There’s no such thing as standing still in life. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.
Do you ever wonder why some people seem to identify a problem in their lives, decide they want to change themselves, and start changing, whereas others don’t seem to be able to take positive steps like that?
Some folks seem to stay stuck no matter how hard they try. They might read self-help books, talk to friends and family, go to therapy, or even see multiple therapists. But nevertheless, their issues don’t seem to improve much.
If this is someone you care about, you might watch helplessly from the sidelines as they continue to be their own worst enemy. They may seem to be repeating patterns that are self-destructive, unable to hear or take others’ advice, or distant and unreachable. It is painful to watch.
It’s even more painful when it’s you, and you are watching yourself live this way.
In my 20 years of experience as a psychologist, I’ve identified six personal traits that can stymie and stall even the most deserving and lovable people. The last one, number 6, is the least recognized and, I think, the most powerful obstacle of all.
When you’ve spent years living a certain way, that way becomes your reality and your worldview. Other people seem to be living on a different planet, and you can’t understand how they got there. It’s hard to attain something that you can’t even imagine.
If you grew up in a family that devalued or discounted your feelings (Childhood Emotional Neglect), then you likely learned that your emotions are useless or a burden. You probably walled off your feelings as a child and have been living for years without full access to the richness and guidance they should have been providing in your life.
Although the wall blocking your feelings may have been necessary for your childhood, it now blocks out a vital source of information for making good, authentic choices for your life; it also holds at a distance the people who could help you the most. You may find it difficult to trust the people who could be supporting you. You find yourself “safe” but alone; trapped within walls that are holding you back.
Self-destructive or damaging life patterns can be so entrenched that they’ve become a part of who you are. No matter what’s wrong in your life, you can get accustomed to it. Our brains store life patterns, and we have a natural tendency to settle into them. We are who we are, and on some level, we get comfortable with that, even if it makes us miserable. The idea of changing can feel very discomfiting and scary. It feels easier and safer to choose “the devil you know.”
Depression interferes with growth in three important ways. It saps your energy and motivation, which makes it harder to take on a challenge; it makes you isolate yourself so that you have less support to change, and it makes you feel hopeless, so there seems no point in trying to change.
Self-directed anger has a way of breaking you down. Like drops of water on a stone, there is a gradual erosion of your self-worth. How can you change when you don’t feel you’re worth the effort it requires?
And now for the big one.
In order to truly change, you have to acknowledge and face your own painful history. Who have you hurt? What damage have you done to yourself or others? The guilt and pain that can result from looking at the past is a powerful force that can hold back even the most courageous people. I have seen that this factor alone is a tremendous obstacle in the recovery of anyone who has a personality disorder, or any other long-standing destructive life pattern.
If you catch even a glimpse of how your past choices or mistakes have affected others, it may be so painful and guilt-inducing that you immediately look away. And there you are, right back where you started.
What to do? Don’t feel helpless! You’re not. Read on below.
One step at a time.
To learn much more about how your childhood wall may be blocking you from growing now, plus how to accept, manage and face your feelings and mistakes, see the book, Running on Empty.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
It was a scorching day in Costa Rica. My husband and I decided to take our 8-year-old son for a hike to get as close as possible to the Arenal Volcano. We walked several hours through beautiful, lush forest.
As the sun got higher and the day got hotter, we reached an endpoint marked by signs reading, DANGER, KEEP OUT. We walked around the safe side of the area for a while enjoying the beautiful birds and monkeys in the trees, and then decided to head back.
As I turned to go back in the direction we had come from, my husband said, “No, let’s not go that way. We can get there by going this way.” Puzzled, I slowly turned around and followed. As we traipsed back through the forest, I had a trembly feeling in my belly that, in hindsight I realized was fear. This did not feel right.
It had taken several hours to reach the volcano, and I knew that if we went the wrong way it could be dangerous. We had consumed all of the water we had carried, and it was getting hotter by the minute.
My gut was telling me to speak up, but my brain said, “You know you’re terrible with directions. You’re almost never right about these things. Just keep quiet and follow.”
Perhaps you’ve seen the many amazing studies over the past few years that have proven that there is a direct connection between your brain and your gut.
These new studies explain many things that used to baffle us: why we get butterflies in our stomachs when we’re nervous, and why Irritable Bowel Syndrome and ulcers are both so closely connected to and influenced by the amount of stress we are under.
Here’s the most amazing thing about the new research. We now know that the brain-gut connection travels in both directions. Not only does your emotional state (and emotional health) affect your stomach; the reverse is also true. Believe it or not, recent studies have shown that the health of your gut can also affect your psychological health and your emotions.
Clearly our human brains are wired to our guts for a reason: to connect our brain with our body in a useful way.
So choosing to ignore this vital source of information is choosing to ignore a remarkable feedback system that we are meant to have, and meant to use to our benefit.
4 Ways Your Gut Can Help You
Did some of the “gut feelings” described above seem hard for you to grasp? That is a sign that you are not closely enough connected to your gut. Which means you’re missing out an incredibly useful tool in your life.
It is certainly true that some folks are not as good at tuning in to their gut. If you’re out of touch with yours, there is probably an explanation for it. Your brain / gut pathway became disconnected for a reason. There are many possible ways for this to happen.
Potential Reasons You’re Missing Signals From Your Gut
Hopefully as you’ve been reading this you’ve been tuning in to your gut. Perhaps you’ve attempted to feel some of the gut feelings I described. Perhaps you’ve imagined the connection between your brain and gut, or even tried to visualize it.
If you have, congratulations! You have begun the process of joining your brain with your gut.
How to Start Taking Advantage of Your Brain/Gut Feedback System
And now to finish the Costa Rica story. As you may have guessed, we were indeed headed the wrong way. We were moving further from our destination, not closer. Eventually, thirsty, sweaty and covered with dust from walking down a dirt road for several hours, a kind local picked us up, gave us water, and drove us back to our hotel.
For me, this was an important lesson in trusting my gut.
And I have never forgotten it.
To learn more about the newest research findings on the gut/brain connection, see:
That Gut Feeling on The American Psychological Association website.
The Gut-Brain Connection on the Harvard Health Publications Website.
Few would disagree that parents have the most difficult job in the world. And the huge majority of parents are doing the very best they can for their children.
As much empathy as I have for parents (being one myself), today I will be talking with all who are on the other side of the fence: those of you who are grown up now and are feeling that your relationship with your parents is challenging in some way.
There are indeed an infinite amount of ways that a parent/child relationship can go wrong. Many are subtle or confusing and can leave all parties feeling burdened or hurt.
Especially if you know that your parents love you, you may end up baffled about your relationship with them, and wondering what is wrong.
How does this happen? Why does this relationship have to be so complicated? Why can’t we just love our parents unconditionally?
Of course, there can be endless different explanations for any of these problems. But for most people, the answer lies somewhere in the area of what psychologists call individuation.
Individuation is the natural, healthy process of the child becoming increasingly separate from the parent by developing his or her own personality, interests, and life apart from the parent.
Individuation usually starts around age 13 but can be as early as 11 or as late as 16. Behaviors we think of as “teenage rebellion” are actually attempts to separate. Talking back, breaking rules, disagreeing, refusing to spend time with the family; all are ways of saying, and feeling, “I’m me, and I make my own decisions.”
Individuation is indeed a delicate process, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. When it doesn’t, and also goes unresolved, it can create a stressful or painful relationship between parent and adult child.
When your adolescence gets off track in any of these ways, a price is paid by both you and your parents. Much later, when you’re trying to live your adult life, you may sadly find yourself feeling burdened, pained, or held back by your parents. On top of that, you might feel guilty for feeling that way.
So now the big question.
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, and you also feel burdened by your relationship with your parents, it may be a sign that you need some distance to maximize your own personal growth and health.
Yes, parenting truly is the hardest job in the world. But parents are meant to launch you, not limit you. If your individuation didn’t happen properly through your adolescence, you may need to work at separating from your parents now in order to have the healthy, strong, independent life that you are meant to live.
So what does distancing mean when it comes to parents? It doesn’t mean moving farther away. It doesn’t mean being less kind or loving toward them. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing anything drastically different. In fact, distance can be achieved by changing yourself and your own internal response to what happens between you. I know this sounds difficult and complicated.
Guilt is, for many, built into the adult separation process, unfortunately. So separating from your parents may be no less painful now, as an adult, than it was when you were an adolescent. But the good news is, you are grown up. You’re developed. You’re stronger. Now you can better understand what’s wrong.
To learn more about how even loving parents can have a blind spot to their child’s feelings, disrupting individuation, and to find out what you can do about it now, see the 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.
A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
Of all human emotions, the one that people struggle with the most is anger. That’s understandable!
After all, it’s the emotion with the most potential to get us into trouble. It can be exquisitely uncomfortable, and it’s the most difficult to control.
Many people find it easier to push anger down altogether (or suppress it) to avoid discomfort and conflict and to stay out of trouble.
Some wear anger like armor in hopes it will protect them from being hurt or mistreated.
Others go back and forth between pushing it down and erupting. In fact, these two things go together. The more you suppress your anger, the more intense it will be when it finally erupts.
If you were raised by parents who had low tolerance for your feelings (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), then you may be all too good at pushing your anger away; suppressing it and repressing it so that you don’t even have to feel it.
In fact, you may – especially if you have CEN – be so uncomfortable with the A-Word that you can’t even say it.
you may say instead of, I’m angry.
If you’re not comfortable with your anger, you’re more likely to misread and mislabel it as something milder or more diffuse.
“Isn’t stopping yourself from feeling angry a good skill to have?” you may be wondering.
The answer is actually NO.
Research has shown how very important anger is to living a healthy life.
Aarts et al. (2010) found that people who were shown a picture of an angry face were more driven to obtain an object that they were shown later. Anger is like a driver that pushes you to strive for what you want or need. Anger carries with it the message, “Act!”
Example Without Anger: Alana was getting weary of being overlooked at work. She was well-known to be skilled and reliable, and yet she was repeatedly passed over for promotion to manager. Silently she watched younger, less experienced employees move past her, one by one.
Example With Anger: Alana became angry when a less-experienced colleague was promoted. “I deserve an explanation for this. I have to get myself promoted or leave the company,” she realized. The next day she walked into her supervisor’s office and asked why she was passed over. She was promised the next promotion slot.
2. Anger can make your relationship better and stronger
Anger, when used appropriately, can be very helpful in communication:
Baumeister et al. (1990) found that hiding anger in intimate relationships can be detrimental. When you hide your anger from your partner, you’re bypassing an important message that he or she may very much need to hear.
Of course, it’s important to take great care in how you express your anger. Try your best to calibrate it to the situation and express it with as much compassion for your partner as you can.
Example Without Anger: Lance was tired of his wife Joanne’s clutter. She kept, it seemed to Lance, virtually everything. There were stacks of newspapers on the dining room table, five pairs of sneakers of various ages in their closet, and a roomful of clothes that their children had outgrown. Lance wanted that room for an office. “I’ll never get that room,” he thought resignedly. All this time Joanne had no idea that there was a problem.
Example With Anger: Lance was fed up with the clutter. He told Joanne that it was making him feel stressed and unhappy, and also angry at her. After several heated discussions, Joanne removed her personal clutter from the spare room so that Lance could make it his office. They made a truce to try to meet each other in the middle.
3. Anger can help you better understand yourself
Anger can provide insight into ourselves if we allow it.
Kassinove et al. (1997) asked a large sample of people how recent outbursts of anger had affected them. Fifty-five percent said that getting angry had led to a positive outcome. Many respondents said that the anger episode had provided them with some insight into their own faults.
Anger can help you see yourself more clearly. And it can motivate self-change.
Example Without Anger: Joanne was surprised when Lance told her how angry her clutter was making him. “That’s too bad, you’ll just have to deal with it,” she said dully while exiting the room. She promptly put it out of her mind because she didn’t want to think about it.
Example With Anger: “That’s too bad, you’ll just have to deal with it,” Joanne fired back immediately. She stormed out of the room and slammed the bedroom door. Sitting on her bed she felt enraged and criticized.
The next day Joanne woke up with a different perspective on the conflict. She looked around and saw her home as though through Lance’s eyes. She realized that she felt criticized by Lance’s request. “I need to get better at taking criticism,” she thought.
4. Anger helps you negotiate
Anger can help you get what you want.
In a study of negotiation by Van Kleef et al. (2002), people made larger concessions and fewer demands of participants who were angry than ones who were not angry.
Anger makes you more powerful, especially when it’s justified and expressed with thought and care. Lets revisit Alana, who needed to have a difficult conversation with her supervisor.
Example Without Anger: Alana walked timidly into her supervisor’s office. After chatting about the weather, she said casually, “So what do I need to do to get promoted?” Her boss answered her question and went on with her day.
Example With Anger: Alana knew she was angry and that she needed to manage her anger when talking with her boss if she wanted to be effective. She walked into her boss’s office and said, “I need to talk to you about something important.” Alana explained how upset she was by her co-worker’s promotion. Her boss explained that the promoted co-worker was an excellent employee. This made Alana even angrier. She pushed, “Yes, he’s really good. But so am I, and I have more experience and excellent skills,” she stated clearly. Her boss paused, surprised at Alana’s persistence. “You’re right,” she said. Her boss then promised Alana the next available promotion.
If you grew up emotionally ignored or in an environment that did not have the room or tolerance for you to get angry (CEN), some small part of your brain probably screams “STOP!” as soon as you get an inkling of anger. The reality is that it’s not easy to turn that around.
But you can do it. Start thinking of anger as a helpful emotion, not something to avoid. Pay attention to your anger, and try to notice when you’re feeling it. Stop saying “STOP!” to your anger. Instead, listen to your anger’s message, consciously manage your angry feeling, and let your anger motivate and energize you.
Anger, when properly managed and expressed, is power.
So when you suppress your anger, you’re suppressing your power.
And why would you do that?
To learn more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect makes you unaware of your feelings of anger see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
As you read the list of beliefs above, did any jump out at you? Was there one, or two, or more, that you thought, “Hey, that one’s not false!”?
If so, you are not alone. Many, many people go through their lives following some or all of these guidelines. And many, many people are held back by them. These beliefs have the power to keep you at an emotional distance from others, damage your friendships and marriage, and leave you feeling alone in the world.
The beliefs are typically rooted in your childhood. They are often messages passed down from one generation to another. They take root in your mind and live there, sometimes outside of your awareness.
These ideas tend to thrive in any family that struggles with emotions, either by over or under-expressing it. They’re so common among folks who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) that they’re included in my book, Running on Empty. All of the beliefs are based on false notions of how emotions work.
If you grew up in a family that didn’t understand how to manage, express or talk about emotion, you probably didn’t learn how and when to share or be vulnerable. You may have learned that it’s actually wrong to communicate about these things.
And chances are some of the 7 beliefs were communicated to you, either directly or indirectly.
Take a chance, and see what happens. The False Beliefs will start to melt away as you begin to experience the value of trust, openness, and closeness. Your relationships will thrive, and a whole new world will open up to you.
To learn more about emotions, relationships, and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Quite some years ago a colleague dragged me to a mindfulness training for mental health professionals. At that time, mindfulness was not considered a fully valid concept in psychology.
As a psychologist who valued science, I viewed it as nothing other than new age, mystical hippy nonsense. I anticipated a flaky conference, and I was not disappointed. At one point, they had us all stand up and mill about aimlessly while humming for 20 minutes. Then we had to ask and answer some very personal questions with the strangers next to us.
Ugh. Not my cup of tea.
Fast forward to 2021, where mindfulness and science have met and married. And oh, what a glorious union it is! Mindfulness studies have been pouring from many of the best researchers in the world for over a decade. And the meaning of mindfulness has matured from simply “being in the moment” to a richer, more complex definition.Continue reading
Everything that’s wrong in your life is the fault of your parents. Whatever your struggles, your mistakes and your pain, you are not to blame. You are an innocent victim of those who raised you.
At least that’s the way some folks interpret my definition of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
The definition of CEN: A parent’s failure to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs. People who grow up this way go forward into adulthood out of touch with their own emotions, feeling empty, alone and disconnected, and are baffled about what is wrong with them.
Here’s a comment that was posted on Ten Steps to Learn Self-Discipline:
Are you saying that when a parent fails to teach their children this skill well enough, that parent is guilty of Childhood Emotional Neglect? This article was insulting.
I’ve received many such comments. They point to one of the biggest barriers I have encountered in my efforts to bring the concept of Childhood Emotional Neglect to more people: the discomfort of blaming the parents.
Despite the overwhelming body of research proving it, many people strongly resist the fact that their parents’ treatment of them in childhood had a profound effect upon who they are as adults. It is uncomfortable to blame our parents for the problems and issues that we experience in adulthood. It feels like letting ourselves off the hook. Some people consider it “whining.”Continue reading
Why did he do it?
Some of the many possible factors which have been proposed are depression, alcohol, drugs, and Parkinsons Disease. But I see another potential factor which is never mentioned by anyone. A factor which falls between the cracks just as its sufferers do: Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).Continue reading
“After reading Running on Empty I told my therapist that I’m pretty sure I was emotionally neglected as a child. He understood what I meant but he never mentioned it again”.
“I’ve been seeing my therapist for a year and she has never mentioned Emotional Neglect to me.”
“I live in San Francisco. I can’t find a therapist who is an expert in Childhood Emotional Neglect!”
Since I first started speaking and writing about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) in 2012 I’ve heard the above comments many times, from people all over the world.
Yes. In a way, it is puzzling. CEN is so widespread and causes so much pain. Why don’t therapists talk about it more directly and more often? Why aren’t there Emotional Neglect specialists? Emotional Neglect articles and workshops?Continue reading
“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.
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