Category Archives for "Emotional Neglect"

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Emotional Neglect: What We Accomplished!

This morning I started thinking about this past year, taking stock of the progress we’ve made in getting more people to know and think and talk about Emotional Neglect.

I have been amazed and honored by the support that you have all offered. Without your Tweets and Retweets, comments and questions, posts and Likes and shares, the concept of CEN would have reverted right back to where it came from: the white space.

Here are some of our accomplishments

  1. Hundreds of new subscribers have signed up to follow the Emotional Neglect Newsletter.
  2. Webb Connection has grown to over 3,200 followers who are engaged and active on the Page.
  3. The Emotional Neglect YouTube channel has had almost 100,000 views.
  4. The book Running on Empty has grown in popularity, has sales over 40,000 copies.**please note that “sales” are not about money since the book is not a money-making venture; the number of books sold are simply a reflection of growth and interest in the topic.
  5. The new Ask Dr. Webb Page is reaching thousands of people a month.
  6. Running on Empty now has 280 reviews on Amazon, and a rating of 4.72 stars. Each review helps more people find the concept, and offers them a path to healing and stopping the CEN cycle.

Even though we may never have met in person, we form a community of our own. We are linked by a common interest and a common purpose. Healing and moving forward, stopping the cycle. Your help means a lot to me. Let’s keep working together throughout the year to educate and understand and overcome CEN.

Happy New Year from me to you. Wishing you the best!

The Faces of Emptiness: The Paths to Healing

The Fuel of life is feeling. If we are not filled up in childhood, we must fill ourselves as adults. Otherwise, we will find ourselves running on empty.

A quote from the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

There are legions of fine people walking around feeling numb or empty, and for good reason. They all grew up in homes that did not notice their feelings or respond to them enough.

There is, indeed, a real connection between this type of childhood and that feeling. And the short quote above, in some ways, says it all.

But to summarize in a nutshell how this happens: Your parents act as if your emotions are invisible or irrelevant, so you do too. You block your emotions off to “protect” yourself from being bothered or burdened by them. You lose access to this deepest, most personal expression of who you are.

Then, as an adult, you feel it. Perhaps you know you should be feeling something but you’re not. Perhaps you look around and see other people living in a bright, colorful world but yours seems gray. Perhaps you have a deep sense of something missing inside you. Perhaps you feel an empty feeling in your belly or chest or throat.

Perhaps your body is trying to tell you that something is very wrong.

Healing Your Emptiness

Healing your emptiness is not necessarily simple, but it is definitely possible. It has been done successfully by many people before you, and it will be done by many after.

The healing process takes place in three different areas, outlined in the table below. Once you’ve looked through the 3 areas of healing your emptiness, continue on to see the steps you can take to work on this.

3 Areas to Heal Your Emptiness

Thoughts/Behavior Relationships Your Inner Life  
Recognize what you didn’t get in childhood Increase emotional connections Grieve what you didn’t get
Emotional awareness & management Boundaries (distance?) with parents as needed Develop compassion for yourself
Self-care Work on trusting others Decrease self-directed anger
Decrease self-blame Therapy relationship Self-acceptance & self-love
Increase self-knowledge Share your pain with another Value your emotions
If you have depression or anxiety, consider therapy and medication Let down your walls Reclaim the parts of yourself that your parents rejected or ignored

If you find this Table overwhelming, please don’t be alarmed. As I said above, all of these can be done. I know this because I have been through them with many people in therapy, and have witnessed amazing progress.

However, please take note of two things: It takes commitment, a conscious effort, and time; and it often helps tremendously to work with a skilled therapist who you feel very comfortable with.

Follow These 3 Steps to Heal Your Emptiness

Step 1: Recognition and Grieving: The first and most vital step for everyone who feels Empty is to recognize that your empty space represents something that you didn’t get in childhood. Identify what is missing (emotional validation, connection and perhaps rejected parts of yourself), and grieve it all. This may involve feeling sad and/or angry. It’s okay. You have to feel it to move forward.

Step 2: Start to Fill the Holes: Befriend your emotions; start noticing when you have them; learn to name them and to manage them. Listen to what they are telling you.

Step 3: Work on Self-Care: Put yourself first, learn to say no. Pay attention to your own needs and recognize that your needs matter. Stop blaming yourself.

Steps 1, 2 and 3 can all be worked on by making a conscious effort, paying attention, and self-monitoring on the tracking sheets from the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. You may want to enlist the help of a CEN therapist. Visit the Find A CEN Therapist List to find a CEN-trained therapist to help.

Step 4: Let Down Your Walls: Share with a trusted person that you are working on getting closer to people, and to accept and feel more connection and love. Try to express your feelings more and to be more assertive.

You may make more progress here by getting some emotional or physical distance from your neglectful parents. The distance can be temporary, while you work on this.

Step 5: Learn to Love Yourself: Yes, it is easier said than done. This process involves seeing yourself as the child you were, growing up as you did. What parts of you did your parents ignore or reject? Know that they did so because of who they were, not because of who you were.

Have compassion for that little child, and for yourself as an adult. Your struggle is real, and you deserve more and better. You must reclaim, and learn to love, all of the different parts of who you are: your emotions, your needs, your inner you.

Above all, as you do this work, please carry these words with you:

Your emptiness is an important part of you. It represents the old and the past, but also the future and the new.

It is not an absence but free space filled not with pain, but with possibility. It is room for your new story, the one you will write yourself. It is room for your life, your feelings, and the people who you choose.

Fill it with self-knowledge, self-care, self-compassion, self-love, and your people.

Then you will find yourself running on empty no more.

To read more about healing the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect on your relationships see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

The Different Faces of Emptiness: Part 1

150680407_88f0218e86_mSince the release of Running on Empty in 2012, many people have identified with the feeling of Empty. People who don’t have it don’t understand. But people who feel it know:

In many ways, emptiness or numbness is worse than pain. Many people have told me that they would far prefer feeling anything to nothing. It is very difficult to acknowledge, make sense of, or put words to something that is absent. Emptiness seems like nothing to most people. And nothing is nothing, neither bad nor good. But in the case of a human being’s internal functioning, nothing is definitely something. Empty is actually a feeling in and of itself. And I have discovered that it is a feeling that can be very intense and powerful. In fact, it has the power to drive people to do extreme things to escape it.

(From Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect)

Empty is the” unfeeling” feeling. It’s the painful sense that some vital ingredient is missing from inside. Does it feel the same for everyone who has it? For example, does it feel different if you have depression, a personality disorder, or just straight Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?  The answer is yes. It all depends on one factor: how extreme were its causes?

Causes of Emptiness:

  1. Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): This is the type of Empty that I address in my book, Running on Empty.  It is caused by growing up in a household that is blind to emotion. Children who grow up this way sense that their emotions are invisible and irrelevant. So they push their feelings down, so as to not burden themselves or their parents. These children grow into adults who are out of touch with their own feelings. The emptiness that results is literally a deep sense that something is missing inside; some essential ingredient that is a deeply personal and vital part of who you are. That essential ingredient is, of course, your feelings.
  2. Active Invalidation in Childhood: This is a more extreme version of the CEN described above. It happens when your parents are not just blind to your emotions; they actively reject your emotions. Examples are rejection (ex: “Go to your room”) or punishment for simply being sad, angry, or hurt. If you grow up this way, you learn to not just push your emotions away; but to actively reject and punish yourself for having feelings. In adulthood, your empty space will be filled with self-directed anger and self-blame. On top of feeling empty, you may feel uncomfortable in your own skin, and you may not like yourself very much overall. You may be more vulnerable to depression.
  3. Shallow, Harsh, Unpredictable Parenting:  This is the type of childhood experience which causes significant disruption in the child’s personality that can lead to the development of a personality disorder (such as Narcissistic or Borderline). These parents respond to the child on the surface, while selectively, unpredictably rejecting and punishing his emotional responses. In addition, they greatly reward the child for being how they want him to be, and harshly reject or punish him for simply being, or feeling, himself. When you grow up this way, since you are not permitted to “be” who you are, you develop a fragmented version of who you should be. You reject parts of yourself that your parents find unacceptable, and may experience yourself as perfect one day, and horrible or worthless the next. The missing piece for this child, once grown up, is more than emotion; it’s a cohesive sense of self. This is the deepest, most painful form of Empty. This is the emptiness that is felt by people with personality disorders.

So if you have Empty Type 1 or 2, you have a cohesive “self,” but you lack access to your emotions. With Type 3, you have a fragmented “self” and little access to your emotions. But the anger and pain caused by the unpredictable, shallow and harsh treatment throughout childhood runs deep. Those emotions may erupt unpredictably and intensely, outside your control. You feel empty because you sense, deep down, that your true “self” is fragmented or missing. Sadly, you were not able to develop it while you were growing up.

Here’s the good news. All three forms of emptiness, once understood and acknowledged, can be overcome. Watch for my next post, The Different Forms of Emptiness Part II, which will be about the paths to healing when you have Emptiness Type 1, 2 or 3.

Yes, they are different.

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

Childhood Emotional Neglect: Man vs. Woman

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

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

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

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

TABLE OF CEN GENDER DIFFERENCES 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why Can’t You Just Be Happy?” How to Heal a CEN Marriage

My husband says he loves me, but I don’t feel love from him.

My wife gets confused and overwhelmed every time I try to talk to her about a problem.

My marriage feels flat. Something vital ingredient is missing from it.

As a psychologist who specializes in couple’s therapy, I have worked with hundreds of couples over the years. One of the greatest challenges that I see couples struggling with is when one of the members of the pair grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Often the spouse of the CEN person ends up making statements like those above in their first session of therapy together.

CEN happens when your parents communicate the subtle but powerful message, “Your feelings don’t matter.” Children who live in such households often adapt to their environments by pushing their emotions away so that they won’t bother their parents or themselves.

When you grow up in a household where your emotions are squelched, you miss out on a vital opportunity:  to learn how to identify, understand, tolerate, and express your emotions.  This causes big problems years later, in adulthood.

The CEN adult ends up struggling with emotional awareness, expression, and connection. So they have difficulty tolerating arguments, expressing opinions, and emotionally connecting with their spouses. “Why can’t you just be happy?” is a common statement that CEN people make to their husbands and wives. It comes from a lack of understanding of how emotions and relationships work. The spouse is often left feeling helpless, disconnected, and alone.

Tim and Trish

In Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, I used the example of Tim and Trish. Trish dragged Tim to couple’s therapy because she felt very unhappy in their marriage. She said that Tim often seemed irritable and unhappy with Trish and their children, despite his claims that he was happy. Tim was loath to come to see me with Trish, saying, “I don’t see why she won’t just let things go. Why can’t she just be happy?” Trish was experiencing the full impact of marriage to a person with CEN. She said that she knew that Tim loved her, but that she often didn’t feel love from him. Trish was also in the miserable, no-win Catch 22 served up by the CEN spouse, “Why can’t you just be happy?”

It can be very challenging to be married to someone with CEN. Here are some:

Signs That Your Spouse May Have CEN

The CEN Spouse:

  1. Seems to misread his or her own emotions – for example, says, “I’m not mad,” when clearly angry, or says, “I’m happy,” when clearly not.
  2. Often misreads your emotions or the feelings of your children or others.
  3. Has a limited vocabulary to express or describe feelings.
  4. Has a very difficult time tolerating a conversation that involves conflict or discomfort.
  5. Is often irritable for no apparent reason.
  6. Doesn’t seem to realize that some vital ingredient is missing in your relationship (emotional connection).

Now for the good news. CEN folks can change, and marriages with CEN can heal and become rich and rewarding. If you are married to a CEN man or woman, there are some things that you can do. I suggest that you follow these:

How to Enrich a CEN Marriage

  1. Read as much as you can about CEN. Read my website and, if possible, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.  If you feel that you are reading about your partner, then proceed to Step 2.
  2. Tell your husband or wife that you may have an answer to why you are struggling in the marriage. Explain, as best you can, what CEN is, how it can happen in even loving families, and how it is often no one’s fault.
  3. Explain to your partner that this is very important to you, and ask him/her to look into it for you.
  4. Ask him/her to take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire, and read about CEN on my website and Running on Empty.
  5. Since many CEN people have very good empathy for others’ true feelings, don’t hold back yours in this request. Let your spouse see the pain that this is causing you, but not in a blaming, accusing, or challenging sort of way. Just be honest and open with your feelings, but have compassion for how hard this may be for him.
  6. Tell your spouse that you love her and that you are asking for her to pay attention to this problem out of her love for you.
  7. If your partner reads Running on Empty and starts doing the Healing Sections, then it is very important to check in with him about how it’s going and express your appreciation for his efforts. Be open and available to communicate about his reactions as he goes along.
  8. Learn the Horizontal and Vertical Questioning Technique from the book Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships, and use it with your spouse. It will help deepen the relationship and will teach you both new ways to communicate and connect.
  9. If you run into problems or need help along the way, please consult a professional. Take either the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, which explains Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and affects adults; or Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships, which describes exactly how CEN plays out in couples, to your first session, and ask your couple’s therapist to look at it. Virtually any skilled, competent therapist who has a copy of the book can help you with CEN.
  10. If all this rings a bell with you but you’re not sure if CEN applies to you or your spouse, Take the free Emotional Neglect Test.

And Don’t Forget

Throughout this whole process, remember that your CEN spouse didn’t ask for this and is probably just as baffled about what’s wrong as you have been.

Offer loads of compassion, plenty of assurance, and don’t feel bad about asking your partner to do this for you. After all, you deserve a happy, fulfilling, emotionally connected marriage. And so does your partner.

How to Deal With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents

Now that I see what my parents didn’t give me, how do I continue to interact with them?

Should I tell my parents how they failed me?

If I talk to my parents about CEN, won’t it make them feel bad?

How do I handle the pain that I feel now, as an adult, each time my parents treat me as if I don’t matter?

If you were raised by parents who were not tuned in enough to your emotional needs, you have probably experienced the results of this parental failure over and over throughout the years and into your adult life. Once you realize how deeply you have been affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), it can become quite difficult to interact with the parents who neglected you.

One of the most frequent questions that I am asked by people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect is, “Should I talk to my parents about CEN?”

It’s actually quite difficult to answer the questions above. Every single living human being had a childhood, and no two stories are the same. Indeed, the number of possible answers to the question is as infinite as the variety of different ways that CEN can happen. It can be extremely healing when an adult child and his or her parents are able to come to a mutual understanding of how an emotional failure happened and why, and how it affected everyone involved. This, however, can be a complicated business, difficult, and even risky.

It’s important to keep in mind that it is not at all necessary to include your parents in your recovery from CEN. As an adult, you can identify what you didn’t get, and you can give it to yourself. I have seen many people go through this process with great success without ever including their parents.

That said, you may certainly feel a wish or need to reach some understanding about CEN with your parents. If so, it is very understandable that you might feel this way. If you are wondering about whether to talk to them, one extremely important factor to consider is the type of CEN parents that you have. 

The 3 Main Categories of CEN Parents

  1. Self-centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents: These parents expect the child to fulfill their needs, rather than the other way around. They may not have treated you with the physical and emotional care and protection that a child needs from a parent.
  2. Struggling: These parents may mean well, but they are simply unaware of their child’s needs because they are struggling in their own lives. They may be struggling financially, emotionally, or with the caretaking of a sick family member or child, for example.
  3. WMBNT or Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves: These parents love their children and give them everything they can. But they are not able to give their child enough emotional responsiveness and validation because they didn’t receive it in their own childhoods. They may be simply “emotion blind.”

Parents who are in the last two categories, Struggling or WMBNT, stand a better chance of being able to get past their initial hurt, guilt, or defensiveness to have a fruitful talk with their adult children about CEN. If your parents were in the Self-centered category, were abusive, or failed you in many other ways as well, see the section below called Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents.

First, let’s look at some general suggestions to consider. Then we’ll talk about how to apply them to the different types of parents.

5 Ways to Talk With Your CEN Parents

  1. Ask your parents about their own childhoods – If you are unsure about why your parents were blind to your emotional needs, ask them some questions about their own parents and their own childhoods. You may be able to see whether and how your parents were failed by their parents. If you can see your own parents more clearly, you may be able to understand why they failed you. Whether you decide to talk to them about CEN or not, your understanding of how they got their emotional blind spots may help you feel less hurt when you are affected by them.
  2. Try to find compassion for your parents – Often, when you can see how your own parents were emotionally neglected, you can feel some compassion for what they didn’t get. This can help you to feel less angry and frustrated with them for failing you.
  3. Anticipate and prepare – Think about whether to tell your parents about your discovery of CEN. Might one parent be more able to understand it than the other? Will your parents collapse into a pool of guilt for having failed you? Will they be completely unable to grasp it? Will they get angry?
  4. If possible, take a chance – If you feel there is a potential for positive results and healing, I suggest that you take a chance and talk about it.
  5. Talk with compassion and anticipate how your parents might feel – Many parents may feel accused, defensive, hurt, or guilty when you try to talk to them about CEN. It is very important to anticipate this and prevent it. Here are some guidelines: 
    • Choose your moment wisely, with few distractions, when your parents are in a calm mood. Decide whether to talk with one parent first or both together.
    • If at all possible, have this conversation in person. It can be difficult to see what your parents are feeling or to respond to them in a helpful way via phone or electronic communication.
    • Tell them that this is a new discovery about yourself that you wish to share with them.
    • Talk about CEN with compassion for them and how they were raised.
    • Talk about how invisible and insidious it is, and how easy it is for loving, well-meaning parents to pass it down to their children.
    • Tell them what you are doing to heal yourself.
    • Be clear that this is not a matter of blame and not an accusation; you are talking with them about it only because you want to move forward and be closer to them.
    • Offer to give them a copy of Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect so that they can read about it for themselves.

Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple Failure Parents

If you have parents who fall into one of these categories, then you are faced with a situation that is even more complex than those above. Unless your parents have changed and grown since your childhood, I am sorry to say that most likely they will not be able to grasp the CEN concept or to respond to you in any positive way.

For you, I offer one guiding principle that may be difficult for you to accept. But I stand by it, after having treated scores of CEN people with parents like this. Here it is:

Make the decision about whether to talk to your parents about CEN based solely upon your own needs. If you think it may strengthen you or make you feel better to talk with them (even if it causes a rupture or distance between you), then do it. If not, then do not. You are not obligated to take your parent’s needs and preferences into account. On this, it’s all about you. 

In other words, if you had an abusive or multiple-failure parent, you have carte blanche permission to do whatever you feel will benefit you in your life. You, your children, and your spouse come first. You do not need to protect your parents from the knowledge that they failed you.

Parents who were abusive to you as a child, either verbally, emotionally, physically, or sexually, are also, by definition, emotionally neglectful. If they had been emotionally attuned to you enough, they would not have been able to treat you this way.

If your parents were/are abusive in any way, then it may be of more value to talk with them about the abuse than about the neglect since abuse is far more visible and tangible than CEN. Because CEN can be so imperceptible and hides beneath abuse, it will be very difficult and unlikely for abusive parents to ever grasp the concept.

Unless your parents have been to therapy, have confronted their own issues and abusive ways, and actively changed, (for example, an alcoholic or addicted parent who gets sober and goes to AA such that his/her personality becomes truly different) they will probably be no more able to hear you now than they could when you were a child.

So, ask yourself, “If I talk with my parents about CEN, what are the possible outcomes?” Will they tell you that you are too sensitive and that you are blowing things out of proportion? Will they blow up in anger? Will they likely say something abusive? Will they twist around what you are saying, and use it against you somehow?

If any of these are likely, I suggest that you put your energy toward healing yourself, and leave your parents out of it. It is extremely important if you do decide to talk with them, that you do it with the understanding that you may need to protect yourself emotionally. It is vital that you be strong enough to not be emotionally damaged by their words or reactions. This is a tall order for anyone but is especially so when you were raised by self-centered or abusive parents.

The Takeaway

It is certainly not necessary to talk to your parents about CEN. You can heal from it without ever doing so. Learning more about your parents’ childhoods and having compassion for them may help make their emotionally neglectful ways less painful to you now. However, sharing the concept of CEN with them can be helpful in some families, and may be a way for you to improve your relationship with them. Be sure to take into account the type of CEN parents that you have when making the decision to talk with them. Your path to healing is unique to you. There are no right or wrong answers.

If you decide to talk with your parents about CEN, follow the tips and guidelines above, and proceed with care. For much more information, details, and support for how to decide and how to protect yourself see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

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

Above all else, remember that your feelings are important and your needs are important. Yes, you matter.

Childhood Emotional Neglect and Assertiveness Don’t Mix

“What do you think?”

“How do you feel?”

“What do you need?”

“What do you have to say?”

Imagine a child, let’s call him Zachary, growing up in a household in which he is seldom asked the above questions (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). Perhaps his parents are emotionally neglecting him because they have five children and are overwhelmed with getting them all dressed in the morning, much less what they think or feel. Perhaps his father died, and his mother is so enveloped in her own grief that she is barely functioning. Perhaps he has an older sibling who is autistic and who takes up the huge majority of his parents’ attention and resources. Or perhaps his parents are self-centered, and pay attention mostly only to what they think and feel.

The reason for Zachary’s parents’ apparent lack of interest is almost irrelevant. Because whatever the reason, the impact upon Zachary is the same. Since his parents are NOT asking him these questions, he is NOT receiving this vital message in his childhood: Your thoughts and feelings matter.

Think of childhood as the “programming phase” of life. The way our parents treat us in childhood sets up all of the “programs” for how we will treat ourselves throughout our lifetime. If our parents don’t ask us these questions when we are children, we will not naturally ask ourselves these questions as adults. Zachary will grow into a man whose natural default setting is to undervalue and under-attend to his own feelings, needs and thoughts. Zachary will be out of tune with himself. He will have difficulty asking for things, expressing his feelings, and perhaps even knowing his own needs.

In a sense, Zachary is growing up receiving the classic, invisible and subtly conveyed message of CEN: Don’t value or express your feelings and needs. This message is the complete opposite of assertiveness, which calls upon us to do just that. In order to be assertive, you have to:

  1. Know what you feel and need
  2. Believe that what you feel and need matters
  3. Know how to express your feelings and needs in a way that the other person can hear

Having been raised with the wrong message, Zachary will naturally follow his default setting – unassertive. If he is troubled by his difficulty standing up for himself, he will have to make a conscious decision to override the default. He will have to make changes in his basic views of himself and his own importance.

If you identify with Zachary, good news! It is entirely possible to do this. Once you understand what’s wrong and why, you can make a decision to change how you view yourself, and you can learn the skills involved in assertiveness.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how it might be affecting you, see my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Can Self-Discipline be Learned?

Why didn’t I stop myself from eating that  fifth piece of pizza?

Why can’t I make myself finish that project at work?

Why did I skip the gym YET AGAIN?

What is wrong with me?!

The only thing worse than struggling with self-discipline is serving that struggle up with a generous dollop of self-directed anger and self-blame. In my twenty-plus years as a psychologist, I have listened to questions like those above uttered countless times by intelligent, competent  people who are caught up in an endless, frustrating cycle of “why can’t I?”

We human beings are not born with an innate ability to regulate and control ourselves (self-discipline). These are actually vital skills that become wired into our brains when we receive the right kind of emotionally attentive parenting in childhood.

How We May Naturally Learn Self-Discipline in Childhood

  • When your mother called you in from playing with your neighborhood friends for dinner, whether she realized it or not, she was teaching you how to stop yourself from doing something fun and rewarding in order to do something healthy and necessary.  She was teaching you that some things must be done, even if you don’t feel like it.
  • When your dad gave you the weekly chore of cutting the grass and then followed up in a loving but firm way to make sure you did it, he was teaching you how to make yourself do what you don’t want to do and the rewards of that.
  • When your parents made sure you brushed your teeth twice a day
  • When they said no to dessert
  • When they set aside and enforced “homework hour” every day after school because you’d been slacking on homework
  • When they continued to love you but set your curfew earlier as a consequence for your having broken it….

All of these parental actions and responses are internalized by you, the child. These actions set up a system in your brain during your childhood that will allow you to, later on as an adult, be able to override your own desires. When our parents do this right for us, we not only internalize the ability to make ourselves do things and to stop ourselves from doing things, we internalize our parents’ voices, which later in adulthood become our own.

Now let’s take a moment to talk about Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

What is “Childhood Emotional Neglect?”  It’s a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.  In this way, Emotional Neglect is not something that a parent does to his child; instead, it’s something that he fails to do for his child.  You may be wondering what this means, and how it is relevant to self-discipline.

Although there are a number of possible underlying causes of self-discipline struggles, like depression or attention deficit disorder (ADD), I often have found that the cause is actually invisible, unmemorable, Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Many people who were emotionally neglected in childhood freely describe themselves as procrastinators. Some call themselves lazy. Common are battles with over-and under-eating, excessive spending, or over-drinking.  Many emotionally neglected people also have difficulty forcing themselves to exercise, do menial tasks or do anything that’s not immediately fun or rewarding.

The truth is, all forms of self-discipline can be boiled down to two basic ingredients, which are:

Making yourself do things you don’t want to do — and stopping yourself from doing things you want to do but shouldn’t. 

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Causes Self-Discipline Problems in Adulthood

One of the infinite variety of ways that a parent can emotionally neglect a child is to fail to provide enough structure and consequences for the child.  Many loving, well-meaning parents do not understand why this is so important. They prefer not to fight with their child. They want to avoid conflict. They want their child to be happy all the time. Perhaps they are distracted by their own interests; perhaps they are addicted, exhausted, self-centered, widowed, struggling financially, or depressed. So they let the child stay out playing far too late; they mow the lawn themselves because it’s easier; they let the child eat dessert too often; they let that curfew-break slide by. They may feel that letting the child do whatever he wants to do makes for a more peaceful, “happier,” household.

I believe that most parents would not opt for the more peaceful household if they understood that they were failing their child.  They would instead choose to enforce more rules, assign more chores, and dole out more consequences so that their children would learn how to:

Make themselves do what they don’t want to do, and stop themselves from doing what they shouldn’t do. 

What You Can Do

If you struggle with self-discipline in a certain area(s), I encourage you to consider Emotional Neglect as a cause.  The good news is this: if your brain wasn’t “programmed” in childhood to have this skill, it’s not too late! Once you understand why you’re struggling with self-discipline, you can stop blaming yourself.  You can stop calling yourself “lazy” or “weak-willed,” or “a procrastinator,” and instead start on a clearly laid-out road to recovery.

If you would like to learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, read more throughout this website. To see my recovery program for Self-Discipline problems caused by Emotional Neglect, see my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.  To get it in paperback, Kindle or Nook, click HERE.

How to Find a Therapist for Childhood Emotional Neglect

 

I’ve seen several therapists in the past, and none of them  talked about CEN with me.

My therapist talks about Emotional Neglect, but does not seem to have the same picture of it that you describe in Running on Empty.

My therapist doesn’t seem to understand what I mean when I talk about Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Can you please help me find a CEN specialist near me?

My book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect came out in 2012. Since then, I have enjoyed hearing from thousands of readers. Each week, I get multiple letters and emails from readers telling me their stories or asking questions about Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Often the messages are from people who read the book and feel that they finally can see the underlying cause of their struggles. Many of these folks have been in therapy in the past and found it helpful, but felt that an important piece was not addressed; their Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). The questions and comments above are ones which I have heard from literally hundreds of people.

There are several reasons why it is difficult to find a therapist who knows what you mean when you talk about CEN as it’s described in Running on Empty:

  • Although almost every therapist understands the concept of Emotional Neglect, most do not necessarily use the term Emotional Neglect to describe it. There still is not a recognized, universal term.
  • Since there is not yet a body of research proving the full picture of CEN, most mental health professionals do not necessarily see that full picture as it is described in the book. Until I have that research, Running on Empty is the only resource describing CEN fully. If your therapist has not read the book, he or she probably will not have the entire concept in mind.

This is why so many therapists seem to understand what you mean when you use the term Emotional Neglect, but then don’t talk about it directly or fully as treatment progresses.

Here’s the good news: Any well-trained, competent therapist who is open to reading Running on Empty will be able to quickly jump on board and help you with it.

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Start with a therapist who has good credentials, experience and/or a recommendation from a trusted source.
  2. If you are interested in doing the recovery exercises in the second half of the book, you might want to find a therapist who has skills in the cognitive-behavioral area. However, a therapist who describes herself as a “behaviorist” would probably not be a good match for this.
  3. Therapists use many different terms to describe themselves and I know it can be confusing. Many psychodynamic therapists will be on-board with doing this work with you, but therapists who say they are psychoanalytic will probably want to follow their own style of treatment and may not be a good fit.
  4. When you call for a first appointment, talk with the therapist on the phone first. Tell her about the book and that you are looking for a therapist to help you with “not just generic emotional neglect” but “the full picture of Childhood Emotional Neglect that is described in the book.”
  5. Ask the therapist if he/she will be willing to read the book, including the ‘For the Therapist’ chapter.
  6. If all systems are go, then take a copy of the book to your first appointment.
  7. At your first appointment, try to describe why this way of understanding yourself is helpful, and why other things you’ve tried have missed the mark.
  8. If you feel in the first meeting that the therapist isn’t fully on board, try another one. Seeing a therapist once does not obligate you to go back.

I hope you find these tips useful. And I hope you will not hold back from getting help with this. It’s possible to heal yourself, but it can be much easier with the support and guidance of a professional who truly understands what you are going through and how to mend it.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by this process or a bit at-sea, you can request a one-hour phone or Skype consult between your therapist and me (if your therapist is willing, of course). To learn more about scheduling a consult, please visit my Private Practice page.

On the Outside

 

I feel like I’m on the outside, looking in.

Whoever I’m with, I don’t feel I fit in.

When I’m with other people I may look fine, but I don’t feel fine.

The first item on the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire (ENQ) is:

– Do you sometimes feel like you don’t belong when you are with family or friends?

I put that question first in the ENQ on purpose. Because it is one of the most centrally defining qualities of a person who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect.

At first glance, it doesn’t make sense. Why would a person carry around a pervasive feeling of being out of place? Of not fitting in? Of being on the outside, looking in? Especially when among people who love you? It is a difficult to identify, difficult to name feeling; yet it can hold tremendous power over a person. It can make it hard to go to a social gathering, and difficult to stay very long. Perhaps you get irritable when you’re around other people and you’re not sure why. Perhaps you’re good at putting on a show to look like you’re having fun, but only you know that actually, you are not. Perhaps you are actually looking around at other people laughing and talking and appearing comfortable, and wondering what you are missing.

In over twenty years as a psychologist, I have heard many lovely people describe this feeling. They each use different words, but they all have one common factor which links them: they all grew up in a household with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

CEN happens when parents fail to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. When you are a child whose feelings are largely ignored, you receive an indirect, but very powerful message from your parents. That message is, “Your feelings don’t matter.” I have seen time and time again, that when children receive this message, they automatically adapt. They push their feelings down and away so that they will not bother anyone. This may help the child survive, or even thrive, in a household that is not friendly to emotion. But in adulthood, it becomes a problem.

Your Emotions and Your Relationships

As adults, we need our emotions. Emotion is the glue that connects us to other people and the spice that keeps things interesting. When your emotions are pushed away, it’s hard to feel the emotional connection that binds people together at a party. It’s even harder to experience the spontaneous, happy synergy that occurs when people are truly fully present with each other. So instead, you are like a baker without yeast. You are operating without a key ingredient that everyone else has. And you feel it.

If you find yourself identifying with this, please remember that while the “On the Outside” feeling is a real feeling, it is not a real thing. The people you are with do not see you that way. They don’t see you on the outside. They don’t feel that you don’t belong. They want to connect with you and enjoy your company.

The best thing about CEN is that it can be overcome.

4 Tips to Overcome Your On the Outside Feeling

  1. Become more aware of your “On the Outside” feeling. Notice when you feel it. Take notice of the power it has over you. Keep it in the back of your mind at all times. Remind yourself that it’s just a feeling.
  2. Once you’re more aware of the feeling, its source, and its power, start to fight it. Force yourself to go to social gatherings, and constantly fight the feeling while you’re there.
  3. Tell someone (your spouse, a sibling, a good friend) about this feeling. Explain the source and your struggle. Ask that person for their support at family functions, parties, and other gatherings.
  4. Address your CEN. It’s important to attack your CEN from all angles. One of the best ways to do this is to start working on accepting and feeling your own emotions more. The better you get at this, the weaker your “On the Outside” feeling will become.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible and difficult to remember so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire (ENQ). It’s free.

Becoming more comfortable with your emotions is a key part of this process, as well as learning how your feelings (and you) fit into relationships with other people. If you find yourself mystified or daunted by this, you can learn much more about how to use your emotions to enrich, enliven, and deepen your relationships in the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Once you realize what’s wrong, you are on your way to recovery. You’re on the path to a more connected, more comfortable, and more fully satisfying life. You don’t need to feel on the outside anymore.