sees: that she is hugely over-committed. In addition to her job and her two daughters, she volunteers on two committees at the school. She’s involved in a town fundraiser, and now she’s talking about starting up a small business on the side. Dom watches helplessly as Julie becomes increasingly depleted and worn.
Over-committed and joyless, Julie has lost her way. She seeks to fill herself up with activity, projects, and maybe some recognition, with perhaps a little money thrown in. On this path, Julie will never stop having those pangs of emptiness that come and go.
Bill walks through life feeling numb and knowing that something is not right. He knows he should be happier and more fulfilled. After all, he’s the man with everything. Bill has no idea that throughout his struggle to do everything right in life, he has missed the boat on what truly matters to him.
Bill knows how to walk the walk, but he doesn’t know how to feel. He’s caught up in the externals of life, and he cannot see himself. Bill is missing out on what could give his life meaning: his feelings.
No matter what type of emptiness you feel and how you’ve tried to fill it, it’s never too late or too tall a task to change your course.
Focusing inward instead of outward; noticing your own feelings and needs and trying to meet them; finding what makes you happy, and making memories with people you care about. This is the path to filling yourself.
Surprisingly, once you’re on your new path, you may find that it is actually far easier than your old one.
To learn more about how to become more self-aware and fill yourself up, see the book Running on Empty.
This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and published here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral.
Maryann was raised by a mother who was both emotionally intense and needy. All through her childhood, Maryann had to be very caring and supportive toward her mother to try to prevent explosions.
Because of this, Maryann grew up with strong tendencies to care for and placate others deeply entrenched in her character. But these character traits, essential survival mechanisms growing up, became a serious problem for her in her adult life. Maryann was such a placater that she wasn’t taken seriously at work. Others often took advantage of her. Maryann was not happy.
Finally, Maryann decided that she needed to change. She decided to stop placating, stop agreeing with everyone and everything, and begin to show more backbone. But it wasn’t easy. Each time Maryann tried to speak up for herself to express disagreement or assert her own needs, she felt intense anxiety come over her.
Essentially everyone knows first-hand what it means to be anxious. Few among us are spared this intense feeling of discomfort.
William James, who is considered The Father of American Psychology, described his own anxiety this way: “a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach … a sense of the insecurity of life.”
Since anxiety is so common and troublesome, I’ve seen plenty of it in my work as a psychologist. One thing I’ve noticed is that all anxiety is not the same. The particular type of anxiety you have determines not only how it feels, but also how it should be treated and managed.
1. Biology: Research has shown that some babies are born with an anxious temperament. Babies who are observed as edgy and reactive have been seen to grow up to be edgy and reactive adults; in other words, anxious babies grow into anxious adults. This type of anxiety is genetic, and it tends to run in families.
Biology, however, is not a sentence to a lifetime of anxiety. First, because biological anxiety waxes and wanes throughout your lifetime, it may become problematic really only during times of transition or stress. And second, because you can learn to manage your biological anxiety.
Best Solution: Anxiety management techniques are plentiful and effective. The best way to learn them is to see a cognitive/behavioral therapist. Some common anti-depressant medications are also effective in treating biological anxiety.
2. Childhood Emotional Neglect: This essentially boils down to how you handle your feelings. When you push your emotions down or suppress them, they don’t simply disappear. Instead, they remain there, buried. Repressed and suppressed feelings pool together under the surface and become a diffuse form of anxiety. This type of anxiety seems to come and go at will. It becomes your main feeling. In general, you may find yourself existing in two states: you either feel anxious, or you feel nothing at all.
Best Solution: The best solution for this type of anxiety is to break through the wall between yourself and your pool of blocked-off emotions. Pay attention to your feelings, allow yourself to feel them, learn to put them into words, and how to manage and express them. This may sound like a lot of work, but it will gradually reduce your anxiety and will have multiple other positive effects upon your life satisfaction as well.
3. Personal Growth: This is one of the most powerful, and yet least talked about, forms of anxiety. It’s the anxiety that’s naturally built into virtually every step of emotional or psychological growth that you take in your lifetime. It’s especially intense when you’re trying to give up a coping mechanism that you needed in childhood (like Maryann). This anxiety arises when you’re about to make a healthy change in yourself, and it tries to pull you backward.
Each time Maryann tries to abandon the habit that saved her life in childhood, her body screams, “No-o-o-o-o!” It does this by sending her feelings of fear, to alert her that what she’s about to do is dangerous.
Best Solution: The most helpful strategy in managing this type of anxiety is simply recognizing what it is. When you can accept that it’s only your body warning you against something that’s not dangerous, you can accept the feeling, and then override it. In Maryann’s situation, a vital step in her growth process involves not giving in to the wave of anxiety she feels, but instead letting it wash over her like a wave; and then overriding it. This means speaking up in spite of it.
Each time Maryann manages her anxiety this way, ending with healthy action, she is reducing her anxiety’s power. She’s essentially re-programming her brain to recognize that the new behavior (speaking up) is not dangerous, but adaptive and healthy.
Every single human being, every single day receives messages from their body.
“Don’t try that,” insist the voices of your anxiety.
So now, you must begin to insist back: “I will not run away from this. I will not stop. I will not stay quiet, I will speak up. I will try that.”
Accept the feeling, understand its cause, and you can take control of what’s been controlling you.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free. To learn more about how to understand, manage, and override your emotions, see the book, Running on Empty.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
Ten-year-old Jack walks slowly home from school, dreading the moment when he has to walk through the door of his house. He has no idea what kind of mood his mom will be in. She may greet him warmly or she may lay into him, calling him a “lazy bastard, just like your father.” Filled with a dread of what’s to come, the closer Jack gets to home, the more slowly he walks.
Ten-year-old Sadie has lived in a large, mostly empty house with her mother since her parents split up. She misses her father and brother desperately. The household used to be active and busy; now it feels quiet, empty, and lonely. Sadie worries about her mother sequestered in her own room; so near and yet so far away. “I wish Mom would talk to me sometimes like she used to,” Sadie thinks. She sits on the edge of her bed and sobs quietly so that her mother won’t hear her.
While emotionally abusing a child is like emotionally punching him, Emotional Neglect is more akin to failing to water a plant. While the emotionally abused child learns how to brace for a punch, the emotionally neglected child learns how to survive without water.
It has never stopped amazing me how often the terms emotional abuse and emotional neglect are misused. In articles, in books, and even in the professional literature and scientific studies, they’re incorrectly interchanged quite frequently. Typically emotional neglect is called emotional abuse, and far too often emotional abuse is referred to as emotional neglect.
But the reality is that they could hardly be more different. They happen differently, they feel different to the child, and they leave different imprints on the child once he or she grows up.
Emotional abuse is an act. When your parent calls you a name, insults or derides, over-controls, or places unreasonable limits on you, she is emotionally abusing you.
Emotional Neglect, on the other hand, is the opposite. It’s not an act, but a failure to act. When your parent fails to notice your struggles, issues, or pain; fails to ask or be interested; fails to provide comfort, care, or solace; fails to see who you really are; These are examples of pure Emotional Neglect.
To see the different effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect, let’s check in on Jack and Sadie 32 years later.
At 42 Jack is an accountant and is married with two children. Jack’s employers love his work and like him as a person. Nevertheless, he has switched jobs every two years, on average, throughout his career. In every job, Jack somehow ends up locking horns with co-workers. This is because he tends to take any form of mild request or negative feedback as criticism. Then he either hides, keeping his head down, or strikes back.
At home, Jack loves his wife and children. But his wife gets upset with him because he can be very hard on his children. Jack expects perfection and can be very demanding and critical, bordering on verbally abusive but never quite crossing the line to belittling or name-calling.
Generally, Jack goes through life braced for the next “hit.” He puts one foot in front of the other, wondering what negative event will befall him next.
At 42 Sadie is a Physician’s Assistant in a large, busy medical practice. She, like Jack, is married with two children. At work, Sadie is known as “the problem-solver.” She is able to resolve, smooth over, and answer every single problem or question that arises, so everyone goes to Sadie for help. Sadie is gratified by her reputation as super-competent, so she never says “no” to any request.
People look at Sadie and see a wonderful wife and mother. She loves her husband and children, and they love her back. But Sadie, her husband, and everyone else is puzzled about why her children are so angry and rebellious. They seem unhappy and act up in school. Sadie is exhausted by the heavy demands in her life. She’s so busy helping and giving to others she has no idea that she needs “watering” too. Sadie feels burdened, empty, and alone much of the time.
Jack and Sadie are good examples of the differing effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect. Jack struggles to manage and control his own feelings and reads malice into other people’s feelings. In contrast, Sadie’s emotions are suppressed. She lacks access to her own feelings so much that she lives for other people’s feelings. She struggles to set limits at work, and at home with her own children.
What Jack and Sadie have in common shows the overlap between emotional abuse and emotional neglect. They both feel depleted and empty. They both feel confused, lost, and somewhat joyless. Neither is able to experience, manage, or express their feelings in a healthy or useful way.
And now for the great news. Both Sadie and Jack can heal.
And even more importantly, it is vital that you recognize, own, accept, and learn about yourself, and realize why YOU matter.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, sign up to Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free! To learn more about recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the book, Running on Empty.
**IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are a licensed therapist located anywhere in the world who would like to help people work through their Childhood Emotional Neglect and receive referrals from me, fill out this form to receive my newsletter for therapists and learn how. If you have read both of the Running On Empty books and taken one of my CEN Therapist Trainings, you can be listed on my Find A CEN Therapist Page.
A version of this post was originally posted on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
One of the problems I have noticed with the term “Childhood Emotional Neglect” is that it does sound so negative. It so perfectly describes the problem that it may, perhaps, give the impression that it’s a burden you’d rather not know about.
But, in reality, CEN is quite the opposite. It’s actually a remarkably hopeful concept that every parent, every husband, every wife, everyone who was raised by someone; in fact, every human being should know about.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN: Happens when parents who have an emotional blind spot fail to notice, validate, and respond enough to their child’s emotions and emotional needs.
CEN is not a form of abuse or trauma. It’s not something your parents do to you, but rather, it is something they fail to do for you. It happens in loving households all over the world simply because so many parents are unaware that CEN exists. It passes down through generations, silently transferring. It’s difficult to see and hard to remember, which serves to hide its invisible power. It seems like nothing, but its effects stay with you throughout your entire adult life.
So, that is the negative part. But there’s also an amazing and positive aspect to CEN which offers hope and solace and possibility to everyone who sees it in themselves.
In the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, I outline the types of parents who have these blind spots and why they have them. But for the purposes of this article, the main point is this. Whether your parents are too focused on themselves and filling their own needs to notice yours, or are genuinely trying to do their best but simply do not have emotional awareness or understanding, you can be confident that it has affected you.
Many thousands of people feel a profound sense of relief when they first realize that Childhood Emotional Neglect is the explanation for the struggles they have lived with for a lifetime. I know this because I hear from more and more such folks each and every day.
But here’s the truth: Becoming aware of your Childhood Emotional Neglect is incredibly powerful. It’s a turning point and a game-changer.
But it’s not enough.
Now that you know what’s wrong, you must fix the problem. And the really great news is YOU CAN! Healing your CEN is a series of steps in which you give yourself now what you did not receive as a child: emotional attention, validation, and care.
I have worked for the last 8 years to define the exact steps it takes to reparent yourself and heal the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in adults. I’ve also helped countless numbers of CEN adults walk down the path of recovery.
My goal is to help you heal your CEN. I want to provide you with easy access to as many as possible of the resources I’ve created over the years. All right here, in one place.
**Many are free, but some are not. You’ll notice two asterisks next to the resources that are **free.
Bookmark this article and check back periodically. I’ll add new resources as I create them! If you have an idea for a resource that would be helpful, post it in a comment on this article and I’ll see if I can provide it.
Casey is tired of coming home to her apartment every day. She feels like her home drains her energy more than her job does. Not because it’s not a nice place, and not because of anyone else who lives there. Actually, she lives alone. It’s just that Casey’s apartment is a disorganized mess. Every Friday, she vows that she’ll do a thorough organizing and cleaning job before Monday comes. But every weekend, she finds something more interesting to do with her time.
Silas knows that he needs to cut down on his drinking. He’s been getting to work later and later on Mondays because he’s a bit hungover from the weekend. This doesn’t get him into trouble with his supervisor, but Silas can see the trend happening and gradually increasing throughout the year.
Beth and James are a busy couple with two young sons. They both work hard to take care of the boys and make a living. Generally, life is pretty good. Except that each secretly feels that the marriage is bland and unrewarding. “Something’s not right,” Beth thinks to herself. “I’m bored,” James thinks to himself. Both know they should say something to the other, but neither wants to take the risk of making matters worse. And neither wants to hurt the other.
We almost all neglect ourselves in one way or another, at one time or another. One could argue that the damage we do by neglecting ourselves is far more substantial than whatever neglect we experience from others.
What sets us up to neglect ourselves as adults? Being emotionally neglected as a child. When your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs, they inadvertently teach you how to ignore your own needs as an adult. So, if you have been neglecting yourself, don’t feel bad because it’s not your fault. But it is now your problem to fix. And, believe me, you can.
Read through the common areas of self-neglect below, and see if any ring true in your life.
Have you been neglecting yourself in these, or other ways? If so, rest assured that you are in good company, along with much of the human race.
Take a moment and try to imagine treating a child the way you are treating yourself/your body right now. Would you deprive a child of joy? Vegetables and fruits? Fun? Nice clothing? An opinion? Fresh air and exercise? Then why do you treat yourself or your body this way?
Now is a great time to stop the neglect and start giving yourself the time, attention, and effort that you need and deserve.
Imagine that Casey, Silas, Beth, and James followed the five steps above. Imagine that Casey cleans her apartment, and sets up a system to keep it clean. Imagine that her home becomes the place of comfort and solace that it should be.
The deep roots of self-neglect often spring from a lack of self-worth. Somewhere, somehow, maybe you don’t feel you are worth the effort of self-care.
Just as Silas could take charge of his own life, Beth and James could face their troubles and make their marriage warm and fulfilling again. And you can take charge of your own self-neglect with enough motivation, dedication, and perseverance. You only need to commit to yourself.
You are worth it.
To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up for self-neglect in adulthood, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
Just Letting You Know: On Saturday, 4/4 at 3 p.m. EST I’ll be on Instagram Live answering your questions about coping with the social distancing and anxiety of this pandemic. Join me at @drjonicewebb! I would love to connect with you during this difficult time.
As the psychologist who literally wrote the book on Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I have heard thousands of people describe what it was like for them to grow up in a family that avoided talking about meaningful or emotional topics, and who treated feelings as irrelevant or burdensome.
In case your reaction to the paragraph above was, “What’s the big deal about that,” I will take a moment to explain.
Your emotions are biologically wired into you for a reason. They go far beyond just the fight-or-flight mechanism. They are also an expression of your deepest self. Your feelings tell you what you like, love, enjoy, dislike, abhor, want and need, what harms you, and much, much more. Your emotions are like your rudder; they ground you and direct you. They also connect you.
When, as a child, your family is generally uncomfortable with the vital resource of emotions embodied in each of its members, when your family treats your feelings as if they do not exist or are a burden, you learn to do the opposite of what is healthy.
You learn to push your feelings away and wall them off. You learn to view them as a problem instead of the solution they are meant to be. You grow up separated from the deepest expression of who you are.
Then, as an adult, instead of listening to your gut, you ignore it. Instead of knowing what you want, you ignore it. Instead of seeking what you need, you ignore it. On and on and on, you miss the cues that should be your roots, your rudder, and your meaning.
You are literally living your life without taking your own feelings into account. But that does not mean that they are gone.
Core Feelings: The feelings you had most often as a child. They can be positive feelings or negative ones. They are the feelings you had so often as a kid that they have become a part of who you are. They reside in your body, with or without your awareness of them.
Every adult alive has brought feelings forward from their childhood, whether they realize it or not. The vast majority of emotionally neglected children are easily revisited by the alone, insecure, and lost feelings they felt so often as kids. These 3 emotions simmer under the surface of their adult lives, easily touched off by current events that recreate them in some vague way.
Enter the Covid-19 Epidemic. Enter quarantines, sheltering-in-place, and social distancing.
Hello, Core Feelings.
I hope that as you read this you are already thinking about how the feelings of your own childhood may be touched off by our current situation. And now I’m going to give you some help with that.
First, I want you to know that most everyone is feeling these 3 feelings during this extraordinary time, even those who did not grow up with CEN.
Alone: Social distancing is keeping the population physically isolated from each other, and so most people are naturally feeling alone right now. But when “alone” is your core feeling, this situation returns you back there in an achy sort of way. The aloneness you naturally feel now as an adult gets combined with the aloneness you felt as a child and you feel it with extra power and pain.
Insecure: Everyone is wondering what’s going to happen tomorrow and in the future, and so everyone’s feeling of security is threatened right now. But if you were instilled with a deep sense of insecurity as a child, you are more at risk of doubting yourself and your ability to handle whatever is to come. You may be feeling some anxiety and wondering how — and if — you will be able to cope.
Lost: Just as it happened for you as a child, your feelings of aloneness and insecurity threaten to undermine the roots you have planted for yourself. Since this feeling has been with you for so very long you are vulnerable to helplessness and hopelessness about finding your way through this worldwide crisis.
Even though you may feel alone, insecure, or lost right now, please know that you are not. Your feelings are expressions of your emotional truth but they are not necessarily a reflection of external reality.
When you let your feelings run rampant on their own, you are at their mercy.
When you own them, consider them, and process them, you can put the past where it belongs, choose the emotions that are helpful, and put the rest in their place.
You can use this pandemic to become more authentic. You can claim your power to shape your choices, your future, and your life by taking this chance to face your feelings and heal your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn how to take the steps to recover your feelings, process them, and use them see the book Running On Empty. To join an online community of CEN people going through the healing steps together see the Fuel Up For Life Program.
To find out if you grew up with CEN Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
On Saturday, 4/4 at 3 p.m. EST I’ll be on Instagram Live answering your questions about coping with the social distancing and anxiety of this pandemic. Join me at @drjonicewebb! I would love to connect with you during this difficult time.
Labeling someone a sociopath can be a double-edged sword. It can help you protect yourself better, but it can also cause you to have very negative feelings (anger, disgust, etc.) toward the person which can interfere with your ability to manage your relationship with them.
As you read this article please try to walk this thin line as best you can: keep in mind that a label is not a solution and that this is a powerful label that can do great damage. However, recognize that refusing to acknowledge real sociopathic behaviors in a person puts you (and others who depend on you) at risk.
Last year I published some articles on sociopathic personality about how to identify a sociopath and how to protect yourself from one.
In response, I’ve received a cascade of ongoing questions and comments. Clearly many of my readers are concerned that someone in their lives is a sociopath and need to know how to protect themselves.
What if I suspect someone I love is a sociopath?
How do I protect my children from a sociopathic parent?
What makes a person vulnerable to sociopaths?
Here are my answers to a select few of the questions that you’ve posted so far:
And how do we help our children whose father is a full-blown psychopath? I have a 9-year-old and she has been in therapy ever since her Dad’s psychopathy became evident. The therapy has not helped her see or experience her Dad anything differently than the man he used to be. Her diagnosis has become severe anxiety.
In the article, you have recommendations for adults to protect themselves:
How can parents say any of this to the child without being sued for parental alienation???
The Best Solution: Tanya is right to be concerned about parental alienation (when one parent turns the child against the other parent). And no parent should say these things to their child. Parental alienation is one of the most harmful things that a parent can do and has been shown to cause children to develop personality disorders.
Keep in mind that having a sociopathic parent is one of the greatest risk factors for Childhood Emotional Neglect. Sociopathic parents are not able to see or respond to, much less validate, their child’s feelings. This sets the child up to struggle with emotions through their adult life.
With your child you must walk a fine line: being realistic enough to validate her feelings and her confusion, but without saying anything negative. One way to do that is to talk about her father with compassion (even if you don’t feel it yourself).
Ask your child how she feels about things her sociopathic parent does, and then listen. Try using these explanations and questions with your child:
Be cautious about who you meet and don’t overlook the red flags in people. They are there for a reason!!! I do believe a big part of my problem was having low self-esteem. Sociopaths prey on the weak. They look for someone they can use, abuse, control, manipulate…so if you are like me, build yourself up, raise your standards and listen to your gut instincts before becoming too involved with people!!
The Best Solution: Early in a relationship you are seeing the other person’s best foot forward. Don’t ignore frightening, dangerous, or harmful behaviors directed toward you or others. Even small examples of those behaviors mean something. Make sure you know that you deserve to be treated well. If you’re in doubt of this at times, please see a therapist and build your self-confidence. Strong people repel sociopaths.
I think one of my siblings could be a sociopath and the way he treats people matches every one of the hallmarks. I wondered in the past sometimes. The bit about denial is very interesting because I think deep down that he really could be yet I have every justification and don’t think that I could ever accept it…. I believe he loves and ultimately doesn’t want to hurt people. It is very confusing actually.
The Best Solution: One of the most difficult things about dealing with a sociopath is accepting that you’re dealing with a sociopath. Especially when that sociopath is someone you love or want to love. If you see someone you care about behaving like a sociopath, don’t feel pressured to label them. Instead, quietly start taking steps to protect yourself, and watch and wait. Remember that the label is not as important as guarding and protecting yourself from being used, manipulated or hurt.
I believe both my father and older brother are sociopaths. They are both consumed with their own well being and viciously attack people for sport. Both have left a wake of broken lives behind them. I like to tell myself they are not evil, just sociopathic.
The Best Solution: Viciously attacking people “for sport” is, I believe, the one trait that sets sociopaths apart from borderline and narcissistic personalities. A person who enjoys hurting and manipulating others is not just emotionally dysregulated (borderline) or overly self-involved (narcissistic).
If your father is indeed sociopathic please be aware that you may have Childhood Emotional Neglect. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
That said, I like your approach of thinking of your father and brother as “not evil, just sociopathic.” Demonizing another person may feel good, but it does not help anything. Understanding that someone has a personality disorder is more realistic and does not interfere with your ability to protect yourself from them.
What do you do as a parent if you believe your teenage daughter is a sociopath or has a borderline personality disorder? I need advice, I’m trying to save my baby’s life and have no idea what I’m doing.
The Best Solution: You are not alone. Many parents find themselves in the same predicament. Of course, there are no easy answers, but there are two things you can do. First, try to get your child to a professional for evaluation and therapy. Second, talk to a professional yourself. The way you respond to your teen’s behaviors is crucial, and every day matters. Do not hesitate to engage a licensed mental health professional to help.
The world is filled with people who are struggling with difficult relationships. Labeling someone you’re struggling with as a sociopath (or antisocial personality disorder) can either cause great damage or help you understand what’s happening. This is not a label to apply lightly, so always take great care with it.
To learn more about how to cope with, and recover from, the effects of growing up with a sociopathic (or other emotionally absent) parent, see the books, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To get support, information, and help regarding personality disorders, visit the Personality Disorders Awareness Network.
A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
Most psychotherapists’ first question to their clients: “What do you want to accomplish in therapy?”
Most Clients’ first answer: “I just want to be happy.”
Direct, succinct and clear, this answer cuts to the chase. It makes perfect sense, and we therapists fully concur. We want you to be happy too.
But this understandable request raises a far more complex question with which the greatest minds of all time have grappled:
What is the secret formula for making people happy?
Here are the short versions of a few great thinkers’ answers from the distant past.
Aristotle: Happiness depends on ourselves.
Buddha: Happiness results from mindful thought and action.
Socrates: Happiness comes from gaining rational control over your desires, and harmonizing the different parts of your soul.
Epicurus: To gain happiness, abstain from unnecessary desires to achieve inner tranquility; be content with simple things.
These are all powerful observations, of course. But now, lets fast forward to today’s world and talk about who struggles with happiness and why.
I have found that the people who struggle with the pursuit of happiness in a most unique way are those with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). It’s because their questions about their own happiness are tainted and complicated by self-blame.
Yes, it’s true. People with CEN actually blame themselves for not being happier.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is far more common than you may think. It happens when your parents ignore or discourage your feelings too much as they are raising you. Even if you have a fine childhood in every other way, you grow up feeling ignored or discouraged on some deep and harmful level. This has a profound effect on your life.
People with Childhood Emotional Neglect, having been raised to ignore their emotions and themselves, are highly prone to self-blame. CEN folks have a tendency to feel at fault for most everything that does not go right. Their own happiness is no exception.
And what do you think happens when you blame your lack of happiness on yourself? It erects a giant barrier between you and happiness. It makes you even less able to feel happy.
Current research on happiness tells us that material wealth has a surprisingly limited effect on human happiness. Three other factors have a much more powerful impact and they are factors that you can cultivate in your life.
If the four factors above seem overwhelming there is something important I want you to know. While none of them can be achieved suddenly they all can be achieved gradually. If you keep your mind on these 4 goals you can gradually make yourself happier in a deep, meaningful, and lasting way.
To learn more about achieving happiness by facing your self-blame, increasing your emotional intelligence, and using your emotions to enrich your relationships, see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article originally appeared on psychcentral.com. It has been rewritten and reproduced here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
It is definitely true that parenting is an incredibly complex job. We can all see that the huge majority of parents are honestly working hard to offer the very best they possibly can to their children.
As much empathy as I have for parents, being one myself, today I will be talking with all who are on the other side of the fence: those of you who are grown up now and are feeling that your relationship with your parents is a problem in your life.
There are indeed an infinite amount of ways that a parent/child relationship can go wrong. Many are subtle or confusing and can leave all parties feeling burdened or hurt.
Especially if you know that your parents love you, you may end up baffled about your relationship with them, and wondering what is wrong.
How does this happen? Why does this relationship have to be so complicated? Why can’t we just love our parents unconditionally?
Of course, there can be endless different explanations for any of these problems. But for most people, the answer lies somewhere in the area of what psychologists call individuation.
Individuation: The natural, healthy process of the child becoming increasingly separate from the parent by developing his or her own personality, interests, and life apart from the parent.
Individuation usually starts around age 13 but can be as early as 11 or as late as 16. Behaviors we think of as “teenage rebellion” are actually attempts to separate. Talking back, breaking rules, disagreeing, refusing to spend time with the family; all are ways of saying, and feeling, “I’m me, and I make my own decisions.”
Individuation is indeed a delicate process, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. When it doesn’t, and also goes unresolved, it can create a stressful or painful relationship between parent and adult child.
When your adolescence gets off track in any of these ways, a price is paid by both you and your parents. Much later, when you’re trying to live your adult life, you may sadly find yourself feeling burdened, pained, or held back by your parents. On top of that, you might feel guilty for feeling that way.
So now the big question. How do you know when you need some distance from your parents?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, and you also feel burdened by your relationship with your parents, it may be a sign that you need some distance to maximize your own personal growth and health.
Yes, parenting truly is the hardest job in the world. But parents are meant to launch you, not limit you. If your individuation didn’t happen fully through your adolescence, you may need to work at separating from your parents now in order to have the healthy, strong, independent life that you are meant to live.
So what does distancing mean when it comes to parents? It doesn’t mean moving farther away. It doesn’t mean being less kind or loving toward them. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing anything drastically different. In fact, distance can be achieved by changing yourself and your own internal response to what happens between you.
Watch for a future article sharing some of the basics of how to make those changes for yourself. In the meantime, you can learn much, much more about exactly how to do this in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Guilt is, for many, built into the adult separation process, unfortunately. So separating from your parents may be no less painful now, as an adult, than it was when you were an adolescent. But the good news is, you are grown up. You’re developed. You’re stronger. Now you can better understand what’s wrong.
To learn more about the parent/child relationship and how it can go wrong emotionally, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was first published on Psychcentral.com. It has been revised and reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.