Travis’s wife notices that he becomes unnecessarily angry every time she asks him to do something, even if it’s just a small chore around the house. Frustrated by his constantly ruffled feathers, she finally points this out to him. Once Travis hears this, he begins to pay attention to his own reactions in a way that he never has before. He realizes that he indeed feels a jolt of anger just as his wife has observed. “I don’t like being told what to do,” he concludes.
Lynn is the mother of an 8-year-old daughter, Hayley, and also a 3-year old son. Hayley is doing well in 3rd grade. Her teachers describe her as a well-adjusted, happy, well-liked child who does all of her schoolwork very well. But Lynn has a hard time accepting the teachers’ reports at face value. She finds herself asking Hayley too many questions about her playground experiences, friends, and interactions with her peers. She lives in fear that Hayley will experience bullying.
Ivan is out to dinner with his group of friends. Everyone is talking and laughing and having a fun time. But Ivan is struggling. Glancing at his watch he yawns and wonders how long he needs to stay. Deep down, he is feeling boredom that goes beyond boredom, and a swirl of frustration that makes him want to spring out of his chair and leave. It’s a complex cocktail of emotions that, strangely, seems both curiously out-of-place and yet deeply familiar.
Travis, Lynn, and Ivan are no different from the rest of us. We all live our lives under the influence of silent currents that ripple through our lives, coming upon us unexpectedly and yanking us this way or that way. They can leave us wondering, confused, or even sometimes baffled, about why we feel what we feel or do what we do.
These currents are the real reason for Travis’s anger, Lynn’s fear, and Ivan’s urges to flee. They are old feelings. Feelings from growing up that they never faced or dealt with and of which they are unaware. All three of these people are being influenced by unresolved emotions from their childhoods.
Travis was raised by an authoritarian father who would come home from work and bark orders at Travis. “Do this,” “Now do that,” he would command in a booming voice. Travis knew that if he didn’t hop to it he would pay a heavy price with his dad. Travis learned early and well how to squash his own feelings, wishes, and needs and do as he was told in order to keep his father from exploding.
Travis has pushed his anger at being controlled by his dad underground for so many years that they are now pooled in his body like an underground spring. When his wife asks him to do something for her, she inadvertently triggers his buried feelings.
Lynn’s family moved around a lot when Lynn was growing up. Between grades 3 and 12 she lived in 5 different states. The middle child of 3 siblings and with two busy, working parents, Lynn was mostly left to adjust to all these changes on her own. In 2 of the schools that she attended she encountered severe bullying, targeted for being “the new kid.” With no one to help or defend her Lynn’s main coping mechanism was to simply ignore the bullying and pretend it wasn’t happening.
Lynn is going through her adult life with lots of intense feelings from the bullying that are conveniently walled off. Feelings of hurt, helplessness, and loneliness lurk on the other side of her wall waiting to be touched off. Now, her child’s age is triggering her old feelings, causing her to live in fear that Hayley will have the same experience is attaching itself to Hayley where it does not belong.
Ivan grew up in a typical American family that was, by all accounts, “good people.” But those good people had some major shortcomings. Only positive, happy feelings and words were allowed in their house. Ivan’s parents viewed negative feelings, such as anger, sadness, hurt, or anxiety, as unnecessary complaining. They thought they were training their children to be happy, but they were actually literally banning and squelching a great deal of the most deeply personal expressions of their children’s humanity. Ivan always knew that he needed to keep any negativity to himself.
Finding himself in this happy circumstance, Ivan’s deep well of negative feelings, pushed underground by his parents, begins to threaten. He has no idea why, but whenever he should be happy, he feels bored and frustrated and needs to escape. Because his parents always required him to be happy, he now experiences happy circumstances as an unreasonable demand placed on him, and old feelings of rebellion are activated.
I wish I knew how many times I have said, “Use your feelings.” Several times every single week I either write or say that phrase.
Even though I constantly tell people this, I am well aware that it’s not so easy to understand what it means. So, let’s talk about it now.
First, a little primer on feelings. Here are some fun feeling facts to lay the groundwork.
So, now that we’ve refreshed on how your feelings can be useful to you, you may still find it difficult to imagine the process of using them. How exactly does one go about putting their feelings into practice? I have helped hundreds of people gain access to their emotions and learn to use them. I’m going to share some examples of people with Childhood Emotional Neglect who have already been through the CEN healing steps.
James was laid off from his job as a software developer because his company downsized due to COVID-19. Shocked, James never thought he would find himself in this position. He immediately began looking for a new job and updating his resume. But each time he began to work on the update, he got a foggy feeling in his brain that made him feel exhausted. Time and time again, it kept happening. And then James woke up. He realized his body was trying to tell him something. Allowing himself to sit with the feeling, feel it, and think deeply into what it meant, he realized that he had not enjoyed the job he was just laid off from. He had performed it like a robot, effectively going through the motions with a near absence of joy or reward. James realized that his body was telling him that looking for another software job was not a good idea. In the end, James made a conscious decision to take another software job for financial reasons, but to also take online classes on the science of climate change so that he could move in the direction of applying his computer skills to something he felt passionate about.
Kate always loved getting together with her childhood friend, Nicole. They had known each other since preschool, had gone through high school together, and had kept in touch through college and through their twenties. Now 32, Kate and Nicole tried to get together on the 3rd Friday of every month. But recently, Kate had begun to feel a low-grade, angry feeling every time the 3rd Friday was approaching. Like James did in the example above, Kate decided to pay attention. She sat down, closed her eyes, and let herself feel the anger while thinking about having dinner with Nicole. She realized that Nicole seemed to do almost all the talking while they were together. Kate became aware that their dinners had become all about Nicole, and it was difficult for Kate to get a word in about herself or her own life. Kate decided she would need to either bring this up with Nicole or purposely try to talk more to see how Nicole would react. In the end, she did both.
Jack had been divorced for 7 years, and he felt he had finally found his person. Alison had just moved in with him, and they were working on setting up his house to accommodate both of their belongings. It was a time of happiness and excitement, and they were very much in love. But Jack noticed a curious thing happening. When Alison placed one of her pieces of furniture or decorative items in a prominent spot in the house, Jack absolutely hated how it looked. Each time, he felt a sense of being encroached upon, taken over, and essentially erased. After this happened enough times, Jack finally sat down and focused on the feeling. He remembered that in his previous marriage, his wife had been a selfish, bossy sort who virtually always insisted on having things her way. Jack had eventually stopped fighting with her and had been rendered essentially helpless in that relationship. Jack’s body was warning him to never let this happen to him again. It was telling him to be careful, and to express his own wishes and needs to Alison.
In the first story, if James had ignored his feelings, that dull feeling of paralysis that overcame him every time he tried to update his resume may have spread to his next job, and with no explanation for it, he might also view it as a weakness or blame it on himself. He would also likely have ended up in another unrewarding software job and become more and more unhappy and unfulfilled.
If Kate had ignored her feelings, she may have simply drifted away from Nicole completely over time, finding their time together unrewarding and painful but without any real awareness of why, or that there might be anything she could do to correct the problem.
If Jack had continued to ignore his feelings, he may have repeated his helpless/hopeless passive stance with Alison, even though that approach was completely inappropriate in that relationship. He may have failed to speak up and stand up for his own needs and resented Alison for something she was not doing and didn’t want.
In the end, each listened to their bodies and heeded the messages of warning, and each was saved from potential mistakes, discomforts, harmed relationships, and poor decisions.
If you take only one thing away from this article, I hope it is this: Your feelings are useful. There is a series of steps you can take to get in touch with your feelings and begin to honor and use them in the way James, Kate, and Jack did.
Positive feelings are useful and negative feelings are also useful. When your body talks, don’t you think you should be listening?
To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect separates you from your feelings and sends you into adulthood with a major disadvantage, see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is usually 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.
How do you raise a child to have no emotional needs? Turns out, it’s remarkably, shockingly easy. It’s so easy that many parents do it by accident, despite wanting everything good for their child, and despite trying to do everything right as a parent.
In fact, raising a child to have no emotional needs is so easy that it’s scary.
You just have to do a few special things. Or, rather, you just have to not do a few special things. We will talk about those special things in a minute, but first, I have a question for you.
Might you think this sounds like a desirable outcome, or a sign of strength, to have no emotional needs? If so, you are joined by lots of other people who think that adults should be “strong,” meaning need little from other people, especially not emotionally.
Yet we humans are emotional beings. Our emotions are built into the deepest parts of our central nervous system. They are the deepest, most biological expression of our past and present experiences, wants, responses, reactions, and needs. Our emotions are the expression of our deepest selves.
What connects two people together in a love relationship? Emotions. What has motivated some of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time? Emotions. What enables every single human being to make decisions that are authentic to themselves? Emotions.
What makes life mean something? Yes, you are right. It’s emotions.
Let’s take a moment to consider what it means to have emotional needs. It means that you are human, and it also means two more things. That you are open to messages from your inner self and that you are open to connections with others that are based on vulnerability and emotional honesty. These are the ingredients that make relationships feel true, resilient, and rich, all of which are paramount to being able to emotionally thrive.
Do you have emotional needs? Yes, you do, because you are human. But the real question is whether you allow yourself to know, express, and try to meet them.
So, back to our initial question: How do you raise a child to have no emotional needs? Essentially, you raise your child to ignore, hide, or be ashamed of their emotional needs. This enables your child, once grown, to believe that they have none.
Many well-meaning, caring parents do this without intending it or knowing. Sadly, when you ignore, hide, or belittle (even if only subtly) your child’s feelings, you inadvertently teach your child how to suppress their own emotions and emotional needs. This is a lesson that will endure throughout children’s entire lifetime.
I call it Childhood Emotional Neglect. If Childhood Emotional Neglect (or CEN) sounds like the intentional act of an unloving parent, I assure you it’s usually not the case at all. Many CEN parents are simply missing the emotional awareness, understanding, and knowledge their child needs because they didn’t receive it from their own parents.
The bottom line, we can only give our children what we have to give.
One crucial point, having emotional needs, and sharing them is not the same as being needy. Nor does it make you appear needy.
Quite the contrary, having emotional needs and expressing them makes you appear, and be, stronger.
At age 24, Kasey has never had a boyfriend. Deep down, she’s always wanted a relationship, but on the surface, she has worked hard to hide that wish. She has told many friends and family members that she has more important things to do than to date. When the subject came up with her friends, she turned beet red and changed the subject.
Jackson visits his parents with his partner and children dutifully every major holiday. Each time they visit, Jackson experiences the absence of emotional connection in his relationship with his parents. Jackson’s family is great about discussing sports, news, and weather, but no one talks about anything genuinely important or real. Jackson is vaguely aware that he is hurt by his parents’ lack of interest in his personal life, struggles, or feelings, but he also learned from the way he was raised that to admit that his parents’ emotional void is hurtful, even to himself, would make him weak and needy. So he works hard to never let himself feel it, and he never expresses a word about it to his spouse or anyone else.
It’s okay to want things like understanding, comfort, and support. It’s okay to need things like love, attention, warmth, and connection.
It’s powerful to allow your true feelings to be seen, heard, and felt by others. It’s what makes others able to know you, and what makes you able to feel empathy for others.
Most importantly, acknowledging your emotional needs, and expressing them, is the single best, if not only, way to actually get them met.
To learn much more about how to recognize, accept, and express your emotional needs to others see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
This week, I am sharing a segment of my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. It’s a vignette from the book that, I wrote for couples and families who are living with Childhood Emotional Neglect. This particular passage from the book explains what it’s like when a couple is living with, and harmed by, the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Olive and Oscar are a likable, caring couple who love each other and they clearly want to make their marriage work. But they have been experiencing a severe challenge. They both grew up in emotionally neglectful homes. Unbeknownst to them, they have been living under separate “CEN clouds” when they met, and they have lived under that cloud together for decades.
When Oscar and Olive married, they each lacked the emotion skills needed to make their marriage work. This led to a loving but emotionally devoid relationship that was functional, yet empty; loving, yet distant.
You can read the entire story of Oscar and Olive in the book, Running On Empty No More.
By the time Olive and Oscar came to my office for couples therapy, their marriage was in serious trouble. Years had gone by with little communication, while misinterpretations and false assumptions grew like weeds in an unkempt garden. Each partner sat fairly expressionless on my couch, struggling to explain why they had come to see me.
“I’m pretty much done with this marriage,” Olive finally said flatly. “We’ve been married all these years, and Oscar still doesn’t know me at all.”
“I do know her extremely well, in fact,” Oscar said. “And that’s the real reason she’s ‘done’ with our marriage.” (Yes, Oscar put sarcastic finger quotes around the word “done.”) “She never admits the real reason she does things.”
As I listened and observed this exchange in our first session, I was amazed.
Interestingly, I was able to tell after only a brief interaction with Olive that she was not the manipulator that Oscar described. I also saw the level of anger that Oscar carried, and how Olive seemed to be quite oblivious to it.
Olive’s abrupt announcement in the session that she was done with the marriage is typical of a person with CEN. Lacking the skills to communicate about subtle and varied emotions, and unable to understand or put the myriad of problems into words, she said the only thing she could formulate to communicate the intensity of her feelings in that moment. I have found that many CEN folks are prone to such extreme statements once they finally decide to voice their pain.
Olive and Oscar, in their double CEN marriage, had two emotional walls to contend with. Sadly, in this marriage, no one was knocking on anyone’s wall. Their chasm had been widening for many years and was now double-wide. They were both intelligent, good-hearted, and likable people, and they seemed like they should make a good couple. Despite the misinterpretations and despite the anger, I could sense the love between them.
Olive and Oscar had no opportunity as children to learn that emotional intimacy exists. Neither of them experienced it in their families or saw it between their parents. Both were intelligent, good, and caring people, but neither had access to their emotions, and neither had the emotion skills necessary to create and maintain true emotional intimacy with a partner.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) teaches you as a child to ignore and hide your feelings from others, and even from yourself. You learn very early in your life that emotions are useless, troublesome inconveniences and you take this philosophy forward into your adult life. You essentially wall off your feelings so that they will not bother you, and this may seem like a relief.
But, in actuality, you need your emotions to guide and connect you in your life, but the place you need them the most is your marriage.
Feelings are the spice in a relationship, the fireworks, and the glue. It is by working through feelings together that you connect as a couple and become close. An intimate marriage requires emotional exchange, emotional awareness, and emotional vulnerability.
There’s a particular feeling that I get when I work with a CEN couple. It’s similar to the experience of trying to push two magnets together that are facing the wrong directions. It’s like there’s a powerful force field between them, pushing them apart.
The only way to break the force field is to begin to help each partner to better access their own emotions in some small way. By talking about their feelings and their relationship in more nuanced, emotionally enriched ways, they each make a slight turn, followed by another slight turn, followed by another. Bit by bit, they gradually end up turning their faces enough that a slight pull can begin to form.
And when that happens, the real repair work has begun.
How To Learn More
Watch for a future post about Olive & Oscar Part 4 where you will learn how their couple’s therapy went and how they broke down the walls that divided them.
To read the rest of Olive and Oscar’s story and learn how they faced the Emotional Neglect with their children and with their own parents, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
What does it mean when someone describes themselves as “brutally honest?” It’s not as simple as many people think.
The idea of brutal honesty has been placed in a positive light in today’s world. Perhaps because of the word “honesty.” Because honesty is a good thing, right? Of course, it is.
We all agree that it’s important to be honest and truthful. But, in reality, the truth often hurts.
Many times in our lives we are faced with situations in which we need to share a message that may hurt the recipient. And there are many possible ways to manage those situations.
Declaring yourself brutally honest is perhaps the easiest way around the “truth/hurt” quandary. It’s essentially a free pass to say what you think or what you feel in the moment you think it or feel it.
Chances are high that you know someone like this, who goes through life unfiltered:
You’re the most thoughtless person I know, Marcy says to her husband Edward.
What made you buy that coat? Jenny says to her friend Lori.
Only an unintelligent person would make that argument, Bill says to his colleague.
Looks like you’ve been eating a few too many cheeseburgers, Grandma Bea says to her grandson.
The upside of brutal honesty is that you seldom have to guess what the brutally honest person is thinking. The downside is that you don’t always want to know what the brutally honest person is thinking.
Brutal honesty hurts people. Long after the “honest one” has had his say, the recipient will be suffering the damages.
There is another way to deal with the conundrums of life. It involves no potshots, far less damage to the recipient, and far less hurt all around. Yet it still communicates the necessary message. It’s called Truth With Compassion.
Truth with compassion is a way to express your truth while reducing its hurtfulness as much as possible. Hurting others immediately and automatically sparks their defenses. And once the defenses come up, you’ve lost their open ear. They will no longer hear you.
1. Clarify your message within yourself before saying anything to the other person
Example: Marcy’s You’re the most thoughtless person I know becomes: You should have checked with me before taking on that giant project at work.
2. Think about the personality and nature of your recipient. How emotionally fragile is he? How will he best hear this message?
Example: Marcy knows that Edward is normally a thoughtful person, but that he is also somewhat of a workaholic. When he’s absorbed in his work, he tends to think of nothing but the job.
3. Identify the best time, place, and words to communicate your message
Example: Marcy tells Edward she has something important to talk with him about. They agree to talk when they both get home from work. Marcy says I’m hurt that you took on this big project when I hardly get to see you as it is. Did you think about me at all when you made this commitment?
By wording her truth this way, Marcy is avoiding a common barrier to communicating difficult truths: she is not sparking Edward’s defenses. Starting with “I’m hurt,” is a good way to let the recipient know that you are talking about yourself, not him. Asking a question is a good way to open a discussion without making an accusing assumption.
While Jenny and Grandma Bea should keep their “honesty” to themselves, Bill should use a question with his colleague instead of such a blunt and shaming declaration.
Why do you think that?
What makes you say that?
Have you thought about…..?
All of these are possible ways to express doubts about a colleague’s argument. They will not spark the recipient’s defenses, and they will not hurt his feelings. Nor will they likely damage the relationship.
So speak your truth. It’s important. Express yourself and be honest. But pause first to think about the other person. Filter, filter, filter. When you respect the other person’s feelings, your message will be far more likely to be heard.
To learn much more about the importance of speaking your truth and how to show compassion for the other person, plus how to share emotions in relationships, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
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.
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.
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.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN does not go away just because you grow up.
Being raised in a family that does not address your feelings (or, in other words, an emotionally neglectful family), launches you into your adult life without two things that you absolutely need for a healthy, happy, resilient marriage. The two missing things are full access to your feelings, plus the emotional skills to manage and express them.
It’s difficult enough when one member of a couple has CEN and the other does not. But when two CEN people marry, special challenges abound. Neither spouse has full access to their emotions and neither has the necessary emotion skills.
Meet Olive and Oscar. I told their story in my second bestselling book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children. Today, I am sharing a free vignette from the book that describes exactly how it feels to be in a double-CEN marriage.
Olive and Oscar sit across the table from each other, quietly having their Sunday morning breakfast.
“Is there any more coffee?” Olive asks absentmindedly while reading the day’s news on her laptop. Irritated, Oscar stands up abruptly and walks over to the coffee-maker to check.
“Why does she always ask me? She’s so manipulative. She just doesn’t want to have to walk over to the coffee-maker herself,” he cranks inwardly. Returning to the table with the pot, Oscar fills Olive’s cup. Placing the empty carafe on the table with a slight bit of excessive force, Oscar sits back in his chair with a sigh and an angry glance at Olive’s still-bowed head.
Olive, sensing something amiss from the placement of the carafe and the sigh, quickly looks up. Seeing Oscar already absorbed in his newspaper, she looks back down at her laptop but has difficulty focusing on her reading.
“I wonder what’s going on with Oscar,” she muses. “He seems so irritable lately. I wonder if his work stress is coming back. It must be his job pressure getting to him again.”
After thinking it through, Olive makes a plan to avoid Oscar for the day in hopes that giving him some alone time will help his mood improve (with the added bonus that she won’t have to be around him). Olive makes a plan to ask him about work at dinnertime to see if he is indeed under stress.
Later that evening Olive returns from her errands and finds that Oscar has made dinner for both of them. Sitting down to eat, Oscar seems to be in a better mood.
After a brief exchange about Olive’s errands, she asks, “So how are things at work?”
Looking at Olive quizzically, Oscar answers, “Fine, why do you ask?”
“No reason,” Olive replied, relieved to hear him say it was fine. Do you want to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones while we eat?”
The TV goes on and they eat dinner in silence, each absorbed in the show.
The double CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect) couple seems much like every other couple in many ways. And yet they are very, very different. This type of relationship is riddled with incorrect assumptions and false readings. And unfortunately, neither partner has the communication skills to check with the other to actually find out what he is thinking or feeling, or why she does what she does.
Since neither partner knows how to talk about the frustrations and conflicts that naturally arise (as they do in every relationship), very little gets addressed and worked out. This is a set-up for passive-aggressive retaliation that, over time, eats away at the warmth and caring in the marriage, outside of both partners’ awareness.
Small, indirect actions like carafe-slamming, avoidance, ignoring, and forgetting can become the primary means of coping and communicating in the relationship. None of them are effective.
In the scenario above Oscar misinterprets Olive’s thoughtless absorption in her reading as “manipulative,” and Olive misinterprets Oscar’s irritation with her as the possible result of job stress. Instead of dealing with these issues directly at the moment, Olive chooses avoidance for the day. Her question to Oscar that evening at dinner is too simple and off-target to yield any useful information. She is left with a false sense of reassurance that Oscar’s mood magically improved and that nothing was really wrong in the first place.
So forward they go, into the coming weeks, months, and years, with Oscar viewing Olive as lazy and manipulative, and Olive on constant guard against a return of Oscar’s job stress. Drastically out of tune with one another, they live in separate worlds, growing ever distant from each other.
Olive and Oscar sometimes feel more alone when they are together than they do when they are apart. They are divided by a chasm as wide as the ocean. They each sense that something important is wrong, but sadly, neither can consciously describe nor name it.
Fortunately for Olive and Oscar, they actually have loads of potential. They each have plenty of feelings; they are simply not aware of those feelings or able to use them in a healthy, relationship-enriching way. At the heart of their marriage are companionship, history, concern, and love. All that is really missing from their marriage is emotional awareness and skills, both of which can be learned.
There is a good chance that one day, one of them will “wake up” emotionally, and knock on the other’s wall.
Watch for Olive & Oscar Part 2 in a future article, and you will see that is exactly what happened.
Emotionally neglected kids grow up to emotionally neglect themselves. Then, when they get married, it is natural (not the same thing as healthy) that they will emotionally neglect their spouses.
In so many vitally important ways, the Emotional Neglect that happens in a marriage is no one’s choice and no one’s fault. It is literally programmed into the emotionally neglected child.
Every day, in my office, I help couples understand what’s missing and why. Together, we relieve them from the blame and shame and set them on the path forward.
In a future post, Part 2, I will share the continuation of Olive and Oscar’s story from the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. You will see where the path of CEN recovery took them, which was right to my office for couple’s therapy. You will learn about my work with them, and how their efforts to heal their marriage sent ripple effects through their children and their parents.
To learn more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, what makes it so unmemorable, and how to heal yourself, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.