One of the greatest challenges I have encountered in my pursuit to make the whole world aware of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is helping people understand exactly what it is. So, let’s begin with the definition of CEN.
Childhood Emotional Neglect: Happens when you grow up in a household that generally does not notice, respond to, or talk about feelings.
Children who grow up this way receive an unspoken, yet powerful, message that feelings are irrelevant, useless, invisible, or even a burden. To cope, they naturally push away, or wall off, their feelings so they will not inconvenience or bother their parents.
While this may help children adapt to the requirements of their parents, it effectively separates them from their own emotions for a lifetime.
The consequences of this separation are great, and you can read about them in many different blog posts across this website. Today, we will focus on understanding CEN in a way that is both deeper and broader.
We will do that by identifying what Childhood Emotional Neglect is NOT.
Your Childhood Emotional Neglect can be healed.
Since Childhood Emotional Neglect is so hard to see and remember it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Neglect: Fail to care for properly.
We can neglect many different things in our busy lives. We can, at different times, neglect our houses, our gardens, our vehicles, or even our own bodies by simply failing to care for them properly. And many of us human beings do one or all of the above at various times.
But there is no form of neglect more personal, more powerful, or more harmful than the neglect of a child. There are several different ways that a parent can neglect a child and we will talk about those shortly.
But first, let’s take a look at some of the factors that can lead even the most caring parents to neglect their child.
When parents bring a new child into the world, it is their biological imperative to meet that child’s needs to the best of their ability. For that reason, none of the above reasons should be thought of as excuses. It simply does not work that way.
But, on the other hand, human beings are fallible and the world can be rough on parents. Losses, pain, health, deprivation, and struggle can harm parents and prevent them from providing what their children need.
Not all neglect is the same and, unfortunately, most people use the word “neglect” to define all types. It is also common to use the term, “abuse and neglect,” to lump neglect with abuse. This dangerous over-generalization prevents people from talking and thinking more specifically about exactly what they did not receive as a child.
Truly, it’s important. And I want you to help you become aware of what you did and did not receive. As you read the list below, I encourage you to consider which of your needs were well-met when you were a child and which needs may have been less so.
Most adults who look back on their childhoods and see that all of their physical needs were met find it hard to believe that they could have been neglected in any way. Yet “neglect” is far more complex than that.
For example, your stay-at-home mom may often be home and may drive you to every activity, yet fail to notice or respond to your feelings (Emotional Neglect). Or your dad, who talks a lot, may simply be talking about impersonal logistics and facts, and end up still emotionally neglecting you.
The opposite is also true. Your parent who is struggling and rarely home may show such emotional care and attunement with you that you feel deeply known, understood, and loved by them. In this case, the physical presence type of neglect you experience may do far less harm.
Take a few minutes to think about this. What did you get and what did you miss? Is it missing in your life now? If you are a parent or hope to be one, are you able to provide those missing ingredients to your children?
It is entirely possible to see what you didn’t get, understand why your parents could not, or did not, provide it, and fill those gaps for yourself. It is a process of providing yourself with the physical, attentional, and emotional nurturance that was missing for you.
Amazingly, once you have given yourself what you didn’t get, you can give it to others. Especially your own children. The reality is there is nothing more important than that.
CEN can be hard to see or remember so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
Procrastination. Is it a choice? Is it an affliction? Or is it simply the annoying habit that most people think it is?
My answer is that it’s a little bit of all three, but not really any of those things. Does that clear things up for you? No?
OK, here’s the thing. Procrastination is actually a coping mechanism. It’s a form of avoidance that you use when you have no other option. It does not work for anyone, ever. It’s basically a coping-mechanism-gone-wrong.
The reason procrastination does not work is that it’s a set-up to bring feelings of guilt, self-blame, dread, stress, and overwhelm upon yourself. In this way, whenever you procrastinate, you are ignoring your own need to feel good about yourself and your life. You are neglecting yourself.
The Relationship Between Procrastination and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)
There are many different types of emotionally neglectful parents and many different ways that parents can emotionally neglect their children. Generally, CEN is made up of some version of “not enough.”
Here are 3 different forms of CEN that set a child up to have problems with procrastination which may endure life long.
**Special Note: Most CEN parents don’t emotionally neglect their child on purpose. Your parents may have given you everything they have to give but they did not receive the 3 things below themselves when they were growing up.
It’s Friday. Lisbeth is leaving work to meet up with her friends as planned, but she knows she hasn’t finished a report that her team needs to see first thing Monday morning. “I’ll work on it tomorrow,” she reassures herself, putting it out of her mind for the evening.
Lisbeth awakens Saturday morning feeling burdened and tired, and goes through her entire day under that dark cloud trying not to think about the fact that she must finish the report. The weight of the unfinished task drags down her energy all day. She ends up watching Netflix all day, feeling vaguely lazy and guilty all the while.
Sunday is like a repeat of Saturday except under more pressure. As the hours pass, Lisbeth feels the available time slipping away from her and grows angrier and angrier at herself for not having attacked and task and finished the report first thing Saturday morning.
Finally, at 10 p.m., the pressure moves her and she gets to work. Immersing herself in the task, she finally finds her focus and ends up finishing the report at 2 a.m. Of course, she pays the price on Monday. She feels sleep-deprived but also angry at herself for having such a burdensome, joyless, unproductive weekend overall.
Do you identify with Lisbeth? How many days or weekends have you lived like hers?
Growing up emotionally neglected teaches you many things that will color your life forever — until you address it, that is.
CEN teaches you to ignore your own feelings which are the deepest expression of who you are, plus also the loudest alarm bell that alerts you to whether your choices bring you positive or negative results.
So, in essence, CEN teaches you to emotionally neglect yourself all through your life. And procrastination is just one of the possible ways for you to emotionally neglect yourself.
Just as procrastination is not simple, the secret to getting over procrastination is also not simple. But it is definitely something you can do! It involves going directly against your childhood experience and making a conscious effort to do the opposite of the 3 forms of CEN above.
Imagine that Lisbeth follows these 3 steps for long enough that she starts to gain better control of her avoidant tendencies.
Imagine she begins to notice her feelings more and realizes that completing tasks brings her happiness while avoiding tasks drains her energy and makes her angry at herself. Imagine that this emotional awareness enables her to start facing tasks instead of avoiding them.
Imagine that Lisbeth finds herself feeling proud of her daily accomplishments and of how she is no longer neglecting herself.
Now, imagine that instead of Lisbeth, it’s you.
You CAN do this.
You can find the 3 Things Exercise to retrain your brain in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Most people don’t talk about their feelings much. In fact, most people don’t even think about their feelings much.
Usually, we just go through our days focused on our jobs, families, problems, and everything going on in our lives without paying much attention to how we feel.
But, here’s the thing. Sometimes, a situation arises that requires you to know what you are feeling. Or, even further, you may even need to express what you are feeling.
Depending on how you were raised, your family’s comfort level with emotions, and their ability to use emotion words, you may find the process of noticing, labeling, and sharing your feelings anywhere from mildly challenging to extremely difficult.
In my work as a psychologist, I encounter wonderful people every day who are stymied or terrified at the notion of having to identify, name, or share what they are feeling. Most of these people find it difficult for a very good reason. In short, when you grow up in a family that ignores, diminishes, dismisses, or discourages the expression of feelings — I call this an emotionally neglectful family — you simply do not learn how to do it.
As an adult, this can make certain things that other people take for granted very, very hard.
For example, many people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) have only one or two emotion words in their vocabularies. They may use that one word over and over again, painting the complex landscape of their own inner emotional lives with one single word.
Common emotion words that I hear used this way include:
There are several skills that go into using and managing your feelings the way they are meant to be used and managed. If you don’t think of your feelings as useful or if you do not know what these skills are, or whether you have them, it’s okay.
Emotional awareness and management are not automatically a part of everyone’s life. But they are things you can definitely learn. I know this because I have taught these emotion skills to many people.
Today, we will address your emotion vocabulary. Guess how many words there are for the feeling of sadness? There are many more than just “sad” or “depressed.”
Read through this list with a highlighter, and think about the subtle differences in what each word describes.
Sense of loss
Next time you perceive a possible hint of sadness or depression, don’t paint it over with the same old color. Instead, pull out this list and read through it, and find one or more words that capture what you are feeling in a more complex way.
The more you do this, the more your vocabulary will increase and it will also enrich you in other ways. As you struggle to name your feelings, it’s the same as exercising a muscle. Your brain will begin to process feelings in a new way and, believe it or not, this is a momentous change.
Have a word for sad/depressed that’s not on this list? Please share it in a comment!
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be 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.
To learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how it plays out in your adult life, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Emotions may seem vague, insubstantial, or useless to many. But, in truth, they are actually very, very real and very, very useful.
Emotions are physical sensations that take place in your body. They are, in fact, messengers. They are your body’s way of alerting you to watch out, take care, protect yourself, or seek something, for some examples.
Emotions are messages from your body. It is crucial that you listen to them. It’s not that they are always right, but they tell you about your deepest self and so they matter.
Most people would not put the two words “emotion” and “skill” together. In fact, every time I type “emotion skills,” the Word editor tries to correct me.
But, the truth is, that just makes me want to write about emotion skills more! They are, in fact, an incredibly key factor when it comes to your quality of life. They are also far too seldom identified and discussed.
I find myself writing and speaking about the 7 emotional skills quite often because of my specialty in treating Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
CEN is extremely common in today’s world. It simply involves growing up in a household where your feelings are ignored or discouraged. Folks raised with CEN tend to be disconnected from their own feelings and blind to emotions in general, so they have little opportunity to learn the 7 emotion skills in their lifetimes.
I teach these skills every single day to the clients I see in my office and discuss them with the CEN folks in my online CEN recovery program, Fuel Up For Life.
I hope that as you read the 7 skills above you were thinking about yourself.
How often have you used any one of these skills? Are you better at some skills than others? Is there one or more of the skills that seem foreign to you or particularly difficult to understand?
Three amazing things about the 7 Emotion Skills are: first, you probably never thought about them; second, once you’re aware of them, you can learn them; and last but not least, developing and improving these skills can literally change your life from the inside.
I could write volumes on each of these skills, so I will. Watch for a future article, Examples of the 7 Emotion Skills in Action.
Wonder if you have Childhood Emotional Neglect? Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Do you know that children have physical needs? OF COURSE, YOU DO! Virtually all parents, and all people, for that matter, understand that children must be fed, clothed, kept warm and sheltered, rested and exercised. Kids need to have all of these needs met in order to physically survive and thrive.
Most people also realize that children have emotional needs. Children need to be loved. But children’s emotional needs actually go far beyond that.
You, when you were a child, needed much more than love from your parents. One of the things you needed the most is something most parents hardly think about if they think about it at all. It’s emotional validation.
Emotional validation happens when your parents see what you are feeling, acknowledge your feelings, and seem to understand why you are having them.
Just like adults, children’s feelings are the deepest, most personal, biological expression of who they are. In order to feel seen, understood, and heard, a child must feel that their feelings are seen, understood, and heard.
What happens when you feel seen, understood, and heard as a child? You grow up to feel like a person who is seeable, understandable, and hearable. You feel knowable. You feel valid.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If your parents didn’t have the emotional awareness or emotional skills to see and accept what you were feeling, they may have, perhaps of no fault of their own, failed to validate you.
As a result, you may have grown up to feel unseen, misunderstood, and unheard. You may feel less valid than everyone else.
I call this Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Did you see yourself in any of the examples above?
Whether your emotional threshold was not met as a child or your feelings were invalidated (both constitute Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), I want you to know that it has left its mark on you. The effects are substantial and significant, and they seldom go away on their own.
But they do go away. With your awareness, attention, interest, and commitment, you can reclaim your valuable emotions and learn to listen to their messages. You can learn to understand, trust, and love yourself.
That is the process of validating yourself. It’s never too late to do it.
Let’s get started.
To learn specific ways to emotionally validate and emotionally connect with your child, toddler, teen, or adult see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. You can find helpful resources for understanding and healing Childhood Emotional Neglect throughout this website.
It’s like I have no emotions. I’m numb a lot of the time.
Something is missing in me.
I have no idea how I feel about anything.
Sometimes my chest feels hollow.
I feel empty inside.
What might seem like five unrelated statements is actually five different people describing the same feeling. It’s a hard emotion to identify, and even harder to put into words. Everyone says it differently because there is no standard label for it. But for these five people, and thousands more, it is the same feeling, caused by the same problem.
The one word that sums it up best:
Of all the different emotions that a person can have, Empty is one of the most uncomfortable. To feel Empty is to feel incomplete. It’s a feeling of something absent or missing inside of you, of being different, set apart, alone, lacking, numb.Continue reading
It’s a casual phrase, and many folks use it often.
What’s the point?
We mutter it under our breath at times of frustration. We throw it out at a person who is refusing to cooperate. We use it as a way to express hopelessness and helplessness. In these times it can actually be quite useful as a way to vent some steam and stress.
But some people use it more often than others. For them, it becomes almost a mantra. It starts to run deeper than the current situation, reflecting not just momentary feelings, but an overall philosophy of life.
What’s the point of doing this?
What’s the point of trying?
I’ve observed that many people who frequently question The Point are doing so because they feel adrift in their lives. Why are they adrift? Because they are not listening to their greatest anchor, director, and connector. They are out of touch with their emotions, which should be telling them what they want, feel, and need, where to go and what to do.
Many of the people who ask, “What’s the point” a lot grew up in emotionally neglectful families, in homes that treated their feelings like they were irrelevant, or even burdensome. If this is you, perhaps you feel helpless and hopeless. Or maybe you feel trapped, or stuck, or lost. Maybe you feel alone.
For some, the question of “What’s the point” runs even deeper and begins to reflect a questioning of one’s very existence.
What’s the point of being here?
What’s the point of being alive?
If any of what you are reading right now applies to you, please consider it as an alarm bell. A bell that calls you to face the fact that there is a big problem in your life and that it’s time to acknowledge it.
The Feeling The Message
Alone Open your walls and let someone in
Sad Figure out why you’re sad and address the cause
Frustrated Frustration is a feeling meant to drive you to action.
Lost You are lacking direction. Start working toward finding one.
Those are only a few possibilities. The number of different feelings and situations that can bring about “What’s the Point” is endless. Understanding yours is key. How deep does yours run? Are you feeling hopeless or helpless? Or are you jumping to a simple question as a coping mechanism? Might that be actually allowing you to avoid facing the complexities in your life?
Ask yourself questions. Pay attention, and look inside yourself. Because the answer to your “What’s the Point” is likely not simple, but it’s important. And it is there.
Growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) makes you more prone to asking “What’s The Point.” To understand why, and to learn more about CEN, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
What does the term “emotionally unavailable” mean to you? It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to everyone.
Have you ever been in a relationship or marriage with someone who you felt was emotionally unavailable? Has any friend or romantic partner ever described you this way?
The term, in my opinion, carries some irony. Because if you are truly emotionally unavailable, it will be very difficult to understand the meaning of the term. In other words, it really helps to be emotionally available if you want to understand what it means to be unavailable.
Much of this has to do with how a person deals with his or her own emotions. This typically goes back to how your emotions were treated as a child. Did your parents notice what you were feeling enough of the time? Did they ask? Did they care what you felt and what you needed, and do their best to meet your true needs? Did they succeed?
Surprisingly, it matters less whether your parents tried. What really matters is whether or not they succeeded. If your parents weren’t able, for any reason, to notice and respond to your feelings and meet your emotional needs, then you are at risk of being an emotionally unavailable adult.
Here’s why. When a child’s feelings and emotional needs are treated as if they matter, that child receives a loud and clear message: “Your feelings are real, and they matter.” This encourages the child to pay attention to his emotions, and teaches him how to manage, express, and use them throughout his adult life. The converse is also true. When a child’s emotional needs are treated as if they don’t matter, the message to the child is, “Your feelings don’t matter.”
A child who receives this message will not be consciously aware of it and will not remember it. This is because typically it was never stated outright; it was a subliminal message delivered by the absence of response and validation from the parents. But that child will accommodate, as children do. She will suppress her emotions by pushing them far and away so that they will not bother her parents or herself.
Years later, in relationships, that child will continue to lack access to his emotions. To his friends or romantic partner, he may seem to be difficult to connect with. Others can see his depth and quality but have trouble reaching it.
Here are some of the complaints that I have heard from various patients about their emotionally unavailable boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife:
“He just shuts down and refuses to talk to me when there’s a problem.”
“She’s a great person, but she doesn’t tell me what she needs or feels.”
“I know that he loves me, but I can’t feel the love from him.”
If you identify with this description of “emotionally unavailable,” do not despair. There are solutions to this problem. And the solution lies with you. The solution is to get in touch with your feelings, accept them, and use them. It sounds simple, but it is not. It’s a process that requires purpose and effort and work. But it can be done.
If, on the other hand, you are in a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable, you are in an even more difficult spot because it is easier to change yourself than it is to convince someone else to change. However, there are somethings that you can do.
To learn much more about how to recognize CEN in your marriage and talk with your spouse about it, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
This article was initially posted on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
Is it hard for you to say, “No?” Do you feel the need to explain yourself and give reasons followed by excuses followed by more reasons? Would you be surprised if I told you that you do not need to give a reason?
All the people of the world can be divided into two groups: those who can say “no” easily, and those who cannot.
To the folks in the first group, it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would have a problem with it. Like the famous line from the old movie, To Have or To Have Not, “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow,” people in the first group might say, “What’s so hard about it? Start with N, and end with O.”
But for many, many people, it’s just not that simple. Saying “no” for them carries enormous baggage. This is especially true for those who grew up in households which offered them little opportunity to say no. This is a version of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Read these principles over and over. Post them on your bathroom mirror. Digest them. Remember them.
For they will set you free.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how to feel more confident and honor your own needs and feelings more, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
This book was originally posted on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.