Childhood Emotional Neglect: Happens when your parents do not address, validate, or talk about emotions enough as they raise you.
Growing up with your emotions ignored has some very specific effects on your entire adult life. Just as Childhood Emotional Neglect is a lack of emotional attention, one of its most harmful effects is also a lack of something: emotional skills and knowledge.
In my work with hundreds of CEN adults, I find, more specifically, that an almost inevitable consequence of growing up this way is a low emotional vocabulary. Many CEN people have few words to describe feelings. Some apply the same generic word to all of their feelings (like “stress,” “depressed,” or “anxious,” for example); some do not use any emotion words at all, and others use the wrong words altogether.
When emotions are seldom discussed in your childhood it is difficult to absorb and learn the thousands of words in the English language that describe emotions.
When we need to communicate a feeling we are having to another person, or even simply name it for ourselves, it is vital to be able to label it in a subtle and accurate way.
Imagine saying, “I felt hurt,” to your wife after she and her friends teased you relentlessly about your new white sneakers. Now imagine saying, “I felt chastised.” The difference may seem small, but it is significant.
The labels you put on your feelings matter.
There is no way to be alive and not get hurt. We have all been there. When someone says something hurtful to you, how do you name the feeling for yourself, and how do you express it to others?
Yes, you can say, “I’m hurt.” Or you can say exactly how you feel and this will make it far more likely that you will be — and feel — understood.
Next time you feel something painful, look through this list to see which word seems to best describe what you are feeling.
Find hundreds of additional emotion words in the extensive Emotion Words List in the back of the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn much, much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how it happens plus access the full list of emotion words see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Do you have a word for “hurt” that is missing? Please share it! Simply post it in a comment on this blog.
Why is it so hard to be assertive? There are some very good reasons why it’s such a struggle for so many.
The first reason is that lots of people think they know exactly what assertiveness is, but they actually only know half of the definition.
That missing half makes a huge difference.
Pause for a moment here and think about what “assertive” means to you. Come up with your own definition.
Did your definition describe standing up for yourself? Speaking your mind? Telling people how you feel or what you think? If so, you got it mostly right. This is the aspect of assertiveness which most people are familiar with.
Now let’s talk about the other half. In some ways, it’s the most important half. So, enough build-up. Here’s the true, full definition.
Assertiveness: Speaking up for yourself — in a way that the other person can hear.
These two aspects of assertiveness, and how they work together, are what make assertiveness a skill which must be learned, rather than a natural ability. Most people have a hard time with the first half or with the second half, and many folks struggle with both. Also, our ability to be assertive varies with the situation, the people involved, and the amount of emotion that we are feeling at the time.
Most people err in one of two primary ways when they try to be assertive: they come across too weakly, making it too easy for the other party to discount their message; or they come across too strongly so that the other party becomes too hurt or too defensive to listen. Once the recipient’s defenses rise, your message will be lost.
No one struggles more with assertiveness than those who grew up in households where emotions were ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). These emotionally neglectful families do not have the vital skills required for assertiveness because they do not understand emotions, or how they work. They do not know the Five Skills of Assertiveness, so they are not able to teach them to their children.
If you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family, it’s important to acknowledge that you struggle with these skills for a reason. And it is not your fault.
In a minute we will talk about how you can learn the skills, but first let’s consider the skills themselves.
When you put these five skills together, you are able to say what you need to say in a way that is appropriate to the setting, situation, and people involved (not too strongly or weakly), so that the recipients can process your message without their defenses being ignited. Keep in mind that talking to a defensive person is like talking to an inanimate object. Your message will not get through.
You can see from these steps why assertiveness requires not just skill, but a constellation of skills. This is why if it’s hard for you, you are not alone.
The good news is that it is entirely possible to build your assertiveness skills. If you keep all five skills in mind, you can work on building them. Follow these special suggestions to learn these vital skills.
Growing up in an emotionally neglectful family leaves you struggling with many emotion skills that other people take for granted. To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
See the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships to learn how to use and manage emotions with the most important people in your life.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.
“After reading Running on Empty I told my therapist that I’m pretty sure I was emotionally neglected as a child. He seemed to understand what I meant but he never mentioned it again”.
“I’ve been seeing my therapist for a year and she has never mentioned Emotional Neglect to me.”
“I want a therapist who is an expert in Childhood Emotional Neglect!”
Since I first started speaking and writing about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) in 2012 I’ve heard the above comments many times, from people all over the world.
Yes. In a way, it is puzzling. CEN is so widespread and causes so much pain. Why don’t therapists talk about it more directly and more often? Why aren’t all therapists addressing this with their clients?
This is one of the main reasons that I took up the cause of CEN. After talking with other mental health professionals and doing an exhaustive literature search, I could find virtually no research or writings specifically about Emotional Neglect. And I couldn’t identify a recognized, accepted, universal term for the concept that meant the same thing to every mental health professional.
It seems that just as an instance of CEN goes unseen and unnoticed, so does the CEN child himself. In a case of parallel process, so does the concept of CEN. To virtually all therapists, the basic idea that parents fail their children emotionally is not surprising or new. Remarkably, I think that’s part of the reason that therapists don’t talk about it. For us, it hides in plain sight.
In this way, I think the phrase “child abuse and neglect,” which is so ubiquitous and useful, has actually done an inordinate amount of untold damage by blurring awareness of CEN.
For me, right now, my goals are unwaveringly clear. I want to make CEN a part of everyday conversation in this world. I want parents to know how to meet their children’s emotional needs, and why it matters.
I want every single person to be able to talk openly and directly about CEN with a therapist who understands the concept and knows the path to healing it.
I want every therapist to mean the exact same thing when they use or hear the term Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Think of all the children who are, at this very moment, growing up surrounded by Emotional Neglect. And all the adults who are suffering in silence, baffled by their pain.
If I could speak for all the therapists in the world, here is what we would say to them:
Your pain is real. It’s not nothing. You have it for a reason. It’s not your fault.
You feel invisible, but we see you. You can speak and we will listen. So stand up and talk. And let us help you heal.
To learn if CEN is a part of your life, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
Over 500 therapists located all over the world have now been trained in CEN therapy. Visit the Find A CEN Therapist List.
If you are a therapist and would like to join the CEN Network and receive referrals from me, I invite you to Fill Out The CEN Therapist Form.
Show me a family that has no anger in it, and I’ll dig out their anger and show it to them.
That’s my job. I’m a therapist.
Every family has anger. It’s unavoidable in life and in a family, simply because it is literally wired into our brains. It’s a part of our physiology, just as our eyelashes, elbows, and toes. There are many ways that families can handle anger, depending on their comfort level with it.
They can wield it as a weapon, figuratively hitting each other over the head with it; they can push it underground, or they can ignore it and pretend it does not exist.
Or they can use it the way nature intended; as a way to drive truth, and connect family members in a genuine, real and meaningful way.
The Anger as a Weapon Family: In this family, anger is used by one or more members as a source of power. Anger may be expressed in a variety of aggressive ways, like yelling, insults or barbed comments; by throwing things, breaking things, or other physical intimidation or threats.
The Underground Anger Family: This family views anger as unacceptable, or even bad. Angry feelings are viewed as unloving, uncaring or rebellious and are met with negativity or punishment.
The Ignoring Anger Family: This family treats anger as if it doesn’t exist. When a member of the family shows anger, it receives little response. Anger is invisible.
None of the children growing up in these three types of families has an opportunity to learn much about anger: how to listen to its message, manage it, express it, or use it in a healthy way. By definition, all of these children are growing up in an emotionally neglectful family.
All of these children are receiving this message: Don’t talk – don’t talk – don’t talk. No one wants to know when you are angry.
But let’s focus in particular on The Underground and the Ignoring Families, because they have one very big factor in common. They both are breeding grounds for passive-aggression.
Since anger is wired into the human brain, it happens in every human being, whether they want it or not. When you are in an environment that is chronically intolerant of this particular emotion you naturally, automatically suppress your angry feelings whenever they arise. This causes some major problems for you, and in your family.
Pushing anger down is like pushing water down. It has to go somewhere. So it may seep underground and sit there, or it may go slightly under the surface, and ripple and roil, waiting for a chance to spew.
In these two types of anger-intolerant families, the anger goes underground, but it does not disappear. It stays there. And it has to come out somehow, sometime, in some way.
Passive-aggression: The indirect expression of anger and resentment, fueled by feelings that are not addressed and resolved by talking about the issues directly.
Molly felt anxious and uncomfortable as she sat eating dinner with her family. She was acutely aware that her parents refused to speak to each other or make eye-contact.
Joel’s dad was an hour late to pick him up after soccer practice. As Joel sat on the curb waiting, he found himself wondering if his dad was angry about the argument they had the night before.
Jessica found it excruciating when her mother gave her the silent treatment. So she took great care to appear unaffected by it.
Many research studies have clearly established a link between passive-aggression between parents, and problems in the children.
One 2016 study by Davies, Hentges, et al., showed that children growing up in such an environment of indirectly expressed, unresolved hostility are more insecure, and take less responsibility for their own problems. They are also more prone to depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal.
Another difficult aspect of passive-aggression is that most people are completely unaware of their own passive-aggressive behavior. They are often, also, unaware of their own underground anger and resentment that’s fueling it.
Steps to Become Less Passive-Aggressive
Accept that you have anger. Accept that it’s normal and healthy, it’s valuable, and you can use it to make your relationships better.
Increase your anger awareness. Watch for anger in other people. Watch for it in yourself. When you start trying to feel your anger, you’ll start breaking down the wall that blocks it.
Read everything you can about assertiveness. It’s a skill that allows you to express your anger in a way that the other person can take in your message without becoming defensive. Buy a book on it if you can. Then read it!
When something happens that makes you feel angry, take note of the feeling. Practice sitting with it and tolerating it. Apply what you’ve learned about assertiveness.
And talk talk talk.
To learn how to deal with CEN in your marriage, your parenting and with your emotionally neglectful parents, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the national bestseller Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Many people struggle with self-discipline in many different ways and for many different reasons.
Do you struggle with:
Poor eating habits?
Getting yourself to exercise?
Keeping a clean and organized house?
Making yourself do things that are boring or uninteresting?
Do you sometimes feel like you have no control over your own choices or actions in certain areas of your life? If so, rest assured that you are in the good company of countless others who feel the same way.
Most of those who struggle simply assume they are lazy or weak or defective in some way, but when you believe any of these things about yourself you are walking down a one-way street to nowhere.
Feeling defective makes you believe in yourself even less which makes you struggle even more. Feeling weak makes you hopeless and helpless to solve the problem, setting up an endless cycle of pain.
The reality is that almost no one who contends with self-control is doing so because they are weak or defective. Truth be told, I have often found the real cause of these problems to be Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your needs and feelings as they raise you.
“What could this possibly have to do with self-discipline?” you might ask. Here is the answer.
Actually, all self-discipline problems boil down to one simple mechanism that’s the foundation for it all. It’s the ability to make yourself do things you don’t want to do and to stop yourself from doing things you shouldn’t do.
We humans are not born with our “mechanism” fully functioning and developed. Instead, it is developed by our parents as they raise us.
When your mother calls you in from playing with your neighborhood friends because it’s dinnertime or bedtime, she is teaching you an important skill. She’s teaching you that some things must be done, even if you don’t feel like it.
When your dad gives you the weekly chore of cutting the grass and then follows up in a loving but firm way to make sure you do it, he’s teaching you how to make yourself do something you don’t want to do and he’s teaching you the rewards of that.
When your parents make sure you brush your teeth twice a day, when they say no to dessert, when they set aside and enforce “homework hour” every day after school because you’ve been slacking on homework, when they continue to love you but set your curfew earlier as a consequence of thoughtlessly breaking it; all of these parental actions and responses are internalized by you, the child.
All of these loving and attentive actions of your parents, when done with enough emotional attunement, structure, and love — in other words, the opposite of Childhood Emotional Neglect, literally program your brain. They set up neural pathways that you can use all your life to make yourself do things you don’t want to do and stop yourself from doing what you should not do.
Now, here’s another very important thing. When all of this happens as it should in your childhood, you not only internalize the ability to make yourself do things and to stop yourself from doing things, you internalize your parents’ voices, which later, in your adulthood, become your own.
Unfortunately, the opposite of everything we just discussed is also true. If you grow up in an emotionally neglectful home and do not receive enough of this emotionally attuned structure and discipline, you will emerge into adulthood without enough of the neural pathways you need. It’s not that you have none of these neural pathways. It’s just that you do not have enough.
I know what you are probably thinking so let’s talk about it:
No, not necessarily at all. All parents have their own personal struggles. Many grew up in emotionally neglectful homes themselves. Most parents do their best (not all, for sure) and give their children what they have to give. But sadly, in many cases of Emotional Neglect, the parents can’t give you what they did not have themselves: emotional attunement, structure, and discipline.
Another side of this to consider in all of this is you.
I hope that realizing that you are not defective takes you out of that destructive loop of self-blame. I hope now that you see that your parents failed you in this way it will free you up to think in new ways. I hope that understanding the underlying mechanism of self-discipline will inspire you.
For what? For taking responsibility for this problem now. For building your own neural pathways. For change.
It is never too late. As an adult, you can essentially re-parent yourself by rewiring your own brain. You can do it by using a remarkably simple but amazingly effective rewiring program I am sharing directly from my book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
In this skill-building exercise, you will be wiring your brain with the hardware that’s essential to have in order to be able to make yourself do what you don’t want to do and vice-versa. To take full advantage of its power, you absolutely must do it every single day.
It’s best to choose small, doable items that do not feel overwhelming. The size of the item does not matter, it’s the act of overriding what you want that programs your brain.
Three times. Without exception. Every single day. And don’t just do them, write them down.
To help you get a feel for this, I’ll give you some examples of Three Things that have worked for others:
Examples of Things to Make Yourself Do: Face-washing, bill-paying, exercise, floor-sweeping, shoe-tying, phone-calling, dishwashing or task-starting.
Examples of Things to Stop Yourself From Doing: eating a piece of chocolate devil’s food cake, buying a pretty necklace online, having that one more drink when out with friends, or skipping class.
Try to do this program regularly. If you slip, start right back up again. If you keep at it, you’ll notice that it will become easier and easier for you to self-regulate, manage your impulses, and complete unrewarding but necessary tasks. Your self-discipline will build and grow and eventually become an active, hard-wired part of who you are.
To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens and how to heal it, and to read more about the relationship between Emotional Neglect and self-discipline, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Three things. Every day. You can do it.
As a blogger, I pay attention to what readers want to know about. I’ve noticed that articles about three particular types of personality disorders (PDs), narcissistic, borderline and sociopathic, are often the most read.
Since my specialty (and the topics of my books and blogs) is Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I can tell you that adults who grow up with emotional neglect often seem to attract people with personality disorders. That’s because CEN teaches you to take up little space, and those with personality disorders tend to take up a lot. It’s a classic case of opposites attracting.
People who find themselves involved with a personality disordered person may often find themselves getting hurt. I have noticed that the folks who comment on posts about PD’s very often express a mixture of strong emotions like confusion, hurt, anger and helplessness. Clearly, a great many people are hungry for information and guidance on how to handle relationships with these complex people in your lives.
Here are some example questions I’ve received from readers asking for guidance on dealing with a narcissistic or sociopathic person in their lives.
“Such a pity that escape (divorce) seems to be the only viable outcome. I’ve had to divorce my wife, but she still controls the minds of my now young adult daughters, so now I live with the pain of this alienation.”
“Does it serve a purpose to see a narcissistic parent’s condition coming from childhood emotional neglect? Yes. Once I realized that possibility, I looked at myself and realized how I often did to others exactly what my father did to me: because he left me with the same fragile sense of self. Fortunately I did not pass it on to another generation, having decided to end the bucket chain of abuse.”
The world is full of people who struggle with personality disorders. In truth, the numbers are staggering. 6% of the U.S. population has a narcissistic personality disorder. 5.6% has a borderline personality, and 1% has antisocial personality (according to the National Institute of Health).
With these numbers, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ve met, befriended, been related to, or fallen in love with at least one of these personality types.
These three personality disorders are all different. Narcissists are known for being self-centered. Those with borderline personality are known for being unpredictable and highly emotional. And antisocial personalities (or sociopaths) are famous for their brutality. Generally, these three PD’s can best be understood by their ability or inability to feel two very important emotions: guilt and empathy.
Narcissistic Yes No
Borderline Yes Yes
Sociopathic No No
Here are the Four Main Questions About PD that I see you, our readers, struggling with:
1. What causes personality disorders?
We don’t know for sure, but current science tells us that it’s a combination of genetics and childhood experiences, such as emotional abuse and unpredictable parenting characterized by the repeated, sudden withdrawal of love and approval by the parent or love based on false, self-serving, or superficial factors. Neither nature nor nurture alone is probably enough to produce a personality disorder; most research indicates that it takes a combination of both.
2. Why didn’t I realize sooner that my husband/sister/father/friend, etc. has a personality disorder?
First, I’d like to suggest that you stop asking this question because it sounds like you are blaming yourself. The huge majority of people have no idea what a personality disorder is, or how to recognize it. Folks with narcissistic or borderline personality are not simply all good or all bad. They have very lovable qualities, and very maddening qualities, just like everyone else. This is why even mental health professionals require a good amount of time to make a diagnosis of personality disorder.
Sociopaths, however, fall into a special category of their own. Unlike people with borderline and narcissistic personalities, sociopaths have no capacity for guilt. But that is a very difficult thing to see in someone, especially when that someone is both highly charismatic and skilled at faking guilt and other emotions. Unfortunately, sociopaths, the most emotionally ruthless people among us, are also the most difficult to recognize.
3. Do people with personality disorders know what they are doing? Is he/she hurting me on purpose?
For sociopaths, the answer is simple: yes. Many sociopaths actually take pleasure in manipulating and hurting others. They view (and treat) the people in their lives like chess pieces.
For narcissists and borderlines, the answer is not so clear, because both of these groups are scrambling to protect their fragile inner core. The narcissist’s greatest fear is that you will see what he/she feels about herself deep down: worthlessness. Whereas the borderline person’s greatest fear is that you will abandon him.
Narcissists appear to not care if they hurt you, but it’s because they are extremely focused on protecting themselves. Borderline folks are at the mercy of their own pain and have little energy left over to offer care for others. They are capable of both guilt and empathy, but often cannot access either.
Most narcissistic and borderline people are not purposely inflicting pain or misery on others. They are more like a bull in a china shop.
4. I now hate someone I used to love. Is it OK to kick this person out of my life?
It all depends on what he/she has done, and what is your relationship with them. Of course, you must protect yourself and your children above all. And the type of PD you’re dealing with matters. Unfortunately, many people share traits from all three, making it difficult to know.
If this person is a family member, spouse or co-parent, and is not a clear sociopath, I recommend a delicate balance of self-protection and as much empathy as you can muster for the true pain that this person is living with and hiding.
Here are some Suggestions for Managing Your Relationship:
To learn how to manage your relationship with a narcissistic or borderline parent, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect is different from emotional abuse and how to heal from it, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.
Since the release of the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships, people all over the world have been forming book groups, forums, family discussions, and Meetups to discuss them.
When you are working through the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) on your adult life, whether you are working with a CEN therapist or on your own, it is incredibly helpful to have support.
When another person talks about their own CEN childhood, their struggles to understand emotions and how they work, or the discomfort of a visit with their emotionally neglectful parents, it is validating and informative.
When you talk about your CEN experiences and struggles with others who share your pain, you learn about yourself, and you realize you are not alone.
After being asked many times to offer discussion questions for each book, I have finally created them.
If you are interested in joining an ongoing, structured and supportive Childhood Emotional Neglect recovery group online that is created and run by Jonice Webb, Ph.D., CLICK HERE learn more about Fuel Up For Life.
People don’t change.
How many times have you heard someone say that?
Several years ago a woman came to my office asking for help with an extramarital affair that she was having. In an attempt to help her sort it out I began talking with her about why, when, how; her own feelings and needs, her marriage, and her family history. We had a number of meetings in which I worked very hard to help her figure out what to do about it, and how she might handle ending the affair and beginning to repair her marriage (which is what she said she wanted).
Over time though, I started to see that our work was not producing any relief or help to her. My questions did not spur further thinking on her part, and my suggestions seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Finally, after about six visits, she said something very telling to me which stopped the treatment cold. She said, “People don’t change.”
Further exploration of her comment revealed that she was extremely entrenched in this notion. She wanted to come to see me only to vent and receive support; she did not see that she had the ability to change herself or her situation.
Since that time I have encountered many people who resist the idea that they can actually change themselves. And I have noticed that the less aware you are of yourself and your feelings, the harder it is to envision yourself changing. Why are you unaware of yourself and your feelings? It’s quite often the result of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, which is growing up in a household that does not address the feelings of its members.
If you experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect, you are likely focused outward, on other people and their needs, leaving you out of touch with yourself, your emotions, and the sense of self-mastery that other people enjoy.
1. Awareness: seeing the problem. For example, “I have a problem with my temper.”
2. Commitment: making a clear decision that you want to change. For example, “I’m going to improve my temper.”
3. Identifying the Steps: For example, a) become more aware of my anger; b) learn how to control my anger; c) learn how to express anger in a healthy way.
4. Doing the Work: While changing ourselves is definitely possible, it is usually not easy. That’s why awareness, commitment and breaking it down into steps become so vital.
5. Asking for help: from spouse, friend, family or a therapist.
Here is a tiny sampling of the myriad ways that I have seen people change themselves:
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. The possibilities are endless. True, some things are more difficult to change than others. And some people have more difficulty changing themselves than others. For example, a personality or temperament issue will be difficult to change in a different way than a habit.
But in my experience from working with many hundreds of people to change many hundreds of issues, I can tell you without a doubt that the two biggest factors in whether you can change are:
Really, really wanting it.
And believing that it’s possible.
To learn if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free. And see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article first appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author.
In recent years, medical and psychological journals have been exploding with studies showing the close relationship between our bodies and our minds.
Study after study shows that the way we think and feel each day has a powerful effect on our health.
For example, carrying around negative feelings (like sadness, anger, hurt, or stress, for example), has been shown to increase the amount of inflammation in your body, which then affects the strength of your immune system which makes you more vulnerable to getting sick. — Jennifer E.Graham-Engelanda, et al.; Brain, Behavior and Immunity, 2018.
Another important study showed that people who are better at regulating their feelings, or in other words managing them, have overall better physical health than people who are not skilled in this way. — Yiying Song, et al., Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 2014.
And yet another study that looked at how couples argue confirmed what has been shown in multiple other studies: being prone to angry outbursts makes you more prone to cardiovascular problems; and holding in your anger or hurt feelings in a conflict, (the researchers call this stonewalling) over time, is highly associated with back and muscular problems. — Robert Levenson, et al., Emotion, 2016.
This is only a very tiny sampling of the large body of research that proves the close relationship between how you treat your feelings and many aspects of your physical health.
This, of course, begs the question: Why aren’t we all actively trying to get better at managing our emotions so that we can improve our physical health? What’s stopping us? What is in the way?
As a psychologist, just like other therapists, I face these questions every single day. I see how people struggle with their own emotions, and I watch the effects of it all.
I also see that the most common reason people struggle with their feelings so much is Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you. It is common and even happens in loving homes.
We are all born with our emotions biologically hardwired into us. They emanate from the base of our human brains and travel through special receptors into and through our bellies.
We all have emotions, whether we like it or not. We cannot choose to have feelings or not have feelings, and we cannot choose what we feel.
This is why, if you grew up with CEN, you may be unknowingly living with the effects of CEN, destined for physical problems that you could have prevented if only you had known.
Don’t be worried as you read this. Because you are about to know. And once you know, you can reverse it all.
As a therapist who specializes in Childhood Emotional Neglect, I help people stop allowing their unmanaged emotions to damage their lives and health every single day.
I have watched people go from a near-complete lack of awareness of their emotions and a deeply held belief that they don’t matter to not only feeling their feelings but being aware of them and actively managing them.
Amazingly, once we allow ourselves to feel, along comes with it a sense of being a real person with real needs, wants, opinions and value.
A real person who matters, and whose health matters. Someone who is worth caring for. And someone who cares.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, see the author’s biography below this article for a link to Take the free Emotional Neglect Test.
To learn much more about how to feel your emotions and show yourself better self-care, see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More.
Let’s start with a little test to see where you are on this.
Read through this list of personal actions, and label each as either “strong” or “selfish.”
If you answered “selfish” to all three:
Chances are, you are highly uncomfortable with saying “no” under any circumstances. You are governed by guilt, and you believe that your own needs are less important than those of others.
If you answered “strong” to:
Number 1: You are able to be strong, at least for the sake of your children. If you are saying no for the sake of your children, you are putting their needs before your elderly aunt’s, and that is a judgment call. Who needs you more right now? If it’s your children, then being able to say “no” to your aunt is a sign of strength.
Number 2: Saying no because you are tired could very well represent strength. If you get enough rest for yourself, you will be in better shape to take care of others. It’s an example of putting your own needs first, which makes it easier for you to contribute to the world in a positive way.
Number 3: You could potentially be crossing the line over to selfish here. Is the Red Sox game truly more important than giving your elderly aunt an outing? Unless there are some mitigating circumstances, you may be making a self-centered choice here. This one may require some careful self-reflection.
In truth, the line between selfish and strong is blurry at best. For example, saying no because of the baseball game may not represent selfishness if you need to be able to talk about it intelligently at a sales meeting the next day, or if your aunt asks you to dinner more often than you can comfortably accommodate in your life. Or saying no because of your children could be selfish if it’s really because you would enjoy being with your children more than dinner with your aunt.
Few people are purely selfish or strong. Most of us struggle with decisions like these all the time. Many people feel selfish and guilty for the simplest personal choices which are actually healthiest and best for them or their families. Sometimes we err too far toward selfish; at other times we give too much because of fear of being so. Often a decision which appears selfish is not, and strong decisions can sometimes come across as selfish to others.
If you have a tendency to feel guilty or selfish when you put your own needs first, it may be because you were emotionally neglected in childhood. Emotional Neglect happens when parents either purposely or unwittingly give a child the message that his feelings and emotional needs are irrelevant. The unspoken message is: “Your needs don’t matter.”
Children who grow up this way, once they become adults, have great difficulty viewing their own needs as important enough to trump anyone else’s. They feel guilty valuing or emphasizing what they want, feel and need. This is an important quandary since emotional health requires us to take care of ourselves first.
Do you worry that you are selfish? Truly selfish people don’t usually struggle much. They easily make the decision that’s best for themselves. They don’t think too much about it, and they don’t look back.
If you follow the above guidelines, you will be strong. Because, in the end, for each and every decision that you make in your life, your strength comes from the fact that you cared enough to think it through.
Strength comes not from putting another’s needs before your own. Instead, it comes from the simple act of weighing another’s needs against your own.
A version of this article first appeared on Psychcentral.com. It is republished here with the permission of the author.