What can protect you from toxic people, keep painful memories in their place, keep you safe and strong, and help you manage your feelings?
Truly, boundaries are amazing. And good ones are a cornerstone of mental health.
When you grow up in a household that has healthy boundaries, you naturally have them yourself as an adult. But unfortunately, many of us don’t start out with that advantage.
If you grew up in a household with Childhood Emotional Neglect (your feelings and emotional needs weren’t met enough), or if you had a parent with a personality disorder, you may be especially challenged in this area.
Without strong but flexible boundaries, you may be overly vulnerable to criticism or insults from others, you may struggle to manage your feelings internally or prone to emotional outbursts, you may find yourself worrying too much, dwelling on the past, or not keeping yourself safe enough.
People with Childhood Emotional Neglect often have an overly rigid Internal Boundary, which blocks off their emotions too completely. So they can come across to others as excessively unflappable, or even emotionally bland.
If one of your parents had a personality disorder, your Internal and External Boundaries may be overly porous, or too flexible, resulting in emotional outbursts and difficulty managing your feelings.
The hallmark of a healthy boundary is strong but flexible.
As adults, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to understand boundaries and work on building them for ourselves.
I know what you’re thinking: “OK, that’s great. Mine are not so good. How do I make them better?”
Here’s an exercise to help you create and strengthen your boundaries. First, choose one of the above four types that you’re going to build. Then follow these steps:
Now there’s one more important key to using your new boundary.
Eventually, your boundary will operate naturally. But in the beginning, you will have to consciously use it. It helps, especially in the beginning, to try to anticipate situations in which you will need, and can practice using your boundary.
Let’s say you’re going to visit your parents and you know that, at some point during the visit, your father will make an offhand comment implying that you have disappointed him (because he always does).
For this challenge, you’ll need primarily your External Boundary, to filter out your father’s comment and disempower it. You may also need your Internal Boundary if you want to manage your own response to his comment. So right before you go, sit down and follow the above steps to get your External and/or Internal Boundary firmly in place.
At your parents’ house, wait for your dad’s comment to come. If it does, immediately picture your boundary around you, filtering for you. The filter asks,
What part of this is valuable feedback that I should take in, and what part of it says more about the speaker?
Your boundary tells you this:
None of this is valuable. Your father’s comment is all about him, not you.
And there you are. You hold all the power. You are safe.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and invisible, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free! And to learn much more about CEN see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally posted on psychcentral.com. It is republished here with the permission of the author.
Accountability and blame are not the same.
Imagine this scenario:
Your good friend Trish calls you upset. “I’m such an idiot,” she says. “I was in a huge hurry to get to a meeting at work, so I backed out of the driveway really fast. I wasn’t paying attention, and I ran right over the mailbox. It destroyed the mailbox and put a huge dent in the back bumper of my car. I’m such a moron!”
Take a moment to think about how you would respond. What might you say to Trish? Would you say:
“Trish, you’ve lived in that house for ten years. Had you not noticed where the mailbox is? What a dolt!”
Or would you be more likely to say:
“Trish, don’t talk like that. Everybody makes mistakes. Don’t be so hard on yourself!”
I’m willing to bet that you would say the second option. Because you would never be as hard on your friend as she is on herself.
Now imagine yourself in Trish’s place. How angry would you be at yourself for making this mistake? What would you say to yourself?
How could I be such a fool?
I’m more trouble than I am good.
I’m a bad person.
Why can’t I learn?
These are comments that many fine people say to themselves when they make mistakes. These kind and caring people would never say anything like that to a friend, a child, a spouse, or anyone for that matter. Let’s see how the above comments come across when directed outward at another person, rather at oneself. Imagine saying these sentences to a friend.
How could you be such a fool?
You’re more trouble than you are good.
You’re a bad person.
Why can’t you learn?
Imagine the damage these comments would do to your friend or spouse, and to your relationship with him or her. That is the damage that you are doing to yourself when you say these things to yourself.
There’s a particular group of people who are more prone to treating themselves so harshly: those who were raised with Childhood Emotional Neglect.
If you were raised by a parent who ignored you and/or your mistakes (an aspect of Childhood Emotional Neglect), you didn’t get to internalize a parent’s voice of Compassionate Accountability.
Compassionate Accountability: holding yourself accountable for your misstep while also having compassion for yourself. Keep in mind that accountability is not the same as blame.
Here’s what parent says to her child during a moment of Compassionate Accountability: “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Let’s figure out what you did wrong here and how to prevent this mistake in the future. Let’s learn from this mistake. Then we’ll let go of it and move on.”
From these few short sentences, this fortunate child is learning the vital life lessons that make up Compassionate Accountability. She is learning how to keep her own mistakes in perspective; that they are not the end of the world and that everyone makes them. She is learning that it is possible to learn from her mistakes and that there is no point in dwelling on them. Beyond that, she is internalizing her mother’s (or father’s) voice. Over time, it will become her own. Then it will talk her through all of the mistakes which she will make throughout her life. You can see that there is no blame involved here.
If you were raised by a parent who, for whatever reason, was not able to provide you with this even, reasonable, accountable yet forgiving voice, you may have to develop it for yourself as an adult. Here are some tips to help you:
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and difficult to remember so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.
A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reposted here with the permission of the author.
At 34 years old, Garrett is doing well in life. He has a good job and a girlfriend he hopes to marry. So Garrett is confused about why, each time he is alone, a sad feeling sneaks up on him. To prevent this from happening, Garrett stays as busy as he possibly can. He avoids being home alone, driving alone, or being unoccupied. When he is forced to be, he always cranks up his music or has a TV show playing on a screen to distract him.
Jolene is very intelligent and has loads of potential. But she lives alone in a dingy apartment and struggles to earn a living as the office manager of a failing business. Jolene is frustrated by her circumstances, yet she is held back from trying for more. She will do anything to avoid a painful feeling that overcomes her each time she thinks about taking a risk such as starting college, applying for a better job, or going on a date. So she never thinks about it.
Lizzy is a 48-year-old Executive Chef at a thriving, popular restaurant. She runs the restaurant with clean efficiency, and kindness toward all who work for her. People see Lizzy as competent, confident and happy. But inside, she struggles. When something goes wrong (as it often does) in her large, busy kitchen, Lizzy immediately gets a very unpleasant feeling which stays the whole day. Lizzy works long and hard to prevent errors and oversights so that she won’t have to experience that bad feeling.
At first glimpse Garrett, Jolene and Lizzy might seem to have little in common. But they are exactly alike in one very key way: They all have a Core Feeling that has power over them, and it affects how they are living their lives. And none of them is consciously aware that this is happening.
In truth, Core Feelings dwell all around you. They are in the people you know and among your family and friends. Everywhere. But no one talks about Core Feelings. Only therapists use this term, and yet becoming aware of your Core Feelings can change how you live your life.
A Core Feeling is a powerful emotion that’s based in your childhood and which comes and goes throughout your lifespan.
Children are like little computers whose brains are being programmed by their parents. The “software” for their lives is being set up by their parents and their families; the rules, expectations, feelings, and values that surround children are absorbed into their little brains. This all gets wired into them. It becomes a part of who they are. It defines a big part of who they will become as adults. It becomes a part of what they will feel as adults.
The folks most vulnerable to being ruled by their Core Feelings are the ones who grew up in families that did not teach them how emotions work. These are usually families who rarely discuss or address the feelings of their members. These are families that are, by definition, raising the children with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
If your parents fail to respond to your emotions as they raise you, they fail to teach you how to recognize, tolerate, manage, or express your feelings. This leaves you sitting with old feelings and, unfortunately, old, unprocessed emotions do not go away.
A Core Feeling is the one emotion that you experienced the most often, or intensely, growing up. It becomes embedded in the software of your brain. As an adult, this feeling is very real, and can at times be very strong.
Throughout the decades of your life, you are not always feeling it. But it dogs you. It hangs around on the sidelines waiting to break through to you. It tends to come, unbidden when you’re alone, undistracted, or otherwise vulnerable to it. Or it gets touched off by specific current events that activate it.
Not everyone has a Core Feeling, but many people do. Therapists know about Core Feelings and often identify them in their patients. Typically, though, they are viewed as an unpleasant burden. Most folks hope that if they avoid and ignore their core feeling, it will eventually go away.
Unfortunately, however, nothing could be further from the truth:
To understand how a Core Feeling develops, check back for my future blog which will describe exactly how Garrett, Jolene, and Lizzy got their Core Feeling, and how each of them processes it.
But now I’d like to focus on what to do with your Core Feeling if you have one.
Welcoming, accepting and sorting through your Core Feeling is a way to manage it. Essentially, you are stopping it from controlling you. You’re turning the tables and are taking control of it.
By listening to its message, you are building your resilience in three ways. You are increasing your tolerance for pain; you are building your self-knowledge by understanding yourself better, and you are improving your emotional health by working through an unresolved issue.
In other words, when you are tired of running, turn around and face it.
To learn more about your emotions, how they work, and how they may be affecting you, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
This article was first published on psychcentral.com. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
There is one powerful aspect of all of our lives which refuses to conform to the laws of nature. This part of your life has the ability to make or break your marriage, direct your career choices, drive your friends away, or keep them connected to you through thick and thin. It is rooted in your physiology, defines your humanness, and yet makes you a human unique from every other.
Despite its incredible power, it is nevertheless largely ignored and suppressed by many people. I am talking, of course, about emotion.
Not surprisingly, these two reasons perpetuate each other. The less attention we pay to our feelings, the less we learn how they work and how to use them. That only serves to make them more confusing.
Then the problem is perpetuated in another, even more, enduring way. If your parents were confused by your feelings and ignored them (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), then they inadvertently taught you to do the same. Growing up blind to your own feelings, you will also be blind to your children’s feelings, and you will raise them as you were raised.
On and on it goes, with one generation after another learning little about how their own feelings work and what to do with them. One generation after another, expecting feelings to be logical, make sense, and conform to the laws of nature. Causing more and more people to become frustrated and baffled and, lacking a way to cope, choose to ignore them.
Think Newton’s Laws of Gravity, the Laws of Motion, or the Relativity Principle. These laws of physics allow us to understand, define and predict our complicated world. They’re all based on formulas and can be demonstrated by mathematics. They make sense. They’re logical.
As complex as those principles may be to thoroughly understand, basic knowledge of them at least provides us with guidelines. We know what to expect when we drop an apple or push a chair, and generally why it happens.
But many bright people have sat in my therapy office completely befuddled by their own or their spouse’s feelings. And they are confused for a very good reason. It’s usually because they’re trying to apply the logic of nature to something that does not follow them:
It’s wrong for me to be angry about this.
How can she possibly feel that way?
That’s a dumb way to feel.
You just said you’re happy, and now you’re not. Which is it?
I need to stop feeling this way.
Feelings cannot be true or false, right or wrong, smart or stupid. You cannot choose them. Your body chooses them for you. They just are what they are, period.
Your feelings are your greatest motivators and guides. They are messages from your body, that’s all. They may hurt, but they can’t hurt you. Listen to your feelings, but don’t give them too much power. It’s your responsibility to manage them, share them with care, and try to understand them on their terms.
It’s your responsibility to learn how your emotions work so that you’ll understand how your children’s emotions work. Then, instead of teaching them to ignore their feelings, you can teach them how to feel, name, manage and share their feelings: the exact opposite of Childhood Emotional Neglect.
That’s you, stopping the cycle of confusion and avoidance. That’s you, defying the laws of human nature. And creating a different future for us all.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn more about emotions, how they work, and what happens when you ignore them, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn how to use your feelings in relationships and teach your kids about emotions, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Some parts of this article originally appeared on PsychCentral.com and have been republished here with the permission of the author.
Lucy — The Highly Sensitive Person
Lucy sits on the edge of her bed, relieved to be behind the closed doors of her bedroom. Slowly, she climbs under the covers, pulling them over her head. In complete darkness, she finally is able to relax.
Lucy — The Highly Sensitive Person With Childhood Emotional Neglect
With her covers over her head, finally, in complete darkness, Lucy wonders why she still does not feel better. Being alone feels better in one way but worse in another. The dark, safe quiet soothes her, but it also unsettles her. Somehow, it seems to intensify that uncomfortable feeling she always has somewhere in her belly: the feeling of being deeply and thoroughly alone in the world. “What is wrong with me?” she wonders.
In the late 1990s, it was discovered that some people are born with much greater sensitivity to sound, sight, texture, and other forms of external stimulation than others. Aron & Aron (1997) named people who are “wired” in this special way the Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP.
If you are an HSP, you tend to be a deep thinker who develops meaningful relationships. You may be more easily rattled or stressed than most people, but it’s only because you feel things deeply. You may seem shy, but you have a rich and complex inner life, and you are probably creative.
HSP children like Lucy are far more affected by events in their family than their parents and siblings might be. Yelling seems louder, anger seems scarier, and transitions loom larger. And because the HSP tends to feel others’ feelings, everyone else’s sadness, pain or anxiety becomes her own.
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when you grow up in a family that does not address the feelings of its members. The emotionally neglected child may feel sad, distressed, hurt, angry or anxious. And when no one notices, names, inquires about, or helps him manage those feelings, he receives a message that, though unspoken, rings loudly in his ears: your emotions do not matter.
As an adult, the CEN person, following the belief that her feelings are irrelevant, continually tries not to deal with them. She pushes them down, hides and minimizes them, and may view them as a weakness.
This is why the emotionally neglected child grows up to feel that something vital is missing. He may appear perfectly fine on the outside, but inside, without full access to his emotions, which should be stimulating, motivating, energizing and connecting him, he goes through his life with a sense of being different, flawed, empty and disconnected for which he has no words to explain.
Many HSPs question their 3 greatest strengths or do not even recognize them until they read about them. Even then, it can be difficult to believe or own them.
Since Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up to question your essential validity as a person, you are uprooted from your inalienable strengths, dragged away from what should be grounding you and driving you and connecting you.
Minus enough emotion skills, you are not sure what to do with the powerful force from within, your feelings. Sadly, instead of harnessing it and using it, Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up for a lifelong battle with your greatest resource.
You will see how beginning to treat your most valuable resource with the regard and significance it deserves, you will be moving forward to a much more empowered future.
The future you were born to have.
Emotional Neglect can be subtle so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Please enjoy this free excerpt from the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
How do you know if your marriage is affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?
As you know, Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible, and the huge majority of people who have it are completely unaware. That means that legions of relationships are weighed down by this unseen force. So how do you know if this applies to yours?
If you or your partner has already done some Childhood Emotional Neglect work, then you already know that your relationship is affected. When one partner is out of touch with his or her emotions, meaning he or she lacks emotional awareness and emotion skills, there is no way for the relationship to continue unaffected.
Even if you know that Childhood Emotional Neglect has affected your relationship, it’s important to know the specific effects. On the other hand, if you’re reading this book because you suspect your partner has CEN, then it might help to know some signs to look for.
Here are the markers I use to spot Childhood Emotional Neglect when I meet a couple for the first time for therapy. These are the main ways that it often plays out over time or can be observed in a given moment. As you read through the markers, think about whether each item is true of you, your partner, or both.
Conflict avoidance is essentially an unwillingness to clash or fight and is one of the most classic signs of CEN in a couple. It’s also one of the most damaging.
Believe it or not, fighting is healthy in a relationship. There is no way for two people to closely intertwine their lives for decades without facing some important differences of opinion hundreds, or more likely thousands, of times.
Conflict avoidance has the power to severely undermine a relationship. Not only are you and your partner unable to solve problems by avoiding them; in addition, the anger, frustration and hurt from unsolved issues goes underground and festers and grows, eating away at the warmth and love that you should be enjoying with each other.
Being in a long-term committed relationship is supposed to prevent loneliness. Indeed, when a relationship is going well, there is a comfort that comes from knowing that someone always has your back. You are not facing the world alone. You are not one, you are two.
But it’s entirely possible to feel deeply lonely, even when you are surrounded by people. And when emotional intimacy is not fully developed in your relationship, it can lead to an emptiness and loneliness that is far more painful than you would feel if you were actually alone.
Every couple must talk about something. Emotionally connected couples discuss their feelings and emotional needs with relative ease. Not so with the emotionally neglected. When you have CEN, you stick with “safe” topics. Current events, logistics or the children, for example. You can plan together. You can talk about the kids. You can talk about what’s happening, but not about what you’re feeling. You seldom discuss anything that has depth or emotion involved. And when you do, it may feel awkward or difficult, and the words may be few.
A willingness to open up, to explore problems and to have an exchange about feelings, motivations, needs, and problems is essential to the health of a relationship.
Few couples know the term “emotional intimacy,” what it means and how to cultivate it. Yet emotional intimacy is the glue that holds a relationship together and the spice that keeps it interesting. It’s essential, but it’s also hard to tell whether you have it or not. It’s also the biggest relationship challenge of all for those who grew up with Emotional Neglect. How do you know if your relationship lacks this very important ingredient?
If you’ve been together a long time, I know what you’re thinking: “Come on now, Dr. Webb. What long-married couple has passion?”
My answer is PLENTY. Passion changes over the years, for sure. But in an emotionally connected relationship, it does not go away. It simply mellows and becomes more complex over time. Passion goes from the desperate drive to be constantly together and having sex early in the relationship, to a feeling of comfort knowing that your partner is nearby. You look forward to seeing her after an absence. You have a desire to be physically close, a deep understanding of each other’s sexual needs, and a motivation to please each other sexually.
Passion is also most deeply felt during and after a conflict. Conflicts stir intense feelings, a form of passion. And working through them together fosters a feeling of trust and connection that also is passion.
Many couples don’t know that they can and should have passion, or what to look for to answer whether they have it or not. Here are some signs that can tell you that it’s lacking in your relationship.
I hope you found this chapter from Running On Empty No More helpful. If you see some of these markers in your own marriage, please do not despair. The silver lining of Emotional Neglect in your marriage is that the cause of the problems is also a powerful path to change. See the book for much more in-depth information about what it means to have Emotional Neglect in your marriage, how to talk about it with your spouse, and exactly what to do.
How do you cope with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?
Growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up to struggle with a series of challenges as an adult.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you.
When you grow up this way you automatically block your feelings off as a child to cope with the implicit messages in your childhood home.
No Feelings Allowed.
With your emotions walled off, you go through your adolescence and adulthood lacking full access to a potent, vital ingredient from within: your emotions, which should be motivating, directing, connecting, stimulating, and empowering you.
When you are living this way, it’s hard to see the problem, or even that there is a problem. Most children in emotionally neglectful homes have no idea that anyone should be noticing their feelings, validating them, or responding to them. Then, when they grow into adults, they continue to have no idea.
Yet as an adult who grew up with Emotional Neglect, you surely may sense that something is not right with you, but you do not know what it is.
Once you understand that you missed out on a key element of childhood, you are finally freed up to fix the problem. You can give yourself what you never got — emotional attention and validation — and learn how to connect with your feelings and how to use them.
Childhood Emotional Neglect may leave you feeling somewhat empty and disconnected, lost or alone. But good news! There are powerful things you can do to cope.
These 10 strategies for coping with Childhood Emotional Neglect actually do more than just help you exist and manage your life with your CEN. They have the added advantage of helping to heal your CEN.
Practice these 10 strategies as best you can and you will not only survive, you will thrive. And in the most important way of all. Emotionally.
To learn much more about how CEN holds you back from learning the emotion skills, how that affects your relationships, and how to heal Emotional Neglect in relationships, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your children.
To learn much more about how CEN happens, how it plays out through adulthood, and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
find out if you grew up with CEN, Take The CEN Test. It’s free.
Growing up with your feelings ignored, Childhood Emotional Neglect or (CEN), takes its toll on you. It’s true. In fact, it takes such a lasting toll that I can see its lingering effects decades later in my adult patients.
Children who grow up with their feelings ignored take a very powerful step to get by in their childhood home. They wall off the deepest, most biological part of who they are: their emotions. That way they can stop burdening others with their feelings. What a brilliant and powerful tool for your child’s brain to make for you.
But as an adult, your life is affected greatly.
The lingering effects above are important parts of the toll of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). When your feelings are walled off, you are missing some life ingredients that will have a profound effect on your quality of life.
I know this because I see it in my office every single day.
Whether you realize it or not, this particular group of struggles affects you in many areas of your life. You are living without access to some vital life ingredient that everyone else enjoys. For example, it can make it hard to ask for a promotion or a raise at work, or to trust yourself to try new things or take risks.
But I have also seen that there is one area of life that’s affected far more than any other. It’s your relationships. As you read the 5 Important Ways below, be sure to keep in mind that none of these 5 are permanent. They are only effects from your childhood. You can fix every single one!
Never fear! I know these 5 challenges might seem practically insurmountable. But I have watched many people transform their relationships by working in 3 key areas.
You can learn far more about how to become more emotionally aware and skilled and how to communicate on an emotional level in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. Take The CEN Test. It’s free!
Consider this. Would you rather live a life filled with ups and downs, joy and sadness, frustrations and pride and surprise? Or a life that goes along, one day after another, with few disruptions or changes or shake-ups?
Choice 1 might seem scary; a little like a roller-coaster ride. On the other hand, Choice 2 might seem a little disappointing.
Don’t get me wrong, they are both mixed bags. The roller-coaster can deliver some shocks to the system, and it can be hard to sometimes feel that you are not in control of everything in your life. If you are living without the emotional disruptions and shake-ups, you may feel “safer” and more in control of things, but you may also find yourself feeling bored and unstimulated.
As a psychologist, I have come to realize that people living in the Choice 1 scenario are typically overall happier. That’s because if you are on the roller coaster, you are living life in a more powerful way. You are more connected with your emotions, and so you are probably far more fulfilled.
Choice 2 is a sign that you are disconnected from your feelings. Probably you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family. Probably you learned at an early age that your emotions were irrelevant or burdensome. Probably you have walled off your feelings as a coping mechanism.
No doubt, though, the way you are living seems normal to you. After all, it’s the way you have always lived. It’s probably the way you were raised to be. So how do you know if you’re emotionally numb?
If you see yourself in any of these 10 signs, do not despair! There are answers. Your feelings are not gone. They are still there, inside you, waiting for you to reclaim them.
You can break down the wall that blocks them, and welcome them back into your life. Bit by bit, slowly but surely, in a way that feels safe and healthy, you can reverse your numbness, and fill your life with color and energy.
Growing up with CEN you were taught to ignore and marginalize your own feelings. But now that you’re an adult, you don’t have to continue that. You can welcome your feelings back into your life and learn the skills to manage and use them.
You CAN overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect. For help, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. When you sign up for the free test you will also receive my free newsletter which is chockfull of helpful information. I’ll let you know when my free CEN Recovery Videos start.
For even more help into and through the CEN recovery process see my two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
For the realtor, the world revolves around Location Location Location. But psychologists, psychiatrists, and social scientists everywhere know that what really matters is validation.
And the absence of it.
A friend of mine woke up one morning and literally felt a bomb go off in her head. There was a sense of an explosion, cymbals, fireworks all in one split-second cacophony. Then, suddenly, it was over.
Needless to say, my friend was worried on the verge of panic. What was this? What does it mean? “Is this the start of some kind of neurological degenerative disorder?” she wondered. So she did what any of us would do in this situation. She typed it into google.
She only typed a few words, and the answer appeared under the search bar. Exploding Head Syndrome. Yes, it’s a thing. It’s unexplained and rare, but harmless. My friend read postings by dozens of people who have had the same experience. She felt immediately relieved, and never worried about it again.
Because she felt validated.
When my friend told me this story months later, it made me think about validation, and how powerful it is. It’s possible to go from panic to calm by simply being validated. Validation has the ability to save marriages, cement friendships, and decrease depression. It’s scientifically proven.
I recently came across a study by Marigold et al., 2014, which looked at how people with low self-esteem experience different kinds of support, compared with people who have healthy self-esteem.
The researchers found that both groups of people responded well to validation of their negative feelings. That’s these kinds of statements:
I would feel that way too.
Anyone who went through that would be sad.
Your feelings are normal.
Of course you’re angry.
But only the folks with healthy self-esteem also responded well to the kind of support that did not validate their feelings. That’s statements like:
At least you’re learning something from this.
I know someone who went through the same thing, and he’s fine now.
You’ll beat this.
Everything will be okay.
So the only kind of supportive statements that are helpful for people with all levels of self-esteem is the kind that validates their negative feelings. Across the board, we all need to know that the feelings we have are normal and reasonable in the situation.
We all feel better when we’re validated.
I’m sitting in my office in a therapy session with a couple who is on the verge of divorce. Karen and Tom are both lovely people, but they hate each other. Our work together over the past two months has been trying to figure out why.
On this day, one powerful reason emerges. Here’s the story Karen told me:
I was on the phone with my mother, and she told me that her doctor’s appointment didn’t go well. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. I was so upset! I hung up the phone, and I was in shock. Tom was in the other room. I walked in and told him what I had just heard.
Tom stopped typing on his laptop and came over to me. He gave me a huge hug, which was just what I needed. Then he said, “OK, let’s stop with the tears and talk about this rationally. It’s not like anyone has died.”
Tom did several things exactly right in this moment. He gave Karen his full attention and a big hug. And he thought he said the right thing. Clearly, Tom’s intentions were loving.
But sadly, Tom missed the boat. His statement was intended to calm Karen, but instead it contributed to the pool of anger and rage that she already had toward him. What Karen heard in his statement was, “You’re wrong to be so upset. You’re over-reacting. You are irrational.”
Karen’s anger toward Tom had built up over many years of such responses from him. Incidents big and small ended the same, with Karen getting MORE upset and walking out of the room, leaving Tom baffled and angry himself in return.
“She’s impossible. I can’t do anything right for her. It’s never enough,” Tom lamented in our session.
Fortunately, there was an answer for Karen and Tom, and the answer was fairly straightforward. In fact, Tom learned quickly and easily. He learned to say instead, in a situation like this, “Oh no, that’s terrible, Honey. I’m so sorry. I’m here for you.”
When Tom handled Karen’s feelings by responding to them instead of trying to minimize or banish them, Karen felt validated.
The Unvalidated Child
Imagine a little child growing up without the kind of validation that my friend got from google; without the kind of validation that the subjects got in the self-esteem study. Without the kind of validation that Karen was finally able to get from Tom.
Imagine this little child trying to understand himself, his world, and all the other people in it. Imagine that he doesn’t feel he can ask questions when he needs help. No one notices his feelings or emotional needs. No one says, “Let me explain this to you.” No one says, “Your feelings are normal.” No one says, “I’m here for you,” or “I see your emotions,” either by words or actions.
This child is being sentenced to an entire life of seeking answers. An entire life of feeling like a non-person. An entire life of feeling less-than. An entire life of feeling angry or baffled or untethered, or all three.
An entire lifetime of feeling invalid.
To learn more about validation, how it affects people who live without it, and how to heal, see the book Running on Empty.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral