Recently I received this request from a reader:
What I have found lacking is books or articles on the process of revealing my feelings, the associated pain and some kind of plan to work through the feelings that would help DURING the healing process. Knowing the common steps of healing would be very encouraging and provide both patience and hope.
When you push your feelings down as a child in order to cope with an environment which cannot tolerate them (Childhood Emotional Neglect), you grow up lacking access to your emotions. A large part of the process of healing involves breaking down the wall between yourself and your feelings, and welcoming them.
But what if many of those old feelings are painful? What if the process is so painful that it’s too hard to let the wall down? What if you lack the skills needed to cope with the pain because no one ever taught you?
Managing painful feelings happens on Two Levels:
Next week’s article will be about Level 2: Long-Term Resolving. So check back!
Some of the most powerful words are those of real people sharing their stories. Some of the quotes below were emailed to me (with permission to share), and some were posted as comments on my website. Here is a sampling of the real words of people who grew up with CEN.
The CEN Childhood
The first 16 years of my life that my family lived together, I can’t remember a single meaningful or real communication that occurred between any of us in that time.
My feelings and emotions were the last things on my parents’ minds. The best they could do was provide a home with basic amenities.
I honestly don’t remember my parents much at all, though both are still alive and married today.
I never heard the phrase “I love you.” There was no one to talk to, no one who cared. I brought myself up in every sense of the word.
I remember the intense indescribable pain that I felt as a young child when my mother wouldn’t acknowledge the simple child affection I wanted to give.Continue reading
After Robin Williams’ sad and shocking suicide, friends, family, fellow stars, and even reporters offered multiple explanations for the virtually inexplicable:
Why did he do it?
Some of the many possible factors which have been proposed are depression, alcohol, drugs, and Parkinsons Disease. But I see another potential factor which is never mentioned by anyone. A factor which falls between the cracks just as its sufferers do: Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).Continue reading
The Fatal Flaw: A deep-seated feeling that something is wrong with you. You are missing something that other people have. You are living life on the outside, looking in. You don’t quite fit in anywhere.
If you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), chances are, The Fatal Flaw is at work in your life.
If you pushed your feelings away as a child, you now lack access to them as an adult. You sense deep down that something is missing (it’s your emotions). And your life lacks the richness, connection and meaning that your feelings should be bringing to your life. This is the basic cause of the Fatal Flaw. Most people who have it are not aware of it, and this gives it incredible power.
Yes, your Fatal Flaw is powerful. But so are you. You have a great deal of personal power that is being drained by your Fatal Flaw.
So today’s the day. Declare war on your Fatal Flaw, and start using your weapons of awareness, your emotions, your intellect, and your words.
This is a battle that you can win. I promise.
To learn more about the Fatal Flaw, what caused it and how to overcome it, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author.
Recently I was interviewed for a podcast on the Personality Disorders Awareness Network which took questions from listeners. One of the questions was a request for names of other books about Childhood Emotional Neglect (besides my books, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children).
Although Running on Empty (2012) and Running On Empty No More (2018) are the first and only books specifically about CEN, there are a number of other books which talk about important aspects of CEN in a very helpful way. Here is a list of a few of the self-help books in my waiting room, and the particular aspects of CEN that are addressed by each. I hope you find them helpful.
I will update this list as I discover more books. If you have found a particular book helpful, please post it in the Comments Section of this blog, and I will add it to the list.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral
Now that I see what my parents didn’t give me, how do I continue to interact with them?
Should I tell my parents how they failed me?
If I talk to my parents about CEN, won’t it make them feel bad?
How do I handle the pain that I feel now, as an adult, each time my parents treat me as if I don’t matter?
If you were raised by parents who were not tuned in enough to your emotional needs, you have probably experienced the results of this parental failure over and over throughout the years and into your adulthood. Once you realize how deeply you have been affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), it can become quite difficult to interact with the parents who neglected you.
One of the most frequent questions that I am asked by people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect is, “Should I talk to my parents about CEN?”
It’s actually quite difficult to answer the questions above. Every single living human being had a childhood, and no two stories are the same. Indeed, the number of possible answers to the questions is as infinite as the variety of different ways that CEN can happen. But generally, it can be extremely healing when adult child and parents are able to come to a mutual understanding of how an emotional failure happened and why, and how it affected everyone involved. This, however, can be a complicated business; difficult, and even risky.
It’s important to keep in mind that it is not at all necessary to include your parents in your recovery from CEN. As an adult, you can identify what you didn’t get, and you can give it to yourself. I have seen many people go through this process with great success without ever including their parents.
That said, you may certainly feel a wish or need to reach some understanding about CEN with your parents. If so, it is very understandable that you might feel this way. If you are wondering about whether to talk to them, one extremely important factor to consider is the type of CEN parents that you have. Here are the three main categories:
Parents who are in the last two categories, Struggling or WMBNT stand a better chance of being able to get past their initial hurt, guilt or defensiveness to have a fruitful talk with their adult children about CEN. If your parents were in the Self-centered category, were abusive, or failed you in many other ways as well, see the section below called Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents.
First let’s look at some general suggestions to consider. Then we’ll talk about how to apply them to the different types of parents.
Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents
If you have parents who fall into one of these categories, then you are faced with a situation that is even more complex than those above. Unless your parents have changed and grown since your childhood, I am sorry to say that most likely they will not be able to grasp the CEN concept or to respond to you in any positive way.
For you, I offer one guiding principle that may be difficult for you to accept. But I stand by it, after having treated scores of CEN people with parents like this. Here it is:
Make the decision about whether to talk to your parents about CEN based solely upon your own needs. If you think it may strengthen you or make you feel better to talk with them, then do it. If not, then do not. You are not obligated to take your parent’s needs and preferences into account. On this, it’s all about you.
In other words, if you had an abusive or multiple-failure parent, you have carte blanche permission to do whatever you feel will benefit you in your life. You, your children and your spouse come first. You do not need to protect your parents from the knowledge that they failed you.
Parents who were abusive to you as a child, either verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually, are also, by definition, emotionally neglectful. If they had been emotionally attuned to you enough, they would not have been able to treat you this way. Also, if your parents were / are abusive in any way, then it may be of more value to talk with them about the abuse than about the neglect, since abuse is far more visible and tangible than CEN. Because CEN can be so imperceptible, and hides beneath abuse, it will be very difficult and unlikely for abusive parents to ever grasp the concept.
Unless your parents have been to therapy, have confronted their own issues and abusive ways and actively changed, (for example, an alcoholic or addicted parent who gets sober and goes to AA such that his/her personality becomes truly different) they will probably be no more able to hear you now than they could when you were a child.
So ask yourself, “If I talk to my parents about CEN, what are the possible outcomes?” Will they tell you that you are too sensitive, and that you are blowing things out of proportion? Will they blow up in anger? Will they likely say something abusive? Will they twist around what you are saying, and use it against you somehow?
If any of these are likely, I suggest that you put your energy toward healing yourself, and leave your parents out of it. It is extremely important, if you do decide to talk with them, that you do it with the understanding that you may need to protect yourself emotionally. Also it is vital that you be strong enough to not be emotionally damaged by their words or reactions. This is a tall order for anyone, but is especially so when you were raised by self-centered or abusive parents.
IN SUMMARY: It is certainly not necessary to talk to your parents about CEN. You can heal from it without ever doing so. Learning more about your parents’ childhoods and having compassion for them may help make their emotionally neglectful ways less painful to you now. However, sharing the concept of CEN with them can be helpful in some families, and may be a way for you to improve your relationship with them. Be sure to take into account the type of CEN parents that you have when making the decision to talk with them. Your path to healing is unique to you. There are no right or wrong answers. If you decide to talk with your parents about CEN, follow the tips and guidelines above, and proceed with care.
To learn much more about whether you should talk with your parents about CEN, how to do it, and how to cope if you can’t, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it’s different from emotional abuse, how it happens, and how to heal from it, see my book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Above all else, remember that your feelings are important and your needs are important. Yes, you matter.
Why are some folks’ holidays happier than others?
For the majority of people, there is a one-word answer to this question: Family.
Here’s what it all adds up to. If your family is healthy and warm, chances are, you will experience a healthy, warm holiday season without having to give it much thought.
If your family is clearly dysfunctional, chances are you will be expecting a challenging and stressful holiday season, and chances are, you will unfortunately have that. If you are in this group, you can find some good ideas and tips for the holidays HERE.
Then there’s a whole, large, Third Group. The Third Group is made up of people who come from a family which is neither healthy and warm, nor dysfunctional. A family which falls somewhere in-between. A family which perhaps appears to be normal and fine, but which lacks some essential ingredient that makes its members feel loved, connected and happy. These families are a set-up for high expectations, followed by dashed hopes, disappointment, and feelings of emptiness. People in the Third Group fall between the cracks. No one thinks or writes about your dilemma. Don’t worry, I am here to help!
In my experience as a psychologist, I have realized that the majority of people who are from these Third Group families are unaware that they are not from healthy and warm families. When your family lacks enough emotional connection and validation, it is not something that you can readily see or notice. The absence of an invisible entity is doubly invisible. So these Third Group people experience the ultimate set-up. High expectations — dashed hopes — puzzlement about why they’re not feeling joyous. After all, there’s no visible explanation.
If you think you may be from a Third Group Family, here are some:
Tips for a Happy Holiday Season
This is the month that makes us all go a little mad. You know what I mean. This morning is a perfect example. I woke up to sunny skies offering a brightness that hints of Spring to come. Now, two hours later, it’s cloudy. The winds have picked up, and I really don’t want to go outside. Weary of winter, brown, dingy remnants of the most recent snowstorm, not a lot going on in general. That’s March.
I have found that March is particularly challenging for one particular group of people. To determine whether you are a member of this group, please answer these questions about yourself in general before reading on:
You may be wondering what all these questions have in common, so let me explain. There is a subset of the population who feel pressure to stay busy all the time. Be productive, move around, don’t sit still. I have come to realize that there is a surprising explanation for this particular mindset. It’s not society, technology, inner resourcefulness or drive. It’s actually Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Here’s how it works. When you grow up in a household that’s blind to emotion, you don’t learn the skills necessary to accept, identify tune in to, or express your own emotions. Emotions which aren’t dealt with and managed go underground, pooling together inside of you like a pot of soup. This “soup” simmers away outside of your awareness. Out of sight, out of mind. As long as you stay busy, driven, focused on things, distracted, you don’t have to feel those feelings. But it’s those alone moments when there is nothing to distract you that the feelings start to bubble up. I have seen this lead to great discomfort in many people; a feeling of restlessness and discontent that is difficult to sit with.
This is what makes March a particularly difficult month for the emotionally neglected. When we’re trapped inside, suspended between winter and spring, we are forced to sit with ourselves. It is a challenge which we can either run from or face. I say, let’s take it on.
My book Running on Empty has 3 chapters dedicated solely to helping emotionally neglected people learn to tolerate, accept, name, manage, and express emotion. Here I’m going to share with you an exercise that I often assign to my emotionally neglected patients. It’s designed specially to help you learn to tolerate your pot of soup, a skill that will help make your life more peaceful, calm and emotionally connected.
Identifying & Naming Exercise
Do this exercise once per day. You can start with three minutes, or one minute, or ten minutes, depending on how difficult it is for you. You decide what’s most workable for you to start with:
Step 1: Close your eyes. Picture a blank screen that takes over your mind, banishing all thoughts. Focus all of your attention on the screen, turning your attention inward.
Step 2: Ask yourself the question:
“What am I feeling right now?”
Step 3: Focus on your internal experience. Be aware of any thoughts that might pop into your head, and erase them quickly. Keep your focus on:
“What am I feeling right now?”
Step 4: Try to identify feeling words to express it. You may need more than one word.
Step 5: If you’re having difficulty identifying any feelings, you can google “Feeling Word List,” or use the Feeling Word List in the Resources section of Running on Empty to help you identify what you are feeling.
If you find this exercise impossible, don’t be upset! Many E.N. people have great difficulty with this exercise. Simply try this instead:
Here, you are using Step 1 as an exercise to learn how to sit with yourself and your feelings and tolerate them. Do this as many times per day as you can. The more you do it, the better you will get at it. At some point, you will be ready to go back and try Steps 2 through 5 again, and it will be easier this time.
Bottom Line: Emotions are a useful, vital, biological part of who we are. They cannot be erased, and they will not be denied. We can make them our friends or our enemies, but we cannot run from them. If you’ve been running from your feelings, turn around and face them. Learn to sit with them, express them, manage them, and use them to make decisions. Allow them to enrich and enliven your life, and you will feel more connected, more fulfilled, stronger and overall happier in the end.
Put an end to your March Madness.
“Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”
Stupid, sappy, mushy, melodramatic, insipid, tiresome, wimpy, lame. These are all words that I have heard people use to describe their own emotions.
As a psychologist, I see in our society a poor tolerance for something that is a deeply personal, biological part of who we are as humans: our emotions. Indeed, if you grew up in one of the many, many households where emotion was discouraged or poorly tolerated (Childhood Emotional Neglect), you may now, as an adult, have a negative connotation to feelings of all kinds. You may see emotion as a sign of weakness. You may hide your feelings from yourself and others; even the people you care about the most. You may regard the expression or sharing of feelings as maudlin, illogical, or just plain useless. You may have no idea what you feel or why because you have buried your emotions so deeply, even from yourself.
Why did emotion evolve in the first place? Sometimes, especially to emotionally neglected people, emotions feel like a burden. Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to feel sad when we had a conflict with a friend, angry when someone cuts us off in traffic, or anxious before a job interview? On the surface, maybe it would seem easier if we didn’t have to feel those things. But my belief is that if we didn’t have emotions, life would not be better. In fact, it would not be sustainable.
Emotion is necessary for survival. Emotions tell us when we are in danger and when to run, when to fight, and what is worth fighting for. Emotions are our body’s way of communicating with us and driving us to do things. Here are some examples of the purposes of just a few emotions:
|FEAR||tells us to escape/self-preservation|
|ANGER||pushes us to fight back/self-protection|
|LOVE||drives us to care for spouse, children, others|
|PASSION||drives us to procreate, create and invent|
|HURT||pushes us to correct a situation|
|SADNESS||tells us we are losing something important|
|COMPASSION||pushes us to help others|
|DISGUST||tells us to avoid something|
|CURIOSITY||drives us to explore and learn|
You get the idea. For every emotion, there is a purpose. Emotions are incredibly useful tools to help us adapt, survive and thrive. People who were emotionally neglected were trained to try to erase, deny, push underground, and in some cases, be ashamed of, this invaluable built-in feedback system. Because they are not listening to their emotions, they are operating at a disadvantage from the rest of us. Pushing away this vital source of information makes you vulnerable and potentially less productive. It also makes it harder to experience life to its fullest.
Emotions do more, though, than drive us to do things. They also feed the human connections that give life the depth and richness that makes it worthwhile. It is this depth and richness which I believe provides the best answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Emotional connections to others help us stave off feelings of emptiness as well as existential angst.
If you have spent a lifetime trying to deny your natural, biological emotional responses, you may at times feel disconnected, empty, or unfulfilled in life. The people who love you may find you distant, self-contained, or even arrogant. You may find yourself irritable or angry more often than you would like.
If any of this rings a bell to you, please read more about Emotional Neglect throughout this website. There is much more information about it in my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. In the book, I talk about the many forms that Emotional Neglect can take, the 12 types of parents who unwittingly emotionally neglect their child and the 10 issues that emotionally neglected children struggle with as adults. I also offer six clear strategies for overcoming Emotional Neglect.
To learn how to use and share your emotions to enrich, deepen and strengthen your relationships, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.