Category Archives for "Coping"

Stressful Family? 10 Mantras to Get You Through the Holidays

Is your family happy and supportive? Are your holiday family gatherings warm, loving and festive? If so, that is wonderful. And you can stop reading this article now.

Is your family complicated? Do you often feel hurt, pained, disappointed, damaged, or let down when your family is together? If so, this article is for you. Never fear, help is here. (For more about painful family dynamics, take a look at last week’s article, 4 Subtle Family Dynamics That Can Ruin Your Holidays.)

No, of course we can’t fix your family issues before this year’s holiday gathering. But we can give you some new tools to get you through it. One of the most powerful tools to cope with a painful family is a mantra. It’s a sentence that you repeat inside your head over and over throughout the day. You can call upon it whenever you need to feel calmer and stronger.  It serves to remind you what’s really going on in your family. It focuses your attention, and it provides you with the strength and resolve to get you through the day.

While going through the list below, choose the one that feels most right to you. It should be one that you can feel in your gut. It should make you feel a little stronger as you say it.

Here are Ten Mantras to choose from:Continue reading

4 Subtle Family Dynamics That Can Ruin Your Holidays

Do you look forward to seeing your family at the holidays, but then often come away feeling vaguely disappointed, confused, angry or guilty?

If this is true of you, then you need answers to what is truly going on in your family.  And you need them quickly since The Holidays are here. Is it possible to make this year’s family gathering less disappointing?

Yes.

As a psychologist I have found that as adults, family dynamics have the power to make or break our holidays. And that family dynamics have the most power when they run under the surface, unseen and unknown by the family members themselves.

The bad news: it is often very difficult to change your family dynamics. The good news: it is usually not necessary to change them. Being able to see what is really going on between family members is enough to make you less vulnerable.

Here are Four Subtle Family Dynamics that can ruin your holidays:Continue reading

Eight Step Method to Manage Intense Emotion

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 that 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:

  1. In the Moment: Coping
  2. The Long-Term: Resolving

Next week’s article will be about Level 2: Long-Term Resolving. So check back!

Continue reading

Childhood Emotional Neglect: Real People, Real Stories

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

Robin Williams and Childhood Emotional Neglect

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

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Can Make You an Avoidant Adult

You shy away from the limelight. You stay out of trouble. You prefer to stay out of the way. You try not to make waves.

Of all of the kinds of anxiety people can experience, avoidance is probably one of the least studied and least talked about. I think that’s probably because avoidant folks are quiet. They do stay out of the way and they do not tend to make waves.

But, the reality is, avoidance is a serious problem to live with. Take a look at the characteristics of avoidance below. These are some of the symptoms listed in the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to identify Avoidant Personality Disorder. Please note that these are not a full description of Avoidant Personality. Do not attempt to use these symptoms to diagnose yourself or someone else. Only a licensed mental health professional is qualified to make a diagnosis.

  • Secretly feeling inferior to others, and struggling with shame
  • Reluctance to pursue goals, take risks or meet new people
  • High sensitivity to criticism, and fear of rejection
  • Assuming that others see you in a negative light
  • Trying not to get too close to people
  • You suspect that you enjoy things less than other people do
  • Often having anxiety in social situations

You may read through the list above and feel that you are reading about yourself. Even if you answer yes to only some of the items above, it means that you may have an “avoidant style.”

Many people are living their lives with Avoidant Personality disorder. And many, many more folks have an avoidant style. Most avoidant folks fight their own private battles on their own, secretly and quietly.

It is very possible to suffer silently with an intense fear of rejection, closeness, or social situations but still soldier on, essentially unimpaired on the outside, but miserable on the inside.

Now let’s talk about you. Do you see yourself in this description of avoidance? We will talk more about avoidance in a moment. But first, we must discuss Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Because I have seen a remarkable connection between Childhood Emotional Neglect and avoidant tendencies in adults.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): When your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions and emotional needs.

What happens to a child whose parents too seldom say, “What’s wrong?” and then listen with care to their answer. How does it affect a child to have parents who are blind to what they are feeling? Parents who, through probably no fault of their own, fail to offer emotional support, or fail to truly see the child for who she is?

Childhood Emotional Neglect teaches you, the child, to avoid feeling, expressing, and needing. You are learning to avoid the very thing that makes you the most real and the most human: your emotions.

When you grow up this way, you grow up feeling invisible, and believing that your emotions and emotional needs are irrelevant. You grow up feeling that your emotional needs should not exist and are a sign of weakness. You grow up to feel ashamed that you have feelings and needs at all.

CEN is a breeding ground for shame, low self-worth, and yes, avoidance.

Five Important Points About Avoidance

  1. Avoidance is actually nothing more than a coping mechanism. If you avoid something that scares you, you do not have to deal with it. That feels like success.
  2. You developed this coping mechanism for a reason in your childhood. You needed it, and it probably, in some way, served you well in your childhood home. It may have been the only coping mechanism you could learn if no one was helping you learn other, more effective ways of coping.
  3. When you use avoidance enough as a way to cope, it eventually becomes your “signature move.” It becomes a solution that you go to over and over again. It becomes your style.
  4. Avoidance feeds fear. The more you avoid what you fear, the more you fear it. Then the more you avoid it. And so on and so on and so on, around and around it goes in an endless circle, growing ever larger.
  5. All of the symptoms of avoidance you saw at the beginning of this article have one common denominator that drives them. It’s a feeling and also a belief. It is this: a deep, powerful feeling that you are not as valid as everyone else. Somehow, on some level, you just don’t matter as much. This is one of the prime consequences of Childhood Emotional Neglect. (I call it The Fatal Flaw.)

It is very difficult to take on challenges in life when you don’t believe in yourself. It’s hard to be vulnerable in relationships when you don’t feel on equal footing with the other person. It’s hard to put yourself out there when you feel so secretly flawed.

This is why you must not let avoidance run your life. You must turn around and face it. Not later. Not tomorrow. But now.

You Can Become Less Avoidant

  1. Answer this question for yourself: What did you need to avoid in your childhood home?
  2. Accept that your avoidance is a coping mechanism that can be replaced by far better, healthier coping skills.
  3. Start observing yourself. Make it your mission to notice every time you avoid something. Start a list, and record every incident. Awareness is a vital first step.
  4. Look through the list, and notice the themes. Is there a trend toward avoiding social situations? Risks? Goals? Feelings? Needs?
  5. Start, little by little, one-step-at-a-time, facing things. How pervasive is your avoidance? If it is everywhere of everything, I urge you to seek a therapist’s help. If you have success on your own, be persistent. Don’t give up, no matter how hard it gets.
  6. Learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect. To find out whether CEN was a part of your childhood, I invite you to take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

The more you face things, the less scary they become, and the easier they become to face again, and the more you face. And so on and so on and so on, around and around it goes in an endless circle, growing ever larger.

But this circle is a healthy, strong one that is a reversal of the circle of avoidance that began in your childhood. This circle will take you somewhere healthy and positive and good.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and how it causes avoidance, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Why Some People Can’t Change. 5 Ways to Move Forward

There’s no such thing as standing still in life. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.

Do you ever wonder why some people seem to identify a problem in their lives, decide they want to change themselves, and start changing, whereas others don’t seem to be able to take positive steps like that?

Some folks seem to stay stuck no matter how hard they try. They might read self-help books, talk to friends and family, go to therapy, or even see multiple therapists. But nevertheless, their issues don’t seem to improve much.

If this is someone you care about, you might watch helplessly from the sidelines as they continue to be their own worst enemy. They may seem to be repeating patterns that are self-destructive, unable to hear or take others’ advice, or distant and unreachable. It is painful to watch.

It’s even more painful when it’s you, and you are watching yourself live this way.

In my 20 years of experience as a psychologist, I’ve identified six personal traits that can stymie and stall even the most deserving and lovable people. The last one, number 6, is the least recognized and, I think, the most powerful obstacle of all.

6 Obstacles to Growth

1. You Can’t See the Path.

When you’ve spent years living a certain way, that way becomes your reality and your worldview. Other people seem to be living on a different planet, and you can’t understand how they got there. It’s hard to attain something that you can’t even imagine.

2. You are Walled Off From Your Feelings.

If you grew up in a family that devalued or discounted your feelings (Childhood Emotional Neglect), then you likely learned that your emotions are useless or a burden. You probably walled off your feelings as a child and have been living for years without full access to the richness and guidance they should have been providing in your life. 

Although the wall blocking your feelings may have been necessary for your childhood, it now blocks out a vital source of information for making good, authentic choices for your life; it also holds at a distance the people who could help you the most. You may find it difficult to trust the people who could be supporting you. You find yourself “safe” but alone; trapped within walls that are holding you back.

3. You are Comfortably Uncomfortable.

Self-destructive or damaging life patterns can be so entrenched that they’ve become a part of who you are. No matter what’s wrong in your life, you can get accustomed to it. Our brains store life patterns, and we have a natural tendency to settle into them. We are who we are, and on some level, we get comfortable with that, even if it makes us miserable. The idea of changing can feel very discomfiting and scary. It feels easier and safer to choose “the devil you know.”

4. You are Depressed.

Depression interferes with growth in three important ways. It saps your energy and motivation, which makes it harder to take on a challenge; it makes you isolate yourself so that you have less support to change, and it makes you feel hopeless, so there seems no point in trying to change.

5. You are Angry at Yourself.

Self-directed anger has a way of breaking you down. Like drops of water on a stone, there is a gradual erosion of your self-worth. How can you change when you don’t feel you’re worth the effort it requires?

And now for the big one.

6. Your Past Mistakes or Misdeeds. 

In order to truly change, you have to acknowledge and face your own painful history. Who have you hurt? What damage have you done to yourself or others? The guilt and pain that can result from looking at the past is a powerful force that can hold back even the most courageous people. I have seen that this factor alone is a tremendous obstacle in the recovery of anyone who has a personality disorder, or any other long-standing destructive life pattern.

If you catch even a glimpse of how your past choices or mistakes have affected others, it may be so painful and guilt-inducing that you immediately look away. And there you are, right back where you started.

What to do? Don’t feel helpless! You’re not. Read on below.

5 Essential Ingredients for Personal Change

  • Motivation
  • Enough discomfort with how things are now
  • Persistence
  • Willingness to face painful events and feelings
  • Support

What to Do

  1. Read the list of obstacles, and think about which one (or ones) applies to you.
  2. Is “walled off” on your list? This one must be overcome first. Your walls are keeping you away from the support that you need. So start trying to let at least one helpful person in.
  3. Think through all the ins and outs of how your destructive pattern is harming your life. If you get pangs of pain or guilt, remind yourself that you are human and that all humans are fallible. Treat yourself with kindness and take your time, but do everything you can to face the pain.
  4. Know that there is a path to a better place. The more you accept support and face your pain, the more clearly you will see your path.
  5. Put one foot in front of the other. Move forward.

One step at a time.

To learn much more about how your childhood wall may be blocking you from growing now, plus how to accept, manage and face your feelings and mistakes, see the book, Running on Empty.

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

This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.

4 Ways You Can Use Your Anger to Make Yourself More Powerful

Of all human emotions, the one that people struggle with the most is anger. That’s understandable!

After all, it’s the emotion with the most potential to get us into trouble. It can be exquisitely uncomfortable, and it’s the most difficult to control.

Many people find it easier to push anger down altogether (or suppress it) to avoid discomfort and conflict and to stay out of trouble.

Some wear anger like armor in hopes it will protect them from being hurt or mistreated.

Others go back and forth between pushing it down and erupting. In fact, these two things go together. The more you suppress your anger, the more intense it will be when it finally erupts.

If you were raised by parents who had low tolerance for your feelings (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), then you may be all too good at pushing your anger away; suppressing it and repressing it so that you don’t even have to feel it.

In fact, you may – especially if you have CEN – be so uncomfortable with the A-Word that you can’t even say it.

I’m frustrated

I’m annoyed

I’m anxious

you may say instead of, I’m angry.

If you’re not comfortable with your anger, you’re more likely to misread and mislabel it as something milder or more diffuse.

“Isn’t stopping yourself from feeling angry a good skill to have?” you may be wondering.

The answer is actually NO.

Research has shown how very important anger is to living a healthy life.

4 Reasons to Make Friends With Your Anger

  1. Anger is a beautiful motivator

Aarts et al. (2010) found that people who were shown a picture of an angry face were more driven to obtain an object that they were shown later. Anger is like a driver that pushes you to strive for what you want or need. Anger carries with it the message, “Act!”

Example Without Anger: Alana was getting weary of being overlooked at work. She was well-known to be skilled and reliable, and yet she was repeatedly passed over for promotion to manager. Silently she watched younger, less experienced employees move past her, one by one.

Example With Anger: Alana became angry when a less-experienced colleague was promoted. “I deserve an explanation for this. I have to get myself promoted or leave the company,” she realized. The next day she walked into her supervisor’s office and asked why she was passed over. She was promised the next promotion slot.

2. Anger can make your relationship better and stronger

Anger, when used appropriately, can be very helpful in communication:

Baumeister et al. (1990) found that hiding anger in intimate relationships can be detrimental. When you hide your anger from your partner, you’re bypassing an important message that he or she may very much need to hear.

Of course, it’s important to take great care in how you express your anger. Try your best to calibrate it to the situation and express it with as much compassion for your partner as you can.

Example Without Anger: Lance was tired of his wife Joanne’s clutter. She kept, it seemed to Lance, virtually everything. There were stacks of newspapers on the dining room table, five pairs of sneakers of various ages in their closet, and a roomful of clothes that their children had outgrown. Lance wanted that room for an office. “I’ll never get that room,” he thought resignedly. All this time Joanne had no idea that there was a problem.

Example With Anger: Lance was fed up with the clutter. He told Joanne that it was making him feel stressed and unhappy, and also angry at her. After several heated discussions, Joanne removed her personal clutter from the spare room so that Lance could make it his office. They made a truce to try to meet each other in the middle.

3. Anger can help you better understand yourself

Anger can provide insight into ourselves if we allow it.

Kassinove et al. (1997) asked a large sample of people how recent outbursts of anger had affected them. Fifty-five percent said that getting angry had led to a positive outcome. Many respondents said that the anger episode had provided them with some insight into their own faults.

Anger can help you see yourself more clearly. And it can motivate self-change.

Example Without Anger: Joanne was surprised when Lance told her how angry her clutter was making him. “That’s too bad, you’ll just have to deal with it,” she said dully while exiting the room. She promptly put it out of her mind because she didn’t want to think about it.

Example With Anger: “That’s too bad, you’ll just have to deal with it,” Joanne fired back immediately. She stormed out of the room and slammed the bedroom door. Sitting on her bed she felt enraged and criticized.

The next day Joanne woke up with a different perspective on the conflict. She looked around and saw her home as though through Lance’s eyes. She realized that she felt criticized by Lance’s request. “I need to get better at taking criticism,” she thought.

4. Anger helps you negotiate

Anger can help you get what you want.

In a study of negotiation by Van Kleef et al. (2002), people made larger concessions and fewer demands of participants who were angry than ones who were not angry.

Anger makes you more powerful, especially when it’s justified and expressed with thought and care. Lets revisit Alana, who needed to have a difficult conversation with her supervisor.

Example Without Anger: Alana walked timidly into her supervisor’s office. After chatting about the weather, she said casually, “So what do I need to do to get promoted?” Her boss answered her question and went on with her day.

Example With Anger: Alana knew she was angry and that she needed to manage her anger when talking with her boss if she wanted to be effective. She walked into her boss’s office and said, “I need to talk to you about something important.” Alana explained how upset she was by her co-worker’s promotion. Her boss explained that the promoted co-worker was an excellent employee. This made Alana even angrier. She pushed, “Yes, he’s really good. But so am I, and I have more experience and excellent skills,” she stated clearly. Her boss paused, surprised at Alana’s persistence. “You’re right,” she said. Her boss then promised Alana the next available promotion.

If you grew up emotionally ignored or in an environment that did not have the room or tolerance for you to get angry (CEN), some small part of your brain probably screams “STOP!” as soon as you get an inkling of anger. The reality is that it’s not easy to turn that around.

But you can do it. Start thinking of anger as a helpful emotion, not something to avoid. Pay attention to your anger, and try to notice when you’re feeling it. Stop saying “STOP!” to your anger. Instead, listen to your anger’s message, consciously manage your angry feeling, and let your anger motivate and energize you.

Anger, when properly managed and expressed, is power.

So when you suppress your anger, you’re suppressing your power.

And why would you do that?

To learn more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect makes you unaware of your feelings of anger see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

5 Simple Steps to Learn Mindfulness That Really Work

Quite some years ago a colleague dragged me to a mindfulness training for mental health professionals. At that time, mindfulness was not considered a fully valid concept in psychology.

As a psychologist who valued science, I viewed it as nothing other than new age, mystical hippy nonsense. I anticipated a flaky conference, and I was not disappointed. At one point, they had us all stand up and mill about aimlessly while humming for 20 minutes. Then we had to ask and answer some very personal questions with the strangers next to us.

Ugh. Not my cup of tea.

Fast forward to 2021, where mindfulness and science have met and married. And oh, what a glorious union it is! Mindfulness studies have been pouring from many of the best researchers in the world for over a decade. And the meaning of mindfulness has matured from simply “being in the moment” to a richer, more complex definition.Continue reading

Childhood Emotional Neglect: How to Stop Your Fatal Flaw in its Tracks

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.

The 7 Key Effects of Your Fatal Flaw

  1. You are not in touch with your gut feelings, so you don’t trust your gut (even though for the majority of CEN folks, their gut is most often right).
  2. It undermines your confidence to take risks.
  3. It makes you uncomfortable in social situations.
  4. It keeps many of your relationships at a surface level.
  5. It makes you question the meaning and purpose of your life.
  6. It makes you fear that if people get to know you well, they won’t like what they see.
  7. Therefore you are quite fearful of rejection.

6 Ways to Take Control of Your Fatal Flaw

  1. Become aware of your Fatal Flaw: This will take away its power.
  2. Understand that your Fatal Flaw is not a real flaw. It’s only a feeling.
  3. A feeling can be managed, so start to manage it. Pay attention to when you feel it, and how it affects you.
  4. Put it into words and tell someone about it.
  5. Override it every time that you possibly can. Do the opposite of everything your Fatal Flaw tells you to do.
  6. Start breaking down the wall between you and your feelings. Welcome them as the vital source of information, guidance, and richness that they are (even the painful ones).

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.