Recently, I wrote an article called Raised To Have No Emotional Needs. In the article, I gave an example of Kasey, who hid her desire to have a boyfriend because it made her feel ashamed of letting other people see that she had needs.
This topic, plus the example of Kasey, lit up somewhat of a firestorm of candid and expressive shares from readers who had extensive personal experience with feeling ashamed of their own feelings and needs — a natural result of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), unfortunately.
Let’s now use these real CEN adults’ actual shared comments to illustrate how being raised with your feelings ignored can lead to some difficulties years later, when it’s time to date, find your partner, and commit to a lifelong relationship.
Below I am sharing with you several reader’s comments in italics, each followed by my commentary about it. We will cover some of the biggest roadblocks CEN sets up when it comes to dating and relationships.
5 Roadblocks to Dating & Relationships
1. Feeling and Accepting Love
This article explains so clearly why I have always ‘muted’ my feelings to those close to me. Why would anyone be interested anyway in how I feel, my parents weren’t when I was a child, and nor was my ex-husband. It has come so naturally for me to deal with everything I feel myself yet I feel crippled with depression. Having started a new relationship with a loving, caring man, I am struggling to accept his love, I just don’t feel worthy of it.
When your parents show low interest in your feelings and emotional needs, it creates a kind of emotional desert inside of you. I call it a desert because it’s an emotionally dry spot that is virtually unable to absorb the “water” or emotionally validating love, that you may later encounter in your adult life. Even when you find the ingredient you need the most, it may make you feel uncomfortable. You do not know what to do with it.
2. Fear of Rejection
For many people regardless of CEN plucking up the courage to ask someone out for a date, even if it is just a cup of coffee is a big deal. Many people with CEN feel very rejected by their parents and also feel unlovable because they did not get that emotional warmth and validation at a vital time. Therefore when they feel “tempted” to ask someone out part of them – in a bid to protect them slams the brakes on to stop themselves from being rejected and left alone again. It is like an overprotective parent in the mind and it can be there in other relationships too. My therapist asked me once why I always decided when our session was over and it was time to leave rather than her. I think she knew the answer! It was because if she had told me the time was up and I had to leave I would have interpreted that as rejection. I think the way around this for me, at any rate, is to admit that if someone you like doesn’t want a certain relationship with you that can be tough and maybe a bit painful. However, it does not have to be an absolutely appalling catastrophe as it is for a three-year-old when their mother is not with them and they are left with unfeeling adults. One can survive it – indeed grow stronger from it – and although some people are very lovely by human standards, nobody is completely right in every way for a person anyway.
When, as a child, you go to your parents for the natural emotional support that all children need, and you do not receive it, you automatically feel rejected. In this way, children of Emotional Neglect may end up feeling fear of rejection at their very core. As an adult with CEN, you can organize your choices and actions around that fear, making it difficult to initiate a date, or even believe that someone would want to be with you.
3. Lack of Feeling
Miserable situation. It is like being dead but alive. You’re so shut off from anything that gives connection and value to your “connections” in life.
Living with CEN is probably like being raised to be a sociopath, feel nothing, experience nothing, don’t connect with others.
Children growing up in families that don’t deal with feelings learn one feeling skill and one only. It’s this: Don’t have feelings. The CEN child automatically walls their feelings off in order to cope in their childhood home. As an adult, you need your emotions to connect. This makes forming a meaningful, emotional connection with a partner very difficult.
4. Sexual Neglect
There is a thing like sexual neglect where parents hesitate or avoid any talk about romance and sex. Children then bury love and sex-related emotions deep in themselves and maybe abstain from sexual relationships. You might want to write an article about CEN and dating issues in adult life.
Parents who do not discuss or demonstrate positive emotions, such as love, warmth, or affection, and parents who avoid mention of sex or do not educate their children about it set their children up to feel ashamed of their own positive, loving feelings and sexual needs. Many CEN children grow up to be blocked by a wall of shame from pursuing a partner and sharing romantic and sexual feelings with another person.
5. How CEN Happens + Hope
CEN is like having your legs kicked out from under you. You’re told, either openly or subtly, you don’t matter. You, your feelings, wants, and needs are unimportant. It is very hard to un-convince yourself of this mindset, but not impossible. Try to see yourself as a friend you want the best for in life. Value this person against all the negative, dismissive, hurtful lies you were “raised” with. “Raised with.” When it comes to CEN, we weren’t raised, we were thwarted. Step by step, year by year, we grew up in homes when we were not allowed to BE. Very possibly, our “caregivers” were abused as well. If you can SEE it, you can NAME it and give it back, not bring it forward. You have to find hope where hope was not allowed. Day by day, moment by moment, whatever it takes. You have to be the accepting, kind loving parent you never had. What have you got to lose? More of Your Life.
Yes, Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up with some challenges in your adult life. If you find yourself experiencing any of the above roadblocks in your dating and relationships, I want to assure you that there is hope.
Just as you were separated from your feelings as a child, you can reunite with your feelings now. Just as you were blocked from accepting your normal emotional needs, you can begin accepting them now. Just as you learned to be ashamed, you can learn to welcome and believe in your emotional needs now.
By valuing your own feelings and being invested in learning how to understand and use them, you are actually becoming invested in yourself; in how to understand and value yourself.
When you care about your own true feelings, you can care about another’s true feelings. And that is the source of emotional connection. In the words of the wise reader above: “Day by day, moment by moment, whatever it takes. You have to be the accepting, kind loving parent you never had. What have you got to lose? More of Your Life.”
What have you got to gain? Love, support, partnership. Everything.
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.
Driven By Unseen Forces
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.
3 Principles of How Childhood Feelings Work
Squelched, walled-off, or pushed away feelings do not go away. They simply go underground and pool there, waiting to be touched off.
Old feelings can be easily touched off by any current situation in your life that simulates the original cause of the feeling. This can be completely unrelated to the original cause and they may attach themselves to an event, experience, or person in your current life who does not deserve them.
These old feelings can be just as powerful, or even more so, as fresh ones. They may appear to come out of nowhere. They may even make you wonder what is wrong with you.
How Travis, Lynn, and Ivan Got Their Feelings
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.
What To Do
Become aware. Old feelings can only trigger you when you are unaware of them. Once you realize what’s happening you have the opportunity to take control.
Take control. Put a label to the feeling, or mix of feelings, that are triggered and identify the kinds of situations that trigger them.
Face the feelings and process them. Sit with these old feelings and allow yourself to feel them. Share your story from childhood and allow someone to help you get perspective on it.
Pay attention. Watch for those old feelings to come up. When you feel them, try your best to parse them out and put them where they belong. It is your responsibility to protect those who share your life now from feelings caused by others in your past.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Travis, Lynn, and Ivan all grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect. Sadly, they have no idea. Instead of walling off your feelings, you can learn how to use them in a healthy and useful way. To begin take the free CEN Test and start down the path to recovery.
Having intense feelings is simply a part of being alive. No one gets a free pass.
But some feelings just keep coming back again and again, like an old nemesis who refuses to leave us alone. They can drive us to do unhealthy things or make poor choices. And they can make us supremely uncomfortable.
A recent article, Eight Step Method to Manage Intense Emotion, was about how to sit with, and tolerate an intense, painful feeling. This week, we’ll talk about how to resolve the feeling so that it actually goes away.
If you find that emotions are extra challenging for you, it may be a sign that you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. If your parents didn’t know how to handle feelings, they likely were not able to teach you. Now, as an adult, you must learn these skills on your own. The good news is that you absolutely can learn them.
Did you know that being able to tolerate a feeling and resolving it in the long-term are closely related? Here’s why:
In order to make an intense feeling go away, you have to be able to sit with it and tolerate it.
Feelings inform you about what you want and need, and they also tell you what you don’t want and don’t need. For example, enjoyment tells you to seek more of whatever it is you’re enjoying. Anger tells you to protect yourself. Fear is the classic fight-or-flight message. Sadness says, “You’re losing/lost something.” The message of pride is, “You’ve done, or you are, something good.”
When you grow up in a family that does not encourage or allow for the expression and validation of your feelings, which is Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), you are essentially being taught to hide and ignore your own emotions. With your feelings walled off, you will go through your entire adult life ignoring the most valuable expressions of your deepest self: your feelings.
Non-CEN people, on the other hand, grow up with unhindered access to the feeling messages from their deepest selves. When you have access, you have the opportunity to use your feelings as they were meant to be used: to inform, direct, guide, stimulate, and empower you.
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.
3 Examples Of Using Your Feelings
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.
How James, Kate, and Jack Used Their Feelings
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?
New Year’s Resolutions are a tricky business indeed. According to recent research, 80% of people drop theirs by the second week of February every year.
I think New Year’s Resolutions are even more difficult for those who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). And for some very good reasons.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): This happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions while they are raising you.
3 Ways CEN Makes Keeping Your NY’s Resolutions More Difficult
You likely struggle with self-discipline. Most emotionally neglectful parents, even the well-meaning ones, miss the importance of instilling healthy self-discipline skills in their children. So it’s no surprise that many with CEN struggle to make themselves do what they should do and to stop themselves from doing what they should not do. Your Resolutions are then threatened by an endless cycle of self-blame. “Why can’t I do the things other people can do? What is wrong with me?!”
You under-value your own needs. Resolutions to eat healthily or go to the gym, for example, require you to pay attention to your own needs. If you grew up with your needs under-attended, you probably now struggle to pay attention to your own needs. This struggle can tank your efforts.
I know, I know, everything above sounds so negative. You may be feeling discouraged about setting resolutions for 2021. You may be wondering the classic CEN question: “Why bother?”
If so, good news! I have thought this through, and I have some answers for you.
First, set only one resolution. Trying to do more is distracting and can be overwhelming. Second, make resolutions that will be immediately rewarding and bring quick and positive results. That way, you will set up a positive cycle that will feed itself, becoming more and more powerful every day of the year.
3 Powerful CEN-Healing Resolutions for 2021
Purposely Look For Joy in Your Everyday Life
— Research has shown that Emotional Neglect in childhood slows the development of the ventral striatum in the brain. The ventral striatum is your brain’s reward center, so if it’s under-developed, the concept of feeling joy may seem like a distant one for you. But a remarkable thing:I have asked many CEN people to start purposely seeking happiness and enjoyment, and I have watched it make a significant difference in their lives. You may find it in a small, rewarding task that you never gave much thought, a small child who smiles at you for no reason, or a beautiful orange leaf falling from a tree. At other times you may need to make something happen to bring yourself joy: call a friend, see a movie, schedule a trip, or take a day away. The more you choose joy, the more it will choose you. You will be setting yourself on a very rewarding path that will pay off in spades.
Your 2021 Resolution: I will find at least one moment of enjoyment in every day of this year.
Use More Feeling Words
—When you have CEN, one of the most powerful ways of changing your life is to simply learn and use more emotion words every day. Using a word like dismayed, despondent, incensed, blissful, morose, bland, raw, depleted, wary, strained, deflated, perky, free, quiet, devoted, or feisty adds dimension and realness to your life. Both are necessary things that you were denied in your childhood. Making this change in the way you speak on the outside will change the way you think and feel on the inside. It will also carry the added bonus of improving the quality and depth of your relationships. It is a win-win-win at very little cost to you. You can find an exhaustive list of Feeling Words in the book Running on Empty, or you can download it from the Running on Empty Page of my website.
Your 2021 Resolution: I will use one new feeling word every day of this year.
Do The Three Things
— I designed this exercise to help people with CEN develop the pathways for self-discipline in their own brains. I do not have brain scans to prove that it works, but I can honestly assure you that it does. It is a way to give yourself the ability to make yourself do things you should do and to stop yourself from doing things you shouldn’t do. These two skills together form the foundation for all self-discipline. Overriding what you want to do or not do 3 times per day, in some small way, trains your brain to be able to do so in situations when you need to. The overrides do not need to be big. They can be very small and still count. You can learn more about this exercise in the book Running on Empty.
Your 2021 Resolution: Every day of this year I will, three times, in some small way, make myself do something I don’t want to do, or stop myself from doing something I should not do.
No matter where you go, and no matter what you do in 2021, you can re-program your brain and take control of your life. Keep it simple, take control, and find your joy. Take your needs seriously, and let yourself feel.
This will be your way to treat yourself to a changing, more positive life through 2021.
This will be your way to finally, definitively, realize, and believe that you are worth the effort. And you matter.
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.
What It Means to Have Emotional Needs
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.
Raised to Have No Emotional Needs
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.
The CEN Adult’s Fear of Being Seen as “Needy”
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.
What It Means to Let Yourself Have Emotional Needs
First, it means accepting that your own feelings are real and worth attending to.
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.
Oscar & Olive in Couples Therapy
An Excerpt From the Book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships
Olive and Oscar
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.
But sadly, it’s a near-universal experience. It’s difficult to get through your life without having to go through some amount of grief.
Much has been written about how grief works, the most well-known being, of course, the writings of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the world-renowned Swiss psychiatrist who identified the 5 Stages of Grief which have comforted and validated legions of people by explaining the seemingly inexplicable feelings and stages that grieving people move through and share.
But right now I want to talk about a different aspect of grief that I see in an extraordinarily large percentage of people who lose someone. It’s not a stage of grief; in fact, it can be so ubiquitous that it’s not something people move through very well even if they are an emotionally healthy person.
Guilt is not a feeling that’s usually associated with grief, even though I observe that it’s very, very common, verging on being ubiquitous.
Since most folks don’t realize that guilt is a common and somewhat natural part of grief, they assume that their own personal guilt feelings must mean that they are guilty of something. To them, their guilt seems true and important.
But, from what I have seen, it’s usually neither true nor important, it’s just a feeling most people get when they lose someone close to them.
Why Guilt and Grief Go Together
Grief is a powerful emotional experience that fully engages the brain and the body. Grief is, essentially, the body’s attempt to absorb a shock (all deaths are a shock even when you know they are coming). Grief is like a combination of an earthquake and a hurricane both occurring together. In your body, all systems are activated and you are likely to feel many different feelings so it’s not surprising that guilt would be one of them.
The death of a person, being the cataclysmic event described above, is an occurrence that carries great gravity. When we lose someone, it is natural to re-evaluate not only what they meant to us, but also our relationship with them. We begin to ask questions about our role in their life and in their death.
Grief causes us to question ourselves.Was I there enough for them? Did I show enough care, love, concern?Did I miss their last phone call? What if I had done something just slightly differently, would they have felt better or lived longer? Could I have saved them? Could I have made them happier when they were alive? Does my secret wish for them to finally be relieved of their pain make me a bad person? These questions, plus many more variations on them, are ones that I have heard countless, blameless people torture themselves with after losing a loved one.
Are Some People More Prone To Guilty Grief?
Yes, most definitely. Although I have seen that most people are vulnerable to guilty grief, there is a large segment of the population who are far more prone to it and can get more hung up on it.
These are the ones who have a general tendency to take excessive responsibility for things, too often blaming themselves for events and situations outside of their control.
They are usually folks who have a tendency to be hard on themselves and are perhaps even highly self-critical. If you are prone to self-blame and self-criticism, you can get stuck in your guilt instead of moving through it as others would.
And, even if you are not a self-blame prone person you can end up experiencing more discomfort than is necessary. When you are already suffering from a loss, why suffer more than is absolutely necessary?
What’s The Solution?
An Ounce of Awareness + A Dose of Reality
As an expert on how Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN affects adults I work constantly with people who are out of touch with, and unaware of, their own feelings. So, I find myself saying to multiple people almost every single day, “Pay attention to what you are feeling. It matters!”
The way you treat your feelings makes a big difference in how you experience and move through your grief. So, when it comes to grieving, it is extremely helpful to allow yourself to feel it. Yes, it hurts, and I know you want to escape it. But the more you escape it the more it lingers. It’s a sad fact but a true one.
As you make an effort to feel your feelings, pay special attention to guilt. Watch for it so that you can be aware of when you are feeling it. Being aware of a feeling is half the battle because awareness allows you to manage it.
Actively manage your guilt feelings — yes, you can do that — by tempering them with a dose of reality. I invite you to think about it this way. Wouldn’t we all behave differently if we knew the future? It’s simple. Yes, we would. This is a very important fact because some of your guilt is only happening because of your current ability to observe the past. “If only,” “I should have,” and “I shouldn’t have,” are all based on hindsight. Like the proverbial quarterback on Monday morning, everything looks different after an event than it does while you were living it.
Take This Forward
Truth be told, most people, whether they are grieving or prone to self-blame or not would benefit from following the steps above. I say this for two reasons: first, far too many people are not aware enough of their own feelings to manage them as effectively as they could. And second, guilt is a feeling that occurs the most to the people who deserve it the least. And useless guilt is draining and, well, useless.
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
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.
3 Steps to Speak Your Truth With Compassion
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.
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.
10 Surprising Things Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is Not
Physical neglect. Physical neglect can be either a shortage of food, clothing, shelter or the physical presence of a parent. Latch-key kids are considered physically neglected, as is a child who is sent to school in winter without a coat. But Childhood Emotional Neglect is not necessarily any of these things. You may have a stay-at-home parent and everything you could want, but if your parents under-respond to your emotional needs, you may still grow up with the footprint of CEN.
A disease. CEN is decidedly not an illness. It’s simply something your parents couldn’t give you in childhood, emotional validation, awareness, and support. You are not sick. You just need something now that you didn’t get.
A life sentence. CEN is something that can and will hang over your life for as long as you allow it. But, once you realize the problem, the solution is in your grasp.
A personality disorder. Although in my observation, Childhood Emotional Neglect is one ingredient among other powerful forces (like genetics, abuse, double-bind parenting, for example) in the formation of most personality disorders, pure CEN in itself does not produce them. The vast majority of what I would call CEN people have no personality disorder at all. The most common personality disorder that I see among CEN people is avoidant.
A choice. One of the most common assumptions of CEN folks is that they brought their adult struggles upon themselves. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. No child chooses to have their parents ignore their feelings. Interestingly, the vast majority of CEN parents don’t choose it either. It all boils down to one thing: you can’t get something from your parents that they do not have to give. It’s not your fault, it just is.
An event. Emotional Neglect is not something your parents did to you, it’s something your parents failed to do for you. In this way, it is not an event, but a non-event. Your parents were not able to notice your feelings and ask you about them, name your feelings, validate them, or talk it over with you. Childhood Emotional Neglect is not an act but a failure to act.
Memorable. Our human brains are set up to record events as memories. Things that fail to happen are not seen, noticed, or remembered. This is why legions of people are struggling through lives colored gray by Childhood Emotional Neglect, unable to pinpoint what’s wrong. Absent an explanation, they are prone to blaming themselves. “I’m flawed,” “I’m different,” “There is something wrong with me,” I’ve heard countless CEN people say.
Abuse. Abuse is an active mistreatment of a child. I liken abuse to knocking a plant off of a shelf, while CEN is more like failing to water it enough day after day after day. Because they are so very different, abuse and Emotional Neglect have very different effects on the child.
Less harmful than abuse. Abuse carries an impact that makes it seem more painful than the mere absence of something should be. But I have seen that the slow, subliminal, relentless effect of what didn’t happen is the equivalent of stomping out the spirit of a child.
Incurable. During the last ten years of working with hundreds of emotionally neglected people in my office and in my online Fuel Up For Life CEN Recovery Program, I do know this: The wall that blocks your feelings from you can be broken down, your spirit can be reclaimed. You can get in touch with the life force that’s meant to guide, protect, and connect you, and use it to enrich your life. Yes, I know, without a doubt, it’s true. What you didn’t get in childhood can be gotten in your adulthood.
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.