“Scott, I feel uncomfortable at parties sometimes when you tell a story real loud. I know you’re not doing it on purpose, but it embarrasses me. Can you try not to talk so loud?” Andrea said to her husband.
Immediately, Scott’s face turned red. He felt a combination of shock, rage and hurt. “I-I-I-,” he stuttered. Then he ran down the steps to the basement, slamming the door behind him. Downstairs, he turned his music up as loudly as he could and started lifting weights furiously.
“So now that I’ve explained all the great strengths you bring to the job, Rebecca, there is one thing I’d like you to try to improve over the next year,” her supervisor said as they discussed Rebecca’s 6-month job evaluation. “I want you to work on giving your direct reports more clear feedback about their performance.”
As her supervisor explained that she wasn’t challenging her employees enough, Rebecca’s field of vision literally went blank. Her thoughts were swirling so quickly in her head that she barely heard anything else her boss said. “How can she say that?! I just gave someone feedback yesterday. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’m going to start looking for a new job.”
Do you identify with Scott or Rebecca? Is it especially difficult for you to hear negative comments about yourself, your actions or your performance, even from people who you know deep down have your best interests in mind?
These four character traits are all hallmarks of one common childhood experience. In fact, they are essentially the footprint of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Growing up in a family that does not address the feelings of its members (the definition of CEN) leaves the children to move into, and through, adulthood lacking some vital skills.
How can you learn who you are when the deepest expression of that, your feelings, are ignored by your parents as they raise you?
How can you have empathy for yourself when your parents were unable to show you compassion and empathy while they raised you?
How can you learn how to manage your emotions when your emotions were ignored in your childhood home?
How can you know how to speak your truth when, as a child, your truth was not accepted by your parents?
Before you start to think it is too late for you, I want to assure you that it is absolutely not.
You can begin to work on thinking of criticism in a new way: like someone’s opinion, which may or may not be true, and may or may not be useful to you. You can realize that criticism is often a useful and valuable way to become a stronger and better person.
You can start to pay more attention to the best source of strength, purpose, connection, validation and direction available to you, your feelings.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and the struggles it leaves you with throughout your adulthood, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, available in bookstores and online everywhere.
Most people who grew up with CEN have no idea that it happened. To find out if you grew up with CEN, visit EmotionalNeglect.com and take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
I have noticed that there is a great deal of confusion between the four common challenges listed in the title. Sometimes people ask me if they are all the same.
The differences can be subtle and there can be overlap, yes. But they are all indeed different in some very specific ways. Ways that are important to understand as you think about your own view of, and feelings about, yourself.
So let’s start with a little “quiz.” As you read the descriptions below, see if you can identify which person has low self-esteem, which has low self-worth, who has low self-confidence, and who has low self-awareness.
Then read on to see if you identified them correctly, and also to learn much more about each of these common struggles.
Jenny sits on the couch in the lobby waiting to be called for her job interview to begin. On the outside, she appears calm and composed. On the inside, she is desperately trying to manage her anxiety and stop the thoughts that are racing through her head.
What if I say the wrong thing? What if they see right through me? I might blow this. I don’t belong here. Around and around those thoughts go, feeding her anxiety.
Dwight wakes up at 11:00 this Saturday morning. Lying in bed, he thinks about going straight to the gym to make sure he gets in a workout today. But a dark feeling creeps over him, and he realizes he has already lost this battle. He rolls over and goes back to sleep, wanting to escape this crappy feeling.
Molly sits with her friends at a restaurant as they all discuss the win/loss record of the Red Sox and whether they are likely to do well this year. As her friends throw around game stats, players’ names and batting averages, she quietly feels mortified. “I can’t even remember the players’ names, much less all these stats. They are all so much smarter than I am.”
Andy, receiving his 6-month evaluation at his new job, hears his boss say the words, “Your skills with Excel spreadsheets could use some improvement. I’m sending you to an Excel training next week.” His head reeling, he misses the rest of the feedback he receives. He is thinking, “I might as well quit now. This is obviously not the right job for me.”
Now that you have read the experience of Jenny, Dwight, Molly, and Andy above, let’s see how accurately you were able to identify the dilemma of each.
Self-Confidence — Jenny
Jenny’s anxiety is not actually about the job interview. It is about herself. Deep down, Jenny does not believe that she has the ability to present herself well in the interview. She is doubting her own ability and skills. Self-confidence is how much you truly believe in yourself and what you can do.
Self-Worth — Dwight
Dwight knows that he should go to the gym, and he also wants to do so. Surprisingly, that dark feeling that creeps over him is not depression or sadness or grief. It is actually a deep feeling that he is not worth the time, effort and energy that would be necessary to get to the gym. Self-worth is your deeply held feeling about your own value as a person.
Self-Esteem — Molly
Molly feels inferior to her friends as they talk about the facts and statistics of baseball. This is an expression of her low self-esteem. Molly has no idea that she is every bit as intelligent and interesting as the people at the table; she simply knows less about baseball because she is not a fan of the sport. Self-esteem is the way you feel about yourself in different areas, like intelligence, personality, appearance, and success.
Self-Knowledge — Andy
Andy was given lots of good feedback in his evaluation, but he was knocked off his game by the one, small, negative comment he heard. Andy was very hurt by the one small negative statement because he does not know what his strengths and weaknesses are. He doesn’t realize that he brings multiple other strengths to this job that outweigh his lack of experience with Excel. Self-knowledge is how well you know your own abilities, talents, capabilities, preferences, likes and dislikes, wants and needs.
In my work as a therapist for over 20 years I have clearly seen the main factor that prevents good, strong people from seeing, believing, and owning what is so good and strong about them. It is this:
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Being raised by parents who fail to see, value, and validate your deepest, truest self — your emotions — enough.
When your parents don’t see your feelings, even if it’s not done maliciously, they fail to see the real you. If they don’t see you, they can’t really know you. If they don’t know you, their love won’t feel deep and real.
I have seen over and over again three very relevant things. First, most people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect have no idea that it happened to them. Second, most of those people continue the neglect by emotionally neglecting themselves. And third, if you don’t see and nurture yourself emotionally, you are very vulnerable to low self-confidence, esteem, worth, and knowledge.
Yes, believe it or not, there is one! Now that you are aware of what might be wrong, you are on the path to healing it. By learning to treat your feelings and yourself differently you can change how you feel about yourself in very profound ways. This is the path to healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, why you may not be aware of it, and how to reverse it, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To find out if you grew up with Emotional Neglect Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn how to heal your adult relationships from Emotional Neglect see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
“Lingering, bottled-up anger never reveals the ‘true colors’ of an individual. It, on the contrary, becomes all mixed up, rotten, confused, forms a highly combustible, chemical compound, then explodes as something foreign, something very different, than one’s natural self.”
― Criss Jami, Healology
“Passive aggressive behavior is counterproductive. Communication is key to a healthy personal and work relationship.”
― Izey Victoria Odiase
“Being marked by, or displaying, behavior characterized by the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way (as through procrastination and stubbornness)” — Merriam-Webster dictionary
All of the events above happen to everyone often, of course. And they are not necessarily examples of passive-aggression unless they are accompanied by, or an expression of, one key factor. Anger.
So now, I ask you to re-read the list above but add the phrase “out of anger, to punish someone” at the end of each one. These common, everyday behaviors now become ideal examples of passive-aggression.
We are all born with the emotion of anger wired into us for a reason. It is a feeling that is essential to our survival.
Feelings of anger are nothing more than messages from your body. When you feel angry, your body is saying, “Watch out! Pay attention! Someone or something is threatening or hurting you! You need to protect yourself!”
That’s why anger has a motivational component to it. Anger is an emotion with energy built into it. Think about how anger is often described as fire or passion. It’s an emotion that pushes you to take action.
Legions of children grow up in homes that are intolerant of their anger. Every day, emotionally unaware parents ignore their children’s anger, trump it with their own anger, or send them their children to their rooms for expressing anger. These are all examples of Childhood Emotional Neglect in action.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when parents fail to notice, respond or validate their child’s feelings enough.
When you grow up in a home that treats your anger this way, your developing brain and body absorb a powerful and damaging lesson: Your anger is useless, excessive or bad.
As a child, probably without your knowledge, your brain does what is necessary to protect you. It blocks your feelings of anger from reaching your awareness. It virtually walls them off to protect you from this “useless, bad, excessive” force from within you.
What happens then? Several unfortunate things.
Anger must be felt, understood, listened to and, in many situations, expressed before it goes away. Imagine what happens inside of you when so much fire and energy is left to fester in your body.
The very thing that is meant to empower and protect you instead saps your energy and leaves you more vulnerable. This is not what nature intended.
Unprocessed, walled-off, fomenting anger has a way of finding its way to the surface. This is what puts those who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect(CEN) at greater risk than others for behaving passive aggressively.
Believing that your anger is irrelevant and that it is wrong to express it, plus not knowing even how to do so even if you chose to do it, leaves you essentially at its mercy.
So what does a CEN adult do when a friend hurts his feelings, when she’s not given a salary raise she deserves, or when he feels targeted or mistreated? What does a CEN adult do when she senses a conflict brewing or walks into a room where one is already happening?
The answer is, avoid. Avoid letting your anger show, avoid saying anything, avoid the person who has hurt you, or avoid by leaving the room.
But, as we know, this does not make your anger go away. It will now leak around the edges of the block and come out in ways you never expected, possibly at people who do not deserve it. Just like the 6 ways described above or an infinite number of others. And, worst of all, you may not even realize that it’s happening. But many, many other people may.
If you see yourself, or someone close to you in this post, do not worry. There are answers. It is possible to become less passive-aggressive!
The process of becoming less passive-aggressive is actually a process of healing yourself. It involves looking inward instead of outward and accepting the most deeply personal expression of who you are: your emotions.
This process may sound hard, but you can do it. Just as thousands of people before you have already done, you can take the steps and walk the path. You can honor your feelings, and yourself, in a way that you never knew was possible. You can learn to express how you feel.
Childhood emotional neglect in a family dwells in the echoes of what’s not said, what’s not asked, and what’s not done.
In my work as a psychologist, I have seen how the absence of meaningful talk about feelings and a shortage of personal questions in a family can leave its children with an internal emotional block. These children grow up to be adults who had something vital robbed from them in childhood. And very, very few of them even know it was taken or that it’s now missing.
It’s their voice.
Not literally, of course! Most emotionally neglected people have plenty to say and they say it. They are quick to say things like:
How are you?
Is something wrong?
I’m happy to take on that task. Go ahead and assign it to me.
Sure, I’ll do that favor for you.
I don’t need any help.
All’s well here!
While all of the above may seem like a random collection of statements, they all share a common theme. They are all about “you” and none about “me.” They are all made frequently by people with childhood emotional neglect. They convey the life stance of those who grew up with their emotions ignored.
If you are ever around a typical infant, then you are familiar with the infant’s voice. All the way from birth through the age of 2 or 3 they express themselves very freely. Before they have words, they cry or giggle to communicate what they feel. As they get a little older, they point and say nonsense words. They yell and point out the car window and say, “Truck!” as soon as they know how to say it.
My point is that children are born with a voice that they are innately wired to use. What a baby feels and thinks has no filter. It comes out automatically and immediately.
But sadly, too many children must start filtering their voices all too much and all too soon.
Imagine being an older child who gets your feelings hurt (as all children inevitably do). Your face and body language show your feelings very clearly for all to see. But your parents go on as if everything is fine. They don’t even seem to notice.
Imagine going to your parent for help, but, too often, for whatever reason, they are not responsive.
Imagine walking through every day of your life as a child seldom being asked personal questions by your parents. Questions like:
What are you sad about?
Did something happen at school today to get you upset?
Is this scary for you?
What do you want?
What do you feel?
What do you need?
When you don’t get asked these questions enough, it is natural for your developing brain to assume that your personal feelings, wants and needs do not matter. After some time, you learn that you may as well not express them because no one really cares anyway.
Imagine going through every day of your life as a child receiving little feedback about who you are. Feedback such as:
You are amazing at math. But we need to put some time into increasing our vocabulary.
You seem to get bored and distracted at baseball practice.
You have a great sense of humor!
Your temper gets the best of you sometimes.
You’re my little pizza lover.
You like to help others. It’s so sweet to see.
I love how you want to make the people around you laugh.
You seem to be unhappy when your friend _______ is here.
When you don’t hear these observations and feedback enough, you don’t get to learn two vital things that you are meant to learn in childhood:
You don’t get to learn who you really are
And you do not find out that you are worth knowing.
This is how, growing up in a family that did not notice, validate, or show interest in you enough, you learned that your feelings do not matter.
It is how, bereft of enough emotional response and care, you learned that you should keep your true self under wraps.
This is how, by asking for things and having your words enter an empty void, you learned that it hurts to speak up.
It is how childhood emotional neglect took your voice away.
You were born with a strong voice, but your childhood took it away. So, you do not now need to create a new voice, you just need to recapture what you once had. Your voice is there, inside of you, waiting to be reclaimed.
Just as each time you speak up makes the next time easier; each time you pay attention to that small, quiet child within, you send him or her a powerful message.
By doing the opposite of what your parents did, by providing for yourself what they couldn’t give, you are validating who you are, and listening to what you need. You are saying to yourself and that silent little child within You Do Matter.
What do people do when they know that they matter? They express their feelings, their desires, and their needs. They speak up when needed to protect themselves.
What will you do when you realize that you matter? You will learn to speak your truth.
You will take your voice back.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN can be subtle and invisible so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and how to recover from it, see my books Running Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships and Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect