How do you know when you are having a feeling?
As the pioneer of the concept and full theory of CEN — or Childhood Emotional Neglect — I receive hundreds of questions every week about CEN, what it means, how it works, its effects, and how to heal.
Many readers of my books and blogs have very personal, thoughtful observations and questions to share. In fact, I have learned quite a lot from receiving, reading, and answering them.
Of all those many questions there is one that I receive over and over and over again. And then again. And the next day, there it is again. I get it so often because it’s a key piece of the cause of CEN and a key building block for CEN healing too. In fact, it would be hard to overstate its importance.
How do you know when you are having a feeling?
My answer to this question is not quite as simple as most would like. It’s complicated by the fact that every human being is different.
Note: Any one of these signs is an alert that you are having a feeling. You do not need to have all three.
The 3 signs above will, hopefully, alert you to the possibility that you may be feeling something and that is an excellent start! But the signs will not tell you what you are feeling or what it means. To help you with that, I created an exercise to guide you. I first shared it in my book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s called The Identifying & Naming Exercise.
The Identifying and Naming Exercise
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, skim through the Feeling Word List in the Resources at the end of the Running On Empty book, and see if one or more words jump out at you.
Step 6: Once a word jumps out at you, say it out loud. “I feel ______.” Does it sound right when you say it? Does it feel right when you say it? Does it feel partially right but you need more words to describe it?
Step 7: When a feeling word seems like it may be accurate, you are ready to move on to the next step, which is trying to figure out why you are feeling that.
We will save Step 7 for another day because right now we’re trying to help you know when you’re feeling something. Learning the other feeling skills is easier once you have become more skilled at this first one.
Your emotions are literally physical sensations that reside in your body. When you fail to notice and acknowledge a feeling, it can become a physical problem for you or it can make you act in ways that may be undesirable or regrettable or simply confusing.
Learning how to identify when you are having a feeling is a vital skill for living a happy and healthy life. When you grow up in an emotionally neglectful family you sadly do not have the opportunity to learn it. In fact, you learn the opposite: how to ignore, deny, belittle, and block off your feelings.
Now, as the adult you are, you have the power to make some new choices for yourself. You can choose to focus, choose to learn and choose to feel.
You can choose to start valuing your feelings and using them to know and understand yourself better. You can start down the path of healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s never too early or too late to choose yourself.
Marc’s parents divorced when Marc was seven. From that point on, he was raised by his mother, with occasional “check-ins” by his father. Marc’s mother owned and managed a deli, and had to work long hours to support Marc and his two younger siblings. Marc hurried home from school to pick up his siblings at the bus stop, made dinner for them, and often was responsible for getting them to bed.
When Alise was nine, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As Alise grew into middle school and high school, her mother was at home, getting sicker and sicker. The more disabled her mother got, the more Alise picked up the slack at home. She cared for her mother, did the grocery shopping, and even fought with insurance companies over her mother’s medical needs.
There are many ways in which the child can become what therapists call, “parentified.” Addicted, depressed, financially pressured, physically ill, or bereaved parents are some examples.
Believe it or not, there is a silver lining to being parentified. Marc, for example, grew up to be a very responsible man. He worked his own way through college because he was determined to have a career. He didn’t want to struggle financially, as his mother did. Marc is now a giving, caring husband and father. He knows how to parent because he did it as a child.
Like Marc, Alise is also a very responsible adult. She’s a research scientist in the medical field. Alise is driven to find cures for incurable diseases, and she works long hours by choice to meet her passionate goal. She is a loving mother and wife. Alise is excellent at giving and care-taking, for her family and for the world. Because her childhood prepared her to be.
Yes, there are far worse things that one’s childhood can prepare her to be. In many ways, Marc and Alise are in an excellent position to live happy, productive lives.
However, there is a serious downside to being parentified.
Marc learned many lessons from his childhood. He works long hours and supports his family well. Yet as those around Marc thrive and grow, Marc does not. His wife, and the mother of his children, is an alcoholic. So while she repeatedly drinks, passes out, and drops the ball in caring for the children, Marc quietly picks up the slack. He tries and tries to help her get sober. He lives under a black cloud, and cannot see that he has simply re-created his childhood.
Alise is busy saving the world, and this is her blessing and her curse. She enjoys success and the love of her family, yet she grows more and more tired every day. Alise learned everything she needs to thrive in her childhood, except for one key thing. She did not learn that her needs are important. In fact, she didn’t learn that she even has needs. Alise lives under the same cloud as Marc. Each day she wonders what joy is. Each day she longs for what’s missing in her life.
If you were in the role of the parent as a child, your life is about to change. You are about to re-parent yourself in a way that you missed as a child. You’re going to start living as you were always meant to live and experiencing the joy, happiness, and care that you’ve always deserved.
To learn more about the parentified child as well as other forms of Childhood Emotional Neglect and how to heal from them, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free on this website.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral as When the Child Becomes the Parent. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.
Here are ten everyday habits that have been proven, in study after study, to make people happier. As you read the list, think about how often you practice each one:
A charity called Action for Happiness, in collaboration with another organization, Do Something Different, surveyed 5,000 people to determine how many people practice each of these habits on a regular basis.
Interestingly, in the sample of people surveyed, they found that one of the habits that makes the most powerful contribution to happiness was practiced the least:
Self-acceptance can be described as simply liking yourself. It requires forgiving yourself for your own mistakes and having compassion for yourself. Knowing who you are, your own strengths and weakness, and feeling deeply that, after it’s all added up, you are good enough.
In my 20 years of practicing psychology, two things have always been very clear to me. First, self-acceptance, or self-love, is not only a primary building block for happiness, but it’s also a requirement. And second, the huge majority of people who don’t have self-acceptance lack it for exactly one reason: they don’t know themselves.
And you can’t like and fully accept someone who you do not know.
In my experience, I’ve seen that the majority of people actually would like themselves, if they could actually see the full picture of who they are. But if your self-view is distorted, shallow or missing big pieces, then you are missing not only self-knowledge but also the opportunity for self-acceptance, the foundation for happiness.
Self-knowledge starts in childhood. Lucky children who are raised by parents who truly see them, notice their personalities, their preferences, their emotions, their needs, strengths, and weaknesses, learn who they are through their parents’ reactions to them. When this lucky child looks into his parents’ eyes, he sees his true self reflected there. Because his parent sees him and understands him realistically, he gets a realistic view of himself, and a true understanding of who he is.
Unfortunately, though, the world is full of parents who are too busy, too depressed, too addicted, too self-absorbed, too overwhelmed or too achievement-focused to actually see their children in this very real, truly meaningful way. Many of these parents are none of the above, but they simply are unaware of the emotions of themselves and their children, and end up emotionally neglecting them for that reason. Whatever the cause, these are families of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Many emotionally neglectful parents love their children and are good parents in many ways. But because they miss the “feeling” part of parenting, they simply lack the ability to fully see and know their child. Often, they are not able to do so because their own parents did not see or know them either. Typically, it’s no one’s fault, it just is.
Unfortunately, however, no matter the impediment on the part of the parent, the effect upon the child is the same. He grows up not seeing himself, not knowing himself. So how can he truly like himself? And how can he find true happiness?
If you’re not sure, or if you answered “No” to any of those three questions, it’s okay. Because this is one impediment to your happiness on which you can make great progress yourself.
And the answer is far simpler than you might think.
1. Pay attention to yourself.
2. Identify the things you don’t like about yourself. Are there areas in which you can self-improve? If you can change it to become a better person, set a goal to improve in that area. Self-improvement is likable. And trying is likable, even when you sometimes fail.
3. Have compassion for yourself. You are human, and you have faults and weaknesses, just like every other human being. Learn from every mistake you make, and give yourself credit for trying. Accept that you cannot be perfect.
4. Pay attention to what you feel, and why. Your emotions are the most deeply personal part of who you are. Take responsibility for your feelings. Judge yourself in the big picture, not for one small mistake, weakness or lapse.
Going through life without knowing yourself does plenty of harm to your ability to enjoy life. But since that lack of self-knowledge will chronically hold you back from self-acceptance, and therefore, happiness, it’s triply important to work on the Four Goals above.
After all, you have nothing to lose. And you have self-knowledge, self-love, and happiness to gain.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free!
A version of this article was originally posted on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of Psychcentral.
I’ve met many lovely people who have been excluded by their families. When I see them in my therapy office I help them figure out why they have been excluded, and it is almost never for the reasons they have always assumed.
In a recent post called Black Sheep, I talked about some common myths, and how excluded folks, or Black Sheep, are usually not what they appear to be.
Surprisingly, they are invariably a simple product of family dynamics. In other words, being excluded typically has little or nothing to do with the person being excluded. You’ve always thought it’s you, and it is not.
Since I will probably never be able to see you in my office, here are 3 important things that I want you to know:
First, let’s talk about the power of exclusion. We all tend to underestimate it.
But a study by O’Reilly, Robinson, and Berdahl, 2014 proved otherwise. These researchers compared the effects of workplace ostracism (being excluded or ignored) with bullying.
They found that office workers view ostracizing a co-worker as more socially acceptable than bullying him or her. But surprisingly, they found that ostracized workers suffer more than bullied ones. In fact, ostracized workers are actually more likely to leave their jobs than are their bullied colleagues.
If the exclusion is this harmful to adults in their workplace, imagine how it affects a vulnerable child in his family, during the time that his identity is developing.
Imagine how it affected you.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief that causes itself to come true. This happens because our belief influences our actions to the point that we bring the belief alive. Even when the belief is false, we make it come true simply by believing in it.
Self-fulfilling prophecy has a huge body of research supporting it, going all the way back to the 1950s. For example, it’s been scientifically proven that children whose teachers believe they are smarter than they are actually performed at a higher level.
The teachers treat the children as more intelligent, and the children respond to that treatment by making it so.
Imagine how this process works in the family of a Black Sheep.
You are a child, and your family believes that you are strange, or difficult, or different or inferior. So they treat you that way. You, an innocent child, respond to the way that you are being treated. You may start to act like you are strange, difficult, different or inferior. If this goes on long enough, you may become who your family originally believed that you were. And then you see yourself that way.
The Black Sheep family dynamic is a form of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. When your parents don’t see or value who you really are, it is very difficult to see or value your true self.
So now it may be hard for you to know the truth. Who are you really? Who would you be if not for all of the distorted messages you have received from the people who should love you the most?
Here is good news for you. Now that you know about Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, you can take control of it. Once you recognize the parts of yourself that were literally “projected” on you by your family, you can be freed up to either embrace those pieces of yourself or let them go.
A new journey begins which will allow you to define yourself, by yourself and for yourself. Free of judgment and prophecy.
You were chosen by your parents or your siblings for a reason. Perhaps you are the brightest in the family; perhaps you are the strongest. Perhaps you are the sweetest or most sensitive. Perhaps you’re artistic or have a different temperament or personality or appearance from the rest of your family.
Perhaps you were born at a certain time, a certain gender, or in a birth order that affected how your parents and siblings regarded you.
Perhaps you will never know why you were chosen.
But what is important for you to know is that you didn’t ask for this, and it’s not your fault. Your family does not see the real you. They don’t understand that your weakness in their eyes is actually your strength.
So embrace your difference, for it is your power.
And please know this:
You were chosen for a reason.
You are real.
You are valid.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it affects children and adults, and how to learn to see and value your true self, see the book, Running on Empty. To understand how Childhood Emotional Neglect effects play out in your adult relationships with your partner, your parents and your children, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article originally appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of Psychcentral.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN has a way of making family holidays like Thanksgiving, which should feel welcoming, loving and warm, fall short.
It’s the invisible force that just slightly subdues the welcome, cools the warmth, and quashes the love. It’s the background of your family picture which no one sees. It’s the gray fog that lingers round the family, making it impossible to truly see each other.
The members of an emotionally neglectful family walk through each and every holiday with a vague feeling of disappointment and discontent.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when you grow up in a family that does not “see” the emotions of its members. In the CEN family, feelings are treated as if they are irrelevant or even burdensome. Children in these families learn to ignore and hide their own feelings.
If this is your family, how do you take care of yourself so that you can enjoy Thanksgiving?
Emotional Neglect passes through the generations unseen and unnoticed. Most likely your parents have raised you very much the same as they were raised themselves.
For your healing, it’s important to acknowledge everything you didn’t get from your family. On this day, work on accepting what you didn’t get, what you did get, and why. And realize that your parents cannot give you what they do not have themselves.
Remind yourself that everything you got, and everything you didn’t get: It all adds up to who you are now.
And you’re all right.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible and unmemorable, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.
The world is full of mothers who are wondering why their adult sons don’t answer their calls, and fathers who struggle awkwardly to talk to their daughters.
“What did I do wrong?” they ask. “Why can’t we be closer? Shouldn’t our relationship be easier now?”
It’s entirely possible to be a loving, caring parent who worked hard to do everything right in raising your child and to still end up with a strained relationship once your child grows up. It’s because parenting is so complex and multi-layered that it’s far too easy to make one crucial error that your child has difficulty either understanding or recovering from.
One of the easiest and most invisible errors that a parent can make – Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) – passes silently from one generation to the next, unnoticed and unchecked. And unfortunately, it also can lead to some of the greatest parent/child emotional gaps once the child grows up.
Sadly, it’s all too easy to make this mistake. All you have to do is fail to respond enough to your child’s emotional needs when you are raising her. This leaves your child, as a grown-up, without enough access to her emotions. It also leaves her feeling as if you don’t really know her on the most deeply personal level: the emotional level.
So she may then come to you for advice, but not for solace. She may expect you to be there for her financially, but not emotionally. She may share her thoughts with you, but not so much her feelings.
One of the most common questions I receive from readers of this blog is from parents who have realized that they inadvertently, through no fault of their own, emotionally neglected their child. This is a painful realization for any parent, and it’s extra painful when your adult child keeps her distance from you, seems angry at you, or is struggling with issues of her own.
Please know that no matter what’s gone wrong between you and your adult child, the burden generally lies on you, the parent, to initiate fixing it. So what do you do if you want to repair or deepen your relationship with your CEN adult child? The good news is that there are clear steps that you can follow.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it transfers from one generation to the next, and how it affects children once they grow up, see the book, Running on Empty. For many more specific tips and information about improving your relationship with your child see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was originally posted on psychentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.
Jared has done everything he can think of to make himself feel better since his father unexpectedly passed away two years ago. But he still feels blah and numb much of the time.
Sandra keeps choosing the same kind of guy over and over; alcoholic, angry, and afraid of commitment.
Claudia is irritable and bitter after her painful divorce. She can’t seem to get back to her old self.
All three of these people are stuck in some way. Each is suffering, each is confused. “Why can’t I get out of this?” they all wonder.
Fortunately for Jared, Sandra and Claudia, there is an answer, and it is the same for each of them. It’s a simple answer, yet it requires them to do something they dread.
Grief gets a bad rap, and in some ways, it should. After all, when does it enter our lives? When we’ve lost someone, or something, important. Grief only appears at times of pain and loss. But grief itself is not pain or loss. Instead, it’s a phase of processing pain and loss.
It’s a very natural human tendency to want to avoid pain. And it takes time to process a loss. This is what makes grieving so universally difficult. The three people described above are all stuck because they are avoiding their grief.
Jared is working hard, but to some extent on the wrong things. He’s trying to make himself feel better. But unfortunately, no amount of sporting events, dates, or successful work projects will help him process his loss and pain. He can only really move past his grief phase by going through it, not around it. This means he must accept his loss and sadness. Jared must allow himself to grieve.
Sandra wants to have the kind of healthy relationship that she sees others enjoy. So she keeps trying, over and over and over. Why does she keep repeating the same pattern? Because she has never grieved the father who left when she was 8 years old. “I don’t care about that jerk,” she’s said all of her life. Sandra is protecting herself with anger, because she doesn’t want to face, or feel, the pain of being abandoned by the man who was supposed to love her the most. Because Sandra isn’t allowing herself to feel, process, and work through her loss, she keeps recreating it. She keeps choosing men who will not really be there for her, and who will eventually abandon her.
Claudia was deeply hurt by her divorce from the man she was married to for 12 years, the father of her children. She was shocked and bereft when he signed those divorce papers. To cope, she has placed her focus on her children and making sure they have a life as close to normal as possible. Surely no one could fault her for this. But what keeps Claudia stuck in her bitterness and anger is not her focus on her children; it’s her failure to focus on herself. She needs to accept, feel, and work through her shock and pain and loss. She needs to grieve.
With all this talk of grief, here’s the good news. If you, like Jared, Sandra or Claudia, feel stuck, you may not actually be. You’re not facing a brick wall after all. You may, instead, be facing a phase. A phase that you can work through, and come out the other side. Yes, you know the solution. You need to grieve.
I feel sad
I feel hurt
I feel bereft
I feel disappointed
I feel empty
I feel lost
I feel alone
I feel let down
I feel angry
I am mourning
5. Choose a trusted person and share your feelings. Talking with someone about what you’re going through is incredibly helpful.
6. Remind yourself that grief is a process, and it’s not permanent. It’s simply a phase of adjustment that is healthy and necessary.
7. Don’t put a time limit on your grief. Everyone’s grief is different, and you can’t rush recovery. It will take as long as it takes. Period.
If you’re an emotional avoider or have a tendency to avoid your feelings in general, you’re at a higher risk of avoiding your grief and getting stuck. A tendency toward emotional avoidance is a sign that you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family. Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens to the child and how to stop avoiding your feelings see the book, Running on Empty.
A version of this article was originally posted on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.
Judy knows that her husband, Tom, drinks too much. But she also knows that he grew up in an abusive home. Judy sees how Tom’s self-esteem plummets every time he visits his parents. She sees how hard he works to prove to himself, his parents, and herself, that he’s good enough. Judy feels Tom’s emotions every time she looks at him. She gets angry and hurt when he drinks so much, but she also feels his pain.
Todd, 20-years-old, understands that his father is well-known for his business success. His father has made many millions by buying and selling businesses and has his own company with 10,000 employees worldwide. Todd knows that his father has huge responsibilities on his shoulders, and can sometimes see the strain that his father lives under. This is what he reminds his younger teenage siblings (and himself) of when they are angry or hurt by their father’s verbal abuse.
Tina is a 42-year-old mother of three. She works full-time in the Intensive Care Unit of a local hospital. Tina is an empathetic and caring person, and others know this. She is typically the first one asked by her co-workers to cover an extra shift. She is the first one asked by the PTO president of her children’s school to organize and run a new committee. Tina can be counted on to say yes because she readily feels others’ stress and need, and always wants to be helpful whenever she can.
Of all of the emotions that we humans experience, one is generally believed, by psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and neuroscientists alike, to rise above the rest.
Empathy. It consists of feeling another person’s feelings.
We can get angry, we can feel guilty. We can be frustrated or anxious. We can grieve or feel sadness, regret or resentment. But none makes a statement about who we are as a person, or about the nature of the human race like empathy does.
It’s the glue that binds a family, the bond that helps two people resolve conflict. It’s a salve for pain and an essential ingredient in resilient romantic love. If you’re a parent, you must have it for your children in order to raise them to be healthy and strong adults.
Study after study has shown empathy’s surprising power. Empathy can motivate a wife to protect her husband, spur a man to care for his elderly mother, and even reduce the pain of an electric shock. Therapists know that when they can feel a patient’s feelings, it is a healing force for positive change.
Most people would never think of it, but empathy does sometimes go haywire. This best part of the human spirit can turn against us and, unchecked, it can damage both the empathizer and the recipient. Being aware of the risks of empathy-gone-bad is both incredibly important and vastly helpful.
1. By being excessive: This happens when you feel someone else’s emotions so deeply that you are blinded by them. Too much empathy can allow unhealthy or damaging behaviors to continue when they really shouldn’t.
Example Judy: Judy’s empathy is getting in her way because it’s preventing her from setting limits with Tom. Tom needs to hear Judy say, “I can’t take your drinking any more. It’s hurting the kids and me, and it’s hurting you. I need you to deal with your drinking problem. Now.” And he needs her to mean it. But Judy feels so much of Tom’s pain that she can’t make herself hold him accountable. This is where empathy becomes enabling, and how it can harm everyone involved.
2. By being misdirected: This happens when you feel the emotions of someone who doesn’t deserve it. Misdirected empathy makes the empathizer vulnerable to exploitation by the recipient.
Example Todd: Now an adult, Todd is being unable to hold his father accountable for the damage he is doing to himself and his siblings. He’s essentially giving his father a “pass” for his bad behavior because of his empathy for him. In this way Todd’s empathy is misplaced. By failing to protect himself from his father’s bad behavior, Todd is risking his own happiness and health (and that of his younger siblings). For this he will, all of his life, pay a heavy price.
3. By being too indiscriminate: This happens when you take a “shotgun approach” to empathy. You offer it too freely to too many people. When your empathy is free for the asking, you end up giving too much to too many people.
Example Tina: Tina has multiple responsibilities in her life: her children, her husband, her ICU patients, and herself. Yet none of these people gets as much of her time and energy as they deserve. That’s because Tina’s inability to let others manage their own stress and problems leads her to spread herself too thin. Depleted by the demands, Tina often feels exhausted and irritable around her children and husband. She wonders why she keeps gaining weight, and why there are dark circles under her eyes.
So Judy is enabling her husband, Todd is failing to protect himself, and Tina is harming herself (and by extension her family) by over-extending herself to others. These are three examples of how empathy can work against you.
Those who grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) learn early on that their feelings and needs don’t matter. This sets them up to be overly empathetic with others’ needs, and underly attentive to their own.
To learn more about CEN, emotions and how they affect relationships, Take the Emotional Neglect Test and see the books, Running on Empty and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
A version of this article was originally published on PsychCentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.
For philosophers and clergy alike, the message is resoundingly clear: Forgive those who have hurt you, because holding on to anger is destructive. Case in point, see the small sampling of widespread broadcasting of such messages below.
Forgiveness is the final form of love
To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and to realize that the prisoner was you
-Lewis B. Smedes
To err is human; to forgive, divine
Forgiveness is often offered as a powerful solution; as an agent to not only help you heal from painful events but also allow you to move forward.
The general idea is that holding onto anger can make you bitter and hold you back from healing from harm that someone has done you. But the problem is that there are several serious problems with trying to use forgiveness as a solution.
Let’s first look at why it doesn’t work. Then, we will discuss a much better solution.
Quotes and articles about forgiveness present it as a solution to painful situations.
But forgiveness is not a solution. It’s a process.
The Process of True Forgiveness
In the process of true forgiveness, the relationship is changed forever, sometimes in a good way. Many who go through these steps together end up feeling more connected and closer than they were before the offense took place.
When There is No Accountability
Of course, it is true that in many of life’s situations the offender does not notice that she’s hurt you or does not appear to care. There is no accountability, no acknowledgment, no apology. So, sadly, there can be no meeting of the minds. These are some of life’s most difficult and painful experiences.
Here the solution becomes not about forgiveness, but about balance and self-care. If you allow your hurt and anger to rule you, you will be in danger of becoming bitter or vengeful.
Instead, please use your anger and hurt to build and enforce boundaries that will protect you from the other person. Soothe and balance your painful feelings with attention to your own health and recovery. Talk to those who care about you, eat well, and rest. Pay attention to your feelings and manage them.
And always keep in your mind the most healthy and powerful guiding principle for one who has been unjustly harmed and left with no accountability:
The best revenge is living well.
Nothing could be more true.
To learn more about emotions, how they are useful, and how to manage them in relationships, see the books National Bestseller Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article originally appeared on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.
“Accept the children the way we accept trees—with gratitude because they are a blessing—but do not have expectations or desires. You don’t expect trees to change, you love them as they are.”
― Isabel Allende
Wives wistfully long for it from their husbands. Fathers demand it from their children. Friends call upon it to restore broken friendships. Who doesn’t want unconditional love?
Unconditional love is the kind that endures despite any problem, injury, conflict or issue that may arise. Love that asks for nothing in return, and never ceases, no matter what.
Is unconditional love real? Is it attainable? Is it the foundation of a successful marriage? Is it a natural human need?
Or is it simply an epic myth?
It almost seems to be a need that is biologically built into the human condition. We long for it, but we can’t seem to find it. Is it a matter of finding the right person or doing the right thing? Can only people who are emotionally mature provide it? Is it required for a strong relationship or marriage?
Believe it or not, all of these questions have answers, and they are fairly simple and straightforward.
But first, a fascinating research study.
In 2009, a neuroscientist named Beauregard used MRI’s to look at the areas of the brain that are activated in unconditional love compared to romantic love. He found that unconditional love involves seven separate areas of the brain and that it is different from the brain activity seen in romantic or sexual love. Beauregard concluded that unconditional love is actually a separate emotion, unique and different from romantic love.
Beauregard’s study provides neurological evidence for something that is known by couples’ therapists everywhere: unconditional love has no place in a marriage.
Why can’t we expect it from our husband or wife? Two reasons. First, because it’s impossible for most people. And second, because even if a person could achieve it for his or her spouse, it would be unhealthy for both parties and for the relationship itself.
Imagine a husband who continues to love his wife even though she is a serial cheater, and hurts him over and over and over and over. What incentive does she have to stop hurting him? Actually, none. This dysfunctional, painful relationship can go on forever, unchecked. Because the husband has no bottom line to what he will accept: no limit to what he will tolerate, and his wife knows it.
When it comes to romantic relationships and marriage, we all must earn the love we receive. Unearned love (except the parental kind) is not real, it is not strong, and it is not resilient. Conditional love is meaningful because it’s earned, treasured and protected by both parties.
If you have no bottom line in your relationship, chances are you will sadly find yourself living at the bottom line. You will receive whatever you are willing to accept.
So where, then, does unconditional love belong?
In fact, it belongs in only one specific kind of relationship and going in only one direction.
And that is parent TO child; not in reverse. It is a parent’s job to unconditionally love his child. But parents must earn and deserve love from their child. This is what makes parenthood require a kind of selflessness that is uniquely different from every other kind of relationship that exists in this world.
So essentially we are all wired to need unconditional love, but we can only get it in one place: from our parents. Unfortunately, if we don’t feel unconditionally loved by our parents in childhood, we will grow up to feel in some way, on some level, alone. And we will feel in another way, on yet another level, deprived.
People who grow up without unconditional love from their parents are growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect. In addition to feeling alone and deprived, if a parent’s love is highly conditional, the child may grow up to have depression, anxiety, or a personality disorder.
Many who grow up without unconditional love will be driven, through no fault of their own, to seek the missing love in all the wrong places: from boyfriends, girlfriends or spouses. I have seen many people go through many years looking for this special something that they didn’t get in childhood. Sadly, they seek it from the wrong people, in the wrong ways, unaware that they can, and should be, providing it for themselves.