Category Archives for "Emotional Maturity and Awareness"

The Most Important Relationship Of All

“Although many of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think”

     — Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Neuroscientist and author of My Stroke of Insight.

What is the most important relationship in your life? Your spouse? Your child? Your mother or father?

If you answered yes to any of those, that’s nice. But you actually have another relationship that is more important than any of them. It’s one you probably never thought about before.

It’s your relationship with your own emotions.

How we treat our own feelings has a tremendous impact on how we treat others. Your relationship with your emotions is the foundation for all other relationships in your life.

Emotions are complex and can be mysterious. Sometimes they do what we tell them. Other times they refuse to obey. We may fall in love with someone we don’t like, or stop liking someone we love. We can lose our tempers unexpectedly, or surprise ourselves by staying calm in a stressful situation.

Just as you have to listen to the people in your life, you also have to listen to your emotions. Your emotions are your body’s way of speaking to you. Indeed your emotions provide an invaluable feedback system that can anchor, inform and direct you through life.Continue reading

Do You Have Alexithymia?

Alexithymia: Difficulty in experiencing, expressing and describing emotions.

Every day I hear from folks who have just realized that they grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Often they say, “Finally I understand what’s wrong with me!” Many describe a huge weight lifted from their shoulders.

It is a wonderful thing to finally understand yourself in a new and useful way. Unfortunately, however, it is not enough. Step 1 is seeing and understanding the problem. Step 2 is healing the problem.

If you grew up with parents who did not respond enough to your emotional needs (CEN), then as an adult you are probably faced with the particular set of challenges that are unique to CEN. Children who grow up receiving the message that their emotions are not valid naturally adapt by pushing their emotions down and away, so that they won’t burden their parents with their feelings and emotional needs. If you push your emotions away as a child, you will, as an adult, lack access to them. This is why one of the most universal struggles for the CEN adult is alexithymia.

Fortunately, alexithymia is a problem that can be fixed. Emotional awareness and knowledge can be learned. In fact there is a clear and direct process to learn it. Many people have had success doing it on their own, and many with a therapist’s help.

Here is a six-step exercise that, if done regularly, will gradually get you back in touch with your feelings, which is a major part of healing from CEN.

If you take even just five minutes for this exercise three times a day (or as often as you can manage), you are forcing your brain to perform activities that are novel. You are forging new neural networks which get stronger and perform better each time you do it, even when you are not successful in identifying or naming a feeling.

The Identifying and Naming Exercise

Step 1: Sit in a room alone with no distractions. 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 in 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. Consult a list of feeling words if you need it.

Step 5: If you’re having difficulty identifying any feelings, it is okay. Coming up with a word is less important than going through the process of trying to tune in. As long as you keep doing the exercise as often as possible, you will start to make progress. Be persistent and do not give up!

Step 6: If you do find a feeling word that 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.

So now ask yourself:

Why would I be feeling ____ right now?”

Determining what you are feeling and why can be very difficult for many people, but it is especially so for those with Emotional Neglect. This exercise may seem simple, but it is not easy. Emotionally Neglected people often have great difficulty sitting with themselves, and that is a requirement for this exercise to work. If it seems very hard when you first attempt it, or even impossible, please keep trying.

As you gradually become more able to sit with yourself, focus inward, and tune into your feelings, you will also eventually start to be more aware of your emotions naturally, as they come up in your life.  You will find yourself changing: feeling more meaning in your life, more connected to others, more purpose and direction, and more trust in yourself.

Yes, in a few minutes per day, you can overcome alexithymia. In a few minutes a day, you can change your life.

To find out if Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is at work in your life, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral

Three Tips to Teach Your Child Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (EI): Your ability to manage and understand emotions and relationships, your own as well as others’.

Research has shown that Emotional Intelligence is more vital to life success and satisfaction than general intelligence. This makes EI a very important skill for parents to teach their children.

The good news: Children automatically learn EI when they are raised by parents who have it themselves. Parents with EI are able to understand what their child is feeling and why. Their emotionally attuned responses to the child model and teach him how to read, understand, and respond to his own and others’ feelings in a healthy way.

The bad news: A parent who struggles with EI himself may lack the skills necessary to be able to teach them to his child. In other words, you can’t teach your child what you don’t know. This is why low EI is self-perpetuating through generations of families.

One way to make sure that you do not teach your child about emotion is to simply ignore his emotions while you are raising him (Childhood Emotional Neglect). If you seem not to notice that your child is upset, sad, angry, hurt or anxious, you are subtly telling him that his sadness, anger, pain or anxiety don’t matter. You are teaching him to ignore his own feelings.

Emotionally neglected children grow up to experience a variety of challenges, only one of which is low Emotional Intelligence. As adults, these children also struggle with excessive guilt and self-blame, feelings of emptiness, and a general lack of joy in life.

No loving parent wants to set her child up for that scenario. But parenting is probably the most complicated job in the world. In fact, it is built into the natural process of parenting that even the most loving parents will pass our own strengths and weaknesses on to our children. Often, the only way to stop that cycle is to consciously make the effort to override it.

Three Parenting Tips to Maximize Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence:

  1. Pay attention.  Work hard to see your child’s true nature.  What does your child like, dislike, get angry about, feel afraid of, or struggle with?  Feed these observations back to your child in a non-judgmental way so that your child can see herself through your eyes, and so that she can feel how well you know her.

Life Advantage: Your child will see herself reflected in your eyes, and she will know who she is. This will give her confidence in her life choices and will make her resilient to life’s challenges.

  1. Feel an emotional connection to your child.  Strive to feel what your child is feeling (empathy), whether you agree with it or not.  When you feel your child’s emotion, he will feel an instant bond with you.

Life Advantage: Your child will learn empathy and will have healthier relationships throughout his life.

  1. Respond competently to your child’s emotional need.  Do not judge your child’s feeling as right or wrong.  Look beyond the feeling, to the source. Help your child name her emotion.  Help her manage the emotion.

Life Advantage: Your child will have a healthy relationship with his own emotions. He will naturally know that his feelings are important and how to put them into words and manage them.

No parent can follow these tips perfectly, of course. This is not about perfection; it’s about making the effort. Effort in itself shows love and care. When your child sees you trying to understand his feelings or feel his feelings, whether you succeed or not, he receives a powerful message:

Your feelings matter to me.

And what your child will hear:

You matter.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is often invisible and unmemorable. To find out if it is at work in your life, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral

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

The Fatal Flaw: A deep-seated feeling that something is wrong with you. You are missing something that other people have. You are living life on the outside, looking in. You don’t quite fit in anywhere.

If you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), chances are, The Fatal Flaw is at work in your life.

If you pushed your feelings away as a child, you now lack access to them as an adult. You sense deep down that something is missing (it’s your emotions).  And your life lacks the richness, connection and meaning that your feelings should be bringing to your life. This is the basic cause of the Fatal Flaw. Most people who have it are not aware of it, and this gives it incredible power.

The 7 Key Effects of Your Fatal Flaw

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

6 Ways to Take Control of Your Fatal Flaw

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

Yes, your Fatal Flaw is powerful. But so are you. You have a great deal of personal power that is being drained by your Fatal Flaw.

So today’s the day. Declare war on your Fatal Flaw, and start using your weapons of awareness, your emotions, your intellect, and your words.

This is a battle that you can win. I promise.

To learn more about the Fatal Flaw, what caused it and how to overcome it, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author.

Childhood Emotional Neglect: Man vs. Woman

“CEN people, both men and women, are exceptionally likable folk. This is part of the tragedy of CEN. These are some of the most lovable people in the world, and yet they feel the most alone.”

I often get asked whether Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) affects men and women differently. My answer is,  “yes, it does.” Although the essential effects are the same, some of those effects tend to play out differently in men than in women.

In Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect I tried to represent both genders in my descriptions, examples, and vignettes. Before I talk about this more, I need to mention one large caveat. The differences that I’ve seen between CEN men and women are general descriptions that do not apply across-the-board. I often see the masculine effects in women and vice-versa. Since there is significant crossover, please don’t take these differences too firmly or stringently. And definitely, do not think there is something wrong with you if you fit more neatly into the opposite gender. It does not indicate a problem of any kind.

As you look over the table below, you may notice that the differences are not very surprising. In recent years, neuroscientists have found that men have more connections in their brains from front to back and within each hemisphere than women, making them more suited to perception and coordinated actions. Women, on the other hand, have more connections between the hemispheres. This gives women an advantage in the areas of intuition and interpersonal processing.

TABLE OF CEN GENDER DIFFERENCES 

Adult CEN Characteristic Women Men
 
Emptiness or numbness Attempt to fill selves with other people and their needs Seek adventure to feel something or isolate themselves
Counter-Dependence Seek to fill others’ needs in place of their own Fervently embrace and pride themselves on independence & competence
Little Compassion For Self Harsh judgments drive down self-esteem Harsh judgments become pressure to be “the best,” often at work. May become driven.
Fatal Flaw Feel unlikeable or unlovable Feel invisible and overlooked
Struggles With Self-Discipline Self-care suffers: eating, exercise, sleep and rest May become overly or compulsively self-disciplined at times
Alexithymia May learn the language of emotion but it’s hard to apply it to themselves Emotions go underground and come out as irritability
Self-Directed Anger and Blame Anger is directed at themselves and may turn into depression Anger is more likely to also be turned outward at others

 

Generally, men and women suffer equally when it comes to CEN. But women tend to be harder on themselves and to become excessive caretakers and givers, ignoring their own needs and feelings. They can end up feeling drained and exhausted because they are not taking care of themselves and have difficulty saying “no” to others.

Men, on the other hand, are more inclined to embrace and value the feelings of isolation and disconnection that go along with CEN. Men with CEN may misperceive their isolation as a sign of masculine strength. Yet these men are also pained by the feeling that they are not connected when they are with other people. They struggle with feeling ignored and overlooked by others but lack the words to express it.

One thing that I have seen over and over in CEN men is an acute discomfort (often anxiety) in large groups of people, especially when they are expected to socialize. In these situations, their intensive individuality combines with the feeling of being ignored to create a special type of misery.

The other primary difference I see between women and men’s CEN is what they do with their feelings. Women feel ashamed for having emotions. They turn their anger against themselves. Men are more likely to be totally unaware that they have feelings at all.

Anger is more accepted from men than from women in today’s world. So men don’t suppress their anger as much as women. Instead, they may alternate between suppressing it and then feeling it unexpectedly, sometimes directing it towards others and sometimes toward themselves.

What happens when two people with CEN form a relationship or marriage? I can tell you that it makes for some very interesting challenges. Check back to see a future blog on this topic.

Some of the most remarkable characteristics of people with CEN deserve mention here. CEN people, both men, and women are exceptionally likable folk. This is part of the tragedy of CEN. These are some of the most lovable people in the world, and yet they feel the most alone. They are typically excessively competent, stand-up folks; yet they feel invisible. They suffer because some vital ingredient is missing from their lives. Yet that missing ingredient is their own emotions, which are not missing; just suppressed.

If I could gather all of the CEN men and women in the world together in one huge room, here is what I would say to them:

You are not invisible, and you are not to blame. You have no reason to be ashamed. Ask yourself what you feel and why, and you will find your true self there. Your emotions will become your compass, your comfort and your connection to life. And then you will realize how very much you matter.

To learn much more about how to heal your marriage if you and/or your spouse grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

To find out whether you grew up with CEN, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral

Reverse Golden Rule: Treat Yourself as You Would Treat Others

 

“What the heck is wrong with you?”
“You are an idiot.”
“How could you make such a stupid mistake?”

 

These may sound like nasty, abusive comments that someone might say to his spouse during a major fight.

Actually, they are typical, everyday comments that many people say to themselves on a regular basis. Many of these people would NEVER say anything that hurtful to their spouse or anyone else.  These are thoughtful, caring people who would not want to hurt another person that way, because they feel compassion for others. The problem is that they do not have that same amount of compassion for themselves.

Why would a person “talk” to herself this way?  I have often found the roots of it to lie in Childhood Emotional Neglect.  When our parents don’t teach us in childhood the process of:  1) acknowledging a mistake; 2) figuring out what we can learn from it; and 3) forgiving ourselves and putting it behind us, we have no choice but to become our own internal “parent,” which we then carry forward through our adulthood.

In the absence of a balanced, forgiving parent who holds us accountable, we become our own internal parent.  A child-like parent who is excessively harsh.

Attacking putdowns like these can become almost a habit. When you do not treat yourself with the same compassion you have for others, you gradually break down your own self-esteem and self-confidence without even realizing it. You are doing as much damage to yourself as you would if you were living with someone who put you down and attacked you constantly.

If you were emotionally neglected in this way, and find yourself with that harsh internal voice, the good news is that it can be fixed.

Here’s the Reverse Golden Rule:  Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone you love and care about.

Start paying attention, and catch yourself in your “automatic putdowns.”  Consciously put in the effort to challenge those destructive comments, and counter them with more productive one. This does take work, but it is well worth it. And please don’t hesitate to find a good therapist near you.

Stop Blaming Yourself!

A beautiful young woman sits across from me. Twenty-five, single, college-educated. Great job, lots of friends. A life filled with parties and group trips on the week-ends. She should be smiling, but she is not.

“What is wrong with me?”, she asks tearfully. When I look into her eyes, I see that this is not a rhetorical question. She wants an answer. As her therapist, I know that there is an answer, but it may not be one that she’s ready for. So I ask her, “What is it about this promotion that makes you so anxious?”

This question is followed by a fresh burst of tears. “I have no idea. There’s no reason for it. I’ve worked so hard, I’ve put everything into climbing the ladder. I so deserve this. Everyone tells me so, my friends, my co-workers and my boss. They’re all so happy for me. But every time I think about going to my new position, I get panicky. I feel it now, give me a minute.” She puts her hands over her eyes and takes a few, deep breaths.

As a psychologist, I know that the roots of Elizabeth’s anxiety are not contained within this situation; the roots are in her childhood. And for her to be able to overcome the panic and function well at work, I’ll need to help her dig them out.

Eventually, as I ask question after question, Elizabeth suddenly starts talking about her fifth grade graduation. Here is her story:

It was a big day at school, filled with parents and pride. Each child had created a collage depicting his favorite parts of elementary school for the parents to see. Elizabeth’s had been singled out by the teacher as especially artful earlier in the day, and she was extremely excited for her parents to see it. Her parents sat through the graduation ceremony and clapped enthusiastically, with pride on their faces. After the ceremony, the parents had the opportunity to mill around the classroom to look at all of the collages hanging on the walls. Just as her parents had worked their way through the crowd to the spot where her collage was hanging, her father’s beeper went off. “We have to go,” he announced, urgently turning and taking her mother’s arm. “This was great, Elizabeth, but it’s time to go,” her mother said as they rapidly headed for the door.

Elizabeth obediently followed her parents through the crowd, across the parking lot and to the car, dragging her feet and looking down at the pavement. She knew that her father was a cardiac surgeon who saved lives, and that her collage was nothing compared to that. Since she understood, she kept her tears silent in the back seat of the car.

Fast forward, back to Elizabeth sitting in my office. She told me that she had not thought of this incident for years. Yet there was something about her current situation that reminded her of it. As she told the story, her tears came even more readily, filling Kleenex after Kleenex. “This is so stupid,” she said, blaming herself. “What am I, eleven years old?”

It was only after I helped Elizabeth connect the dots that she was able to see the source of her anxiety, and how it related to her childhood memory. It turned out that she had had many similar incidents in childhood, in which moments that should have been hers suddenly were trumped by someone else’s medical crisis. Through these experiences, Elizabeth had internalized the notion that her achievements are insignificant, and that she should therefore expect to be disappointed by them.

Over and over, again and again, I see intelligent, accomplished people fail to make connections between their childhoods and their current struggles. We human beings do not like the notion that those who raised us had such a profound effect upon who we are as adults. Most of us will acknowledge intellectually that it’s true, but when it comes down to owning it, we resist. Instead, we blame ourselves.

In 1951, psychiatrist John Bowlby first put forth the idea that the quality of an infant’s attachment to its mother actually had an effect on the personality of that infant as an adult. At first, his concept, which we now call ‘Attachment Theory’ was attacked and challenged by scientists for lack of evidence. But over the last 60 years, his theory has been proven over and over again, by study after study. Aspects of Attachment Theory have been fine-tuned by later researchers, so that mental health professionals now understand that even very subtle parental behaviors toward a child can often be observed in that child many years later, in adulthood.

I often wonder why Attachment Theory isn’t more readily embraced on a personal level by all people. Wouldn’t it help people like Elizabeth more quickly figure out for themselves why they are anxious, sad, angry or hurt? Wouldn’t we blame ourselves less for our struggles if we could more readily see that our reactions are rooted in our childhood? Wouldn’t that understanding make it easier for us to overcome our inner obstacles?

Here’s my theory about why we resist the notion that our parents have had such a profound effect upon us as adults: I think that if we allow ourselves to see the true impact that our parents had upon us, we may end up feeling disempowered, or even victimized. If we understand the true impact that we have on our own children, we may feel terrified at the prospect of having so much power. Since we are not fond of feeling either, we lean more toward blaming ourselves for our issues, and underplaying the impact which we have on our own children.

I have seen it happen many times in my office. As soon as a client recognizes the true roots of his current struggle, he is freed up to face it and overcome it. When he faces it, he is less likely to pass that struggle on to his children.

When we embrace the true power that our childhoods have in our lives, we become stronger. And so do our children.

Stress and Self-Care

Before we talk about stress, I ask that you please answer these two questions:

1.       On a scale of 0 to 10, rate your average daily stress level over the past month.  0 is no stress, and 10 is maximum stress.  Please write your answer down.

2.       Do you believe that your own personal stress level could be impacting your physical or mental health?  Please write your answer down, YES or NO.

Yesterday I was sitting at the hair salon reading a book that I had downloaded to my phone while I waited for my highlights to take effect.  After a brief chat with my hairdresser about how great it is to read a book on your phone, she asked, “So, what are you reading?”

I stammered for a few seconds, during which I was thinking, “Should I tell her what I’m reading?  Maybe I should tell her I’m reading that other book I downloaded that’s about tips for authors, since at least it would show I’m accomplishing something.”  In the end, since I’m not one to lie, I told her the truth: that I was reading a book by Ann Rule about a series of real life murders that took place in the Seattle area.  Brain candy.  Embarrassing!

That experience came to mind later that day when I started reading a new study about stress.  I felt surprised at myself for actually having considered lying to hide my leisurely reading, and I wondered why we humans so often feel a need to present a striving, productive face to the world. Do we not feel worthy unless we are busy and industrious?  Isn’t this discomfort with being idle a tremendous source of stress for all of us?

A 2011 study conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the American Psychological Association showed that many Americans are living with high levels of stress every day.  The average daily stress level reported (on a 10-point scale, where 0 is none and 10 is maximum),  was reported at 5.2.  22% reported extreme levels of average stress, which they defined as a level of 8, 9 or 10.

In a way, I think it’s a good thing that at least Americans are aware of their stress and are willing to admit to it.  Unlike other emotions, like sadness, anger, jealousy, fear or even anxiety, stress is more acceptable in today’s world.  In fact, it’s almost valued, like a Badge of Honor in our society.  For example, when a friend says, “How are you?” we are not likely to say, “Oh, good, kinda bored actually, not much going on.”  Instead, we search our brains for all the social events, child-centered activities and work projects which we hope will prove how busy and productive we are.

In general, the more stressed you are, the better life you are supposedly living.

Now here comes the really interesting part.  In the same study, 9 out of 10 adults said that they believe that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression and obesity.  But 31-36% of those same people believe that stress has only a slight or no impact on their own physical or mental health.  In other words, yes it’s a problem, but only for other people.

Now let’s go back and look at your answers to the questions above.  I asked you to write your answers down so that you couldn’t go back and change them.  Is your answer to #1 higher than 3?  If not, congratulations!  You are doing something right.  But if it is above 3, then your answer to question #2 becomes more important.

If your average stress level is over 3 and your answer to #2 was ‘NO’, I encourage you to give this some thought.  It is difficult to see how stress affects us personally.  But studies show that sustained high stress levels can cause physical problems like weight gain, sleep disruption, cardiac issues, and lowered resistance to disease.  The fact that you can’t see it happening doesn’t mean that it’s not happening.  Chances are, your sustained stress level is taking its toll on you.

If your average stress level is over 3 and your answer to #2 was ‘YES’, this would suggest that you are aware that your stress is a bad thing for you, and that is a good start.  But please do not stop there.

Your stress will probably not go away on its own.  Rather than letting it control you, you must take control of it.  This will require taking action to change some aspects of your lifestyle.  Here are some suggestions to help you do that:

1.       See the value of down-time.  It’s not just okay to relax, do nothing, or read a meaningless book, it’s essential.
2.       Make a list of all of the factors in your life that contribute to your stress.  Go through the list and put a check-mark on any items that could be eliminated or reduced.  Then make a plan for how you are going to do that. Many highly stressed people have actually invited a fair amount of their own stress by taking on more than they can handle.  Now’s your chance to get rid of some of the excess baggage.
3.       Plan a vacation or some sort of break for yourself.
4.       Ask for help.  Chances are, there are people around you who will help and support you if you ask for it and let them know what you need.
5.       Pay more attention to meeting your own physical and emotional needs.  Eat healthy, exercise daily, and make sure you get the amount of sleep that your body truly needs.
6.       Find a creative outlet that allows you to express and expand yourself.  Learn to cook, redecorate a room, take up painting or guitar.  Creative outlets will reduce your stress level.
7.       Here’s the most important one:  use your relationships to calm you.  Studies show that when we are in the company of people we like or love, our brains excrete oxytocin, a neurochemical that is relaxing and gives us a feeling of well-being.  What a great natural and healthy “medicine” that we can give ourselves.

I hope that you will try these ideas for at least one month.  Then come back and re-take the Real Stress Test.  See if your scores have improved.  Don’t expect a miracle.  It’s a work in progress.  The important thing is that you be aware of how you are living, face the reality of it, and work to make it better.

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